Adding people of colour to a racist workplace isn’t the answer

Over the last few months, we’ve seen the beginnings of an anti-racist reckoning in Australia’s media, arts and entertainment sector, nourished by the Bla(c)k Lives Matter movement. As former and current employees critique racism and marginalisation at workplaces ranging from newsrooms and television sets to art galleries and festivals, organisations have responded with promises to do better.

I hope that these statements turn into real commitments. Certainly, media and arts organisations should hire more people of colour. The fact that this sector is noticeably whiter than Australian society at large is not due to a lack of talent, but to a lack of effort. It’s downright embarrassing that our cultural institutions are less culturally diverse than our population, and it does a disservice to our audiences. That needs to change.

At the same time, begrudgingly inviting people of colour into a hostile environment is setting them up for not only failure, but often also abuse.

As Gugu Yalanji and Koko Lama Lama woman, and former WIN TV employee, Kerry Klimm said on Twitter: ‘Diversity in newsrooms is critical. But don’t hire a Blak journo without decolonising the newsroom & ensuring it’s safe.’

Racism is insidious in Australia’s cultural industries. It shapes not only workplace interactions, but also our sense of newsworthiness, editorial judgement and artistic merit. As well as outright bullying, hostility in the arts and media sector can be expressed indirectly through publishing and programming decisions that leave employees of colour with no recourse – and little faith in the institution.

Here’s just one example: in my last job as a writer and editor at a small arts media outlet, my manager insisted on publishing an opinion piece that lambasted Asian Australians for criticising a theatre show that many felt bordered on yellowface. More than 100 Asian Australian artists and arts workers including myself had signed an open letter asking a festival to rethink programming the show. The opinion writer accused us of censorship, bias and betraying democratic values.

To me, this was a tired and uninteresting argument, and given that my company hadn’t published the open letter, it seemed illogical to publish a rebuttal. But it wasn’t my call.

I was the only person of colour on the editorial team at the time, and the only ‘yellow’ person at the company. My manager asked me to read over the article before telling me that I had a conflict of interest because I had signed the letter. The opinion piece had argued that Asian Australians were biased when it came to matters of race and now I was being told the same thing. Yet in other matters relating to the arts industry, it was permitted and even encouraged for editorial staff to take an advocacy role.

In one neat turn, this incident cemented my understanding of how race works in cultural institutions: people of colour are not fit to judge matters of race or culture. That’s a job for white people, who have no race or racial bias. Whiteness is neutral, and it’s the natural arbiter of news, art, merit, and taste.

By this logic, only white people can decide whether something is racist. Time and time again, we see Australian media outlets publish racist content – from grotesque cartoons to misinformation blaming Covid-19 on people of colour and BLM protests – while industry bodies give them a free pass. Even the media coverage of these issues reveals how our defamation laws and media standards make it easier to publish something racist than to call something racist: ‘racist’ never makes it out of quote marks.

This affects all Australians and our right to the truth but it harms media workers in a particularly pointed way.

Right now, a lot of organisations are scrambling to get people of colour onto their roster, but for many, it’s a superficial exercise. As artist Lilly Lai says, ‘cover the surface with colour and maybe they won’t notice that the core is colony.’ They want our names and faces to pepper their personnel pages without thinking about what happens to us once we’re there.

Often, what happens is this: you’ll be praised in public, then undermined at every turn. You’ll be rattled with daily microaggressions. You’ll be trotted out whenever the organisation makes a racist mistake. You’ll be instructed to exploit your community connections. You’ll feel used and compromised. And you’ll be expected to be perennially grateful for the opportunity.

For me, I’m done with being the only one in the room. If I look at your staff page and there are no people of colour except one East Asian or South Asian in IT or finance, that doesn’t give me confidence in your organisation – especially if it’s supposed to be a multicultural organisation. And if your content is full of racist dog-whistles, I’ll know not to put myself up for the punishment.

People often talk about how Asian parents discourage their kids from pursuing creative careers but all I can think of is that my dad was right when he told me that it’s easier to be racist to a writer than to a doctor. In the arts, you’ll always be asking yourself, was that racist or am I just no good?

I’m really lucky that my experiences haven’t destroyed my sense of self, or my love for writing. I’ve had some amazing editors, colleagues and managers who have challenged and supported me and I’ve worked with enough publications, festivals, clients and collaborators that I know when my work is decent and when it’s not up to scratch. But I also know that a lot of people are bullied out of this industry.

I am sceptical that this nascent reckoning will lead to any real change in Australia. Diversity and inclusion initiatives are usually a way for a company’s management to abdicate responsibility to a junior colleague who doesn’t have authority to challenge structural racism. Maybe there’ll be a couple more of us in the room. But what happens when we get there?


Image: A still from Meyne Wyatt’s monologue from City of Gold on a June episode of Q+A

Jinghua Qian

Jinghua Qian is a writer, critic and commentator often found thinking about race, resistance, art, desire, queerness and the Chinese diaspora. Born in Shanghai, Jinghua now lives and works in Melbourne on the land of the Kulin nations., @qianjinghua.

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  1. I think “diversity and inclusion” initiatives are simply neoliberal managers putting other neoliberal managers with different ethnic backgrounds into management positions…

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