Escaping White Australia

Mervyn Bishop, the Sydney Morning Herald's first Indigenous photographer

Mervyn Bishop, the Sydney Morning Herald’s first Indigenous photographer

A while ago, I stopped watching Australian commercial television. In a way, I felt it was the best way to free myself of the social and cultural conditioning of the mainstream press. All the news I needed was available online anyway, so I only took an interest in things that were relevant or empowering to me. I’ve ended up watching a tonne of SBS Pop Asia and If You Are The One, and a lot of movies from Hong Kong and China.

Why? Because I wanted to know what it’s like for it to be completely normal to see an Asian face in the role of a hero. A protagonist. Someone normal. Not a stereotype. You know that knee-jerk reaction of “oh, this is for the sake of diversity. I hope people react well to it” every time you see an ethnic face in the media? I wanted that out of my system.

That’s a real phenomenon that I’m not making up, by the way. When I was first appointed the editor of a mainstream magazine, the question was asked, “will Aussie readers be ready for an Asian face fronting the magazine?” It took a publisher fresh from the UK and unfamiliar with Australian biases to respond somewhat blithely, “that’s not a problem here, is it?” to push through my appointment. But I digress.

It’s not to say I’ve been deliberately blocking out all Western media – I still watch a lot of television series, movies and documentaries from the US and the UK.

After more than a year of doing this, I accidentally switched on my television to Channel 9, landing on a locally made reality show called Reno Rumble. It’s a show in which ordinary Australians compete in a home renovation contest, and I was unexpectedly affronted by what I saw.

There were at least a dozen people on the television screen; men, women, all of them stunningly white. Not a single Greek, Italian, Asian, Islander or Persian face in sight.

It didn’t represent any kind of reality to me. I wasn’t even sure if it was shot in Australia. If you walk out of my house and go to the bus stop at the main road, you’ll find a mix of Koreans, Indians, Chinese and a handful of Caucasians. If you take a walk through the city, it’s a mix of Koreans, Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Greeks, Italians, Islanders, Caucasians, Malaysians, Philippinos, Lebanese, Iranians and South Americans. When I’m at work or at Wing Chun, there are Asians, Russians, Persians, South Americans… you get the picture.

I actually wondered, not completely seriously, if white Australians watch shows like Reno Rumble to escape the multiculturalism of the outside world; so that they can be, y’know, amongst their own.

I mean, isn’t that what I’m doing?

Maybe Reno Rumble is an extreme case. Maybe I just caught them on a bad day. Whatever it is, it’s reaffirmed the stance I’ve taken with a lot of the stuff I see on television: it’s not relevant to me. Their problems are not my problems. It doesn’t even approximate my reality.

All of that brings me to the photo in this post, and a question I’ve been asking myself: how do other non-white media professionals deal with it? How do they deal with the cultural imbalances, the skewed perspectives, the total lack of representation?

Six months ago, I was assigned to go on a pre-launch tour of the Frank Gehry-designed Dr Chau Chak Wing building in Sydney. Only staff and VIPs were allowed to enter at this point in time.

As I dutifully strapped on my PPEs, I noticed a familiar face next to me: Helen Vatsikopoulos, a Walkley-winning journalist on the ABC and SBS of at least 26 years. Only, if she’s here with me, it means she’s not a journalist anymore.

I think the look on my face said it all: “Why are you here? You’re one of the good ones. You were out there fighting the good fight – the one I wasn’t good enough to fight anymore. Why are you in here with me?”

Like me, she too decided to leave the trenches. These days she snipes from the sidelines as an academic, and people get fired just for sharing her articles.

To be clear, Helen is not white. In media land, she is a far more senior and accomplished journalist than I, yet somehow we sat as equals trading insights on race and culture issues, specifically how white-washed the Australian media is. I think the exchange was as rare for her as it was for me: there’s no one else to talk to about these things. Usually, I’m the one ranting to someone who’s lending a sympathetic ear and I always wonder if I’ve lost perspective.

It’s sad to know she doesn’t have any answers either. I told her that I loved that she’s using her platform to bring attention to these issues and that she shouldn’t stop. I mean, if Channel 7 is thinking about launching some Chinese-language channels to service an untapped Chinese market in Australia, isn’t that, at some level, acknowledgement that they haven’t been relevant to people like us?

The photo in this post is of Mervyn Bishop, the Sydney Morning Herald’s first-ever Indigenous photographer, responsible for the photo of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pouring soil into the hands of Vincent Lingiari. The photo is now synonymous with Australia’s native title movement.

I had the good fortune of meeting Mervyn a few months ago. I wasn’t there to talk to him about race and cultural issues, but as a man who’d been in the trenches since 1963, I knew he’d seen it all. Once our official business was done and my voice recorder was switched off, we traded a few tales.

Mervyn is well-practiced as a storyteller. Mild-mannered. Warm. Funny. But I sensed all the injustices he’s experienced as an Indigenous Australian, the wounds he’s carried all these year, are just simmering below the surface.

On the record, he told me about growing up with the White Australia policy, about his father having to carry around a special ID card to be treated as an ‘honourary white’. He also told me about the time the time his teacher stood up and defended him for wearing a wristwatch after an inspector openly suspected him of having stolen it. Off the record, there were a lot of office politics and double standards that I’m all too familiar with. They were bitter pills for him to swallow.

He got through it because he had to: “I just did it. In a way, I did not want to fail.”

But there is anger in him, anger that he’s ashamed to show. I guess he’s been burned by it in the past. He insisted that the anger is uncharacteristic and that it’s not him.

I struggled to understand why he’d bother trying to hide it from me. But I’ve come to realise it’s because, like me, he doesn’t have any answers either. He’s only been able to deal with it in the same way that both Helen and I have, which is to simply accept that it’s our lot in life to be treated as minorities. The alternative is to be perceived as a problem that won’t go away.

So now, when I look at this photo, I don’t just see a hero in the photojournalism field tinkering with a priceless camera. I see a man who has spent more than fifty years swallowing his pride and putting aside the issues that are important to him while pretending it’s all okay.

I think, at some level, he wants to believe it’s all okay. Maybe his young grandkids have something to do with that.

Would that be so horrible?


2 thoughts on “Escaping White Australia

  1. Pingback: Why I Didn’t Pursue A Career In Australia’s Media: Facing Racism vs. Chasing Passion | Mabel Kwong

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