The past few weeks have been tragic, emotional and yet momentous in the way that they have raised a myriad of important topics of conversation, including raising real questions about diversity in the Western world.
Even as a proud citizen of a multicultural Australia, it is clear that we have a long road ahead of us in this field. In these past few weeks, I’ve seen entirely white panels discussing the Black Lives Matter movement, the Daily Telegraph happily publish outright racist columns and Pauline Hanson return to her favourite past time of insecure divisive rambling.
Oddly though, these glaringly obvious examples of barriers to diversity in Australia didn’t affect me nearly as much as watching a resurfaced video of celebrated Australian comedian Josh Thomas.
In case you missed it, Thomas, who was on an (unsurprisingly) all white panel discussing the arts, defended the lack of diversity on Australian screens by arguing that immigrants have only come to Australia recently.
In reality, as I think almost everyone knows, immigrants have been contributing to Australia for a very long time. My parents got here before Josh Thomas was born (i.e. they’re old – apologies Mum and Dad – but this article aims to be a truth bomb in more ways than one).
Josh also dealt with the major dilemma of modern times, should you cast an Indian actor as the owner of a 7-11? Perhaps the better question would be to ask, “should I continue to typecast and stereotype each ethnicity?” – but you know, apples and oranges.
Finally, Josh capped it all off with the claim that there just are not enough experienced ethnic actors. Notwithstanding the blatant inaccuracy of that statement (I mean, come on, I am not the only brown person dreaming of Hollywood-Bollywood stardom), hearing such categorically ignorant and tone-deaf statements from an otherwise progressive leader like Josh Thomas hurt deeply.
Watch Josh’s comments from from 44:00 onwards in the video below:
Thomas is a famous advocate for LGBTQIA+ artists and his work has helped to amplify such voices in mainstream storytelling. He’s a self-identified progressive. I took it for granted then that Thomas would have at least understood the intersectional struggles for other minorities trying to have their voices heard in spaces which are dominated by white, straight men. He didn’t.
The reason that reality hit harder than anything the Pauline Hansons and Daily Telegraph columnists of the world could say, is that it revealed how much more widespread the problem is. If someone like Thomas could be both progressive, yet so comfortably flippant about ethnic diversity, there are likely many more like him. Indeed, like Michelle Law tweeted, “The reason the Josh Thomas video is so disturbing is that people we think are on our side are not.”
As the writer, creator and main star of his own show, Josh Thomas wielded the power to involve diverse voices; an issue that video shows he was at least aware of. But when given the opportunity, as an ally and progressive, to support ethnic diversity in a meaningful way - he didn’t. In fact he went the other way and defended those actions by what he admits now were pretty baseless comments.
Whether he actively chose to avoid ethnic diversity in his work or did so subconsciously is not really the point. The point is that people who may self-identify as allies and consider themselves to be supporters of ethnic diversity can still do significant harm by their actions.
And the point here is not to rampage on Thomas or ‘cancel’ him. Personally, I remain a fan of a lot of his work (his Bob Katter takedown on Q&A continues to be one for the highlights reel) and I don’t agree that we should forget about his valuable advocacy in other intersectional spaces because of this indiscretion.
Nonetheless, it is important to point out and scrutinise these comments because he is hardly alone in being progressive but simultaneously unaware of the privileges and subconscious biases that he has. He isn’t the only person that has outwardly supported anti-racism and cultural diversity movements but ignored it when it matters. It’s unfair to blame Thomas alone for a problem that is part of the broader structure of our society.
For instance, earlier this year, a report was published demonstrating that the already low percentage of ethnically diverse leaders on business boards in Australia had in fact shrunk even further in the past year. It’s a strange figure to see considering so many businesses are coming out now in strong support of ethnic diversity as well as supporting movements like BLM. Whilst seeing the support of big business for important social issues is heartening, it is ultimately meaningless when those entities don’t put their words into action through jobs, promotions and leadership.
It makes no difference to any POC if a company can show how ‘woke’ it is on Instagram, Linkedin or Facebook. It makes a difference when those companies have a track record for actively supporting diverse leadership.
Currently, there are limited catalysts for them to do so. Indeed, why would they? If the leadership make-up in the boardroom is dominated by a predominantly white group, those are the only perspectives that are likely to be perpetuated. It means that even those who may mean well, like Josh Thomas, have no one to provide an alternative view when they cannot recognise their own biases and get it wrong. The cycle, like the numbers show, continues. It’s the same story in Australian media. The same story in politics.
The response to this is often - well just use your voice and make it happen. Be proactive! Notwithstanding the fact this kind of advocacy is happening on a daily basis, I accept the premise that we all have a voice and should make use of it. But what good is that voice if you’re denied the very platforms where that voice can make a difference?
If there isn’t anyone to be the ethnic voice on your breakfast TV show, how can you actually hear and understand their side of the story? If there isn’t anyone who is the ethnic voice in your boardroom, how can you understand the story of your diverse employees? If there isn’t anyone who is the ethnic voice in your parliament (an issue relevant to both political parties), how can you fully understand a country that has almost 50% of its population having a parent that was born overseas?
It’s here where white allies should understand their importance and power in the equation. But that can only happen when white allies step up and make sure that their words turn into actions rather than disappear into the void of cyber activism. No one is looking for a free ticket. What people are looking for is a fair chance to be heard. A fair chance to be understood. Josh Thomas was merely one symbol of that system of people who mean well but may fundamentally misunderstand the issues they think they are supporting.
Ultimately, Josh Thomas apologised for his statements when they resurfaced and recognised the backward nature of them. The unfortunate reality of being in the public eye is that he is under far more scrutiny for his errors than you or I will ever be.
For what it’s worth – do I accept that apology? The honest answer is no, not yet. It depends on whether this episode truly changes the way he uses his voice in the arts space. In the same way, we should not be so quick to applaud the actions of our media, businesses and politicians for when they advocate for change at a time when it is popular and convenient to do so. That is, of course, until we can see tangible change.
On that day, I will be the first to applaud all of them and thank them for truly using their influence, privilege and power responsibly. Until then, if anyone’s looking for a delusional Bollywood wannabe – I’m right here.