Ohen I walked into the Sydney Theater Company’s Wharf 1 theater to see Michelle Law’s production of Top Coat, I expected to see an entertaining account of the seriousness of the situation in the Australian media for people of colour. what i was not I expected it, but maybe I should have been, that was how personally affected I would be.
As a young woman of color in the media, I faced discrimination in Australian newsrooms and thought I was resilient. But Top Coat left me with a lot of questions, mostly personal ones: how am I not cured of the prejudices I experienced in various jobs in Australia’s male-dominated media industry?
First, a bit about the show. Top Coat is Law’s first STC film and revolves around two characters: Winnie (Kimie Tsukakoshi) and Kate (Amber McMahon). Winnie works at a nail salon that Kate visits in between her busy schedule as a television “girlboss” at a multicultural broadcaster. One evening, just before Winnie closes up shop for the day, Kate comes to ask for her chipped fingernail to be fixed – Winnie reluctantly obliges. Both complain about the obstacles they face in work and life and utter the same phrase, “I wish I was in your shoes.” A Freaky Friday situation takes place and they swap bodies. Now Winnie must go to Kate’s work on television and confront her boss Barry and her boyfriend named Jeremy (John Batchelor) while Kate must tirelessly give manicures and pedicures for very little money.
Since seeing the production, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, as well as my own negative experiences in the media, ones that I thought I had gotten over. But seeing similar experiences unfold on stage gave them a new sense of reality and greater affirmation that I hadn’t just made up the biases I had faced in my head.
I came to Australia to study journalism as an international student in 2016. A very unorthodox career choice for someone like me – an Indian whose parents just wanted me to have a stable career in something like business or law. Even convincing them to let me study journalism was a difficult task. There was a lot of arguing and a lot of “yes, print may be dying but everything is moving online, Pappa!”. So I knew I had to make my time in Australia worth it – worth their investment and worth my future.
I’ve worked in several newsrooms, first as an intern and freelancer, then as a full-time employee – a prized possession for anyone in the media industry, let alone an international student.
Each experience prepared me for the biases I would face in the next. From other people who had connections and networks within the organization who were picked over me, preferred and trained for jobs I was highly qualified for, to the microaggressions on my curly hair, my accent, saying my name or even discussing my complexion.
Coming from a hierarchical Indian society where speaking against those above you is disrespectful, I decided not to fight. So I put my head down and made a fuss instead. Focus on giving others a voice and ignoring mine.
But the pent up emotions finally came out watching Law’s production.
I always thought I was lucky in this industry. Lucky to get unpaid internships with broadcasters and news organizations. Lucky to get to some stages of an interview process when several times I received an immediate refusal because of my visa. Lucky to be able to get a full time job and to be able to experience the stability and security that so many of my Australian citizen classmates at university were able to experience as soon as they graduated. Lucky to have a seat at the table, rather than being seen as another international student who failed to make it in the arts in Australia.
But at some point you have to look beyond luck and look at reality – Australian newsrooms and media have a problem with race. They use people of color for our connections to our communities, as Law’s play with First Nations character Marcus (Matty Mills) demonstrated. They use us to push certain “sensitive” stories about our communities. They also use us for their oft-celebrated diversity statistics. We are also often the reserve forces of the newsroom – casuals or part-timers who are called upon when full-time white reporters and producers are exhausted, on vacation in Europe or on annual leave.
Let’s be clear, I have no problem with my white colleagues. I have a problem with the predominantly white agenda makers at the top allowing this problem to happen. People who think they are progressive because they hire a symbolic diverse person or fit certain categories that mean they have faced bias in their lives. And while I understand the obstacles they’ve faced, they’ll never know what it’s like to be overlooked because of your skin color, hair texture, accent and nationality. on your passport.
Australia’s media industry needs a radical racial overhaul. And it starts with senior executives unlearning decades of bias — a message Law sends clearly in Top Coat.
Karishma Luthria is an audio producer at Guardian Australia