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Stereotypes down to a problem in the numbers

By Tanveer Ahmed - posted Tuesday, 18 December 2007


I play the character of the Bingo Commissioner on a game show. My catch cry is "Nooo bingo", uttered in a thick Indian accent. It's funny. It's also a racial stereotype.

The responses I have received from Indian-Australians are particularly interesting. They vary from disquiet and politely veiled criticism that I have helped send race relations back a decade, to beaming pride that there is an Indian face on prime-time Australian television. Some of the prouder fans mention that the last Indian character on Australian television was the appalling Mahatma Cote on The Footy Show, played by the former cricketer Greg Ritchie.

It is an important issue because stories are at the heart of our personal and collective identities. They are at the essence of what makes us human - and Australian.

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Even game shows are stories. They are not competitions so much as ritualised mini-dramas centred on the personality and worthiness of the contestant. It's the advice and weepy encouragement of spouses, mothers and friends that provide conflict and catharsis for the contestant.

So it is a problem that the cultural diversity that most Australians know, especially those in large urban centres, is not reflected in the content of our broadcast media. There are few faces from non-English-speaking backgrounds, nor are there many characters based on an ethnic heritage. This is particularly true for commercial television. When they are, it is usually a caricature or racial stereotype lacking any depth or complexity, much like the Bingo Commissioner.

Some people view this as some kind of institutionalised racism, symptomatic of a media driven by preset agendas. Others see it as a symptom of a monoculture encouraged by more than a decade of a John Howard-led government, sceptical of cosmopolitanism. But there is no conspiracy. It is more complex.

Most young people raised in families of Asian or Muslim backgrounds rarely venture into the cultural or storytelling industries. There is a sense of insecurity transmitted through their families and communities that urges a move towards the traditional, more technical professions such as medicine, computers or engineering. As a result, they are rarely in the positions of cultural power that allow their stories to become part of the national consciousness.

Most employees in the big media companies are from an Anglo-Saxon background. This is true even of SBS. In my short time as a cadet journalist there, my impression was of a dedicated group of white, middle-aged people trying their best to create what they felt was multicultural television.

Writers and artists are far more likely to incorporate their own experience into their creative output, and a WASP-heavy cultural scene will naturally result in a limited range of programming.

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This results in something of a vicious cycle, where ethnic minorities see nothing on television reflecting their experience and then feel they have no place in the industries that create this content.

This is problematic in an age where integrating diverse cultures is so high on the national agenda. I often meet young people who do not feel connected to the Australian notions of mateship, the outback or even egalitarianism. It feels too masculine, too closely associated with alcohol and too white.

That is not to say Australian history has anything to be ashamed of, but until the stories of minority groups become part of the wider national story, there is a risk that integration will be superficial.

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Tanveer Ahmed appears on National Bingo Night. First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on December 10, 2007.



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About the Author

Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and local councillor. His first book is a migration memoir called The Exotic Rissole. He is a former SBS journalist, Fairfax columnist and writes for a wide range of local and international publications.
He was elected to Canada Bay Council in 2012. He practises in western Sydney and rural NSW.

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