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True colours

By Nazeem Hussain - posted Thursday, 11 February 2010

It was not until I returned from a trip to Europe that it dawned on me how white Australian television actually is. It's an arduous task for me to recall five people on Australian television who are not white. The only people that come to mind are a couple of SBS news readers, and the guy who played the demeaning role of Bingo Commissioner with a ridiculous feigned Indian accent on the failed series of Sunday Night Bingo. Oh … and there are brown people on community TV, if you have reception.

There are probably a few that I've missed, but in honesty, this exercise is a challenging one.

Neighbours should be renamed We Don't Have Any Brown Neighbours. The most popular show on Australian TV is Border Security - a show produced in close co-operation with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship that is designed to make ordinary people paranoid about foreigners. I started feeling suspicious of other brown people at the airport after watching just one episode.


All Saints was one of the most popular shows on Australian TV. How can a show that is entirely based around a hospital have no brown or Asian doctors?

Even rural hospitals have at least a few brown medical students on rotation at any given time. Note: if you ever wake up in hospital, and there are no brown or Asian doctors - get out of there: you're not in a hospital.

You're on the set of a mediocre but well loved Australian TV series. That says a lot about Australia - that a dominant reflection of us is a white one, and that is projected into every home in the country, as well as the Neighbours-loving UK. Popular culture truly is monocultural in Australia. Unless, of course, you include The Footy Show's attempt at inclusive ethnic humour a few months ago when Sam Newman likened an Indonesian man to a monkey, before seeming to refer to Serena Williams as one too.

Australian television is also the contemporary home of blackface. We boast a broad spectrum of blackface sketches that have spanned across all networks - from the ABC to commercial networks such as Channel 9 and 10. News spread far and wide about the Hey Hey It's Saturday reunion's blackface sketch.

Back home, we began a debate about it. We actually argued over an issue the rest of the world determined was racist decades ago. Julia Gillard joined the chorus of support - "my recollection of watching Hey Hey growing up was that it did have a real sense of humour and I suspect we've seen that in recent days". I suspect not.

It's true what was argued in the wake of that saga: that if Harry Connick Jnr hadn't objected, no one would have blinked. Only a month or two previously, The Chasers War on Everything performed an almost identical blackface dance routine on the ABC. Shortly afterwards, John Safran presented an episode of Race Relations on the ABC where he donned modern-day blackface in America so that he could rap at a hip-hop club, serve hotdogs, preach in a black church, and say the N-word repeatedly. Because, apparently, that's what life as an Afro-American equates to. In case you were wondering, the humour in this episode comes from black people being unaware that Safran is actually a white person from Australia. Genius. The episode was applauded by many who exclaimed it made a salient point about colour in society. One point it did make was that any confrontation Australia has had with race has not been etched indelibly in its social conscience. If it had, offensive and racist ideas wouldn't be flaunted on TV as "Aussie humour".


There is something unique about the way we as a nation forget our own struggles for racial equality and justice. Though there have been countless historic moments in the Indigenous peoples' long struggle for justice, the majority of these events have escaped the general public memory. This contrasts greatly with the way the national memories of the civil rights movements in both the UK and the US have only compounded and intensified with time. As a result, Australian culture remains unchanged. Arguably, racist attitudes have only hardened in recent times.

Even though race makes news frequently in this country, the only people that seem to be doing the talking are those whom it least concerns - white people. When the Hey Hey sketch made international news the only people given space in the Australian media to discuss whether blackface was offensive or not were white people. Surely it makes more sense to listen to those who may have been offended. Yet time and again, when it comes to race, white people dominate the conversation.

As a Muslim, I understand that we face similar struggles.

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First published in The Advertiser on February 6, 2010. Nazeem Hussain, with Aamer Rahman, 27, a Monash University law graduate and graphic designer, will perform their comedy hit, Fear of a Brown Planet Returns, at the Adelaide Fringe from March 9-14. Bookings at or 1300 374643. They will also be performing at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival from March 24 until April 18. The comedy duo won the Best Newcomer Award at the 2008 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

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About the Author

Nazeem Hussain is 24 and is a youth worker and is a director of the Islamic Council of Victoria.

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