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Race, media and cultural identities in Australia

By Andrew Jakubowicz - posted Monday, 12 April 2010

Soon the Australian government will have to deal with the recommendations from the Australian Multicultural Advisory Council headed by AFL tyro Andrew Demetriou. One thing the report will have to (but may not) consider is the media and the arts.

In multiracial/polyethnic societies such as Australia, the media play a central role in the production, circulation and transformation of ideas about race. The Australian media do a lot of “work” on race relations: they ensure that there is very little presence of people of colour, what Canadians refer to as “visibly different” anywhere in the media landscape.

Indeed if we want to discover where the daily media narrative delivers on Australia’s cultural diversity, it’s most likely to be in the news (where the issues are threats of violence or sports superstars) or in sporting coverage. Most of the visible difference on Australian television that entertains Australian audiences comes from the USA, the UK, or SBS. And this in a society that now has almost half the population either born overseas or with one parent born outside the country. So with half the population less than two generations “deep”, and many of them from non-Caucasian backgrounds, why is diversity better represented on British TV (with a population that has a lower proportion who are visibly different) than in Australia?


When the “visibly different” are allowed in they tend to be shown as caricatures - Black Face on Hey Hey it’s Saturday; as sound and movement in advertising (for example the recent KFC kerfuffle); or as the Chinky Chinese cook in Buz Luhrmann’s Australia (reminiscent in more ways than one of Ken Hall’s 1937 Lovers and Luggers). There is considerable debate as to whether this situation has got better or stayed as abysmally poor as it was 20 years ago. Some commentators argue that the marginalisation of actors of colour continues, with few parts being cast with a democratic and cosmopolitan eye.

Most Australians are entertained by programs that do not reflect the nation’s cultural diversity. Australian politics works on the basis of managing pressure groups - no pressure, no politics, no change.

Once we understand that race is a concept that people use to structure their world views, our attention is of course drawn immediately to the main arena in our society where ideas are generated, tested, reinforced and renewed - the media. Unsurprisingly most people use the media for entertainment rather than specific information, and while news and information programs are popular (and not protected from circulating the most dangerous stereotypes and feeding the most aggressive prejudices) most of the time most people turn on the box or log onto the internet, or fire up their radios, or open a magazine or newspaper, in order to “escape” momentarily from their immediate environment.

Entertainment forms a huge space in which civil society evolves and finds its forms, values and narratives. It is in the diverse range of entertainment that people refresh their minds, reflect on their lives and build the social networks that give so much meaning to the everyday.

Whether its discussing Survivor at work, or musing with friends on the relationships in Packed to the Rafters,or chewing down on a Maccers while remembering The Biggest Loser, or even fantasising about the 3D soft-core eroticism and hard-core aggression of Avatar, entertainment does important social labour. Rituals of religion can fall into the “entertainment” camp, as anyone who has visited or watched Hillsong can attest; so too can the front page of so-called newspapers as the Lara Bingle saga is played out. The classic Shakespearean plays count, and they do a lot of work on race.

Entertainment, race and attitudes

The reason we are concerned about entertainment and racism relies on the fact that entertainment experiences might affect attitudes. Attitudes are patterns of thought that evaluate the information we garner from the world, and help orient us towards the objects of the attitudes. Entertainment plays a role in the three ways just listed, and can have a pernicious, a positive or a neutral effect, in which a similar event may be experienced in many different ways by different groups.


The beliefs that people hold about other socio-cultural groups are essentially channeled in ways that can only intensify the affective dimension, the feelings that people hold towards other groups. Bereft of any complexity of information, audiences draw together two pipelines of influence. The first includes representations of “reality” that are truncated, selective and detrimental to Muslims (or Indigenous people etc). The second reflects absences from the normal worlds of entertainment.

When audiences think about other groups, they can be led to negative, partial and deprecatory feelings, drawing laughter for instance from “black face”, or emotional satisfaction from the defeat of the Other (e.g. Zulu, Avatar etc). Negative feelings are reinforced, and prejudice extended. People often sustain very negative affect based on very limited “knowledge”. Indeed the intensity of the affect may lead them to fabricate cognitive linkages that are without foundation in reality, but necessary to provide the framework for the feelings they hold.

A key dimension of attitudes lies in the behaviour used to sustain them; as simple as the choice of entertainment source - only seeking input that sits comfortably with beliefs and feelings. Or it may go further, by seeking to transmit attitudes to family, friends and workmates through jokes, conversations or even arguments. People may take their attitudes to entertainment milieu such as talk-back radio (defined legally now as an entertainment medium) or online. Or they may actually become part of the entertainment industry more directly, as writers, directors, producers, actors and a thousand other roles. Of course race is not at the forefront for most of these people, yet race work is going on in the background for many of them, often.

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About the Author

Andrew Jakubowicz is a professor of sociology at the University of Technology Sydney. He blogs for the SBS program CQ:

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