Johnson Diversity Series – Benjamin Law
Benjamin Law was the Arts, Culture & Sport Category Winner of the 2019 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards.
Ben is a Sydney-based screenwriter, presenter and journalist, author of The Family Law (2010), Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East (2012) and the Quarterly Essay on Safe Schools Moral Panic 101 (2017), co-author of Shit Asian Mothers Say (2014) and Law School (2017), editor of Growing Up Queer in Australia (2019), and has written for over 50 publications including the Monthly, frankie, Guardian, Monocle and Australian Financial Review.
Ben created and co-wrote the multi-award winning SBS TV series The Family Law, was associate producer and researcher on Deep Water: The Real Story (SBS), co-hosts Stop Everything, a show about pop culture and the newest-latest on Radio National, appears regularly on a number of TV shows, and interviews public figures for his weekly column in the Good Weekend.
In this interview, Ben shares his thoughts on diversity and inclusion, what being an Asian-Australian means from a personal and career perspective, and his hopes for the future.
People have lots of feel good conversations about diversity and inclusion. We talk about wanting to include everyone and want diversity for lots of good reasons, but it really needs to be a much more serious conversation.
In many organisations, there is a monoculture which is exclusionary, and makes it hard to talk about diversity and inclusion. For example, it’s quite common to have an all Anglo leadership team in the arts and media, so you have a very select type of person deciding what constitutes merit, and you can’t really have a conversation about meritocracy with that person. There are many ways that organisations skew merit-based appointments, and no panacea to address these big structural problems.
Australians believe egalitarianism and fairness is part of our moral fibre, yet in research conducted by the Australian National University in 2009 and backed up with more recent evidence, job applicants with Asian and Middle Eastern surnames received fewer call-backs, demonstrating racial bias and exclusion.
We often wonder if quotas, targets and affirmative action will really make a difference, however other English speaking countries such as the UK, US, Canada and New Zealand have shown that all of these can work. We have an allergy to implementing controversial things because they may be seen as tokenism, box ticking and serving minority interests. Yet there are a number of women in parliament due to affirmative action by the Labor Party many years ago. No one could argue that these women lack merit and skill, and they are not tokens.
We need to apply those same actions now. Many organisations think they do this well, state they only hire on merit and that they focus on excellence, but leadership is still dominated by whiteness, while 30-40% of Australians are not white.
At least one in 10 people in Australia has an Asian heritage, so they are a significant part of our population. Chinese people have been part of the national story for over 200 years, and were here before white settlement, but somehow sit adjacent to our history.
Ben reflected on the complete absence of Asians in films, in books and on TV when he was growing up on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. While Brisbane was multicultural and there were Asians and a significant indigenous population in Far North Queensland, there were virtually no Asians where he lived. It was a big hot spot for One Nation and Ben’s whole family was very conspicuous.
Ben is proud to be part of the arts and media community. As a writer of books, plays and TV shows, his questions are around what stories need to be told and who should tell them. Ben’s mission is to ensure that Asians are not excluded from the Australian discourse.
When we think about TV shows, we struggle to name Asian-Australians hosts, apart from some on SBS. Pallavi Sharda is acting in the ABC comedy, Retrograde and things are changing, but very slowly, and Ben has not seen a dramatic shift over the past 15 years. While he is happy for people to celebrate his success, Ben is a statistical anomaly. Kid’s shows and reality TV have started to change, but breakfast TV hasn’t. The ABC is still rolling out old shows from Ronny Chieng, a Malaysian comedian, and Ben recently hosted a two part documentary on Chinese Australian history, Waltzing the Dragon. Although this is a start, there is no ongoing representation. Despite this, Ben is optimistic and thinks things can only get better, as the bar is quite low.
Torch the Place, Ben’s debut play in Melbourne with a 100% Asian-Australian cast, was sold-out but cut short due to Covid19. He is currently working on various writing projects, his weekly show on Radio National, Stop Everything (with Beverley Wang), and his regular column in the Good Weekend , as well as behind the scenes activities, discussions and advocacy. Ben co-chairs the Screen Diversity Inclusion Network and is on the Australian Writers Guild Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee. He is also part of the discussions on diversity and inclusion at the ABC and other workplaces.
Covid19 has adversely affected the arts and media, along with many other industries. There is a need to rebuild, which presents a great opportunity to reassess systems and structures, and do things differently to address inequality.
With Asians representing over one in 10 people in Australia, Ben asks us to think about how many we can name in business, sport, politics, or the arts and media? When we look at the people who make up the leadership of organisations which are all white and all men, how do we feel about it?
And what are we going to do next? What can we do as a society? The solution is very complex but needs real action and commitment.
Ben sees the 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards as a great mechanism to showcase the richness of our Asian communities and their contributions, especially as South Asia and Central Asia are often overlooked, and create a sense of joy and solidarity, especially as all the finalists work in different fields, including science, education, the arts, business, professions and the public sector. Ben is looking forward to seeing the class of 2020.
As he continues to challenge the establishment on diversity and inclusion, not only for Asia-Australians but in the broadest context, Ben remains hopeful for the future.