Made by Sharon Johal, 13 April 2021.
I’ve been heartbroken to learn that that not one, but two of our First Nations actors from Wongatha/Yamatji and Noongar/Gita Country have shared their experience of racism at my former workplace, Neighbours (of which I am expected to return as a guest performer in the coming weeks). The past week for me has been a traumatising, triggering and painful experience, with the re-surfacing of compounded trauma I have tried to deny, bury and ultimately, survive.
To these esteemed actors, I support and applaud you for your courage in coming forward in an industry - and a country - that is uncomfortable in being “called out” on racist attitudes, further evidenced by the backlash they have received.
Having worked on Neighbours for the last four years and being one of the few people of colour to be employed as a series regular in it’s 36 year history, I have been asked by many, and feel an obligation to, to share my experiences. I feel morally compelled to support the actors who have come forward with their experiences of racism, at a huge cost to themselves, just as this statement is to me.
My decision for speaking publicly now is that I believe this can be a transformative moment in the show’s history, creating a culture where there is deep listening, where cultural awareness and education is at the forefront of our minds, where cast and crew are encouraged to speak up and stand up for others, where unity is cultivated over division, and where people of diverse backgrounds can work in an inclusive and safe environment.
I have thought long and hard about how I might make a valuable contribution to the discussion to help bring about transformative change in the culture of not just Neighbours, but the screen industry more broadly. As a qualified lawyer, I see this very clearly as a human rights issue - an issue that is not exclusive to this specific workplace, but rather endemic to our society as a whole. My intention is to help generate a wider discussion that we, as a country, must engage in actively, without being defensive or critical but rather with empathy and deep listening.
I have previously spoken publicly about the lack of diversity on Australian screens, always with a view of to create awareness and provide insight. I have also publicly applauded Neighbours for the great strides it has taken in this regard and am acutely aware of, and grateful for, the rare opportunity I have had to work on this show as a woman of colour. This iconic show which has been a wonderful training ground for cast and crew alike and there are many people at Neighbours who are genuinely working behind the scenes to support minorities as much as they can in their respective positions.
In saying this, my experience on Neighbours has also been painful and problematic.
Like my colleagues who have spoken out over the past week, I too have experienced direct, indirect and casual racism in this workplace.
On more than one occasion a current cast member (non-POC) directly referred to me as “you people” when speaking in derogatory terms about an altercation they were involved in with an Indian person. The same person repeatedly referred to me as “the black one” and/or “blackie” behind my back in the presence of other crew members. I have been told that the same cast member also repeatedly claims that the show only employs “Indian actors” and diverse actors of colour to “fill their diversity quotas” and “not because they are any good”. From what I understand and what has been communicated to me by other cast and crew, these incidents of racism and problematic behaviour, while directed at me, are not unique to me.
I communicated these racist comments to management and while they were sympathetic and the actor being questioned on one occasion to my knowledge (causing me to be targeted again), no further action was taken. Management’s position was that I needed to speak to management directly at the time each of these incidents occurred. This practice does not take into consideration the reticence of a victim to come forward in a workplace culture where perpetrators are not seen to be held accountable (so why report?), and where the person reporting is afraid of being further targeted by the perpetrator and in fear of losing their job. For example, it has been reported to me that a cast and crew member each called me a “c*nt” to another cast member after I confronted them over offensive comments. Having felt isolated, marginalised and not supported for speaking up on issues before by some cast members (with whom I spent the vast majority of my time at work, and who witnessed some of this behaviour), I did not have faith that I would be adequately supported should I have taken the action to instigate a formal investigation into the allegations. In addition to this, the culture has created an environment where the ‘bystander’ phenomenon is rife, resulting in ‘he said/she said’ situations where no real outcome is achievable. Also, I did not want to be perceived as the ‘trouble-maker’.
Another example of direct racism I endured which due to the above reasons I did not report, was from a former cast member (non-POC) is being compared to a bobble-head toy accompanied by the comment “oh it’s like you guys” (referring to Indians). The same cast member repeatedly mimicked the Indian character Apu from the Simpsons with accompanying Indian accent and movement of head in my presence, despite me requesting they desist. I was not supported by other cast members in these distressing moments.
I have been trolled by racist abuse consistently on the show’s social media platforms and at a time when it became unbearable, I requested the comments be moderated. I was again sympathised with, but was advised, “we leave the comments as they are for people to discuss”. I believe production has a duty of care to moderate such comments and protect its employees, especially as we were instructed and expected to promote the show on our own social media platforms.
In my time with the show, there were also instances of culturally insensitive scripts and storylines which would have been better handled had a qualified consultant be hired for this purpose instead of me having to raise the issues, which I was compelled to, often.
To add context, I believe a workplace operating at such a fast pace as Neighbours, has enabled a cultural ‘bubble’ where the highest priority is not to disrupt the production of the show and that we should just “work things out”. I believe mishandling of these disputes has occurred, with management attempting to mediate situations they are not necessarily qualified to handle, due to the lack of training/non-practical application of resource/systems in place. This has also been my experience with management in relation to another non race related, extremely serious matter that only upon my insistence was elevated to the production company’s HR department. I was left powerless, isolated and marginalised. I had to seek external counselling to deal with the trauma I experienced.
I have always tried to do the ‘right thing’ and follow protocols and procedures, believing in due process. I have tried to speak up, whilst uncomfortable (and scary), when I was employed full-time on the show through the appropriate channels. In coming forward with this statement, it is with an understanding that when a person of minority ‘goes public’, it is often as a last resort and a cry for help, after all avenues of reporting and educating the perpetrator have failed. History has shown us there is no benefit to people of colour or from a minority to speak up/’whistleblow’ and they/we often do it at a great cost, at the risk of our livelihoods and at the risk of opening ourselves up for further vilification, bullying and victim shaming/blaming.
It is clear the system has failed. My view is that a systematic overhaul is required in order to make this workplace safe for all people of diverse backgrounds. Racism is part of a wider issue and conversation. It’s both heartbreaking and telling of our industry that a show considered diverse on screen, still struggles with protecting people these behind the scenes.
I commend Fremantle for taking action and conducting an independent investigation, and humbly request that the scope of the investigation be widened to include all forms of discrimination, not limited to race, gender, sexual orientation and identity. I welcome the findings and hope they include recommendations to be implemented including, but not limited to:
facilitating a systemic overhaul to combat/eliminate discrimination and making an ongoing commitment to eliminate toxicity within the workplace;
implementing cultural awareness training for all employees on all levels to create systemic change;
ensuring that people of diverse background are hired and supported in all departments;
providing adequate HR resources to deal with the sensitivities of making the workplace diverse;
continued learning and scheduled reviews of policies, practices and procedures in place pertaining to diversity and inclusivity;
exercising a duty of care for actors experiencing online bullying and trolling, including moderating comments and beyond;
creating a workplace culture where employees are encouraged to report discriminatory behaviour;
committing to zero tolerance of racism and discriminatory behavior with a workable complaints/dispute resolution process put in place with individuals to be held accountable.
I think (and hope) we are unified in standing against racism. I think (and hope) we are unified in wanting to feel safe at work. These statements should not be mutually exclusive.