There’s been an icky trend recently, in both reality TV and otherwise, where POC are cast in super ground-breaking roles for diversity and representation – but then thrown to the wolves when it comes to inevitable racist backlash from viewers and even co-stars.
I mean, just look at John Boyega in Star Wars. His role was the representation we had been BEGGING for, and he quickly became the face of the franchise. But despite his success, he ended up telling GQ that he felt “frustration” at being the only cast member to have to deal with racist DMs and death threats.
Despite being a huge advocate for on-screen diversity, Boyega’s interview changed my entire outlook on ‘representation’. Now that Aussie reality TV sweetheart, Noongar-Yamitji woman Brooke Blurton has been cast as the newest Bachelorette (!!!!), I can’t help but revisit those thoughts.
Because the thing is, what happened to John Boyega happens literally everywhere, even here in Australia – and last year’s season of the Bachelor is just one example.
I recall watching Locky Gilbert‘s season (ugh) of The Bachelor last year, and feeling so confronted and upset by the way its only dark-skinned woman, Areeba Emmanuel, was portrayed on the show.
The only non-white girl getting the fiesty, villain edit? #TheBachelorAU pic.twitter.com/9Rs36gxJZT
— Live Laugh Lauren (@laurenvedwards) August 12, 2020
At first I was super excited to see a Pakistani-Australian like me on The Bachelor given its typically-white majority cast and our society’s obsession with Eurocentric beauty standards. I know I can’t expect too much from a reality TV show about mostly drunk women fighting over a Very Average White Man, but still, I persist.
And anyway, it felt like Channel Ten had finally listened to our demands of diversifying. At least it did, until Areeba, the only brown woman, got a villain edit (ugh, how original) AND we got to see her racially abused first hand. Aussie TV is tew much.
In case you missed it, white, red-haired (yes, that’s important) co-star Zoe-Clare McDonald developed a feud with Areeba on-screen, and it was ugly. And by ugly I mean racist.
Wait till this red headed girl finds out what it’s like to be the only person of colour in the room. #thebachelorau
— Shalailah Medhora (@shalailah) August 12, 2020
Feeling jealous and upset that Areeba was cutting into her time with Locky, Zoe-Clare started targeting Areeba with a bunch of over-done micro-aggressions, including perpetuating the whole “aggressive brown woman” trope and making fun of Areeba’s name by calling her ‘abracadabra‘, which is just – ugh. I never thought I’d need to say it, but yes it’s racist to meme someone’s ethnic name. Fuck’s sake.
Anyway, Zoe-Clare then accused Areeba of bullying her because she’s got red hair (??), despite no one ever commenting on that, gaslit her, and then went on a drunken rant where she glorified white features. Mind you, Zoe-Clare was towering over Areeba, gesticulating wildly and shouting drunkenly in her face while Areeba tried to keep her composure. She may be smiling, but the drink in Areeba’s hand was shaking like Jarryd Hayne finding out he can’t have Foxtel in prison, and my heart broke. And to make it worse, the following episode Zoe-Clare and Areeba were paired together because it’s totally fine to put a woman of colour with a racist for ~drama~, right?
This scene was genuinely distressing for me, compounded by the fact that Areeba was also getting heaps of race-based hate online, AND the whole ordeal seemed to be something viewers thought was funny. To a lot of Aussies it was classic drunken shenanigans on The Bachelor. To me, it was casual racism for shits and gigs.
In another similar case of alleged racism on set, but this time in Bachelor in Paradise, Niranga Amarasinghe accused another unnamed contestant of being racist to him last year, saying that they told several people they wouldn’t take him back to their parents because of his race as well as making fun of his ethnic name.
I spoke to another past Bachie contestant who claimed that white cast members allegedly bullied people of colour on set.
“It was clear that a lot of girls targeted the women of colour on the show and made their living conditions uncomfortable and unsafe with constant bullying and isolation,” they claimed on condition of anonymity and honestly, who’s surprised? Not me.
It’s shitty stuff like this that makes me worry for the well-being and safety of people of colour on TV, and especially on Australian reality TV. Like, if that’s what is allegedly happening to women of colour on set, then what is Channel Ten going to do about protecting Brooke Blurton from racism and homophobia as both a bisexual and First Nations woman?
When we asked Brooke Blurton how she was going to cope with the typical vitriol that follows reality stars around, she gave us a real queen shit answer and basically said she’s thick-skinned and it won’t get her down. While I love that, I also think it’s worth having a convo about what the channel can do to support a person, too.
I know what it’s like being the minority in the room, dealing with a million micro-aggressions, constantly trying to make yourself as palatable as possible, trying to behave in ways so you don’t validate any of the racist stereotypes about your race, having to represent your entire people and yourself… it’s completely exhausting emotionally and physically, and the last thing you need after that is a tidal wave of hate, whether it’s in your DMs, on social media comments, or on set from other cast members – no matter how strong you are.
It’s one thing to cast a POC in a role that desperately needs updating (Brooke Blurton is single-handedly going to SAVE The Bachelorette), but I just hope this isn’t where the interest in diversity ends. Representation is more than just casting a POC – we also need to make sure they are comfortable, safe, and have some protection from the vitriol that is potentially going to come their way, both from viewers and from other people on set.
Until actual sets are safe for the mental health of POC, and racism isn’t tolerated by any cast or staff members, and we stop capitalising off racism as hilarious drunken antics, diversity doesn’t mean anything to me.
Until then, what we’re really doing is throwing POC to the wolves for the sake of better TV.