Othering vs. belonging: The search for representation & safe spaces

I attended the SUDS Writer’s Festival Panel: Race and Representation in Australian Theatre and Beyond a couple weeks back. We covered a lot of ground on the night, including topics such as migrant guilt, using stealth to promote onscreen diversity (Jane Allen) and the structures that reproduce unbalanced power dynamics. However, this reflection will focus on the complicated tension between Othering and belonging.

It seemed that all of the panelists have, at different times, experienced the same Catch 22 situation: On one hand, it might be easier to find ‘success’ as a person of colour in the arts if we participate in our tokenising. This way, we can seem less threatening, more relatable. Think Russell Peters or Sofía Vergera. However, we also want to produce art that explicitly expresses our racial pride or tell stories that don’t centre on our cultural identity at all. What do we do when our path into mainstream media is stymied by film and TV executives who shy away from backing our projects?

This predicament was most evident in panellist Amal Awad’s career. Writing and self-publishing her first novel Courting Samira (on love and dating as a Muslim woman in Australia) was both a significant personal journey and professional milestone for her. You get the sense she knows that her cultural background provides her with a point of difference in a competitive creative economy. But she also desires to be considered a writer who simply happens to be Muslim. Rightfully, she puts her whole personality into her writing, which I find both genuine and impressive. 

By comparison, comedian Shubha Sivasubramanian seemed to see ‘leveraging’ your culture to help your career as just another form of selling out or giving in. Face screwed, she lamented that people of colour seem to be stuck as the one-dimensional, kooky best-friend characters and devious villains on-screen. Why can’t we also play characters that are not explicitly written as white characters? Do we not have the same right to invisibility?

I agree with her in that I don’t see anything amiss, for example, with the casting of Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. And I applaud the ethnic fluidity in the casting of Louis CK’s Louie, and movements like #StarringJohnCho. However, while I wish the abuse would go away, I also want to accept the fact that people of colour playing lead characters is still (and probably will be for a while), by default, groundbreaking. After all, we have to overcome real structural barriers every time we get there.

In any case, I absolutely love the story behind Shubha’s Wolf Comedy project – a comedy room that provides comics of all identities with the wolf pack they’ve never had the security fall back on. Indeed, the desire for ‘safe spaces’ came up multiple times in the discussion. How can we connect with others who share our experiences? Where can we escape from the stereotypes the (white) mainstream media holds us to and autonomously explore our identities? These questions weighed especially heavily on Marie Clare and Pamela of Latinos X Cultura, a collective designed to unify, support and celebrate the diversity of the latin@ world, not package it for wider consumption.

I should admit that I was sceptical of the need for safe spaces at first – for don’t we also want to learn how to hold ourselves in the wider Australian society? But I was sold when, at the end of the evening, I realised I’d just spent 90 minutes in a big room full of people who just ‘got it’. It was comforting. Despite the pockets of the internet I’ve found (About Race, Token, Wong Fu, Community Channel, Stuff Mom Never Told You, to name a few) I’ve never belonged to a community based on cultural understanding before and it felt great. Furthermore, I recognise now that safe spaces and the ‘outside world’ aren’t mutually exclusive.

I sat there inspired and profoundly calmed. I wanted to make friends with everyone in the room, but I was completely drained. I wanted to ask a really smart question that brought up moderator Una’s idea about decolonising space, but instead fumbled out something or other about co-opted beauty standards. Thank you Una, Radha and all nine of the panellists for a truly cathartic experience.

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