“Cream will eventually rise to the top, the saying goes,” quips Benjamin Law. “But the cream is white. And I’m lactose intolerant.”
The affable writer – best known for his bestseller The Family Law and co-authoring Sh*t Asian Mothers Say with his sister – is on stage at the Sydney Opera House discussing what is wrong with politics when he pinpoints his answer.
“A lack of diversity is a problem in many realms but glaring in politics,” he says. “The danger of relying on a meritocracy is the assumption that one even exists.”
And with that he begins reeling off the statistics – more than a quarter of Australia’s population was born in another country (a third of those in Asia), but of 150 parliamentary members only 12.4 per cent were born overseas (and just one member was born in Asia); 20 per cent of Australians speak a foreign language at home, but only five per cent of politicians come from a diverse language background; and while 10 per cent of Aussies have Asian ancestry, the same can only be said for two per cent of pollies.
Sitting down with Benjamin the next day, he has a few ideas on how we got to this point.
“I think we delude ourselves into believing we’re so egalitarian,” he says. “A lot of us love to sit at the front with the taxi drivers, we believe that there’s no class in Australia – which is, of course, bullsh*t – and the absence of those conversations often means that we overlook real problems when it comes to fostering what a real meritocracy would be, which involves acknowledging and identifying where the deficits are in the terms of opportunity.”
That lack of awarding opportunity on ability alone is, of course, not unique to politics, seeping into every sphere, from business to media and the arts. The side effect is that entire community groups are, according to Benjamin, “invisibilised” – unable to see themselves in society’s roles – and thus “their potential to contribute [is] snuffed out”.
In the business world, this occurs as few people from ethnic minorities hold top-tier positions, but the challenge begins right at the bottom rung where, it’s been well documented, unconscious bias plays a large role in hiring. One study, which used an identical résumé with only the candidate’s name altered, found people with Chinese names needed to submit 68 per cent more applications just to get the same number of interviews as a person with a Caucasian name. The effect also held true for those with Middle Eastern (needing to submit 64 per cent more) and Italian (needing 12 per cent more) names.
“The way that people process job applications is prejudiced according to ethnicity, the way that jobs are given is prejudiced according to gender,” says Benjamin. “It does mean that some people are not at the starting line with everyone else when they reach for opportunities.” Working freelance for most of his life (with his by-line regularly found on the pages of Frankie, Good Weekend and The Monthly) the 32-year-old writer admittedly has rarely had to debate the name atop his CV. However, growing up as a Chinese-Australian on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast had its own challenges, namely rarely seeing people like himself either in-person (“a part of me grieves over the fact that I didn’t even have that many Asian-Australian friends growing up”) or on the TV screen.
Having your face not reflected at you is this really strange thing when you’ve got this world [TV] that’s supposed to be representing your country and your community and you don’t see anyone who looks like you. I’ve spoken to other people and you might feel less attractive because you just don’t look like everyone else; you sort of feel alien as well,” he says. “I do think that when you’re growing up you don’t feel like a legitimate Australian because the image that is Australian actively excludes you.”
However, that’s slowly changing and Benjamin points to an unlikely genre that’s “unlocked diversity in TV”. Despite often being considered the cesspool of entertainment, reality TV has become a burgeoning platform of meritocracy, particularly in the realm of ethnically blind skills like cooking and singing where people from all different backgrounds are showcased, and portrayed, equally. But there’s still a way to go.
“My family and I used to – still do – have a game where we point to the TV and yell out in glee whenever there’s an Asian on TV because it’s still so rare. You know, ‘spot the Asian’.”
The third of five children, Benjamin’s parents moved to Australia from Hong Kong in the 1970s with the family often serving as fodder for his writing. Benjamin’s dad was 12 years old when he met his own father, who worked in California, for the first time. It was a month-long trek home to his wife and son, and just 30 minutes after he arrived, Benjamin’s dad “dropped dead”. Meanwhile, his mother’s family repeatedly made front page news in the 1980s when most of their extended family overstayed their visas and were held at Villawood Detention Centre before being deported. Having been much-loved members of their community, there was a public outpouring for their release, to no avail.
But it’s Benjamin’s immediate family who were the cornerstone of his first book The Family Law. Published in 2010, the TV rights were soon picked up by Matchbox Pictures and the show, of the same name, will air on SBS next year. Since the adaptation process began in 2012, six half-hour scripts were developed and shooting began the day of our interview.
But there was a heart-sinking moment when, from the outside, it looked like this year’s hit US sitcom, Fresh Off the Boat, based on the life of chef Eddie Huang, was a little too similar.
“At first I was like, ‘Oh sh*t, there’s been another show based on a book by an Asian – in this case an Asian-American guy – about his childhood and now it’s been turned into a half-hour sitcom.’ I was just groaning in my hands,” says Benjamin, now laughing and clarifying that, unlike the US show, The Family Law has little to do with finding identity.
“We were very mindful at the start that we weren’t writing a show about Chinese-Australian identity and finding your place in the world as a Chinese person. We’re telling a story about a family’s divorce essentially and the family happens to be Chinese-Australian,” he says. (Benjamin’s parents separated when he was 12 and legally divorced five years later – his mum had the divorce certificate framed.)
“At the same time, I am super mindful of the fact that we are breaking new ground. It is the first time a Chinese-Australian family has been showcased in this way… I’m really aware that we’re making those strides as well and I do want it to be seen as a show about a Chinese-Australian family because that’s what it is as well. Obviously, I just want to have it both ways,” he laughs, adding that there’s a new hybrid identity emerging – not Chinese or Australian but somewhere between the two…
“Where you don’t relate to either/or – you relate to both at the same time.” In a move that helps snap the local industry’s bamboo ceiling, 90 per cent of his cast are Asian-Australian, while international shows regularly feature actors from a range of ethnicities. “The US and the UK actually acknowledge that diversity is problem – that’s the first step. The second step, of course, is to create the infrastructure to address it.
“For instance, [at] Channel 4 in the UK, if the executives in charge of hiring don’t hit certain diversity targets – that’s not just on screen but that’s behind the screen as well – the executives don’t get their bonuses. And in the US they have people employed to be diversity officers – their entire job is to ensure diversity Is maintained in the workplace. So they’ve reached steps one and two; Australia hasn’t even reached step one, which is for there to be widespread industry acknowledgement that it is a problem.”
Benjamin hopes The Family Law will kick-start step one with its special blend of pathos and comedy.
“There’s a great Oscar Wilde quote that I live by which is: ‘If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh otherwise they’ll kill you.’ There’s nothing worse than someone just pontificating in your face about an important issue.
“It’s the quickest way that someone will tune out. If you get them to laugh, you have them onside immediately. Even if they disagree with you, it means they’ll be keen to hear more,” he says. “We want to make them laugh, and then we want to stab them in the guts.”