The brown passport to success


by Rohin
26th December, 2006 at 11:40 pm    

I know that many of our readers (and indeed our writers) are media darlings at various stages of accomplishment. From tycoons who rub shoulders with Rupert and Ted, like Sunny, to nobodies who hover behind reporters so they can get on telly. Like me.

This post is for those with media aspirations and it centres around a topic that has come up a few times in discussion with Asian and black journalist-friends. When starting a career in the media, be it print or radio journalism, creative writing or painting, getting an initial foothold can be one of the biggest challenges.

There are multiple points of entry one can choose from – some easier than others. The ethnic press (which really shouldn’t be referred to as one entity) has employed many of the country’s leading lights at early stages of their careers.

Publications like Eastern Eye or programmes like the late Network East not only provide a source of information for their respective communities, but they are frequently stepping stones into the world at large.

Great. But things don’t often work like that. Stay involved with an ‘ethnic’ production for too long and your mainstream marketability falls. I was recently speaking to a friend who has worked for an Asian publication for a few years and loved it. But they are moving on to a less well-known publication as they did not wish to be “stereotyped” or “stuck in the Asian press.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by many aspiring artists – I’ve heard musicians and actors say the exact same thing. Small time Asian films and plays pay the bills, but they get nervous about taking one too many Asian gigs as they feel they need to make more mainstream contacts.

Manish recently linked to a ToI piece which interviewed Ranjit Bolt, a very successful UK playwright and dramatic translator, soon after Kiran Desai picked up her Booker Prize for The Inheritance of Loss. He feels that “wearing the ethnic hat” can bring more success than deserved – or at least bring it more easily.

“There is a tradition of brown people writing and writing well and winning awards. Publishers are sheep…and we’ve got to accept that today, people with a touch of the tar brush are more likely to win the Booker”

Bolt’s has only thrice been involved with ‘ethnic projects’, the latest of which was in conjunction with Tara Arts – a prolific British Asian stage production company. It was a transposition of Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro from France to the last days of the Mughal Empire. Ironically, it garnered him personally more press coverage than many of his other works.

“Being half-Indian has had no relevance to my work, when you’re translating classical European theatre, when you’re translating Molière, being pink or blue or green doesn’t make any difference.”

The project was widely applauded by critics and audiences alike, but Bolt does not wish to take on anything similar in the near future, for fears of being stereotyped, even aged 47:

“He admits he was conscious from the time of his very first collaboration with Varma that he was running the risk of relegation to the “ethnic brown box”.”

Asking if success is easier when brown is impossible to answer. Certainly many of the first-time novelists who have won plaudits very early in their careers have been Asian. Gautam Malkani and Kaavya Viswanathan both garnered massive contracts on the back of one book. Monica Ali and Hari Kunzru have been rewarded with great success. It seems the latest hot young Asian writer is always in demand.

But by the same token, does that mean success that comes via being ethnic is more fickle? Brown faces will be less en vogue and many of the people who have enjoyed their current position of resident cool Asian dude with spiky hair will, once again, be a struggling presenter or columnist.

It’s not just the media world. In fact positive discrimination is far more obvious and formal in the business world, with quotas operating quite openly.

Huge multinationals operate ‘ethnic’ programmes to encourage all walks of life to enter their ranks. Are these still needed? Take any of the Big Four auditors, like PricewaterhouseCoopers. A friend of mine has sailed up the corporate ladder – and she is a superb employee. But she landed the job via an ethnic work experience scheme and since joining she has participated in a multitude of projects, every single one of them with ‘Asian’ or ‘ethnic’ in the title.

This might be admirable if PwC was a stuffy old white company, but looking around any of the offices reveals that Asian faces (South and East) are far from under-represented. Yet her willingness to be labelled as an Asian employee has made her an ‘ethnic ambassador’.

When applying for their first jobs after university, most take the conventional path, but some choose to deliberately exploit the ethnic route. These are people who are normally privy to exactly the same education and opportunities as anyone else, they’re not poor kids from the ‘hood who need a helping hand.

Perhaps it’s the thought of being pigeon-holed that irks me. Or perhaps I’m bitter because I haven’t got any preferential treatment. In fact the one place I would expect it, the Indian restaurant, has denied me any special service as they just laugh at my Bengali pronunciation.


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  1. douglas clark — on 27th December, 2006 at 5:18 am  

    Rohin,

    Re the media thing.

    This is an interesting piece of ambition. I consider myself a minority of one. Me, unique, much like you. With similar ambitions, perhaps more to make my voice heard, rather than rub shoulders with tycoons – which has the makings of a fascist word, by the way. Fuck the tycoons.

    Don’t you think it is important to have something worthwhile to say? I’m interested in treating everyone as an individual, and I could write about that; thanks Sunny. I’m interested in a universal justice system that applies equally to everyone on the planet, and I could write about that; thanks Conor Foley. For some reason that I can’t explain, I think that folk that pretend to blog on the internet, but who don’t take or respond to comments are egotists. Dunno who to thank for that, it’s just irritating. I’m interested in the neandertal politicians who still think there is an arguement left in global warming, especially the ones that talk about English Wine. Yeugh! Maybe I’ve got George Monbiot to thank for that.

    Plenty of subjects. Mine own, the complaint, essentially that print journalists don’t really understand new media and treat it as if it were an extension of their ego doesn’t go down too well when you try to sell it to CiF.

    Ideas is what this should be about, and the bearded one seems to have monopolised new thinking. Bugger it!

    I haven’t type checked this, but you get the gist, I’d think. Night, night. Make sure the bugs don’t bite.

  2. Sunny — on 27th December, 2006 at 7:43 am  

    Rohin,

    Firstly, thank f*ck you’re writing again. Secondly, great topic. Thirdly, can of worms my friend.

    But to address the point about media – there are various issues. Yes, some journalists get on the ladder through diversity programmes. Randeep Ramesh of the Guardian wrote an article for the 2004 Guardian Media Guide about getting into journalism through a diversity scheme, though it didn’t just mean Asians… and even there the competition is beyond fierce.

    Sathnam Sanghera of the Financial Times also wrote an article about diversity a year or so ago, asking why he was chosen on diversity issues when his colleague, though white, was more non-English than he was.

    But generally I think the media isn’t so bad anymore. The BBC has met its employment quotas for minority groups, the problem is now traditional – that people get promoted on the basis of who they know rather than skill, and that is a problem across the board not just for ethnic minorities.

    The other point is about writers, that you made well. I covered this briefly in my interview with Gautam Malkani for AIM magazine, where he said he was frustrated as being labelled as an ethnic writer or being pushed into that category just because he happened to be brown.
    http://www.asiansinmedia.org/news/article.php/publishing/1342

    Now another brilliant example is Monica Ali. As I wrote in an article for CIF earlier this year, they’re labelled by the media as “authentic” writers, and when a controversy arises (like it did with Brick Lane the film), some of the media get caught with their pants down.

    And I said then:

    It is a trap that Germaine Greer is leading Asian writers into. They are lauded by the chattering classes as being “an authentic new voice of multicultural Britain” before being gently pushed off the cliff when there is a protest. Whoops, we never knew he/she was not being authentic, they quietly mutter.

    http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/sunny_hundal/2006/07/why_brick_lane_must_go_ahead.html

    So being an “authentic” ethnic writer eventually bites you in the butt. So Monica Ali’s second book, about a village in Portugal, got very little publicity and was listed by people as one of the most underrated books of this year, with people asking why it didn’t get more noticed. Brown person writing about…. white people! ohmygosh! Germaine Greer is probably not very happy.

  3. Desi Italiana — on 27th December, 2006 at 8:26 am  

    If I may add a fact that I rail against in my own writings–

    Writers who get published are not always operating in a terrain of free will. Publishers are often the gatekeepers. And what passes as literature written by “ethnic writers” is often based on a market criteria. I’ve noticed the same tired formulas in all the famous and lauded books by “South Asian” writers; the same themes, redundant topics, and repetitive framework.

    Many South Asian writers in America have complained that they have had their manuscripts rejected because it wasn’t “ethnic” enough: apparently, it didn’t speak about “immigrant themes” and “minority” themes enough (their writings obviously lacked the many references to pickles, chutneys, and curries, as well as arranged marriages and whatnot as is trademark in “South Asian American literature”.) And generally speaking, the “non ethnic” readers have been conditioned and/or have expectations of what “ethnic” literature should be (in South Asia’s case, we’re all intensely religious, mystical, spiritual; we’re also the opposite of the West, and the West is the land of progress and individual liberty, blah blah blah– the writer who exploits all of this the most is Bharati Mukherjee).

    The point that I am making is that writers get pigeon holded into a category and genre that is based on market criteria, and that market criteria is defined by publishers.

    This is “multiculturalism” fashioned into consumerism and market values (IMO).

  4. Desi Italiana — on 27th December, 2006 at 8:29 am  

    And then, the other result is that we have the market criteria and publishing houses defining to the public at large what identities, cultures, and “authenticity” are.

  5. Kismet Hardy — on 27th December, 2006 at 9:56 am  

    For the record:

    Dipesh Gadher (News Editor at Eastern Eye; now Transport Editor at The Sunday Times)

    Pravin Char (News Reporter at Eastern Eye; now Chief Sub-editor for The London Paper)

    Nadeem Khan (Editor of Eastern Eye; now senior Sub-editor for News of the World)

    Siddharta Shivdisani (Sub-editor of Eastern Eye, now middle bench sub for News of the World)

    Sanjay Gohil (Editor of Eastern Eye/Asian Xpress, now Senior sub-editor for Financial Times)

    Amar Singh (Editor of Asian Xpress, now news reporter for Evening Standard)

    Poorna Shetty (Editor of Asiana, now features writer for The London Paper)

    There are many others but the ones above have bought me beer.

    Asian media is a fantastic springboard for those who want to move into the mainstream. But I do resent the implication that the ones that are still in Asian media are ‘in a rut’, ‘feel stereotyped’ and don’t really want to be there.

    Some are happy to stay because they care about it and really think they can make a difference.

    It may be kind to give them some credit

  6. El Cid — on 27th December, 2006 at 10:37 am  

    There are no British South Asians in my newsroom of about 400, but quite a few Indian Indians (at least 20) and many many people from around the world. There are also only 2 UK innercity comprehensive school-educated people that I know of (a West Indian girl from Brum and me, a whitey). Draw your own conclusions.

  7. Katy — on 27th December, 2006 at 5:30 pm  

    Without meaning to fan El Cid’s fire on public schools, I have always thought that it is class rather than race that is the great divider everywhere, and especially at work. Even people who are clearly racist (whatever their colour or race) will make “exceptions” for people of other races who are in approximately the same class bracket as they are. I am in a traditionally white, middle/upper class, male profession, and every year there are more and more non-white, non-male faces, but the vast majority of entrants continue to be middle to upper class.

    Really, it is all about class (which is of course all about money).

  8. Don — on 27th December, 2006 at 5:41 pm  

    It also helps if you can afford to live in London on an entry level pay-packet, or increasingly an unpaid ‘internship’.

  9. contrarymary — on 27th December, 2006 at 6:33 pm  

    good post rohin

    it’s a catch 22.

    I’m a journalist of eight years experience, and have never worked for the ‘ethnic media’. however within mainstream media I do get asked to cover brown things because I’m brown – The RSC’s production of Midnight’s Children, Bombay Dreams, the Asian Music Awards, Bollywood, bhangra, The Merchants Of Bollywood. which I willingly do – even if I am not interested in them – because I get paid and need to eat. it’s a fool that turns down work. especially as a freelancer.

    however I have studiosly avoided ethnic media for fear of being typecast and pigeon-holed as an ethnic journalist . and also because in my experience of ethnic media, it tends to be unprofessional and there’s an expectation of working for free!

    there is no doubt however that ethnic media – whethere asiana or eastern eye (as Kismet points out is) – is a good stepping stone into mainstream media.

    just as the regional newspaper route is a valid and well trodden path into journalism. (which is the route I followed)

    my advice would be, tread that tightrope carefully and ‘play’ both ethnic and mainstream media. but don’t get too comfortable in ethnic media – unless you’re as good a networker as our sunny – or you will never escape it. (which is fine if you don’t want to)

    get your experience and contacts and get out!

  10. Ravi Naik — on 27th December, 2006 at 6:56 pm  

    I am somewhat puzzled that in this country southern and eastern Europeans are not considered ethnic minorities, and do not need a passport to get up the ladder. Which is strange taking into account that Indians (along with their Chinese counterparts) do pretty well academically.

    Is it just a question of skin colour?

  11. contrarymary — on 27th December, 2006 at 7:15 pm  

    I’ve always found it strange that term British Asian is generally assumed to mean of South Asian descent – indian, pakistani, bangladeshi. what about chinese people?? are they not from Asia?? or have South Asians appropriated British Asians for themselves. aargh semantics suck! and while we’re at it, why are there so few Oriental faces/names in the British media?? South Asians seem to be everywhere but I challenge anyone to give me three British-Oriental household names (Ken Hom excluded!)

  12. PedanticLurker — on 27th December, 2006 at 8:27 pm  

    ContraryMary, it’s the numbers obviously.

    The most recent estimates of the populations of different ethnic groups (available here, see p.2) put the South Asian community in Britain at almost 2.2 million strong as of 2003, while there are less than 300,000 Chinese in Britain, and about the same number again of ‘Other Asians’. Given that South Asians are thus over 75|% of all Asian-derived people in Britain it’s not suprising that when people think ‘Asian’ they are thinking Indian, not Chinese.

  13. Rohin — on 27th December, 2006 at 9:16 pm  

    Kismet, I was actually thinking of you (not in THAT way) when I was writing this. I tried hard not to insinuate at any point that remaining in the ethnic media was a bad thing nor that everyone who works for an ethnic publication wants to leave or is stuck.

    I just said some people think that. You know I don’t.

    Thanks for that list – I would’ve liked to have featured something like that, but lack the knowledge you have.

  14. soultrain — on 27th December, 2006 at 10:53 pm  

    I remember when I was back at college, Asians in my year who wanted to forge a career ahead with blue chip companies or with the major businesses in the City, were often encouraged to make use of the various schemes and fellowships that were aimed to assist people from ethnic minorities from college onto a big step in the career ladder, into companies and workplaces that were predominantly white. This was separate from the actual application process for jobs – in which jobs are meant to be assigned purely on merit – more of a briefing and careers support session to assist people whom from an ethnic minority were trying to find work in areas that Asians from the UK had never embraced in substantial numbers before. If the actual process of interviewing and employing applicants is separate from that, then there is no problem there. You mention positive discrimination is more formal and obvious in the business world. I question that to an extent, because the massive amount of litigation that forces job processes to be unbiased from race and seen to be unbiased from race. And of course if positive discrimination does exist so widely, it discredits other British Asians who just their competitors will think that they got their job through their company filling their quota rather than merit. I must have heard loads of comments from people who make accusations about he lost out on a job because a Polish guy or an Indian guy got through. Job processes can go someway to addressing that by actively producing feedback as to why you got rejected – though I realise that nothing will stop determined people play victim politics with no justification, just so they can get their kicks out of it. And victim politics is very fashionable these days.

    I feel the music industry runs against that trend. Asian music radio is often viewed by many Asians in the UK as a springboard to mainstream music, regardless of whether she/he is doing Asian music or non asian music.

    The music industry is incredibly oversaturated as it is; hence it is seriously difficult for any new artist to get a new project of their showcased on conventional music stations, magazines or other outlets. An asian artist doing say standard hip hop or rock, would then play on his ethnicity, maybe even paste a few asian elements onto his/her record, and all of a sudden there is a whole new industry, outlets and stations open to that artist to promote – more by association than actual genuine quality. But because by definition asian music is very specialist, separated by a language barrier for starters, there are very examples of Asian artists who have successfully used the Asian Music stations as a springboard into the wider and ruthless world of music.

  15. mahtal — on 29th December, 2006 at 11:06 pm  

    Oh dear. I am white, european, and an atheist. I am aminority in the world. Help!

  16. Tahir — on 1st January, 2007 at 4:01 am  

    Katy

    Agreed. Where I work the only Asian people who have a decent position are Oxbridge – and female. I think that might also be true of many of the Asian literary figures we have in the UK. They also don’t need a helping hand so when poor asians from housing estates moan about mis-representation – I think the brown writers from Oxbridge can do their own defending.

    So totally agreed – these diversity schemes don’t need to lend a helping hand to posh brown faces – they are already on a level playing field and am pleased they are making a contribution to wider society and representation . But they don’t need a helping hand. The Asian youth in Moss side might – but so does the white kid on that block.

    I think Greer was OK to slate Ali – all writers are equal and shouldn’t be immune to criticism from fellow writers- or does Monica Ali need a defending hand when slated by a white writer? Are white writers not allowed to critique Asian writers without being accused of being discriminatory. Again, Monica Ali is a strong role model and I don’t think we do her any favors by protecting her from slack from her own peers.

  17. Jagdeep — on 1st January, 2007 at 1:14 pm  

    Tahir

    That’s a really good point that you make. The irony is that the kind of Asian who gets a break because of white liberal guilt or whatever, though, is rarely marginalised in any real sense of the term, because they come from middle class oxbridge backgrounds. To what extent is Monica Ali or Hari Kunzru or Gautam Malkani, Oxford and Cambridge graduates, establishment journalists or management consultants, on the margins of society? And yet…..to some extent, in line with Desi Italian’s earlier post, they are given the burden of ‘representing’ the plebian mass of Asians that they have a nominal link with by accident of background. And that can be a very treacherous and complicated.

    Anyway….I also think that Greer should be free to speak and comment as she wishes to about any writer.

  18. Jagdeep — on 1st January, 2007 at 1:41 pm  

    Wow Rohin, you think the Hindu Human Rights group are simply occasionally misguided? Those were the guys who campaigned against the MF Husain exhibition that ended with paintings vandalised and death threats all around, and their objection to the school is on the basis that they don’t like the ‘school’ of Hinduism being promoted there by ISKCON, not that they don’t think there shouldnt be more Hindu schools, just that they should be run by them.

  19. Jagdeep — on 1st January, 2007 at 1:43 pm  

    Wrong thread — New Year hangover.

  20. Sahil — on 1st January, 2007 at 10:16 pm  

    Happy New Years everyone, just got back from Torquay, and very hung over :)

  21. Kismet Hardy in net cafe — on 2nd January, 2007 at 12:54 pm  

    So Rohin let me get this straight. You think MY mum gave YOUR electrician uncle sex just because he screwed in a bulb for her? You really have to twist things, don’t you? I hate you

  22. john beck — on 10th January, 2007 at 7:04 am  

    A consensus of support, design and implement an internal information management program, and then extend participation and benefits to all other stakeholders, especially customers or clients as well as strategic partners.

  23. Tahir — on 10th January, 2007 at 7:06 am  

    ?

  24. Leo — on 14th January, 2007 at 8:51 am  

    I dont know but why i don find such informative and profitable blogs so often,I suspect blogging world is becoming so small that we cant find such lucrative blogs like this one.

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