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 â€“ some easier than others. The ethnic press (which really shouldnâ€™t be referred to as one entity) has employed many of the countryâ€™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 donâ€™t often work like that. Stay involved with an â€˜ethnicâ€™ 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 â€œstereotypedâ€ or â€œstuck in the Asian press.â€
Itâ€™s a sentiment echoed by many aspiring artists â€“ Iâ€™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 â€œwearing the ethnic hatâ€ can bring more success than deserved â€“ or at least bring it more easily.
â€œThere 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 Bookerâ€
Boltâ€™s has only thrice been involved with â€˜ethnic projectsâ€™, the latest of which was in conjunction with Tara Arts â€“ a prolific British Asian stage production company. It was a transposition of Beaumarchaisâ€™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 MoliÃ¨re, 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:
â€œHe 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”.â€
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.
Itâ€™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 â€˜ethnicâ€™ 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 â€“ 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 â€˜Asianâ€™ or â€˜ethnicâ€™ 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 â€˜ethnic ambassadorâ€™.
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, theyâ€™re not poor kids from the â€˜hood who need a helping hand.
Perhaps it’s the thought of being pigeon-holed that irks me. Or perhaps Iâ€™m bitter because I havenâ€™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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Filed in: Culture,Media