Culture

“What’s The Deal With Asians?” Red Symons’ Interview On Race Is A New Low For Australian Media

Why does this keep happening???

Congratulations Australia, you’ve done it again.

In the latest example of a high profile media personality casually engaging in some highly, highly, racist ‘banter’, the ABC’s Red Symons has conducted what can only be described as a deeply cooked radio interview with the host of the ABC’s new It’s Not A Race podcast, Beverley Wang.

It’s Not A Race launched last week and features guests including Stan Grant, Alice Pung, Robin DiAngelo and Faustina Agolley all talking about the current state of race relations in Australia.

Over the course of the 20 minute interview Symons asked Wang “What’s the deal with Asians?” and “Are you yellow?”, and appeared to defend a blackface sketch on his old program, Hey Hey It’s Saturday. 

An edited section of the interview first aired on Symons’ breakfast show on ABC Melbourne last Monday. During the introduction Symons indicates to Wang that he hasn’t listened to the podcast, before claiming it was “my idea”. When Wang questions whether a “podcast about contemporary race in Australia” was actually an idea Symons had, he responds by saying that his preferred name for a show like that is “What’s the deal with Asians?”.

Ooooooh boy.

Symons then follows up by actually asking Wang, “What’s the deal with Asians?” and “Are they all the same?”.

Ooooooh boy.

It sounds like it can’t get worse, but of course it does. Of course it does. Symons then asks Wang “Are you yellow?”, before suggesting that her name indicates her background is Chinese. Wang explains that her family background is Taiwanese, but describes herself as Canadian. Symons backs that up with “I’m more PRC [People’s Republic of China] than Taiwan.”

Just to reiterate, this was all from an edited section of a much longer interview. Despite the obvious bizarreness of these questions, Symons and his producers thought they were worth airing because….?

Yesterday It’s Not A Race uploaded the full, unedited interview between Symons and Wang.

If you thought the edited version was bad, well you are absolutely right, but it gets even worse:

Symons: “Do they speak Mandarin or Cantonese?”

Wang: “Who’s ‘they’?”

Symons: “The people in Taiwan”

Wang: “They speak Taiwanese and they speak Mandarin. And in Canada where I’m from, they speak English and French.”

Symons: “I knew that. You’re probably from the west coast of Canada.”

Wang: “Why do you think that, Red?”

Symons: “Because it’s closer to Asia.”

The first episode of It’s Not A Race discussed the infamous Hey Hey It’s Saturday blackface controversy where a troupe of Jackson Five impersonators wore black face paint, leading to guest judge Harry Connick Jr calling bullshit on Australia.

At the time Symons, a presenter on Hey Hey It’s Saturday, defended the blackface sketch. Here’s how the discussion went down between him and Wang:

Symons: “I remember thinking at the time that it had become uncomfortable because Harry Connick Jr felt most uncomfortable with someone wearing what is alleged to be blackface.”

Wang: “Why is it alleged to be blackface?”

Symons: “Well, because there was white face and there was brown face and there was black face. There was a variety of faces.”

Wang: “Sure, but it wasn’t ‘alleged’ blackface. The make-up is there. It’s definitely black make-up.”

Symons: “And there is apparently a blanket caveat against that?”

The reaction on social media was swift and brutal.

I’ll admit I have some pretty mixed views about the whole thing. First of all, I honestly had no idea Red Symons was an ABC radio personality. I figured he just sort of melted away after Hey Hey It’s Saturday was cancelled and was making a career from those weird 20 to One countdown shows. But no, it turns out he has one of the most prized radio gigs in the country. Cool stuff.

In terms of the interview itself, it’s obviously quite unhinged. Even accounting for Symons’ weird schtick, there doesn’t seem to be any point to it other than to be antagonistic towards the interview subject purely on the basis of their race, background and skin colour.

A lot of people have applauded Wang for remaining patient and calm throughout the whole thing. And there is no doubt she maintained her composure in way that I doubt many others could have.

But here’s the thing. As shocking as it might seem to hear Symons say this kind of stuff, it’s also not really that surprising. As writer and commentator Sunil Badami put it, “It happens all the time.”

White people might be in constant denial about Australia’s serious problem with race, but people of colour aren’t. The sort of stuff Symons was saying is par for the course when it comes to mainstream Australia. And no, it’s not just about “out of touch boomers”. It’s across the board.

Being constantly asked about your race, your background, your skin colour, your accent, your name, your religion and your lifestyle is just the shit we put up with when we’re going through life. It’s deeply unfortunate that someone in Symons’ position brought that level of uncomfortableness into a professional sphere and forced his colleague to put up with it, but sadly that’s not even all that surprising either.

And that’s what makes it even worse.