Sudanese Australians have been misrepresented in the media as “criminal[s]” and the enforcers of gang brutality, falsely rendering them “(unable) to settle successfully in Australia” (Nunn 2010, p. 183-185). The Sudanese community in Australia, particularly Victoria, is generally portrayed in media forms such as journalism and social media as the perpetrators of youth violence and are the victims of discrimination, racial stereotyping, and profiling. In addition to misrepresentation in the news and media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, there is also a lack of portrayal of black Australians in television and film. Through media discourse, stereotyping, and exclusion, Sudanese Australians are being misrepresented and underrepresented in the media, leading to harmful and dangerous repercussions within the community.
Australia is known as a safe haven for refugees in times when one’s own country is anguished with war, famine, and natural disasters. According to the Refugee Council of Australia, the majority of the South Sudanese people now living in Australia arrived between 2001 and 2006 in midst of the Sudanese civil war, prior to the nation declaring its independence. Since then, Sudanese Australians have been stereotyped in all forms of media as gangsters, criminals, and dangerous people. This research report aims to inform, step-by-step, how the Australian media persecutes and typecasts the Sudanese community within Australia through print journalism, social media, and film and television.
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Journalism: Stereotypes and False Narratives
Since becoming the “fastest-growing community in Australia” (Khawaja & Milner 2010, p. 1) in 2010, Sudanese refugees have faced much criticism and prejudice in the media. Big news corporations and the media elite are able to set agendas and narratives through print media and journalism to manipulate the population’s ideologies and ideas. Through a study of the three major newspapers in Victoria, Nolan et al. identified that while what was found cannot be labeled “overtly racist,” “a particular image emerges which is at odds with the image of the dominant white group in Australia” (2010 p. 11). The research found that the main two repetitive themes in these newspapers when discussing Sudanese Australians were nationhood— “what it means to be Australian”— and violence. As some parts of society are progressing past the ‘white is right’ narrative, the media has to be more careful to disguise their emphasis on race and desire for segregation and separation in society. Racist discourse now exists as “subtler, flexibly managed and locally contingent discussions of problems associated with minority groups” (Simmons & Lecouteur, 2008, p. 667). In response, Australian media looks at black Australians as different and not entirely Australian.
Othering refers to the ideological process in which those who are not of the same race or ethnic group of the dominant culture in a community are perceived as different and unlike the status quo. Udah and Sing argue that these othering practices “make it harder for ethnically and racially marked people in Australia to feel belong[ing]” (2019, p. 843-859). As well as media organizations and platforms, those in high positions of power in Australia also use their standing to imply that black individuals are “[violent] and affray” (Karp 2018). In 2018, Australian prime minister at the time Malcolm Turnball said that Sudanese gangs were a “real concern” in Melbourne, stereotyping an entire community of people. This resulted in rallies and protests of Australians, particularly African Australians, angry at the racist commentary.
Major media like print journalism and political agendas misrepresent the Sudanese community in Australia, portraying them as criminals, gangsters and so uncivilized that they cannot live in Australia in the aim to push them out of the ‘ideal’ Australian narrative.
Social Media: Internalisation and Redistribution
Additionally, society then mimics and internalizes the views that they are being taught through mainstream media and redistributes the agendas on their own social media platforms. Nolan et al. makes an important point that journalism and print media “influence[s] how Sudanese people come to be seen and treated by other Australians” (2010, p. 3).
With the advancements of the internet and social media came a huge new space for “significant numbers of ultra-conservative and radically supremacist groups and individuals” (Jakubowicz 2017, p. 45). In combination with this, social media allowed for “direct interaction between the content creator and its audience” (Ng & Vega 2017, p. 3701), leading to less censorship and a much wider opportunity for voices to be heard. Racists in Australia do not only base their views on the fact that “corruption (and violence are) main features of the society” (Ismail 2011 p. 44) in Sudan, but rather their own findings from the media produced and distributed here in Australia. In Australia, the label ‘African gangs’ aims to “criminalize [an] entire racial group: [black people] of African descent” (Majavu 2018 p. 30-31). The mass media purposefully sends audiences into fits of hysteria as they will then be more responsive to the demonizing of minority racial groups. McQuail says that whilst learning through media, the receiver does so in an “incidental, unplanned and unconscious” way whilst the senders (being the media) take a “planned and deliberate role in social development” (2012, p. 13). Further, in a study conducted by Hill and Jagiello, it was found that the more people spread information, the less factual it becomes (2018, p. 2193-2207). Hill says that “the more people share information, the further that information gets from the facts and the more resilient it becomes to correction.”
Overall, this negative media coverage of Sudanese Australians creates “significant public and political discourse regarding the belonging” of people in the community (Deppeler and Macaulay 2020, p. 214). On the surface, social media appears to be a platform in which the greater society can create and distribute their own ideas and ideologies but really, what society is doing is redistributing the views and philosophies of mass media.
Film and Television: Exclusion and the ‘White Australia’ Pretence
The lack of representation of Sudanese Australians and, in extension, people of color in Australian film and television puts forward the perception that people of color firstly, do not belong in Australia and secondly, do not exist in Australia at all.
Australia’s racist history of the Stolen Generation and the White Australia Policy still follows in today’s impressions of multicultural Australia. The White Australia policy was a “national policy in the 1970s following contentious immigration policies designed to limit the entry of non-white immigrants” (Moran 2020 p. 474). Australia’s dismissal of people of color, particularly African Australians, is evident through the lack of representation in Australian cinema. Actors in Australian television and film are predominantly white, giving no representation to the multicultural and diverse people of the country. In fact, Anglo-Celtic white people make up two-thirds of Australia, yet over 80 percent of characters of television are white.
Film and television media are pushing people of color to the sidelines by trying to depict Australia to audiences as a white nation. Nigerian-born Catherine Bassey thought that she would “stand out” as a black woman in Australia due to her misconceptions of the diversity in the country from watching soap operas like Home and Away (Vatsikopoulos 2016 p. 37).
Underrepresentation in film and television leads to significant disadvantages to those communities affected which stays with them their entire lives. Anderson et al. identifies that “we form ideas and act based on the information we ingest through media every day,” so to not see people who look like you in movies or on television is damaging and changes our “perceptions of ourselves” (2016 p. 39). In 2011, an American study found that not seeing yourself represented in the media you grow up with leads to a decrease in self-esteem and a negative image of self-worth (Harrison and Martine, 2012 p. 338). By only seeing themselves in the media as criminals and associated with gangs, Sudanese youth are at risk for adopting health-compromising behaviors, such as alcohol… and drug abuse” (p. 339) caused by low self-esteem. These behavior correlate with the exact same stereotypes that Sudanese Australians are faced with which leads to a cycle of destruction within the community.
Misrepresentation and underrepresentation work together to create stereotypes and prejudices against minority groups in Australia. Sudanese Australians are one of the major race groups who are slandered and persecuted by the media —particularly journalism and news media, but also through social media, film, and television. Sudanese youth are at risk for low self-esteem and self-hatred whilst living in Australia because of the narratives formed around them labeling them criminals, gangsters, and violent people. Australia needs to progress past the white Australian ideals which the country has been aiming towards for so long. Australia is an incredibly multicultural and diverse country with nearly half of Australians having parents born overseas. Society needs to stop believing in everything said in the media as much of what the big organizations do is to spread false agendas and contain bigger voices and non-white voices from being heard.
Writer Ella Paine Studying Media and Communications, Swinburne University of Technology, Australia
- Anderson, D, Hardy, G, Ng, R & Weiner, F 2016, ‘Diversity in Australian Media: Production, Content & Representation’, Australian Mosaic, p. 39.
- Australian Human Rights Commission 2015, Face the facts: Cultural Diversity, Australian Human Rights Commission, viewed 4 February 2021, < https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/education/face-facts-cultural-diversity#:~:text=Australia%20is%20a%20vibrant%2C%20multicultural,one%20of%20our%20greatest%20strengths.>.
- Business Standard 2018, ‘Bad news becomes hysteria in crowds: Study’, Business Standard, 10 June, viewed 4 February 2021, <https://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/bad-news-becomes-hysteria-in-crowds-study-118061000244_1.html>.