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How Podcaster Beverley Wang is Opening Up the Discussion on Race

Radio National host traces path from globe-trotting studies to unflinching ‘It’s Not a Race’ series.

Beverley Wang’s discussions of culture and identity on ABC Radio National’s It’s Not A Race are frank and intimate. Curating stories from persons of colour, Wang hones in on soft and structural biases and calls out Australian racism for what it is.

After serving as Radio National Drive’s Executive Producer, in 2016, Wang challenged herself to pitch a podcast by the end of the year. The result was a production about race and culture that tapped into Australia’s multicultural consciousness and resonated with people across the country.

For our Women of the Future series, we spoke to Wang about growing up in Vancouver under the fog of Cobainian influence, how her parents’ political awakening drove her sense of justice and freedom of expression, and a universal hunger for Australian content that features stories by and for POCs.

Can you tell me about how you decided to become a journalist?
I wish I could say something loftier — but I think it was a combination of being good at writing, wanting to tell stories and not really taking advice from anyone about what other options there were around me. In high school, [I was] like an angry, 90s, grunge teenager, seeing all the injustice in the world. I grew up in Vancouver right, so that was like the height of grunge — Nirvana, Pearl Jam, really wide leg jeans. I went to an elite private school, but my family wasn’t rich. My parents were busting their butts to pay this tuition and meanwhile I was going to school with girls who had a holiday house in California and a ski chalet. So I think because of that, it made me see difference and divisions, and I wanted to highlight that.

Then after university, I went to Japan to teach English and while I was there I applied to go to journalism school at New York University in 2002. The post-911 backdrop was strong. Even as a student, we would be sent out to cover the one year anniversary of 9/11. We went to the site and there was a giant gaping hole and the big iron scaffolding cross that everyone knows from photographs.

At that point, were you politically inclined? Did you want to talk about bigger issues?
As a classic news reporting journalist, you’re not supposed to have a political opinion. I think that’s changing, but it was, and is still, very indoctrinated in me. My parents, particularly my dad, was very outspoken and passionate about Taiwanese independence. I think that instilled in me an interest in justice, in democracy, in freedom of speech and expression. My parents were immigrants and came to Canada in the 1970s, and went through their own political awakening — understanding that Taiwanese people were oppressed. You basically absorb the ideology of your parents, right, so all of our siblings grew up with a sense of a love for Taiwan and a need for Taiwan to be recognised as an independent nation, which is contested to this day. I think there was this passion and this sense of justice there, but I can’t pinpoint an exact time.

What was the kernel from which It’s Not A Race developed?
I felt like I was coming to a point where I needed to challenge myself to do other skills. ‘Cos as an EP your role is to facilitate and to shape, and to craft, it’s definitely not centreing yourself. So I felt like it was a career thing. I hadn’t really come to a point in my time here [at RN] where I felt confident in pitching something, or even having an idea of what I wanted to go with. But as a person of colour, I think, well a lot of us, we do want to talk about issues of race and identity. It’s such a recurring, universal thing. I don’t think the individual idea of having a podcast about race is like – in one sense people say it is revolutionary because the conversation is itself a political act, but on the other hand, it’s such an obvious thing to talk about, it shouldn’t be such a big deal.

I think one of the reasons it is a big deal in Australia particularly  and you touched on this really well in the podcast — is because people don’t accept that Australia is a racist country.
Yeah. That really struck me coming here in 2009. I remember I saw one of the commercial news tickers saying that a prominent POC had never experienced racism in Australia, and therefore that racism doesn’t exist in this country. I felt like I was the only person in the room who felt confused, and even paused to look at that and be like, ‘what is that as an item of news?’. I’ve always had the idea that I want to talk about race. I wanted to push myself and force myself to see if I could do something new and different because it was important for me at that time in my career to give myself a bit of a kick.

Before you mentioned you didn’t have the confidence to pitch an idea at RN, was there something about this time around that was different?
I think I was at a point where I had more confidence in my abilities, and more shape to how I wanted to put things in the pitch. There seems to be a different conversation at the moment. Maybe that’s not entirely true, but in the main, I think there is a shift to being more receptive to who is allowed to speak and who do we consider to be someone that we want to have helming a project, and what kind of stories and conversations are there a greater appetite for. I made a resolution to myself where I was like ‘you must pitch a series idea before the end of 2016 because that’s what you need to do for yourself’. But I think there’s something in the air right now for Australia, a more welcoming appetite to these kinds of stories.

Being on Radio National, is there an element of preaching to the choir?
I think there’s a stereotype of a RN [Radio National] listener that’s partly true and partly untrue. Working at RN Drive, I see the flood of feedback we get coming through on social media and on the text lines. It’s eye opening because the person you think is stereotypical Radio National listener isn’t. There are lots of regional people, there are people with really conservative politics, there are a lot of people who text in saying really ugly things; it’s not just lefty, lovey, liberal types — inner city bicycle riders. Although that is a stereotype that I would say to a certain extent is true. As a person who works here, I think my idea of what a RN listener is is probably different from what the stereotype of a RN listener is, it’s much much broader.

Are you finding reception from places where you wouldn’t necessarily have thought people would be receptive?
When the series launched, I was really overwhelmed with the number of POC Australians who were commenting on Twitter how happy they were that this series existed. That was really positive, and really wonderful even from a personal perspective. A lot of young Australian POC are getting in touch, and really happy and grateful for the podcast, to the point where I feel a bit sad. It’s really wonderful but it’s bittersweet that one podcast is making people feel this way, because we should have so much more already. The other thing too is that a lot of white people have written in, with really interesting messages like, ‘I find your podcast really uncomfortable to listen to, but I forced myself to persist, and I have to stop and ask myself why it makes me really uncomfortable,’ and I’m like, ‘wow, it’s just a podcast,’ but if a podcast can make somebody think and feel that way, then that’s just extraordinary. And of course you know, I get a lot of weird messages as well. Bizarre requests, a lot of critiques. I’m not enough for some people, I’m too much for others. That’s an inevitable part of the territory. It can’t just be a really well produced podcast that happens to be about race, the fact that it’s about race outweighs everything, for them. I don’t know where I fall, because as a maker I think we also feel really proud about how we make it.

I wanted to ask you about the podcast as a form; do you think that’s one of the reasons why it has reached so many people?
I sometimes have a tug of war about it because as a journalist who has had ‘don’t put your feelings into it’ indoctrinated into me so much, I think the podcast form is more intimate. I think the expectation of the listener is that the host actually gives something of themself. At the same, I do want to keep this kind of distance, and I think sometimes when people write to me and express disappointment in me, it’s maybe that they’re seeing that I’m not being as much of an overt ally and advocate as they expect. But I also don’t really feel like it’s my job to push issues. I think I’m there to listen and be empathetic, and locate myself in the conversation so listeners can locate themselves, but I’m not necessarily there to tell people what to think. I’m not there to tell them what to think at all.

Top photo: Beverley Wang. Credit: Leah Jing.

This article is part of our Women of the Future series, featured in issue #793 (available now).