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‘Why not race?’: Beverley Wang on the hunger for her hit ABC podcast

The way she tells it, Beverley Wang fell into journalism and sort of tripped into broadcasting.

After a career spent in print and production, Wang, as host of the ABC’s It’s Not a Race podcast, has found herself behind one of the national broadcaster’s highest-profile offerings. A community has built up around her work, which discusses race in modern Australia with thoughtfulness and a voice that assuredly does not know all the answers. It is honest about the contradictions of its own purpose – one episode on the question “Is Australia racist?” concludes that it actually just doesn’t matter.

Born and raised in Vancouver, Wang has a degree in semiotics and a background in daily print news, where race and podcasting were mostly absent. She studied journalism in New York after 9/11, the city still in crisis mode, then was posted by Associated Press to New England where she reported on murders, the Vermont same-sex marriage debate and state politics. She covered the 2008 New Hampshire presidential primary, where she watched Hillary Clinton win, and once made eye contact with Barack Obama in a local restaurant.

It wasn’t until she moved to Australia in 2009 that she entered radio. She was a casual writer for the ABC’s now-defunct Radio Australia when someone said they needed a producer. “I got about two days of training in how to produce live radio, then I was off,” she says – making a three-hour, nightly rolling news show.

She became a producer on Waleed Aly’s drive program in Melbourne and, by 2012, was executive producer of the show, which was by 2015 hosted by her close friend Patricia Karvelas. The next year Wang saw an opportunity come up and pitched a podcast about race to the ABC.

“Why race? I mean, why not race? In Australia, I think so much hunger for this kind of material is out there. People are incredibly hungry to talk. We [non-white Australians] have an expectation of not being reflected but, if you’re white and you’re privileged, you never have to look for yourself.”

She is keen to point to the work others have done on race. “I never want to act like I created this genre because there are a lot of people who have been labouring in this area for many, many years.”

Despite this fact, Wang has found herself becoming a face of race discussion; a lightning rod for those eager to talk and those eager to see the conversation stop. Her Twitter account bears the phrase “not your personal race whisperer” because, in the early days of the podcast, she found herself fielding incredibly specific questions from people on all matters tangentially related to race and identity.

“Someone wrote me a very long message asking what they should think about the fact that two African students in his university lecture wore wigs,” she says. “He said they were very obviously wigs and asked what he should think about them. I just looked at it and I thought, ‘You know what? They don’t have any thoughts about what you think about their wigs. Don’t worry about it.’”

Talking openly about race in Australia has touched a nerve.

“We get our share of complaints,” she says. “Emails saying Beverley Wang should be sacked and should apologise to the ABC for making a terrible program like this.”

She says she was even targeted by a far-right nationalist organisation with a “menacing” email that said, “We need to meet and sort this out.”

“It just goes to show you that talking about race and identity hits at the core of so many people. We get social media comments like, ‘Why are you so obsessed with race? There’s only one race: human.’ That’s a classic one.”

While she appreciates the sentiment, Wang – and many others – says this kind of criticism misses the point.

“I actually didn’t invent the concepts of racial categories or racism but they are actually real and we deal with them and they have profound impacts. It’s lovely that you think there is only one race … but, in reality, racism is real so this is why we’re here.”

Almost as cosmic proof, on the eve of her fourth episode, Wang entered the ABC Melbourne studio to endure a maddening interview from the then breakfast show host, Red Symons, that was so rude it was cut from broadcast and later taken down online.

The interview was widely reported and prompted an official apology. Symons, an ABC colleague hosting Wang for a promo spot for her show’s first season, began by telling her he didn’t like her podcast because “he had the idea first”.

“You had the idea first?” she said.

“Yeah, but my podcast was called ‘What’s the deal with Asians?’”

In the course of the interview, Symons also forgot her name (calling her Jenny), asked “Are you yellow?” and pursued a baffling segment where he said her birth name was “Chrysanthemum flower”.

In that 10-minute exchange was an experience that many migrants would have known well: the stomach-churning realisation that yes, this is happening to you again; the management of anger; the commitment to open, cheerful engagement in the hope that maybe a mind could be changed.

While Wang will not discuss what happened between her and Symons, when pressed she talks about her experience of racism generally (something “pretty standard for someone who isn’t Anglo”) and the conundrum of choice that always faces the victim.

“Sometimes you get praised for, ‘You responded to that racism in such a classy way, good on you.’ And I think that’s great but equally it is totally valid to tell someone off if they’re being racist to you. It’s totally OK if your response is, ‘Go to hell.’”

It’s an issue Wang says she has become more comfortable with as she has become older. Conversations about race are difficult but part of why she entered the arena is that she believes, in podcasting, she has found “the format to fit the conversation”.

“I think there’s something about the intimacy of a podcast – you’re on your own, you have your earbuds in, it’s your time to listen to what you want to listen to. I have a feeling that we wouldn’t make a daily or weekly radio show only about race.”

In making It’s Not a Race, Wang, who is aware of being a relatively new migrant to Australia, says she has learned a lot herself about Indigenous Australia and the unique, complex experience of whiteness in this country.

“No culture, race or ethnicity is a monolith. I get a lot of responses from people from Mediterranean and eastern European backgrounds who say they relate to a lot of stories that we tell. They feel like they have grown outside, they have that really strong immigrant connection.”

She also considers Indigenous issues the “unique, founding racialised experience in Australia”.

“Something I really learned is that the Aboriginal Australian story is really central. We are not telling the full story unless we speak to Aboriginal people as well. I think the more you talk to people and learn you really see how it is the intractable core issue at the heart of Australia. That’s been huge for me to learn about.”

This year Wang will be even busier. She is now setting up Stop Everything, a new pop culture show on Radio National that she will produce and present alongside Benjamin Law and Dr Lauren Rosewarne.

“We’re obviously going to have fun with it but we are going to be girding that with analysis and big questions,” she says. “Pop culture isn’t disposable. We are swimming in pop culture. Race is a part of pop culture. Everything. We can’t get away from it.”

She is thinking of ways to keep It’s Not a Race sustained – with events or Facebook Live broadcasts, perhaps – and doesn’t want to give up the community the podcast has established. The show’s second season finale, released last month, was a live recording in Melbourne with a panel of all-star guests.

“It was incredible to look out on that stage and be like, ‘Wow, we built this.’ This was a Google Doc in 2016 and at the end of 2017 I’m standing on a stage with three incredible panellists looking at a crowd of enthused, engaged people who bothered to come out. It makes me want to cry a little bit.”

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