British Columbia

Everyday racism: Canadian artists discuss minority representation in film and media

As part of On The Coast's series on racism, host Stephen Quinn sat down with three local artists to hear how they've experienced racism in the arts and entertainment sector, and what they're doing to to change that.

Three Vancouver-based artists share their personal experiences of discrimination in film and television

On the Coast's Everyday Racism series hosted a panel on representation in media. Left to right: Omari Newton, Agnes Tong and Kashif Pasta. (Liam Britten)

What's it like to be a black actor and be told to sound "more urban?"

Or to be cast in the same, stereotypical roles of "South Asian store clerk" or "Chinese restaurant owner," over and over?

"The first credit on my resume is literally 'slave number two,'" said Omari Newton, a black Canadian actor and co-chair of the Union of B.C. Performers' diversity and inclusivity committee.

Newton was joined by Agnes Tong, a Chinese-Canadian actress and Kashif Pasta, the South Asian-Canadian creative director of Dunya Media, for a panel discussion on representation of minorities in Canadian film and television with On the Coast host Stephen Quinn.

Agnes, for you, did you find yourself getting pegged into the sorts of roles that Chinese-Canadian people get stereotyped for?

It was always amazing, the discussions I would have with my agent about what range of characters that I feel comfortable playing — and that she believes I'm able to play — and then the reality of what I actually get called in for, which would be "Asian gangster girlfriend," "waitress," "drug-dealer girlfriend" and these types of stereotypes.

Kashif, to you. You started up your own media company. Did you do that out of necessity?

Yeah, somewhat. It's kind of a recognition of going, "Well maybe we don't need the permission of a certain group of gatekeepers, maybe there's a way to circumvent that at this point."

We could be really downtrodden about it but, at the same time, it's a market opportunity and if the powers that be want to sleep on that opportunity, that's fine. 

I'll take the time to develop it and own that market in the meantime.

And for you Agnes?

I do a lot of stage as well, which, as with dance, has more openness to blind casting.

I was able to play Sleeping Beauty and this little Asian girl at the show came up to me after. Her mother told me that she looked in the program and said, "Oh look, the princess looks like me."

Omari, have you ever been surprised by a role you've been cast for where you went "Wow, I didn't get stereotyped for that at all?"

Two of the biggest successes of my career — I did a series called Blue Mountain State and another one called Continuum — neither of those roles specified race.

On one of them I was a goofy sidekick football player and the other one I was an engineer — he was like the brains of the TV show.

Agnes, what are we missing if we don't push to get more diversity into film and television?

Pretty basic evolution, and seeing the reflection of actual communities. [Also], just real stories, and that we're all human and it doesn't matter what race we are.

Omari, what do you think we're missing?

I'm going to speak the universal language of money right now.

The number one film in America [recently] was Get Out. The number one franchise was the The Fast and the Furious, which has one of the most diverse casts — and that plays into the appeal.

So I'm not even going to talk from a Do-the-Right-Thing standpoint. I'm saying, if you want to make money, show people on screen who represent the population that exists — then people will go see it.

​This interview has been condensed for clarity. To hear the full conversation hosted by CBC Radio One's Stephen Quinn, listen below.