Actress Sharon Johal: At Every Given Opportunity, I’ll Keep Speaking for Those Who Can’t
POPSUGAR Australia is dedicating the month of October to featuring the next generation of inspired thinkers and courageous individuals who are building and manifesting a brighter future — because the next gen is unstoppable. We will deliver personal essays from young Australians who are making a name for themselves, as well as inspiring thought pieces and interviews with rising talent across different industries throughout the month. Find all of our pieces here and if there’s someone you think is missing, email our editor so we can share their story — [email protected].
Embodying what you want the world to be. This is something I strive for daily, in every action and experience, pleasant or uncomfortable. It’s not easy. In fact, it’s incredibly hard. I’ve lived it. I’m tired. I’m fatigued. Exhausted in fact. But we go in, and we must continue.
I am just an ordinary girl of heart and mind. To many, I am considered the lowliest of minorities (minus being cis). I am a woman. I am a woman of colour. I am the daughter of middle-class immigrant parents living in regional Australia, yet I understand my privilege.
I am lucky enough to live in a country where I have the ability to speak up without persecution. I have been afforded the privilege that my ancestors were not, of choices, freedoms and what you may consider “basic” (human) rights, yet those not afforded to everyone. I was allowed one step further. The right to dream. And my dream as a little girl growing up in a conservative immigrant household was to be an actor on TV! In a space where there was no one like me, in a country where I did not “fit in”.
To be honest, I never really knew or thought I was different until it was told to me, through the eyes, mouths and actions of the majority, where I was the minority. Being called “brownie” at school in a predominantly “white” school, not being picked for games, boys not asking me out, all of that. People said direct and casually racist things to my family and I regularly but I put it down to being brought up in an ignorant country town. When these things happened, I’d get embarrassed, hate myself and the skin I was in and then swiftly sweep the experience under the rug to forget it ever happened. I just needed to “get out” of that town and get to the city.
The acting ambition was not an overnight epiphany. I organised “concerts” at my house for the neighbourhood from the age of five. I’m the middle child so in true middle child form I was vying for the attention of my parents, but perhaps it was more than that. I think there was an element of escapism from my repressed, strict and conservative childhood. I remember sitting in my room for hours feeling helpless and stuck in “that life”, dreaming of a life that wasn’t mine. I wasn’t allowed sleepovers, boyfriends, the freedom to wear makeup or dress how I wanted. The pathway my parents heavily entailed was “school, university, doctor/dentist/lawyer, marriage, children, the end”. So I picked law, the closest profession out of the three to acting, with a mastermind plan that I would “just do” what my parents wanted so I, could “just do” what I wanted.
Cue moving to Adelaide and undertaking my law and commerce degree at the University of Adelaide. Whilst my mother moved with my siblings and I (we couldn’t escape their strict parenting) the world felt like it was opening up for me. I deployed my plan and enrolled in an acting school behind my parents back, paying for it by cutting fruit in the summer holidays in 40-degree heat in tin sheds. Those acting classes were the only time I felt alive.
Then I got caught. By my mum. Outside class. When she yelled at me in front of my peers. It was so embarrassing. So I laid low for a few months and started back up again auditioning once or twice in those years at law school.
You see, law school was my “backup” plan, I thought I’d “make it” as an actor well before I finished the double degrees. But that didn’t happen, because there were no opportunities for people like me with brown skin. The lack of diversity on Australian screens was startling and undeniable. I attributed some of the lack of opportunity to living in the small town of Adelaide. So I moved. To Melbourne, for a fresh start, further acting study and potentially land my dream role in TV. Years on, it didn’t happen. So I gave up and moved to Sydney because it was all too painful. I felt like a failure.
Fast forward another few years and it happened. I got my role on Australia’s longest-running TV show, the first Punjabi Indian to do it, and just like that, I broke down a barrier for others like me.
Honestly, despite it being a part of my cultural identity, I forget I’m brown until someone reminds me. My work reminds me. I see in scripts, how I am described on paper as “Indian, 25-35” and then within the language, storyline and stereotypes of my characters. This happened on Neighbours to an extent, but sadly worse, I was subjected to direct, casual and arguably systemic racism. I’d never felt more like I “didn’t belong”.
I went through appropriate channels provided to me to make things better. That didn’t work. I left the show due to these issues and more, needing time to heal from the experience. But then something happened. Earlier this year, Aboriginal actors working on the show spoke publicly about being subjected to racism on set. Unfathomable to me, they were not supported and stood alone.
I was then approached by multiple media outlets to convey my own experience on the show, being the most recently departed and longest standing person of colour. Concerned about how the media would handle any information given to them, I decided to release a public statement written in my own words providing a roadmap forward so others “like me” could work in a culturally safe environment. I didn’t sleep for a week it was so painful and as an advocate of equality generally, I felt a moral obligation to support these First Nations actors in publicly in sharing my own experiences, to the detriment of my own career.
This has been the hardest thing I’ve had to endure in my life to date. The resulting internal investigation I was repeatedly asked to participate in “to help” has involved days and weeks of my heavy involvement and has re-traumatised me on so many levels and worse, it is still ongoing, seven months after the fact.
I’ve been isolated by the people I worked with, arguably black listed in the industry, hung out to dry and perhaps most disappointingly, in the year 2021, people (some who I considered “friends”) who witnessed the racism have refused or minimised their involvement, putting their own needs first. Whilst I originally participated in the investigation to help others and ensure that no-one went through what we did, I hurt myself significantly during the process. Do I have faith in the outcome of the investigation? Honestly, given my experience and the conduct to date, the answer would have to be no. Yet we persevere.
Why? Because we must. When we see injustice we must stand up and speak out. The time has gone where we do not participate, we must get involved and exercise our social conscience in this generation, and beyond. Post BLM, we are hearing of “racism fatigue” and people “not wanting to hear about it” (interesting from people that it doesn’t affect). I see the “eyerolls” when I speak about this. I’m fatigued too. I’d love for this “not to be a thing”.
Diversity and inclusivity isn’t just taking about it. It’s about embracing and enacting it, and for me, that’s one acting role at a time. But this is a destiny I cannot achieve on my own. I need help. I must be given the opportunity to work. To be culturally safe at work. I don’t want perks. I just want the same opportunities as everyone else and I want that for everyone else too because I believe, and have always believed, in equality for ALL – in race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. These are basic human rights.
I never thought about how I was going to “change the game” in my life, all I know now is that I have no choice but to. When unwanted things happen to us, it doesn’t define us, but we cannot sweep these things under the rug, we must respond. I suppose that’s my legacy. Rest assured, at every given opportunity on-the-job or off, I’ll continue to speak for those who can’t, and keep fighting the good fight for you.
Sharon is an Australian actress of Indian heritage, lawyer, podcast host and equality advocate. She played Dipi Rebecchi on Neighbours for over four years, recently finished shooting feature film “A Girl at the Window” and is currently filming a television series. You can follow her on Instagram.
POPSUGAR Australia reached out to Fremantle for comment but had not received a response at the time of publication.