This all kind of kicked off after Thomas posted a picture of Coon Cheese to his Twitter, with the caption, "Hey Australia - are we still chill with this?" He's referring to the history of the word "coon" as an offensive racial slur against people with dark skin. You can read about the racist origins of this word and how it's been used here.
Soon after this post, a video started circulating of Thomas on a panel at a BingeFestevent at the Sydney Opera House in December 2016. Other people on the panel included the Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon, and comedians Celia Pacquola, Luke McGregor and Gretel Killeen.
When the subject of casting came up, Thomas talks about how "confronting" he found it. "The other thing about making a television show that I didn’t know about, that I found quite confronting, is that because you have to pick every person in the show, it’s like, 'Josh, what do you want the 7/11 worker to look like?'," he said.
"It’s like, 'Um. Do you make them Indian? Or is that offensive?' Or then, if you make them white—is that a bit like you’re lying, really?" Thomas created, starred, wrote and even sometimes directed his show Please Like Me, so if he wanted to, he'd have had literally very opportunity to cast POC actors beyond cliche roles as a "Chinese nerd" or an "Indian 7/11 attendant." It's a form of aversive racism that seems harmless, but absolutely isn't.
Dan Harmon then begins to speak about his U.S. perspective on diverse hiring practices, Thomas interjects, saying, "It’s easier in the States." We don't know what news Thomas is reading... but if that ongoing Black Lives Matter civil rights movement is anything to go by, it is not easier there.
He then goes on to say, "Finding people who have been given the same opportunities, where they then get to go and be great at acting, is really hard." He adds, "Where none of the other shows are hiring people who aren’t white, finding an experienced actor who isn’t white is really hard." Again... Thomas is literally a show creator and runner who could give people those "same opportunities." Plus, as many people have pointed out, if you think there's a lack of BIPOC talent in the Australian acting industry you're not looking at all.
While the internet might be quick to throw Thomas under the bus or label him a racist, the problem is a lot more subtle and pervasive than that. It's the hurtful pigeonholing, typecasting and laziness when it comes to how non-white characters are treated. It shouldn't be a choice between playing a 7/11 attendant or nothing at all. His attitude speaks to the continual walls BIPOC come up against when trying to break into the industry, and how they're held up by white people who keep hiring the same white faces.
It's also worth noting that one of the first things that happens in Please Like Me when Thomas' character begins dating an Indigenous man is that he's hyper-sexualised and there's a light-hearted joke about violence towards Indigenous people... so uh, make of that what you will.
Thomas has since posted an apology, stating: "There is a clip circulating on Twitter of me on a panel a few years ago talking about diversity casting, and in it I am being a really dumb, gross, illogical, insensitive idiot and it's gross. I'm super ashamed of the comments I made, and would like to apologise." He concludes the statement saying he's committed to doing better.
Listening and re-educating ourselves is some of the most important anti-racism work we can do. Here's hoping Thomas is ready to get down to it.