Rethinking multiculturalism

26 November 2014 | Posted In: 123 – Summer 2014/15, CALD Communities, Planning for People and Social Issues, | Author: Bill Yan

Rethinking Multiculturalism

Bill Yan faces his own racism and asks us to do likewise as he asks some provocative questions about multiculturalism. What do we need to do to ensure multiculturalism works for everyone especially minority communities?

multicultural graphic

 “Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned… Everything is war. Me say war. That until there is no longer 1st class and 2nd class citizens of any nation… Until the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes, Me say war. That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race Me say war!” ~ Haile Selassie; the last emperor of the Ethiopian monarchy.

My name is Bill Yan. I am a racist; a conscious racist. I come with my own cultural and family upbringing and my personal biases – I understand most of these. I am conscious also that I am being manipulated by the daily media into stereotyping people and in using this media lens and my upbringing in my daily dealings with people. I also happen to be a manager of a multicultural neighbourhood centre. I had thought long and hard about writing this.

I want to think a little outside the box, I do not wish to just review policies and regurgitate theories. I want to purposely exaggerate some points raised from the ‘pessimistic’ side of my psyche. In doing so I want to emphasise that this article does not embody my whole belief and philosophy on the issue of multiculturalism. Hopefully it makes you think more about what we mean by multiculturalism.

Most cities in the world today are multicultural, however, the reality in most countries is a regularly “racialised” democracy; that is they have a dominant race overseeing their political, planning and other institutions. In the tradition of the “The White Man’s Burden” most of these countries (Australia included), are living in an unclear post-colonial context that time and again confuses the seemingly noble intentions of multiculturalism with the reality that the dominant race is doing most of the planning that dictates the terms of engagement for the minority or emerging multicultural citizen.

Here lies the problem. How does the dominant race understand the cultural heritage and nuances of its minority citizens? What sense of belonging or alienation might this majority defined multicultural framework generate in the society?

The simple fact is that in order to act within multicultural cities, we must understand ‘difference’. Intercultural contact and interaction within a multicultural society is an essential condition for being able to address the inevitable conflicts that arise in any multicultural society.

While I do appreciate our current multicultural policy provides guidance for our expectations and behaviour, I want to be purposefully harsh here in my evaluation in order to incite further discussion and reflection.

As an ideology, multiculturalism has a multiplicity of meanings for different people. Yet, the common understanding in the sociological content is that multiculturalism was formulated as a set of policies for the host/dominant race/nation to accommodate/control the minor race or immigrants.

In a lot of our policy, especially those dealing in multiculturalism, we tend not to include the narratives of our history such as our colonial past. We also do not like to be reminded of our post-colonial dominant “White Australia” racist hangover.

Policy instruments seem to dance around phrases such as ‘shared sense of belonging’, ‘core social values’ and the like. Who then decides and takes the lead in articulating such visions I wonder? Governments, organisations and individuals at different levels try to impose their ideas in creating activities and multicultural opportunities such as Harmony Day. Every now and then there is a blunder or a pushback that redefines the issue of multiculturalism. It almost always feels like the majority group needs to adjust to the minority groups; the idea which requires the majority ‘them’ to accept the minority ‘our’ way of life. However, I do not think this should be the case.

One classic instance was when David Blunkett, the 2001 Home Secretary under the Blair government in the UK, was quoted as saying after Britain’s experience of ‘race riots’ in three cities; “We have norms of acceptability and those who come into our home – for that is what is it – should accept those norms”. His words exemplify the view that immigrants/minority races are guests in the host/dominant race nation and must conduct themselves by obeying the rules in the way their host/dominant race want them to behave. Still, more importantly, inherent in such remarks is that there is only one right way and that it is the duty and obligation of the migrants/minor race to learn how to fit in. Is this then what multiculturalism should look like? Clearly for me the answer is NO.

Maybe what we are striving for is the opposite – a sense of indifference towards others and otherness; which includes showing respect, or self-preservation, not intruding on other people’s space or needing to pick up new rules when you migrate to another city. But still this is not what multiculturalism is about especially in the 21st century.

Some people might even think that the notion of multiculturalism as discussed thus far is passé because it is too limiting in the range of identities it permits. What might once have been a good idea seems to no longer be relevant; in fact as discussed here it can be downright divisive in today’s globalised world.

Few countries have embraced and institutionalised a working ideology of multiculturalism, Australia is one that has tried to do so. It started in the late 1960s to a certain degree and in 1973 the Whitlam government officially ended the White Australia policy. It was all good for a while, but new thinking in a later years and new groups of “otherness”, immigrants needing to be assimilated, threw up new challenges.

Thus, I think we need a continuous questioning and debate about our own individual identity, what are our shared values and common citizenship as part of the process of building cohesive communities in what we deemed our multicultural society.

To me, and many others I believe, a sense of belonging in a multicultural society cannot be based on any one race or ethnicity. It needs to be based on a shared commitment to community and such a commitment requires the entire citizenry to be empowered – especially minority groups.

If multiculturalism is to remain a relevant social concept for the multi-ethnic cities in Australia of the 21st century, each of us will need to start looking inward and reflecting. We will need to be true to ourselves in professing what we do not like about another culture in our society. Then, we must make an effort to try and learn from and about that culture. We need to try their food, visit their places of worship (with permission), read their religious texts, read their history and talk to someone from that culture about the myths and preconceptions of their culture and so on. The simple acts listed above can easily debunk our prejudices of a culture or at the very least help us to understand and box-in aspects that we really do not like about the culture rather than condemning the entire race or culture.

Yes, we need to be active participants in order to really comprehend a culture and challenge our own preconceptions. We cannot take the short cut of relying on what others say about another culture as this will likely be influenced by their own preconceptions and prejudices rather than deal with our own.

I believe we all know and understand that racism is not a destination but a perpetual journey that feeds on ignorance and fear. In the spirit of Haile Selassie, I hope we will be saying war on ourselves until we eradicate racism within ourselves and that we believe in basic human rights being equal.

Some of the views in this article were adapted from “Rethinking Multiculturalism for the 21st Century” by Leonie Sandercock (2003). This is a useful book to help explore some of these issues further than is possible in a brief article.

Bill Yan is a Malaysian born Chinese and is the Executive Officer at South Sydney Community Aid Multicultural Neighbourhood Centre

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