Friday, May 8, 2009

The closed mind of the multiculturalist

Recently SBS showed a program where Emily, a waiter in a small town, expressed some views regarding multiculturalism. Rather then trying to understand Emily’s point of view, she was presented as being na├»ve and having a small town mentality. More on Emily later.

To people who support multiculturalism, Australian culture is all about diversity, where different races and cultures come together in a united way to form a wonderful society. When this belief of a multicultural utopia is challenged, the default behaviour is to label the challengers as ignorant, racist and small minded…or perhaps just having a small town mentality.

If multiculturalists want understanding for their radical ideas, however, they should first think about doing some understanding themselves.

Trying to get multiculturalists to open their mind and understand different point of view is a challenging task. Let’s start with three simple points that many multiculturalists either are unaware of, or conveniently ignore.

First of all, Australia by world standards in not very multicultural. About 90 percent of Australians are from White/European heritage. If Australia is looking for a country to aspire to in order to become more multicultural, then the United States of America has a white population of 66 percent (which should fall to 46 percent by 2050). However, Australia is not the United States and few would aspire to replicate aspects of their society.

Whilst parts of our larger cities feel multicultural, there are many towns and communities where multiculturalism is just something you hear about on TV or read about in the newspaper.

So the first point that multiculturalists have to understand is that when they talk about a wonderful multicultural society, many people take it with a grain of salt and continue to go about their lives in their non-multicultural towns and communities, as they have done for generations. They don’t care for multiculturalism and they may feel apprehensive about the whole idea of it.

Second of all, there is a modern view that Australia was built on multiculturalism, which is quite obviously incorrect. This view gains currency in the absence of an alternative view being offered. To see how far the view has gained currency one only has to look at government sponsored so-called educational websites such as multiculturalaustralia, run jointly by the NSW Department of Education and Training and the Office of the Board of Studies NSW. This site clearly states in its purpose that “Australia has always been culturally diverse.”

When falsehoods about multiculturalism are presented to children as fact, it becomes a difficult myth to dispel. The fact is that for most of the history of the Australian nation the ‘White Australia’ policy was in place; and that didn’t exactly have cultural diversity at its core.

The founding fathers of Australia created this policy. Australia’s first prime minister, Edmund Barton, when putting the case forward in parliament for national racial unity said “the Commonwealth of Australia shall mean a ‘white Australia’…this Commonwealth shall be established on the firm foundation of unity of race”.

Statements such as these and the subsequent policies that followed show the folly of stating that “Australia has always been culturally diverse.”

The second point that multiculturalists have to understand then is that multiculturalism is a relatively recent phenomenon. You can say that multiculturalism is wonderful, but don’t fabricate history and say that Australia was built on it. Australia has a long and proud history of democracy, equality and social progressiveness, and multiculturalism played no part in this.

The third point that multiculturalists should understand is that some people have concerns about multiculturalism, and that these concerns are legitimate. It is the ‘legitimate’ part that multiculturalists have a problem with. They feel that anyone that questions multiculturalism is wrong before they start; that any arguments are illegitimate.

The truth is that it is not illegitimate to be concerned when the ethnic composition of your neighbourhood changes so radically that you have barely any connection left to the place that you grew up in. It is not illegitimate to be concerned about the effects that ‘white flight’ is having on your community. Is it not illegitimate to be concerned that schools are becoming segregated by race, and finally, it is not illegitimate to be worried by the studies that show that multiculturalism creates a less caring, less trusting and less tolerant society.

So the third point that multiculturalists should understand is that the concerns that ordinary Australians have regarding multiculturalisms are indeed legitimate.

Now, getting back to Emily. Emily was the waiter filmed for an SBS program ‘Inside Australia’ where a girl of Asian descent stops in the country town of Gundagai. There Emily describes playing ’spot the Aussie’ with her boyfriend on a recent trip to Sydney (the waitress and her boyfriend had apparently stayed near an overseas student education institution).

Of course, the girl of Asian descent was Australian and was taken aback by these comments. SBS described the incident as revealing a small town Australian perspective.

And it’s true; it does reveal a small town Australian perspective. Gundagai is a town where cultural events include the ‘Snake Gully’ Horseracing Cup and the ‘Turning Wave’ Festival that celebrates Irish and Celtic migration to Australia.

The 2006 census reveals that over 90 percent of its population was born in Australia with the majority of the remaining from New Zealand, England or Scotland. Gundagai is an iconic Australian town in country NSW where they farm sheep and cattle and grow wheat and maize, and the dog still sits on the tuckerbox. It’s a long way from the big smoke and the problems of Sydney.

When this small town waiter visited Sydney for the first time she went into a totally alien environment. No doubt the editors at SBS headquarters in Sydney felt her comments worthy to show on TV to illustrate just how small minded Australians are.

What it shows me is that SBS is out of touch with the community, and would rather take a cheap shot at a waiter in a small country town than understand where she is coming from.

Emily doesn’t come from a multicultural society. Her town is a place where many years ago indigenous Wiradjuri speaking people lived. It was then settled by British and European settlers.

Its schools would not be promoting ‘cultural diversity and tolerance’ or requiring websites that have a purpose of ‘promoting community harmony’.

There is no need to promote harmony and tolerance when there is no multiculturalism to promote disharmony and intolerance.

If multiculturalists can understand where Emily is coming from, if they can see the great community that she lives in where multiculturalism does not take centre stage and is not held up as the holy grail; then they may be on their way to opening their minds more than they could have imagined.

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