Monday, April 4, 2011
"Multiculturalism or Not?"
"Multiculturalism or not- should we have Lakembas and Cabramattas?"
by Omar Musa
Speech given at the Manning Clark House Weekend of Big Ideas at the National Museum of Australia, April 2, 2011.
Good afternoon. I am honoured to be here alongside these distinguished guests. I would like to start off by acknowledging the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we stand, the Ngunnawal people, their elders past and present.
I accepted the invitation to talk here today with a mixture of excitement and great nervousness. Although I studied at university, I have made a name for myself in the world of hip-hop and poetry not academia and have never given a speech of this nature. But I thought that this topic would challenge me to think about the inherent complexities and contradictions of this nation and to question the nature of Australia itself. I come from a mixed heritage. My mother is from a family who moved here from Ireland in the 1800s and were pioneers in Queanbeyan, the town I eventually grew up in. My father is from Borneo, East Malaysia and I was raised as a Muslim. I grew up praying five times a day, fasting during Ramadhan, attending Friday prayers. But besides the occasional racist slur pointed my way, I grew up very comfortable with my religion, my skin colour, the fact that I spoke another language at home as well as English. I was proud to be a Muslim Malaysian-Australian, despite the fact that all throughout my childhood I was asked “no, but where are you really from?” Then September 11 happened, and everything started to get a bit wilder. The angst and outrage in the Australian media and amongst politicians, the almost immediate vilification of Muslim Australians, the casually racist language in bars and on buses about “sand niggers” and “towel heads” and “terrorists” that intensified (and almost seemed to become acceptable) confused me at first and then led to a deep sense of dislocation. It is a horrible sensation to feel unwanted in a country you were born and raised in. Of course then it all came to a head when the Cronulla riots occurred, and I started to question many things about this country, which is why I agreed to talk here outside my normal realm.
Multiculturalism is fundamentally a murky idea. It is fraught with difficulty and chicken-and-the-egg dilemmas, primarily because definition of the word itself is so varied. I’ll start by saying that many people, including many prominent politicians and historians, see multiculturalism as a militant defiance of "mainstream Australia" (which is code for Anglo-Celtic Australia). They see it as people choosing to fraternise only with those of their own ethnic and language groups in ghettoised communities which leads to fracture and disharmony in the nation. The answer to this perceived problem is often a vague “they should be a bit more like us”, “they just don’t quite get it” rhetoric which really amounts to assimilation of sorts- the idea that there is a necessity to conform to the “norm” to achieve homogeneity. But many go even further than that. You may have noticed that recently on Australia Day, it is common to see shirts and hats emblazoned with the Australian flag, but more disturbingly , shirts that say “Fuck Off We’re Full” or “This is Australia- We Eat Meat, We Drink Beer and We Speak English- if you don’t like it, get out!” This attitude has even affected my own musical community, Australian hip-hop, a community that has always been based around the ideas of understanding and accepting difference and of people from all backgrounds coming together to appreciate music. It doesn’t seem to be the artists themselves who hold these attitudes (which is great) but many of us have been dismayed at the racist, xenophobic attitudes of a younger generation of Australian hip-hop fans, who see the value not really in the music itself, but only in the fact that it is “Australian”, a vessel for their nationalism. I can tell you I have received plenty of emails and comments online about going home to where I come from, or "this is supposed to be Aussie hip-hop” or “our country’s full”.
Funnily, I think that this “fuck off we’re full” mentality just a crude way of expressing how a lot of Aussie politicians, media and people in the public really think, evidenced by the way “the dog whistle” seems to be a weapon that is invariably effective in Australian politics. We saw that it worked again and again for John Howard and it nearly won Tony Abbott the last election (and may very well win him the next one). As someone who doesn’t know much about politics, it seems to me that Labor is also guilty of this, especially with regard to asylum seekers. Even hearing Julia Gillard the other day speak about brickies and ordinary people "driven by a love of family and nation” smacks of some sort of dreary and insecure nationalism. The treatment of asylum seekers and that they are labelled as a problem by politicians and the media who then use them as political pawns, and the fact that the public eats it all up, amounts to a portrait of a nation defined by small minded fearfulness, not to a “fair go” and “mateship” and compassion for the safety of desperate people risking life and limb for a better future. We all know this. People are far less concerned about illegal overstayers from Ireland and England than immigrants from Pakistan or Afghanistan. It reminds me of the "Beautiful Balts" ads from the "Populate or Perish" days, that showed images of pretty, blonde Baltic immigrants who were more palatable because they were white. Historical events echo and I think it would be naïve to assume that attitudes like this can be buried in just a few generations. I hate to say it, but as far as I see it, attitudes towards asylum seekers boil down to an almost primal gut fear of those who look different and speak differently, a fear of the other and a really obvious insecurity in this nation that no amount of flag waving and jingoism can hide.
All of this raises the interesting notion that white Australia has indigenised its presence in Australia to the point where all new migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds and ironically, Aboriginal Australians, are seen as outsiders and ought to be measured up against what “Australian” is. It is a sub-conscious sense that the invaders have now become the invaded. This actually allows me to return to the earlier idea of assimilation. How is it that immigrants are expected to assimilate so immediately into Australian society when white Australia never integrated into black Australia, an Australia of hundreds of cultural and language groups? When there was so little attempt by white Australia to understand Aboriginal Australia, a problem that carries on through until today (from the education system to the streets)? If we are to ask if we ought to have Lakembas and Cabramattas, then should we also ask if there should be Port Stephens or Dubbos? As Ghassan Hage cheekily asked, have white Australians fraternised in their own gangs to the exclusion of others for far too long? I’m not trying to play a blame game here, I’m just saying that the argument about multiculturalism should not just be one way traffic against Australians from non-English speaking backgrounds, or those with dark skin. There is no historical precedent for this so called "assimilation", so to me it holds very little water and is fairly laughable.
However, multiculturalism has become a bit of a dirty word to many on the left also, with many people telling me that it is condescending and inherently racist because it creates an insider/outsider divide of a patient Anglo-Australia tolerating those who are different. That until Anglo-Celtic Australian experience and the culture of settlement is seen in the broader spectrum of Australia alongside the history Aboriginal Australia, trade between the Yolgnu and the Makassans, Vietnamese immigration, etc, and not at the epicentre, multiculturalism will always be a hollow notion. As a side note, however, I wanted to point out that I have spent a bit of time in the multicultural arts world and in working class “ethnic” neighbourhoods and found a casual racism and hatred side towards "whites" or "Skips" that I found poisonous and divisive and I suspect didn't exist to that extent when I was a kid. It goes to show that the Southern Cross tattoos, the patriotic car stickers and the taunting racist facebook sites serve no purpose but to make people bitter and more likely to define themselves in opposition to you.
I am not a policy maker or a political junkie, so I can only speak as an artist. I think as artists we need to keep holding politicians and the mainstream media to account, to point out flaws and contradictions in Australian society and question them, but also, as people of non-English speaking backgrounds, to be brave enough to question our own attitudes and prejudices. In a more basic way, I think it is important for people such as myself, with “ethnic” backgrounds, to tell our stories and tell them well, to represent people and communities in Australia who are often vilified but are really just ordinary people leading lives of dignity. This is all in the hope that we can live a bit more comfortably, a bit less insecurely with the myriad ethnicities and cultures of this country.
Writer's note: I originally named this "My first academic speech" on this blog. This was a misnomer and I have subsequently changed it.