Being Australian 13: inclusive multiculturalism Aussie style 6

Like Jim Belshaw I watched Faces of America (or part thereof) before seeing Immigration Nation on SBS last night. I will give my thoughts on both tomorrow.

In this post I continue exploring the scary monster of multiculturalism.

Amazing how nominalisation can convert a word into a scary monster. I suspect the -ism makes multicultural much scarier than it was before, just as adding an -ism to a rather positive word, cosmopolitan, would cause anxiety too. Try on cosmopolitanism for size!

My view is that what has evolved here, which I shamelessly and fondly think of as inclusive multiculturalism, is actually quite a conservative and pragmatic affair, hardly a monster at all. In fact purist multiculturalismists often criticise it as window dressing, as a cunning way to manage migrants. There’s some truth in that, and I say — what a good thing! In some ways inclusive multiculturalism has been quite utilitarian, aiming for the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

So too another word that favours -ion rather than -ism, though I suppose you could have assimilationism. Oh dear, I see we already have!

as·simi·la·tion·ism (-iz′əm) noun: the policy of completely absorbing minority cultural groups into the main cultural body, esp. by intermarriage

To observant Jews assimilationism has long been a very scary monster. Only by consciously resisting full assimilation were diaspora Jews able to preserve their culture.

There can be no doubt that once we in Australia embarked post-1945 on mass immigration assimilationism was the favoured method for achieving the dream of cultural homogeneity. Only there was a problem. When it did work it wasn’t entirely a good thing. Losses occurred. In many cases it just didn’t work. Some wogs just wouldn’t give up aspects of themselves and of their cultures which they saw not only as keys to their self-respect but also superior to what Australia offered them. Often they were right, and educated the rest of us accordingly, thus improving their adopted country.

On loss, consider William Yang. William I know and have even been photographed by. He’s also the same age I am, and I can’t blame his parents for their decision to make sure William Young, as he once was, growing up in rural Queensland was as assimilated as possible. The result may have been thirty years of anguish for William, but that wasn’t the intention. After all, when William and I were growing up people like William were still being deported.


Those extracts are from a talk William Yang gave in the early 1990s. M and I were in the audience. I subsequently published it in my book From Yellow Earth to Eucalypt (Longmans 1995).

Here is how William achieved personal integration, undoing the impact of assimilation.

Is he any less Australian now that he has embraced his forgotten culture? Of course not. Inclusive multiculturalism facilitated and justified his journey.

Or take Professor Martin Krygier. This is from his 1997 Boyer Lectures: Between Fear and Hope.

…There’s no way ultimately to resolve conflicts over values, but that doesn’t mean that anything goes. There are ways of arguing about values, and some ways and some values are more defensible than others. Some, indeed, are indefensible, as I will seek to show. Others, mine as it happens, are solid as rocks. Or so I want to believe. If I were a philosopher, I would simply rely on the power of my argument to convince you to share my values. But I’m not, so I will say something about their sources and character to try to convey why I find them attractive and why they matter so to me. Of course, I would not be disappointed if you found them attractive as well. I’m an Australian. I was born, brought up and educated here. I have spent the bulk of my life here. I watch cricket for days without being bored. I expect Christmas to be hot. These facts are central to my make-up. Were they otherwise, so would I be. And yet they’re not the only pieces that make me up. For, like so many Australians, I’m the lucky beneficiary of other people’s tragedies, most immediately those of my parents. That, too, is relevant to who I am and what I think about.

My parents arrived here during the Second World War, Polish-Jewish refugees from Nazism. Their lives, families, friendships and country were ripped apart. Both my mother’s parents and her brother were murdered by the Nazis; other relatives spent years fighting or being imprisoned by them, and what was left of the family was dispersed. My parents left Poland from necessity, arrived in Australia by accident, and stayed because, after the Communist take-over of Poland, they couldn’t go home. They came to love this country and to participate actively in its affairs, but that was later. I mention these far from exceptional facts not to claim some exotic authority for my views, nor – in accordance with a budding Australian tradition – to launch a prizewinning novel but because they inform the way I think about things, what I think about and – above all – what I think matters. Combined with my birthplace, they have made me what I am: a congenital cultural hybrid, a hybrid from birth. If you prefer, a mongrel. My parents were already hybrids in Poland, since they were culturally both Polish and Jewish. So, their lives were already complicated. They became Australian hybrids differently, however, over time. What they came to learn and expect, and grew to be, in Australia interacted with their already formed personalities and cultural identities. Their hybrid condition was acquired, as is that of most, if not all adult migrants: they become different from what they once were while remaining different from those among whom they now are. Since over 20 per cent of Australians were born overseas, and 40 per cent were either so born or their parents were, there are a lot of us about.

There is also a third sort of hybrid, and I’m one of them too. I study the societies of post-communist Europe, and their fate matters a lot to me. So I’m also a vocational hybrid: coming from one world, and preoccupied with another. That also has consequences. When I’m there I think of here; when here, of there. That makes comparisons ever-present and unavoidable. All hybrids are affected, some afflicted, by overlapping cultural residues within them. They often discover to their surprise, rather than as a matter of deliberate choice, aspects of their personality – their sense of identity, belonging, sometimes longing – which define them and have moulded them, whether they like it or not…

Hybridism rather than assimilation. This is what so often happened, often for the better as far as the whole country was concerned.

Third, consider the poet Peter Skrzynecki.

Australian poet Peter Skrzynecki writes about his experiences teaching in NSW, his migrant upbringing in suburban Sydney and his attempts to assimilate, ‘fit in’ and overcome the challenges of a new life in a new land.

Of Polish Ukrainian descent, Peter was born in Germany in 1945. Escaping a world in turmoil, his family emigrated to Australia in 1949. Peter’s earliest memories of this time is the month long sea journey to Sydney on the “General Blatchford” and his time living in a migrant camp in Bathurst before moving on to the Parkes Migrant Centre. To Peter this camp was his first Australian home.

The family later moved to 10 Mary Street in the working class suburb of Regents Park in Sydney It was their castle. Peter’s father, Feliks, of whom he often writes, worked long as a labourer for the Water Board, while his mother, Kornelia spent her days working as a domestic for families in Strathfield. They grew their own vegetables and had a magnificent flower garden. Within four years number 10 Mary Street had been paid off. While his parents worked, Peter attended the local Catholic primary school and later St Patrick’s College Strathfield. Thanks to an English teacher, Brian Couch, Peter’s love of literature was fostered and his writing flourished…

His first book, There, Behind the Lids was published in 1970 followed by Headwaters in 1972 and Immigrant Chronicle in 1975. In the first two Peter wrote mainly of his experiences teaching in the country, reflecting on the natural world, the people, flora and fauna. In the third Peter wrote about his European background, his experiences as a migrant in Australia, the problems associated with being an exile, with his parents’ dispossession and the difficulties, such as racism, bigotry and resettlement, encountered by them and other immigrants in trying to assimilate to a new life in a new land.

His anthology Joseph’s coat (1985) identifies the themes and issues of Australia’s multicultural society.

Often his work is about understanding and counting the cost of assimilation.

You may find here an essay I wrote on his work. It also brings together some of the thoughts we have had so far in this series.

To be continued…

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One thought on “Being Australian 13: inclusive multiculturalism Aussie style 6

  1. Latest on William Yang.

    …It seems that Yang, who was born in North Queensland as a second-generation Australian of Chinese grandparents, finds it easy to empathise with others of differing, but similarly marginalised, backgrounds.

    “I do. I feel I’m at least sympathetic because I’m marginalised too. Certainly when I told my story to the Aboriginal community in Moree, they recognised certain aspects of my story. They actually found that recognition hilarious, realising that I was an outsider, but in an entirely different way from them. The common thread is that we’re both marginalised cultures.”

    Does he think the queer community could be more sympathetic to those marginalised because of race? Many non-white queers report that racism still thrives on the gay scene.

    “Well, it’s all a process, and it takes time, which is probably why I still find it important to tell my story. People like Pauline Hanson give permission for racism — there are always bad leaders and role models.”

    Yang did the reverse of many Australians from non-Caucasian backgrounds, rejecting his parents’ assimilation into white Australia and changing his name back from ‘Young’ to the traditional Chinese ‘Yang’ as a mark of cultural pride in 1983, at the age of 40. It was the culmination of many years spent struggling to deal with his Chinese-Australian identity…

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