‘Multiculturalism: What are we afraid of?’

This week, the State Library of New South Wales held the forum ‘Multiculturalism: What are we afraid of?’ For those unfamiliar with what happened, Ruby Hamad gives a great account here, so I won’t repeat the details. I will add though, that I got the impression that it was Samira Haraf who initiated the discussion on Twitter. If this is the case, then I think it’s important to give her credit. (Ruby discusses comedian Aamer Rahman’s comments on Twitter before mentioning that there was ‘a deluge of complaints’, with no mention of Samira.)

When I saw Samira’s comment on Twitter the day before the SLNSW event, I actually didn’t expect SLNSW to respond to her concerns.  Although it would have been nice to include all Australians in a discussion on multiculturalism, it actually seemed pretty clear to me that (despite the word ‘multiculturalism’ fronting the title) this forum was not about multiculturalism; it was about white English-heritage Australians’ anxieties concerning multiculturalism.

According to a tweet from the SLNSW, the event arose as a promotion of Louise Whelan’s project ‘Home: photographs of ethnic communities’. The event, therefore, was about CALD people not as people in and of themselves, but as the subject of Louise’s project.

From what I’ve seen of Louise’s work online, it involves making beautiful pictures. Her portfolio includes a collection of stylised retro and ‘pin-up’ pictures of white people. But the advantage of photographing CALD people is that you don’t have to dress them up to make them eye catching, all that exoticness does the work for you.

Ruby Hamad discusses Louise’s ‘David Attenborough’ approach to hunting down and recording migrants in their natural habitat. She uses the example of the caption accompanying a photo of children at a wedding:

‘This great image of Congolese children at wedding (Dapto, 2010) is just one of the many fantastic photographs that will take you into homes and urban environments of both refugees and migrants now calling Australia home.’

Why are these Australian children called ‘Congolese’? Do they just ‘call’ Australia home? Because they’re ‘ethnic’? Because white people don’t have an ethnicity?

Louise also has a publication featuring these ‘ethnic communities’ called ‘The New Settlers’. According to the National Library of Australia Archives:

‘The photographs in this book are drawn from a number of ambitious projects to document all of the migrant communities that currently exist around Australia.’

In the forward to ‘The New Settlers’, Michael Kirby writes:

‘From these images future historians, researchers and citizens will be able to see us as we see ourselves at this moment in our development.’

Ironically, this book will be an historical document, just not in the way intended; not as a thoroughgoing and transparent record of migrant Australians, but as an instance of whitewashing and positioning CALD people as ‘other’.

Referring to this work as comprehensive of ‘new settlers’ whitewashes history in two ways:  1) it implies that CALD people have only recently arrived (so they have less of a claim on Australia) and 2) it implies (by omission) that all white English-heritage people have been here since the beginning of settlement.

In fact non-indigenous CALD people have been on this continent since the beginning of English settlement. Great efforts have been made to erase them from Australia’s history and culture, but evidence of their existence persists.

It is also a fact that people from the UK constitute the largest migrant group to settle in Australia over the last 40 years (the time frame for migrant arrivals in Louise’s work). (Thanks to the lack of ABS data on race, we don’t know how many of those UK migrants are white, but I’m guessing quite a few.) So an historical documentation of ‘new settlers’ should have these UK migrants as the majority. In Australia, even the majority of migrants from Africa are of European descent. These people should also be included in the documentation of recent migrants.

This documentation is particularly important because of the significance of recent migration; Australia’s population has doubled in the last 40 years, with migration contributing to a substantial, and increasing, proportion of that growth.

We could argue, in Louise’s defence, that white English-heritage Australians are over represented in popular culture and so they needn’t be included. Nevertheless, if the work is going to be restricted to CALD then it must be titled to reflect what it actually is: CALD people. Not ‘new settlers’.

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One thought on “‘Multiculturalism: What are we afraid of?’

  1. Pingback: Who can be Black? | guantai5

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