Tag Archives: Multiculturalism

Us and the Other: what the school music program teaches about ‘multiculturalism’

This morning my youngest child participated in her first assembly performance. So, like the other parents, I sat in the audience with my camera held high, trying to strike the right balance between recording the event and just enjoying watching it.

First we all stood to sing Advance Australia Fair. (So that explains why my children have been singing the national anthem at home!) Then we went straight to the opening piece, which was my daughter’s year performing a line dance. As the pre-recorded music played its typically twangy country-and-western song, I reflected that no introduction was made of the origins of the dance or the music that was playing. I was reminded of last year’s Christmas assembly with its multicultural theme. The children had sung some traditional English songs and a couple of modern US songs and even some distinctively English-descent Australian songs. But none of their origins were mentioned in the introductions to these songs. The ‘multicultural’ aspect of the assembly was the songs and dances that had their origins explained to us: the Jewish songs, the French songs and the Bollywood dances.

This morning, following my daughter’s boot-scoot, the whole school sung a couple of African songs. I can’t tell you the origin of the first one because we weren’t told* but, to the music teacher’s credit, she identified the second one as coming from South Africa. I appreciated that she had identified a country this time. She admitted, however, that she didn’t know which language they were singing in. I was interested in this admission because to me it showed promise. It was heartening that she was aware, even to some degree, that she should have known. She hadn’t googled the song to find out, but at least there was an inkling that it might have been a good idea to know in which language you are singing a song that you’re teaching to hundreds of students.

As I sat in the audience, it bothered me that the children didn’t know what the language was that they were singing in. I wanted to tell the music teacher that it was important to me that she know what the language was of the song that she was teaching my children. But of course this would be a ludicrous thing to do. The teacher would either be offended that I’d tried to tell her what to do, or she’d feel bad that she’d been culturally insensitive. I wouldn’t blame her for thinking me petty and unreasonable. After all, we live in Australia and one can’t be expected to know everything about everyone in the world. She is a music teacher, not a geography teacher. I should be grateful that she is teaching international music – all that cultural inclusion is an improvement on what had been taught when I was at school.

After the performance, the music teacher made some announcements. When she began talking about the African drumming classes, I knew what she was going to say – it was the same spiel that regularly accompanies the school newsletter: the African drumming teacher is from West Africa! We are told that the drumming is ‘African’, because if we were told that it was simply ‘drumming’, we’d have taken it to be US drumming: white English-speaking US.

The violin teacher who is obviously from France doesn’t have his national origin introduced each time violin lessons are announced. Why do we have to be constantly reminded that this Black man is of foreign origin? I am also uncomfortable that a Black man has somehow become part of the commodity that is for sale – not just his music, but himself, is being spruiked as African.

There is a reason why we are told where the drumming teacher is from: we are being told that he learnt his drumming in Africa. Having learned in Guinea, presumably from other Guineans, is part of the value of his tuition. Being identified by his national origin is his mark of authenticity. This is a stereotyping, even dehumanising, version of a white teacher being recommended on the basis of their school or instructor. I wonder what changes society will have to undergo before this man is introduced as the drumming teacher of unspecified national origin, whose branch of music, or particular instrument, is recognisable to the audience.

*I have since asked my children the lyrics to the songs, which I googled to find that they are both sung in Zulu.

NITV and Black TV in Australia

I recall the thrill in 1980 of discovering SBS television. I was captivated by the station’s ident, promising to ‘bring the world back home’. I still appreciate the diversity that SBS television offers, but it was clear even from early on that it was not the entire world being brought back home. (Although there were some good European documentaries that brought home a wider portion of the world than solely English speaking ones, albeit from a European perspective.) It was clear from the beginning that the SBS television world consisted of non-English Europe and Asia.

More recently, in 2007*, NITV was launched. Once again this was a cause for celebration – not only for finally having Indigenous presence (apparently Indigenous programming had previously averaged at about two hours per week), but for me as a Black person to finally see Black-made programs for a Black audience!

Of particular resonance for me is the presence of Indigenous African productions. NITV offers more than just white reporters or white film makers setting their African themed stories in Africa. For the first time, I find myself able to turn on the television and see an African program for an African audience.

At other times I turn on NITV and see Black American documentaries. I also discover Black produced US  drama and comedy made for a Black audience. The nature of these shows is different from those produced from a white perspective. Black characters aren’t limited to supporting or decorative roles. The stories aren’t restricted to how white people see Black stories. They don’t merely depict Blacks in relation to white people. And they aren’t created to conform to white sensibilities. In these productions the Black characters are central, the perspectives are Black, the voices are Black, and the audience is expected to understand Black experiences.

It is also interesting to note that the Blacks in these NITV shows are neither Indigenous American nor Indigenous Australian. What these productions have in common with Australian Indigenous experience is the experience of Blackness. For me this affirms the important relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Blackness in this country. Regardless of whether that history begins in America, Africa, Australia or some other place, the colonisation of Black people creates a continuity of experience. In NITV, Indigenous people make choices for Indigenous television. These Indigenous people are valuing the visibility of non-Indigenous Black representation more than the programmers of any other Australian television station.

I am grateful to NITV for including non-Indigenous Black people’s voices. If not for NITV, where would people such as myself find racial representation on free-to-air television?

*I first received NITV in 2012, when it began broadcasting on SBS.

‘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’.