What is Multi-cult-ur-alism?

I’ve been binge watching some ABC and SBS programs, (I know its ok to be jealous) which focused on racial issues in Australia. This got me thinking about the way we define ourselves as a multicultural society. Specifically, the interplay between the idea of multiculturalism and assimilation. I mean these two concepts to me fall on complete opposite ends of the spectrum, and yet it’s discussed like a degree of assimilation is necessary in order to be considered an Australian. Which to me defeats the very idea of Australia being a multicultural society.


Cultural assimilation is defined by the Encyclopaedia of Britannica as:

The process whereby individuals or groups of differing ethnic heritage are absorbed into the dominant culture of a society. The process of assimilating involves taking on the traits of the dominant culture to such a degree that the assimilating group becomes socially indistinguishable from other members of the society.

So, if the idea is that you make yourself, look like, speak like and conform like, everyone else, where is the ‘multi’ in the ‘culture’? I mean multiculturalism comes from the words, multiple and cultures. Now if a family friend of mine was here, he’d say, were not asking people to give up their cultural heritage were just asking that they be Australians first. Which to him means you dress the same and speak English. It also means putting your religious belief second to being Australian (i.e. no burkas).

After getting over the urge to metaphorically knock some sense into him, I then respond with, why is that the definition of being an Australian? I mean with the exception of 3% of the population who can claim indigenous rights to the land, we all come from somewhere else. It’s just historically through the White Australia Policy formerly known as the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, we only introduced cultures which were similar to the British settlement, but I digress.

That’s Not a Knife!

So you’ve moved half way around the world, and ended up here, in Australia. Dingos, snakes, drop bears, kangaroos which despite your expectation you can’t ride, and a bunch of people you don’t know calling you ‘mate’. Not to mention the ever-dreaded Vegemite. I mean we love the stuff so much we made it into a chocolate bar!

So, you talk differently, you dress differently, and you come from a different culture which frames socialisation in a different way. Right, now everyone ready? On the count of three. 1, 2, 3 ….assimilate. Did you do it? No? Wait, you like your heritage? Well then. How does Australia deal with this? People who as, Julien Bourrelle speech on Culture Behaviour puts it, confronts the established culture? Do we as a society support this degree of multiple cultures, or do we as the dominant culture confront them in return? Well, I think the first thing we need to admit is….


We’re All Little Bit Racist

Although we all know it’s wrong, I think most of us can admit to at times having stereotyped, prejudged or imposed our own ideas about someone based on the colour of their skin, the way they dress, or the way they speak.

Now be honest people, have you ever:

  • Slowed your speech or over articulated your words in the hope that some who either doesn’t speak your language, or speaks a broken version will magically understand what you’re saying?
  • Crossed the street when a person of a different skin colour, or wearing traditional clothing has been walking down the same side?
  • Wished that someone with a thick accent could speak better English?
  • Do you get annoyed when people of the same race as you conform to stereotypes?
  • Do you think your racist?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then as SBS Insight 2012 episode I’m Not Racist But says, you fall in with 80% of Australian who are considered to have negative subconsciously biased attitudes towards people of other races. However, as social psychologist Dr Fiona Barlow points out, it’s what you do when you catch yourself having these sentiments that count. We can’t always help the thoughts that come into our heads, but what we can do is acknowledge them for what they are, take responsibility for these thoughts and in turn stop them from turning into discriminative actions.

Pride & Prejudice

Did any of you have a chance to watch the ABC program Is Australia Racist? Well, if not, don’t fret I’ll give you the highlights if you did, then we can reminisce together.


Is Australia Racist? looked at the results from the largest nationwide survey ever done into racism and prejudice. This program highlighted some of the main findings of the survey and performed small experiments to see if the survey results align with their experiments findings. To me, this program showed the different ways people identify with what it means to ‘be Australian’. Some people showed that they thought ‘being Australian’ meant having the right to freely express and identify with their country of origin, while others (like my family friend) believe you need to be Australian first, you need to assimilate to the Australian identity. This group prescribes to the idea that if they don’t like it, then they should go back to where they came from.

If it’s not blatantly obvious I believe in the former perspective. That being said my idea of multiculturalism doesn’t come without its challenges. As social psychologist Dr Fiona Barlow said on the SBS program, some of us do have a predisposition to be suspicious and mistrustful of other groups.

Curiosity won’t kill the cat

So, what do we do? No one’s perfect and I hope by this point we’re all in agreement that burying our heads in the sand never helps. My idea is to do what most parents tell their children, or at least what mine told me, treat people with respect, consider their perspective, be open to new things and be kind. If, however you are looking for something that’s backed up by a little more expertise, take a look at cross-cultural communication professional Pellegrino Riccardiss’ approach.


To summarise, remember:

  1. Fight against your instinct to only accept, the ‘accepted’ and ‘familiar’ cultural frames.
  2. Ask with curiosity.
  3. Think about what culture lens you’re wearing. The way the person you’re communicating to may be perceiving what you’re saying. Remember, some people have never seen your idea of ‘nothing’ before.

Then maybe, with a little bit of luck, and some hard work, we as Australians can come closer to achieving Pellegrino’s idea of a global mindset.

Well, that’s it from me, but before I go I’d just like to give a big shout out to the great work SBS and the ABC do, from shedding light on the issues of marginalised Australians, to challenging the status quo and embracing difference.

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