Smiling faces of integration

The politics of cultural diversity in Australia

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A STOCK IMAGE doing the rounds earlier this year in a couple of cultural diversity and anti-race campaigns shows a young Sikh man, an African woman and man, an ethnically ambiguous woman and a young white woman all leaning against a brightly coloured wall. They are slouching at various angles with youthful abandonment while looking intently at their phones and laptops. This image is being used for campaigns in Australia and across the globe, for advertising in topics from ranging from education and technology to generation Z and cultural diversity. It’s trifecta stock-imaging: young, culturally diverse and technologically savvy.

It is also an image typical of the latest popular approach to showcase cultural diversity as so-hot-right-now. This has an important appeal: it makes it fresh. It can be well intentioned and allows for representation. To wear tribal jewellery, tease the ’fro, rock the hijab with the right mixture of attitude, sass and youth.

Yet, what is also emerging is a kind of industry of cultural diversity stories and campaigns. It provides pin-up faces that an organisation can use to tick off representation under its corporate social responsibility commitment. It detracts, or distracts, from the politicised nature of multiculturalism, which naturally has its merits. But often it is also such campaigns that use the very frisson of these growing ideological debates for their organisation or event’s glory. And while on the outside this may seem like a real demand for representation and power, it is still soft power. The image, intellect and experiences of young, culturally diverse people are being used, but they don’t have control over the where and how, or the voice to dictate what framework they are represented within.

During the excitement about the diversity of this year’s recent Oscars, The Sydney Morning Herald ran an article with the headline ‘Newer, younger, and browner – Oscars are more diverse than ever’. This headline perfectly captures how the appeal is understood; during this year’s Oscars ceremony, Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph jokingly referenced the pushback against the diversity efforts and the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. ‘We just wanted to say, “Don’t worry,”’ Rudolph said, ‘There are so many more white people to come tonight.’

There is truth behind every good joke.

The underlining message in the design of many multicultural campaigns and stories reads like: Don’t worry, we won’t harm you, or take away your power; we won’t force you to really address what is going on. Suggesting ‘multiculturalism’ may be flawed, or that the model may need adjusting, has become tantamount to suggesting we have a problem with racism. Few want to raise it. And while we might expect this from leaders, it surprisingly extends to working within the ‘field’ of cultural diversity and in the conversations and way numerous anti-racism and multicultural campaigns and stories are designed.

I have worked in this field for the past five years. Cultural diversity is fast becoming one of the most politicised issues of our times, with the rise of migration and the increasingly radicalised responses to it. Yet where it requires careful, researched and shared vocabulary, we are stuck with ad hoc schooling as we go, and a public model of multiculturalism still obsessed with ideas of tolerance. But tolerance isn’t nearly enough. As Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a graduating class at New York University in May this year, ‘Think about it: Saying “I tolerate you” actually means something like, “OK, I grudgingly admit that you have a right to exist, but just don’t get up in my face about it.”’

LAST YEAR, THE federal government released Australia’s first national multicultural statement since 2011. While this policy makes much of the fact that Australia is a ‘multicultural success story’, what it offers is a defensive vision of multiculturalism, emphasising words like ‘integration’, ‘unity’ and ‘cohesiveness’.

The public debate on ‘multiculturalism’ currently flips between anger around immigration and rhetoric of an ‘integration’ model that fails to address the underpinning issues around the fear of losing the white status quo. Instead, stock images of beautiful, young, culturally diverse people are plastered over marketing materials, showing them ‘hand-holding’ or performing their cultural dance for events with names like ‘Harmony Day’.

In Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (Bloomsbury, 2017), Reni Eddo-Lodge writes about multiculturalism in Britain: ‘Right now, our public multiculturalism debate is a politics that engages itself with myths such as “I don’t see race” or models of “unity” which are quasi-assimilationist in manner. This denies people of colour the words to articulate our very existence.’ Something similar could be said about Australia.

Right now, in the face of fear, it is much easier to use the well-worn trope of refugee and migrant ‘success stories’. This is the typical format used by governments and corporate campaigns, as well as media, showcasing those who have overcome hardships, found light in Australia and are now in some way contributing to the economy.

Images of attractive, diverse faces with pull quotes are variations on the same theme:

In Australia, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you look like, you can fit in.

We should all come together, Australians from all different backgrounds, to acknowledge how lucky we are to call Australia home.

When racial tensions are running high, or if there is concern regarding race riots, journalists, event organisers and communications departments engage in a frenzied search for a ‘good refugee’ story they can showcase. In the face of anger, these campaigns and stories can be so important for public awareness; no one would suggest we shouldn’t have positive storytelling. The problem lies in the way these stories are consistently framed, and whether they are really leading to a genuine platform for discussion or change. Migrant hardships are plastered over with placid and benign smiles – the integration ideal – in order to pose as little threat as possible to the mainstream culture.

THE VALUE OF cultural diversity in Australia is still largely understood in terms of migrants’ economic contribution – an implicit response to assertions that immigrants are a burden on the local economy. As a nation built mostly through immigration, both sides of the political spectrum have created a public debate that revolves solely around the pros and cons of a migrants’ economic worth to the country. Media, politicians, migrant councils, Forbes reviews, funded university studies and impact assessments all debate about the net worth contribution of migration, or use data to assure us we are a happy tolerant multicultural society. This means underlying issues like xenophobia and racism, as well as our collective fear around limited resources and concerns for population growth, have become so entangled in the economic immigration debate that to extricate and find a way to openly discuss them is near impossible.

At the same time, white protectionist movements grow. Knee-jerk, racialised media commentary around African youth crime is propagated. Yassmin Abdel-Magied – Youth Without Borders founder and self-proclaimed ‘most hated Muslim in Australia’ – is driven out of the country on a tsunami of criticism and personal attack after posting on social media for Anzac Day: ‘Lest. We. Forget (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…)’. Debating the economic value of a people is free game, but daring to suggest racism is still a problem is evidently off limits; it makes you wonder why anyone would want to put their hand up and dissent.

In Australian workplaces, there are individuals who advocate tirelessly for cultural diversity awareness. But within the current climate of public discussion, many also choose silence for fear of being cast as a social problem or a disruptive force. In 2016, the online news channel AJ+ ran a wonderful sketch called ‘White Fragility in the Workplace’, a training module for people of colour. It parodies how the moment people of colour stop smiling or try to point out a flaw in the system, people around them become upset: ‘And just as it is important to be sensitive to our black, Arab and other non-white co-workers, it’s also equally important to be sensitive to our white co-workers’ sensitivity to that sensitivity.’ The sketch tells people of colour to employ a useful model every time a white colleague says something that could be construed as unintentionally racist: Stop, Ignore, Listen, Empathise, Never Complain, Eat – the ‘SILENCE’ system.

In public-design forums, I have observed how certain people deemed too disruptive are silenced, in the name of a flowing conversation, which ultimately leads to minimal changes taking place. I have observed how, when certain issues are voiced – such as the Muslim communities’ trauma or fatigue around media probing, or an individual’s scepticism that the solution-building process isn’t permitting certain voices – the agenda is quickly rushed on. This is often not done out of a malicious intent, but rather due to the fact that no one in the room leading these forums are equipped to deal with the deep complexity of race. One of the difficulties is there is little concept of ‘expertise’ regarding race. Race and multiculturalism are issues on which everyone has an opinion and discussion can become a parade of slush-pile thoughts, keyboard warriors and a lot of charged anger and violence. We are working in outcomes-based models, in which there can be a lack of real leadership in how to manage conversations that are informed by trauma.

This is why it’s important to have the heavyweight, white power structures of government and corporation designing and advocating for multiculturalism. When it comes from their perspective, it has the added benefit of appearing less emotive: it seems reasoned and it isn’t personal. But too often this means leaving people of colour out of decision-making.

At the individual level, it should not always be up to the victim – in this case, the individual who may experience racism – to do the educating. But at the broader social level, it is important for people of colour to legitimately be able to draw from their experiences to veto existing frameworks for discussing race. In Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Eddo-Lodge writes: ‘White feminism is a politics that expects people of colour to quietly assimilate into institutionally racist structures without kicking up a fuss. It’s a politics where people of colour are never setting the agenda. Instead, they are relegated to constantly reacting to things and frantically playing catch-up.’ The same applies to multicultural campaigns. It is important for people who experience the issue to be sitting at that table when agendas are made, to share their lived experience in order to inform broader discussion; too often they are pushed into reactive spaces, which leave them with no real power. Being brought into meetings to ‘consult’ or to share snippets of ‘cultural expertise’ is not genuine collaboration. Being asked which pre-formulated campaign is more culturally aware is tokenistic. Being placed in a leadership position where the only avenue for recourse is to once again nod and smile, for fear of being invited back, is not real collaboration.

AUSTRALIA’S FUTURE IS looking more culturally and linguistically diverse than ever. Almost half of Australia – around 49 per cent, according to 2016 census data – are either first- or second-generation migrants. Despite the smiling faces of migrants saying they are ‘so lucky’ and young people saying ‘we are all the same’, there is a growing resentment, fear and anger on the part of those who claim to safeguard ‘Australian values’. Australia currently has only one organisation that specifically addresses the reality of white supremacy in the country, All Together Now, a registered charity committed to anti-racism work. This is where the debate around multiculturalism needs to be opened up.

What if in our workplaces we began designing multicultural campaigns and stories that moved beyond a model that seeks to pacify those with an anti-immigration stance? What if we found a way to acknowledge the fear and anger coming from all sides and began the discussion from that starting point? What if we stopped hiding all the loaded questions behind smiling faces on posters and allowed space to ask, What are you so angry about? What are you so fearful of? And, What does power – and the fear of losing it – really mean? If those of us working in the field of cultural diversity aren’t given the time or psychological support to lead these unpopular conversations internally, and campaign designs are not open to new ways to explore the hurt, the conflict and the ugly, then how can we expect it to happen?

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