Many cultures within but not integrated

| May 5, 2014

Australia prides itself as being a multicultural society. Bronte Jackson says there is still a barrier of ‘us and them’ that prevents us from being truly inclusive.

I have been back in Australia now for three and a half years after living in Rome for the past seventeen and travelling and working in over 23 other countries as part of my consulting role to the United Nations and the Department of Foreign Affairs.

I grew up in Melbourne and accepted multiculturalism as a policy, social aim, and founding tenant of Australian culture. My family arrived five generations ago from the working cottages and factories near Birmingham in the UK and Glasgow in Scotland. I was looking forward to being part of a multicultural society again and had followed carefully Australia’s voiced continued commitment to it over the time I had been away.

However, returning with more experience of what it is like to live in completely different cultures has not been easy. My Italian husband remarked the other day that “Australia has many cultures within it, but they are not integrated”. It sums up our experience of multiculturalism in current day Australia. We have connected with many other immigrants since arriving back, and the conversation and experience is similar to ours.

As Australians we pride ourselves and like to define ourselves as multicultural but there is really only one dominant culture here – the Anglo-Saxon one. Other cultures are welcomed, for their food and film festivals primarily, and accommodated well at times, but there is still a barrier of “us and them”. All immigrants try as hard as possible to fit in with the “them” because your job opportunities, your livelihood and your ability to be left alone and/or included into the Anglo community depend on it.

The other day I was listening to the radio about the provision of new government services for palliative care and the different types of approaches on offer for different cultures. These were based on cultural differences of how people would like to manage their deaths and final days.

What a great country, I thought, to provide such kind of support and in a manner which accommodates the differences in the community that require it. Until I heard the Anglo-Saxon provider speak. She was giving an example of what the service provided for a particular cultural group that has been prevalent in Australia for over sixty years. She described them as needing a particular approach, and then said “for example THEY require more time with the body after death whereas AUSTRALIANS have a different approach”…

In one foul swoop this added weight to my observations that there is still an “us and them” in our multicultural experiment and that some of us are still waiting for our cultures to become part of the Australian one. Why is it that a non-Anglo Saxon cultural group that has been part of Australia since the 50’s was not referred to as “Australian”, was in fact spoken about as being not Australian? What does this imply that Australia is then?

It was a tiny slip of the tongue, but language reflects deeply the shared mindset. And there is still a shared mindset amongst Anglo-Saxons that we are Australians and others are not, because they have a different culture to us. This demonstrates not multiculturalism, but the presence of many cultures existing within a primary and dominant one, from which to deviate makes you part of the “them” and not the “us (Australians)”.

So I think we have a long way to go before we can say we are multicultural, before the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture really moves over and integrates, not tolerates or accepts as co-habitation, different modes of communication, lifestyles, work cultures and values. And the danger of not recognising this is that our promoting of ourselves and our self-talk about being multicultural builds expectations that when not met leave a lot of people feeling like outsiders, estranged and not included. When you are not included, your level of responsibility for and commitment to the community you live in goes down. You don’t participate to your full extent. The community loses your drive and commitment as you focus on what you can get out of the situation rather than what you can put in, and your energy goes into what does include you i.e. your own community, your own kind.

I am not suggesting anything radical. We don’t have to implement siestas as part of office life, or wear head coverings as a rule, but we could all be a little more open to facing our insecurities when we are faced with differences. Taking the best from the cultures we have on offer doesn’t only mean selecting their food and films which are the easy and fun parts of culture. It means looking at their communication styles, their family structures, their treatment of the elderly and vulnerable, their attitudes towards consumerism and spirituality, their relationships with the earth and nature, their ways of exchanging good and services, their ways of structuring and managing their organisations, their ways of rewarding and recognising each other, and seeing whether we can learn anything, improve, grow and change.

We could commit ourselves to being a little more OK about being uncomfortable than we are and accept that learning new ways is threatening and hard. And instead of shying away from the differences, because they make us feel uncomfortable or incompetent, look them over a little closer to see what benefits they might bring to our great present culture.