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Cultural diversity and the arts

Race Race Discrimination

Speech given to the Diversity Arts Australia symposium - check against delivery

I acknowledge the Cabrogal Clan of the Darug Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. I also acknowledge Lena Nahlous, Magdalena Moreno and Diversity Arts Australia, for their work in promoting cultural diversity and expression.

Australia is a multicultural country – emphatically so – but more can be done to ensure that the arts in Australia does better at representing and reflecting our diversity. This is more than just a cosmetic concern, a worry about the aesthetic presentation of our identity as a society. Too often, the issue of diversity is dismissed, consigned as an after-thought by those who don’t understand its importance.

Because, if you’re someone who can see yourself, or someone like you, on screen or in our media, you’ve never had to ask questions about why people like you were left out. You’ve never known the feeling of looking into society’s mirror without seeing yourself reflected.

The writer Benjamin Law recently put things in a striking way. He quoted from the Dominican American writer Junot Diaz, who said: ‘There’s this idea that monsters – vampires – don’t have reflections in a mirror. What I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.’

As Law himself reflected, ‘When I first heard that quote, I knew exactly what he meant. Growing up without seeing yourself reflected back in your nation’s stories is a quietly dehumanising thing.’

Here, then, is the connection between the arts and human rights. The idea of human rights is that of everyone being born equal in rights and dignity.

There is no human right, of course, for people to be reflected in the arts or in media. But we can all appreciate that someone’s dignity can be connected with how they – or, to be more specific, the group they belong to – are depicted in the public sphere. Where a group in society is invisible or demeaned, the message is clear. Those in that group are outsiders, second-class members, or even an ‘other’ against whom society defines itself.

Our current public and political debates about cultural diversity can leave some feeling unwelcome or incompatible with the broader society.

Consider some of the responses to the census this week. As you would know, the census emphatically confirmed the reality of a multicultural Australian society: more than a quarter of Australian residents were born overseas. And, as has been the case now for a number of decades, Asia has increasingly become the source of migrants arriving in Australia.

The manner in which some media outlets have reported on the census has been nothing short of breathless in its emphasis on Asian migrants and Islam. Here is a sample of some of the headlines:

Migrant nation born as Christian heritage fades

Muslim population in Australia soars to 600,000 as religion becomes the nation’s second-biggest — a 77% jump in the past DECADE, according to Census

Welcome to Chinatown: How Sydney has become ‘more Asian than European’ with 500 per cent rise in Chinese-born residents

The clear implication to be drawn from such headlines, and the accompanying reporting, is that Australia is now at risk of losing its British, European, Western or Christian heritage, and of becoming too Asian or Islamic. That the social change brought by migration is threatening an Australian identity or way of life.

The reality is more sober. While it is true that the majority of migrants who now settle in Australia are from countries in Asia, it is untrue to suggest that the population in general has become more Asian than European in background. The UK in fact remains the largest single source of residents born overseas. Four of the five most common ancestries reported in Sydney are Australian, Irish, Scottish and English.

And while Muslims living in Australia may have grown in number, they represent 2.6 per cent of the population. This is up from 2.2 per cent in 2011. It is a stretch to suggest their numbers have soared. In terms of religious affiliation, those numbers who have soared are those who have no religion – a group that now constitutes 30 per cent of the population.

The cumulative effect of media coverage, though, has been to encourage panicked anxiety about Australia being overwhelmed, if not by Asians then by Muslims.

Consider another example in our public debate: the proposal from the federal government for a revamped citizenship test that would include a more demanding test of prospective citizens’ English. Namely, the proposed test would require prospective citizens to demonstrate proficiency in English at the IELTS 6 level – equivalent to the standard that many Australian universities require of international students from non-English speaking countries.

Again, the effect has been to signal that some groups are either undesirable or are incompatible with Australian society.  Anyone who may fall short of having a spoken and written command of English consistent with a university level standard would, under the proposed changes, be excluded from becoming citizens. Moreover, there have been suggestions that the citizenship test is required as a measure to protect Australians against threats to national security.

Were the clock wound back and the proposed standard adopted in the past, it would mean that many who have settled here in Australia would not have become citizens. Indeed, there are many Australian born citizens who would likely find it difficult to meet the standard of IELTS 6. It is strange to think we are contemplating holding naturalised citizens to a standard that many Australian born citizens couldn't meet.

In recent weeks, many Australians – on social media and traditional media – have shared their family stories. Stories of fathers and mothers who may have come to Australia as migrants speaking little or no English, and who may still only be able to speak conversational English. Stories of refugees who have studied Australian history and politics, and who have had to take the citizenship on multiple occasions before passing. Stories of people whose place in Australia is now under question.

Which brings me to one thing that the arts must do on cultural diversity. It must give voice to the lived experience of multicultural Australia. When you’re not in the majority it can be harder not only to be seen but to be heard. The arts must help give voice to those who aren’t always able to enjoy a platform or have the power to speak up. And it must make some lived experiences more visible. Too often, the multicultural character of our society remains only partially glimpsed.

The arts must also consciously question the status quo. This has always been the role of the arts: to challenge, to disrupt, to speak truth to power; to empower and to inspire; to compel viewers, listeners and audiences to confront injustices and to contemplate change.

All too often on cultural diversity, we can tread too cautiously. We are afraid of pushing others into discomfort. We see this in the way that food is used as the dominant vehicle for interacting with cultural diversity. We can all be comfortable around culinary diversity. We can all relax over food and drink. I've heard many tell me there's no better way to learn about another culture than over some food.

While we often regard the advent of Modern Australian cuisine as a sign of cultural sophistication, it can also be a convenient excuse not to engage more deeply. At its worst, culinary multicultural triumphalism celebrates the transactional benefit of cultural diversity: you are free to come here and give us your food; we’re glad to have it. Diversity becomes a mere ornament of cultural life, in the way that Buddha statues adorn many backyards or Aboriginal paintings decorate many living room walls.

So it is that many have come to regard diversity as something that adds to the life of the general culture, without giving due recognition to the bearers of the diversity. Multiculturalism becomes a bargain. Those who share their cultural expressions do so for the purpose of widening the cultural choices of a majority, in exchange for their presence being accepted or tolerated. Whether there is mutual respect generated through that exchange is perhaps another thing.

But this is a thing, a task, that is surely incumbent on the arts to pursue. It goes to the mission of the arts when they flourish: to nurture creativity, to foster exchange, to encourage understanding and respect. For those of you working for diversity in the arts, this task has become more urgent than ever.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner