Black Sheep: Community Exclusion and Identity

By Marta Skrabracz | 11 Nov 14

Social exclusion or community exclusion is both a problem and a solution in itself. Individuals can take solace in the comfort that they are with people who understand and share the same background and struggles in the Australian world. However, the clustered nature of “ghettos” mean that these hubs can be targets for social abuse and stigma. More often than not, these ghettos are ways to distance mainstream society and create isolation.

If you live in suburban Melbourne, you can see clusters of ethnicities in certain regions. You go there for dinner to experience the food. the formation of ghettos happening in three ways: firstly, as “ports of entry” where immigrants and minorities choose to cluster with their own kind voluntarily; secondly, where the majority “uses compulsion — typically violence, hostility, or legal barriers — to force minorities into particular areas”; or thirdly, where “the majority is willing and able to pay more than the minority to live with its own kind.” In all situations, it appears that ghettos or social hubs are ways to maintain an identity and simultaneously reject another.

Connection and identity

“Social exclusion is the means by which people are hurt more in the long term. Communities of people are systematically blocked from opportunities and resources; things which are normally available to general members of the pubic.”

Groups give us a means for finding social identity. And as is the case with recently displaced individuals like immigrants, maintaining identity is significant if you no longer have a home or your childhood playground. It’s a means of maintaining the culture and world that you left. It’s a connection between individuals. The act of clustering is “part defence, part survival mechanism,” writes Bernard Salt, and enables “non-English-speaking migrants to connect … speak with others who share the same language, to buy food from dedicated shops, and to attend the same church, mosque or synagogue.” Salt’s final remark on the topic is a sentiment we all should share: “And does not this demographic diversity make our largest cities all the more interesting?”

However, after a certain period, the “other” or the “outsider” mentality becomes a pervasive mentality. Similar to the chicken or the egg causality dilemma, it’s a question of which came first: was the persuasive anti-migrant sentiment responsible for the ethnic ghettos, or is the resulting sentiment a product of the ghettos? “Large groups of non-citizens, clustered together, supposedly highlights how these people are not like everyone else.” Henry Sherrel on his blog writes that, “ghettos are used as evidence to show why migration may not be such a good idea as poor integration tugs away at the social fabric. When attempting to counter these arguments, many make tacit acknowledgement of ghettos.”

Weaving a social fabric

The media and the ‘non-suburbans’, in general, do not see the people from the ghettos as victims but as oppressors, just like ‘white Australians who see themselves as victims, struggling heroically against adversity, and those that place them as aggressors, forcing adversity onto others’. Vanessa Castejon quoting AnnCurthoys in, ‘Constructing national histories’, in Frontier Conflict, The Australian Experience, (2003).

Ann Curthoys accurately depicts how identity politics can infect attitudes towards immigration. Australia’s approach to immigration, from federation until the latter part of the twentieth century, was influenced by the White Australia PolicyAs Emily Flahive explains, national identities are used to “delineate ‘us’ and ‘them’; that is, who is a national of a nation-state and who is not.” This understanding of a national identity is thus critical to how it constructs a definition of who is an outsider to that national identity.

Identity politics can become an argument against migration, as well as a means of disguising racism. At one stage, Pauline Hanson’s call for a review of immigration policies sought to keep a “different” group of people out of Australia: “between 1985 and 1995, 40% of all migrants coming into this country were of Asian origin,” she said. “They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.” The world hasn’t change much; in recent times, Hanson’s rightwing policy mirrors the Islamic slurs spoken by Jacqui Lambie.

These preconceptions and views often result in racism, and in extreme forms, genocide. Jack Waterford, in the Canberra Times, writes that there is the unsubstantiated mentality that those differences in the migrant’s physical appearance and lifestyle (such as living in ‘ghettos’) is a result of the migrant’s desire to “spread” their lifestyle, an inherent rejection of the Australian lifestyle and thus an affront. This is not the case. The act of “living in ghettos” which apparently, “real” Australians had never hitherto been engaged,  is used to substantiate anti-migration sentiment. However, these may be mere cultural differences that are heightened when Australians aren’t exposed to different values and practices. Recently, the example of the Lev Tahor Jewish community being “forced out” from a village in Guatemala also demonstrates how exclusion, whether self-imposed or not, can be damaging. It was alleged that the villagers decided to expel the group because they refused to greet or have physical contact with the community.

Waterford continues that, “it was not, of course, that people were racist…it was that it would be better for the latest wave if “they” could be absorbed more slowly and deliberately, and, apparently, better for “us””. His reference to the “they” and the “us” refers indirectly to a tribal mentality, the notion that social categories exist in order to perceive differences as potential threats. This mentality serves to protect oneself, as does national identity politics.

However social exclusion is the means by which people are hurt more in the long term. Communities of people are systematically blocked from opportunities and resources; things which are normally available to general members of the pubic. The lack of access to these resources and opportunities further prevents the social integration of these individuals, and can have detrimental impacts on essential needs like housing, employment and healthcare. In essence, it has the potential to impede full exercise and enjoyment of human rights.

In some circumstances, the notion of community exclusion is not a choice. Peggy Brock, author and Emeritus Professor at Edith Cowan University, wrote a book entitled Outback Ghettos: Aborigines, Institutionalisation and Survival, which contextualises this situation with the Aboriginal people in Australia up until the late 1970s. The book encapsulates the experience had by many Aboriginal people – where an ethnic group was “directed to live in specified locations subject to oppressive discrimination and controls by the dominant society.” Peggy Brock uses the word “ghetto” to evoke the nature of the missions in which many Aboriginal people settled for generations, as ghettos both oppress and nurture. However, she also depicts the flip side of the forced ghetto, the “warmth, strength and supportiveness” that developed as a consequence.

Claudia Brauer advocates for a discontinuation of this mentality, as it no longer serves a purpose. She recommends using exposure and education to break the cycle of this mentality, as “the more someone is exposed to another culture (in the right way), the more tolerant and understanding of that culture they will become”. It is the world today however, one of digital and cross-cultural communication, that ultimately impacts and changes the way people think. Identity is a gradual process of construction, not a fixed mentality to which we should be expected to conform.

Marta Skrabacz is an Editor at Right Now and a law student at Monash University. She completed her BA in 2013, completing an honours thesis in medieval political theory. Currently, she is working on a public policy project at the Women’s Legal Service and volunteers at the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service. In spare time, she enjoys writing fiction and music criticism.