We need to talk about multiculturalism in Australia

By Zoya Patel

If there’s one thing I’ve always been grateful for, it’s my Australian accent. It’s the only clear marker I have of being Australian, and the only easy way I can demonstrate this to strangers.

I rely on my accent to signify to white Australians that I might look like one of “them” but I’m actually a hybrid – one of “us” as well. When I interact with cashiers or bus drivers, I sometimes sense an air of resignation when they see me, as if they’re thinking: “Oh great, another foreigner.” But as soon as I speak, this resignation is dispelled. I don’t look like them, but I sound like them.

For years, I have played up my Australian accent, and also gradually pruned the parts of my appearance and identity that scream too loudly of my Indian heritage. I wear my naturally curly hair straight to look a little more anglicised, I wear only western clothing, I’ve been slowly curbing my Bollywood addiction. Some of this is subconscious, but a lot of it is calculated. I want to fit in.

I’ve long known that to truly be accepted as an Australian-Indian, I have to be Australian first and foremost, in the most westernised version of that identity, before I can be Indian.

This pressure might be unique to me – I’ve known many other Australian-Indians who feel more at ease with their dual identity, more able to marry the two. But I’m also keenly aware of the ways Australians “celebrate” cultural difference and, conversely, also try to gloss over it. As I have found from my own experiences, there is an emphasis on keeping difference palatable.

My Indian-ness is okay for novelty factor when people want to talk about henna, or movies, or dance. But if I really wanted to practice my culture and traditions and take it seriously, that would be harder for me to explain and integrate with the more mainstream Australian aspects of my life.

Cultural difference is often celebrated in a superficial sense, but true multiculturalism would be meaningful integration of numerous cultures to create a vibrant community that genuinely encourages multiple cultural identities. I don’t think we have that in Australia yet. I feel like our attempt at meaningful multiculturalism is often watered down and ineffective.

An example of this is the National Multicultural Festival that happens in Canberra every year. Each February, our main city centre is taken over by rows of food tents and entertainment stages. People from numerous cultures share their food, their traditional clothing and their cultural entertainment forms – dancing, choirs, and martial arts demonstrations.

This festival is the only time I see any overtly “multicultural” event in Canberra that draws significant crowds, but it’s also a consistently watered-down attempt to celebrate our multiple cultures.

There is no discussion around meaningful multiculturalism: how we can bring cultures together as well as celebrate them individually; what it means to be a second or third-generation migrant; how migrant communities have contributed to the overall history and identity of Australia.

Instead, we eat ethnic finger foods and watch people dance or sing, and enjoy the entertainment value without examining it further. I contacted the National Multicultural Festival for comment on this, but they have yet to respond.

It seems to be that the easiest way to be accepted as a migrant here is to display your ethnicity in watered down, easily digested ways. A bigger conversation needs to be had about multiculturalism that engages with the complexities of cultural identities, and creates a community that truly celebrates diversity.

Zoya Patel is a writer, editor, founder of Feminartsy, and a Right Now columnist. She tweets @zoyajpatel

Feature image: Maurice/Flickr

This column has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.