Specifics matter

Last night I finally got along to a Melbourne Free University event. Gwenda Tavan from La Trobe University gave a talk on the topic From White Australia to Multiculturalism: Failure or Success? It was another soggy and some what windy night, so I would not be surprised if attendance was lower than predicted. However, there were enough people to fill most of the chairs and for quite a solid conversation at the end. The fact that it was held in Clifton Hill made it convenient for me, and made sense seeing as many of the people there seemed to be from La Trobe University.

My motivations for attending were two fold. Primarily, I think Melbourne Free University is a great project and deserves support. Secondly, I feel like I have been shying away from thinking about ethnicity and multiculturalism in an effort to keep my project containable and I worry that I am missing something big. I actually made it there because I had to leave the house anyway to return a book I had out on overnight loan.

I think that the talk was very well done. Gwenda Tavan mixed in historical milestones with analysis, and there was enough comparison between her analysis and that of others. Basically she argued that the end of the White Australia policy in 1972 was not an elite conspiracy, and that even the move from assimilation to integration was not done to the Australian people as many had realised that human cost/ impossibility of assimilation. The significance of, and trust in, Australia’s bureaucracy was an interesting point, and one that I might be able to do more with down the line.

The discussion was worth going for. There were some people with first hand recollection of Post WWII racism. The conversation covered topics such as forgetting and the changing of names, the difficulties of defining racism, whether stronger political leadership is an option, the experience of reverse racism in Africa, and the potential and challenges of bureaucracy today. I found myself thinking on how contingent the experiences of fear of difference, promotion/ acceptance of discrimination, threats to identity &etc all are. I am not quite ready to embrace the idea that seemed to underpin a talk I heard by Ghassan Hage in 2005 or 2006, that Muslim women are not just another other in Australia, but are rather an other–different–other. I was reminded about my discomfort with writing about groups or even processes. When talking to people about my project I often use rather offensively reductionist language such as ‘the poor people’ and ‘the rich people’, but I use such awful terms because I am setting up the act of thinking about people in such (or slightly more sophisticated) categories for ridicule.

I love that nobody suggested perhaps the contemporary Anglicising of first names is not necessarily a huge political point, but rather a pragmatic recognition that there is a lot of inconvenience and discomfort in moving to another country with another language, and that it is a pain when people cannot understand your name. Furthermore, not everybody treats given names with the same degree of reverence. In many places people have multiple names they can use or be called by. On an autobiographical tangent, I have a somewhat unusual surname and it often leads to questions as to what ‘heritage’ I have. One such conversation was initiated by someone who was trying to work out why I am interested in what I am. When I explained where it came from she told me that, ‘the migrant story is a story of loss.’ Having somebody ascribe me an interpretation of my family history and then the authority to talk for suffering (which I most certainly do not see myself as having) was quite an unsettling experience. Yet, I know I commit this sort of violence whenever I write anything about people and my honours thesis was certainly 15,000 words of this sort of violence.

So, whether it is multiculturalism or social inclusion, as soon as we move past examining agendas that use such terms I think it is important to remember that specifics do matter in a way that such terms can fail to recognise. I am not suggesting that anybody would really say that all coming-from-a-different-country, or not having access to something that many people take for granted is the same. I am just trying to get at my unease when it comes to doing the very thing that I have chosen for myself, understanding others.

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