Cultural Diversity, Garlic and the Brisbane Writers Festival
By Mohammed Massoud Morsi
Both Marc Fennell, Michelle Law and Yassmin Abdel-Magied laughed loudly. I didn’t get it, neither did David Levithan, I noticed. Clearly it was an intricate Australian joke. “Do you see what I see” was the title for the talk at the BWF and here the 4 panellists gave their point of view of what they experienced differently from the majority of Australians. There was just one thing that didn’t work. To me, they were as Australian as could be.
The scene reminded me of living in Copenhagen. A panel compromising of popular cultural identities, personified. Most of them had assimilated so well into Danish culture, their own culture, norms and ways of communication had developed into a pseudo-form that worked both ways or were so washed out that it could only be identified by their points of view. They were detached from the remaining cultural landscape they assumed to represent. They were either hailed or hailed themselves as the answer to the obvious change in racial and cultural diversity the country was experiencing and their positive experiences as an example of the possibilities their groups actually had. Denmark had historically been a white country with blue eyed, blonde children, rye bread lunch boxes and no garlic. My smelly lunchbox with garlic infused Egyptian food would be spat in, hidden, thrown in the bin or overlaid with pieces of bacon and the successful stories of the personas that were being promoted publicly, didn’t add up to me. Even though I spoke as fluent Danish as Arabic or English, the chances I got were a fraction of those of the majority and depended on whether someone would accept my smelly lunchbox. Over time garlic became in and male Danish cooks showed Danes how to chop up garlic two decades later. Every kebab shop in town made a killing on cheap falafels overladen with greasy garlic sauce and somehow it had become Danish to eat falafels and kebabs with garlic.
This is not about garlic though but about diversity and how Australia’s diversity is shaping up from my point of view. Denmark still struggles with diversity on the political level but on the day to day level, things have changed. People from different ethnic groups have married and the definition of who a Dane now is, and what he or she can do, wearing something on their head or not, has shifted immensely. Even though a third of the population over the age of 70 still believes the country is at war with Islam (Independent UK 28/7/16), it’s no longer the blonde-blue-eyed-ryebread-eating version that’s being perceived as Danish. In the media, representation has slowly shifted but still has a far way to go. The independent Danish newspaper, Information, publishes stories from immigrants on a daily basis. As the only newspaper it draws the attention for the need to foster and facilitate true cultural diversity. It also deliberately uses immigrants from all levels of society in articles that revolve around topics different from immigration and the national identity crisis, which eating garlic infused kebabs and making brown babies with honey comb eyes has led to. Muslims get to talk about other things than Islam so to speak. In the Danish movie industry it’s moving a bit slower and using dark coloured people for ‘white’ roles is still not common.
After the panel had discussed intensively and laughed at their own jokes, I was left with a question I recognised years earlier. Is cultural diversity in Australia based on integration, assimilation or acceptance? In between those words I marked Marc Fennell’s shrugging of his shoulders to the fact that the country’s identity is partly formed by characters such as Pauline Hanson. Perhaps this is the case due to the complacent nature of Australians, whether it being the image the media portrays or the simple lack of courage and discipline to stand up against bigotry and thus, being viewed as for what it also is, a country, still deeply embedded in its racially discriminating past?
As an immigrant to Australia for almost 6 years, I have been taken back to the 1980’s of Denmark, where those who looked and especially acted different became the targets of an atmosphere thick with hate. I see what is happening here in Australia, the return of the hate mongering by politicians and celebrities against Muslims in particular. I hear how a terrorist attack in France makes a news anchor in Australia bassoon her fear as the need to ban Muslims from coming to Australia. I don’t hear anyone holding white Australians accountable for the domestic violence rate against women, one of the highest in the western world or for their part in killing thousands of people in state sponsored violence across the world. Yet there it is, the biased world of the corporate media, the politics of the media, where some people’s lives and values are delivered as being worth more than others. As being valued more than others.
Assimilation means that a person is supposed to adapt or absorb themselves in the majority culture of a place or a country in this case. This creates a symbolic notion that the majority culture is the right one or the valid one if you wish. It also means, implicitly, a denial of one’s own cultural identity and background. I can’t recall the number of times I have been suggested to change my name. An immigration officer at Perth airport asked me politely asked upon arrival once, if he could comment on my name: “Mate, you just need a ‘Bin Laden’ in there and it’d be perfect”. I didn’t mind the laugh, at least he was being honest. He was used to seeing my name and it is one, truly littered with the popular names of past dictators and dubious presidents, from Hussein to Morsi. Perfect for what exactly? Some change their way of clothing to fit into the mould so to speak and even adapt the habits and attitudes of the majority culture. These are just some examples of assimilation. However, where is the line drawn? How will Australia access whether someone is able to integrate or not?
It’s about rights. Integration should be a process that aspires to equality, socially and economically, between the majority and minorities. It’s about mutual adaptation between immigrants and the established population, so the majority also need to act, change and make room for a new way of defining what it means to be Australian. However I hear a weak discourse here in Australia, mostly revolving around how all the different minorities, in particular those of the Muslim faith, should be responsible and participate in the society.
Adapting is not enough though. Even when we wash out cultural differences in Australia, a both symbolic and at the same time real distance is evident. Especially when the minority group is easily identified amongst the majority. No matter how well I speak English I am subjected to categories and codes that reinforces my place amongst the ‘others’ and not ‘real’ Australians. It wouldn’t even matter if I got citizenship. Forget about the fact that I won’t swear allegiance to a Queen with so much blood on her hands, it’s the fact that the majority doesn’t find it interesting to ask me about anything else than what it’s like to be a Muslim. As if it somehow means prawns exit gleaming out of my arse. It’s an expression of the structural discrimination in society that prevents true integration of new people to the mass and it’s rooted in the historical perceptions, traditions and habits, those considered normal by the majority.
So why do I hear talk about integration when it’s really assimilation? Is it because assimilation is a hard cookie when it comes to human rights and democracy? It’s not democratic to interfere how people wish to dress, which God they wish to worship or which language they wish to speak in their own home. Do we really need other rules for societal participation just because our names aren’t John or Malcolm? And do I need to be named Hanson or Burston to be integrated well enough?
It is democratic to accept and true acceptance is integration at its best. In that way, a society builds up a majority that is truly made up of a diverse group of people. Even the ones smelling of garlic or wishing to wear dreadlocks or get on their knees to pray to their god. It is democratic to foster and facilitate these notions and that is not done by taking those, already well assimilated and setting them as an example of successful cultural diversity. It is democratic to accept that a society is comprised of immigrants and indigenous people and to foster an equal representation of those.
The desire for assimilation here in Australia reflects a deviation from democratic values. Integration of foreign people under one nation must not and can not be solved by forcing people to relinquish their faith, language or cultural kinship. And most certainly not their rights. In doing so, the democratic society ceases to exist. Australia hasn’t reconciliated with its past. The way it was established was non-democratic to say the least and celebrating its violent beginning with flags every year must be denounced. It was bigoted colonialism and perhaps once that process is taken seriously once and for all, it might move into a true democratic society where acceptance is how cultural diversity and peace is fostered. The first step to achieving that is to stand up against bigotry and hatred and not just shrug our shoulders. I’d definitely be part of and pride such a democracy.