Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 8, No. 2, 1994
Critical Multiculturalism
Edited by Tom O'Regan

Introducing critical multiculturalism

Tom O'Regan

This collection surveys three different but interrelated "cultural difference" topics in the general field of media and culture. Two are closely associated with (official) Australian multiculturalism: 'Asia mindedness' and 'ethnicity, race and nation'; and, the third topic, 'indigenous issues', is sometimes included - and often not - in multicultural issues. The tenuous relations between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and multicultural concerns are grounded on the differences between, on the one hand, the settler ethnic immigrant and the broader settler culture and, on the other hand, the indigenous logic of first peoples. These differences are further underwritten in Australia by separate administrative, policy and political structures, and, in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander case, a significantly regional and outback as well as metropolitan agenda. The inclusion of indigenous issues under the multicultural rubric is one reason for calling the issue "Critical Multiculturalism" rather than simply "multiculturalism".

In the Australia of the late 1980s and 1990s these three cultural difference topics have been major and contentious issues on the political and cultural agenda. If these topics often seem separate, it is because they are so rarely brought together systematically. They are brought together here not to unify them (that would be impossible) but through their collocation to insist upon their similarities and their divergences alike. By doing so we hope to open up the spaces between them for commentary, practical work and theoretical articulation. In this sense, this collection is working out of a projected rather than realised critical multiculturalist frame.

Asia 'Mindedness'

Nowadays, as more products of Australian culture are re-defining many of the national orthodoxies, there seems to be a need for a definition of "Australia" which welcomes a sense of international "contamination" in its constitution. The audience for Australian now perhaps more interested in the world rather than in boundaries that could theoretically separate the nation from the remainder of the international community. (Ross Gibson 81)

The international 'contamination' here is mostly 'Asia' whether as a differentiated set of cultures, languages, nations or an undifferentiated 'Other' to the Western, European, Anglophone, White, Australian etc.

As part of this multifaceted engagement it has become commonplace to find public servants, politicians, foreign governments, individuals, Australians of non-Asian and Asian backgrounds alike criticising Australian institutions (media, government), policies (foreign affairs, immigration and trade), politicians, individuals and cultural texts for their endemic orientalism and racism. This kind of criticism has become so mainstream in terms of its volume and the strategic location of those elites who adapt it, as to have become normative. One of the reasons for titling this issue "Critical Multiculturalism" is the critical and simply eccentric stance of a number of the articles towards emerging multicultural and political orthodoxies (including those within cultural studies) around notions of Asia and ethnicity. In this section, the focus is upon this particular public face of Asia-mindedness (it does not entail the rejection of the possibility of engaging with and having a respectful and multifaceted Asian-Australian dialogue, rather it seeks to clear some of the obstacles to such dialogue that some forms of Asia-mindedness and Asian particularism represent).

If the criticism of the legacy of White Australia is well overdue, it runs the risk of failing to accord any "Asian" agency in the construction of these representations, images and practices. It tends to be so intent on locating Australian (read Western) agency, figuring any Asian repetition and cooption of Western orientalist stereotypes in ads such as 'Singapore girl' or Malaysian complaints about Embassy as simply understandable and therefore unavailable to sustained critique (see Perera 27). As Stephen Frost shows in this issue, if some Asian agency is recognised it becomes necessary to engage with and thoroughly understand why East and South-East Asian governments not only challenge 'their own orientalisation' (Perera 18) but also busily self-orientalise themselves in their internal cultural politics and their international relations.

Just this invitation is taken up by Koichi Iwabuchi in his trenchant criticisms of Japanese self-orientalisation and its construction through a self-sustaining and mutually self-destructive "dialogue" with the US. Iwabuchi notes the personal costs of the construction of Japanese cultural homogeneity and its impact upon minorities in Japan and other Asian populations. Local and Asian criticism of the West (of which Australia is a part) can be seen as an arm of a wider attempt to create so-called 'Asian' models of business, 'Asian ways of doing things', Asian models of international relations, and an 'Asian' commercial and cultural space. Philip Kitley's examination of the emergence of commercial television in Indonesia shows the actual working out of one such "Asian communications" model.

Unfortunately much Australian criticism of its representations of Asia does not go beyond representation and beyond Australian shores. This inability to move beyond an Australian frame (which stands in for a relatively homogenised "West") is what increasingly sustains the facile use of terms such as "Eurocentrism", "ethnocentrism" and "orientalism" in Australia (see Frost in this volume). These have become figures of abuse levelled not only by cultural critics but by high ranking public servants against those who would criticise this emerging orthodoxy. But as Mark Gibson points out, it makes little sense simply to locate the orientalist understanding of Japanese business in the Australian business press when the power and trading relationships are not only interdependent but situate Australia as Japan's junior partner. (If orientalism implied a powerful West against a powerless East the relationship between Australia and Japan suggests that orientalist figures are singularly inappropriate to characterise this relationship.) Rapid economic development in the so-called dragons of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong over the past twenty years; and in the mini-dragons of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia over the last ten years; and the extensive role of political patronage in this economic development in these states suggest that the Australian trading and political relationship with these states is scarcely one in which Australians are the dominant party. 1 Indeed attention to the cultural and political dynamics in these countries suggests for Frost a vigorous interrelationship between Australia and Malaysia, for example.

The problems with "representation analysis" go deeper. Such analyses assume that the 'Asian' response to Australian/Western representation is the same as the critic finds. While it has become commonplace for Peter Weir's The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) to be read as an orientalist text disempowering Asian voices 2 while providing another example of Australian insensitivity to the region, not all Indonesians I know regard it like this. Indeed, one of the first comments I had from a visiting Indonesian dissident when he learnt I was an Australian film specialist was to ask me why Australia didn't make more films like The Year of Living Dangerously! And it did not take much thought to see why he said that (significantly though I had not thought of it before he said it); just as it does not take much thought to see it almost reflexively as an orientalist text. Asian state and official responses to Australian-produced texts coming out of our 'Asia mindedness' should not be seen to exhaust the public response in countries of the region, particularly when there is a lack of public access to the very film and television programs being criticised. We are encouraged to see both as isomorphic due to a number of factors: the homogeneity of state controlled media in some countries in East and South-East Asia (which often preempts circulation)' the fact of relatively closed political and economic cultures dominated by political patronage (both of which often simply do not provide a forum for dissident voices); and the utility of periodically marshalling public sentiment against a 'Western' country/power for domestic political expediency (which in turn creates and sustains forms of "occidentalism" which promote essentialist and homogenous understandings of the 'West').

It is a salutary reminder that the Balkans war (so graphically dealt with by Dona Kolar-Panov in this issue) is only now producing more casualties than the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. For all the Indonesian and Malaysian complaints about Western non-intervention in Bosnia as an instance of its anti-Islamic stance, the international community knows and is appalled by Bosnia because of Western coverage and the determination to make it a central issue; it barely considers East Timor in the same way despite it being as equally a dirty war that foreign journalists were not allowed to report (and those who did report were killed or beaten). There was simply no significant part of the West - not even neighbouring Australia - prepared to make it an ongoing international issue (Portugal's objections were themselves compromised by its colonial legacy). Contemporary 'Asia mindedness' can all too easily cast those in Australia who want to make it an issue as racists, as being anti-Islam or pro-Christian.

To be fair, economic enmeshment is not the only reason why the debate over the Australian imaging of Asia has become so unhappily predictable. It is closely connected with the standing of Asians in Australia. For better or worse the standing of ethnic communities in Australia is associated with the broader standing of their homeland, their religion and their culture in the Australian (read Western) context. (This can be so much so that it encourages researchers to find that, for instance, SBS's now defunct Asia Report contributed to racist stereotypes of Asia because it reported Asian 'bad news' - what news program doesn't report bad news?). Furthering one's cultural and political standing as an (ethnic) national in the Australian context, where ethnicity is defined with reference to the homeland or region, inevitably involves taking a stand in favour of the homeland or region or remaining silent, sometimes regardless of its politics. Here we are dealing with the politics of ethnicity and multiculturalism in the Australian context.

Ethnicity, Race and Nation

(Ethnic) multiculturalism's emergence as a policy issue in Australia was coincidental with a significant scaling back of migration in the 1970s. In its first manifestation, it was a program aimed at accommodating the existing, principally Southern European, cultural diversity. As such it was a second wave post-settlement program concerned to clean up 'the social mess' of the large scale immigration programs of the 1950s and 1960s and modernise the creaky assimilationist and later integrationist logics. These immigration programs brought with them their fair share of social dislocation, alienation, lack of life opportunities, recognition, and problems of communication. This is why as a policy it was directed and largely seen to be for 'ethnics' (in 1980 SBS was even called 'Ethnic Television'). But by the mid-1980s multiculturalism had become "mainstreamed" as being for everyone. In turn multicultural policy making became central to Australia's international and local self-representation. Multiculturalism consequently became more inclusive and increasingly directed at a whole raft of social institutions and policy areas.

As immigration became more large scale, it also became a vehicle for accommodating a new wave of extra cultural diversity as large-scale immigration programs were recommenced in the 1980s, this time with a significant Asian component in the refugee, family reunion and skills/business categories. This time it was not only the mainstream culture made up of peoples of principally Anglo-Celtic and Northern European origin that was targeted to enlarge their cultural horizons, their capacity for toleration and understanding. It was now also the minority Southern European and Middle Eastern communities.

All had to accommodate a new wave of ethnic and cultural diversity brought about by a combination of Indo-Chinese refugees and an increasingly South-East, South and East Asian immigrant intake (as British Isles and continental European migration significantly declined). At the same time multiculturalism became a means for those recent arrivals to gain some purchase and claim on what it meant to be an Australian citizen and to live in Australia. By the late 1980s multicultural policy had become not just a social and "good neighbour" policy but also an economic policy assisting the political and policy goals of greater Australian integration into Asia. The late 1980s witnessed the self-conscious creation of Australia's future as being in Asia and Asian immigration came to be seen as an important vehicle alongside education programs in helping provide for greater 'enmeshment'. At the same time the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the reemergence of war in the Balkans foregrounded homeland-diaspora relations and communication corridors. In their various ways each of the essays in this volume attests to this mixed legacy of multiculturalism.

Jon Stratton and Ien Ang provide a framing essay to this section in their discussion of US and Australian versions of multiculturalism. Their emphasis is upon the different 'multicultural imagined communities' each represents. They argue that Australian and US national identity historically took different routes. In the US national identity is figured ideologically via a commitment to an '[E]nlightment originated ideology privileging a shared moral universe which permeates the American experience of society'. They call this 'ideological universalism'. By contrast Australian identity is figured culturally in that 'Australia had sought to emulate the European idea of a homogeneous race/culture as the basis of the imagined community of the nation'. Consequently the society 'constructed by multiculturalism in Australia' is registered 'as an inclusive particularism' in that 'ethnic minority cultures are now welcomed and celebrated as enriching Australian national culture rather than threatening it'. Stratton and Ang argue that multiculturalism is not only a policy dealing with immigrants, but 'a new national cultural policy'. Another important structural difference they find between Australian and US multiculturalism is that in the US, multiculturalism has been politicised 'largely from the bottom up, its stances advanced by minority groups (African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and so on) who regard themselves as excluded from the American mainstream'; while in Australia 'multiculturalism is a centrepiece of official government policy, that is, a top-bottom political strategy implemented by those in power precisely to improve the inclusion of ethnic minorities within national Australian culture.' Stratton and Ang end by arguing that '[t]o seize on multiculturalism's more radical potential is to give up the ideal of national unity itself without doing away with the promise of a flexible, porous, and open-ended national culture'.

Kolar-Panov's essay in this volume testifies to the reach and power of informal communication corridors amongst ethnic communities. Because they tend to be informal and outside of the reach of Australian policy and political processes, homeland-diaspora relations tend to be overlooked in discussions of multiculturalism which foreground the migrant/host country - ethnic/Anglo-Celt relations. This ommission needs remedy. With the Macedonian/Greek and Serbian/Croatian community conflicts and their rivalrous political lobbying in Australia, it is clear that these conflicts have substantially developed and been sustained outside the Anglophone communication corridors. In this case it is not the relation between the ethnic minority and the Australian mainstream that is at issue but the extent to which 'homeland politics and international relations' (or non-relations) powerfully enters into the diaspora's communication corridors, reconfiguring it and its relation to the Australian mainstream.

Rachel Fensham returns our attention to the cultural policy elaboration of a politics of cultural difference in her response to Gay Hawkins' From Nimbin to Mardi Gras: Constructing Community Arts. In Australian Community Arts the politics of cultural difference is not reducible to a politics of 'ethnic difference' but also and importantly includes differences in gender, region, class, sexual preference, lifestyle and amateur and professional cultural practitioners. Against Hawkins emphases upon policy inventing the field of community arts, Fensham picks over the ways in which our 'modes of understanding cultural difference' can sometimes have little to do with 'the structural, and totalising, functions of a community policy'. This leads her to seek the extent to which community arts policies and policy making neither exhaust nor proscribe the field. Consequently the value of the community arts experience 'has been less at the level of the project which engenders small group face-to-face relations and more at the level of the creation of invisible networks, identifications and circulations between people'. Community arts practice is significant here because the meaning of community was able to be 'stretched by these cultural activists to include commitments to equal social and political rights, the representation of diversity, the acknowledgement of different histories and the ability to facilitate competing forces within the workplace'.

Freda Freiberg's analysis of the (non)representation of Jews in the context of Australian cinema raises a number of important issues of a national cultural nature. Freiberg notes that the larrikin characteristics associated with the Australian, and the Irish, and British immigrant, are also characteristics shared by the London 'cockney' Jews who were also transported. Her analysis is suggestive of the ways in which the 'Australian stereotypes' so closely associated with Anglo-Celtic culture had resonances in the Jewish community and elsewhere, proferring spaces of identification but not easy inclusion. As part of her discussion of Jewish (non)representation she analyses the most significant and sustained Jewish representation in performance, the very popular comic stage personality of the 1930s and 1940s 'Mo' (Roy Rene) - an Australian 'cockney Jew' finding that his 'dirty stage Jew performed a useful social function: he allowed his audience to indulge their taboo obscene thoughts and feelings'. Freiberg goes on to note the clear debt the ocker persona of the 1970s and 1980s owed to Mo. Freiberg also develops a multicausal analysis for the absence of Australian Jews from the screen. She notes, for example, that the Jewish American cinema, annual Jewish film festivals and the like already fill a cultural gap (just as Hollywood serves this function generally in Anglophone Australia making Australian cinema largely non-essential). She also notes the negative impact on cultural workers within the Jewish community of expectations to 'dignify and romanticise Jews and Judaism' and 'confine themselves to ennobling or sentimental portrayals of Jewish characters, actions and beliefs'.

The relation between Aboriginal and settler cultural formations is foregrounded in essays by Toby Miller and William Routt. Miller frames his discussion of the revised edition of Graeme Turner's survey of Australian film and literary narratives in National Fictions in terms of the international interest there might be in such narratives and such a book. Miller notes the way in which Australia disappeared for the great Western modern theorists (of state, culture, the unconconscious and nation) when it became 'modern'. As he puts it:

When Australia becomes a nation, and takes away the birthrights of citizenship from people of colour, "Australians" comes to signify something dull, obvious, and above all simply displaced in space (Europeanness) rather than in time (nature).

Using Turner's and Ross Gibson's analyses of Australian filmic and literary representation as his guide, Miller further argues that:

The refusal of adequate land rights to the original inhabitants of Australia assured newer arrivals an imaginary space of self-fashioning, where an inability to cope intellectually with the harsh new world permitted an association of Aboriginal people with a form of land-spirit harmony that simultaneously legitimised disowning them of that heritage (as it was less material than soulful) and utilising that spirit-place as a substitute for the developmentalist ethic of white capitalism.

Miller touches on many of the themes raised by Routt in his discussion of Peter Weir's The Last Wave. Routt is concerned, inter alia with that film's identity politics. Here the main lead's quest for identity turns on the search for a cultural identity in which Aborigines function as 'helpers' and 'guides'. Indeed the film has the main character, a white lawyer, establishing his cultural identity through killing an Aborigine. Noting how uncertainties about national identity are characteristic of both Australia and the US, thereby making their national identities liable to negotiation through others (who apparently have such identities), Routt makes the general argument that 'the point about "national identity", like "national cinema" 'is never whether any specific one exists or not, but whether a worthy one exists or not'. We are, he says, never far away from questions of value. We want to make '"Australia" and "good" the same thing'. He is equally certain about the results which he calls 'stupid' and 'evil'. Routt's essay raises the place of Aborigines in the broader national imaginary. As Ross Gibson notes 'the need for a dignified settlement with the incumbents who were dispossessed during the invasion' has become an increasing moral imperative (Ross Gibson 80). The issue of incorporation and appropriation of black people's culture into a national culture and identity is a live issue arising out of this film. It also opens onto the concerns raised by Mitzi Goldman in her essay on the Jazz film Listen Up.

Goldman attends to the connection between Jazz and African American identities and politics. She broaches the issues of black voices, their viable spaces, and the nature of the white (ie., non-African American) appropriation of black sounds and the black response to this appropriation (her essay points back to concerns raised by Ang and Stratton in their analysis of American multiculturalism and forward to the concern of our next section with indigenous issues). For Goldman these issues arise in the discussion of an aesthetic issue: can there be a Jazz film? and can there be a Jazz poetry drawing on Jazz rhythms and orientations? The 'Jazz film' Listen Up and the 'Jazz poetry' of Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) are both firmly situated within the aesthetics of Jazz and within a wider African American cultural and political affirmation. She notes how the wider appreciation of Jazz tends to strip the music of its black political and cultural affirmations and how this emerges and is dealt with as a problem by performers and African American cultural critics alike. (In this context Rolf de Heer's Australian film Dingo with its Miles Davis persona would provide fertile grounds for analysis.)

Aboriginal and Indigenous Issues

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues have figured largely on political and cultural horizons in the 1980s and 1990s. The 1980s saw the development of Aboriginal broadcasting, the Broadcasting into Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme (BRACS), the awarding of the Central Australian footprint for the remote commercial televison licence to Imparja, the emergence of Aboriginal programming on SBS-TV and the ABC, and an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural revival. And, the early 1990s saw the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and, of course, the single largest news item in column inches and otherwise - the High Court's Mabo decision.

Stephen Muecke in his response to Marcia Langton's important monograph 'Well I saw it on the television and heard it on the radio' turns on enacting a practice he has advanced elsewhere of 'affirmative appropriation' (Textual Spaces 184). Against an emphasis upon 'representations' Muecke, like Langton, suggests that 'representations matter less than protocols (how to "politely" intervene)'. This emphasis upon protocols and the need for negotiation is central to Mudrooroo's essay which is written from the unhappy ideological climate of Western Australia, where the Premier, Richard Court, poses the Commonwealth's response to Mabo as an Aboriginal accommodation that is anti-development and the antithesis of the economic. Aboriginal accommodation becomes a social cost not a social, political and economic opportunity (or rather, an opportunity only in so far as it provides for reconciliation, and then simply a moral opportunity). 3 Mudrooroo also criticises Blackfellas for its lack of engagement with the broader Nyoongah politics at the time just as he criticises filmmaking practices more generally for their incapacity to dismember ruinous stereotypes. He writes

Seeking to film "how it is"...may lie in experimenting with these conventions and practices, rather than in accepting them. Of course this may involve commercial ruination; but then we are all familiar with the stories of directors selling their houses to finish their films, another mis-representation this may be; but then, if it is not, then all it means is that "ruination" would come from "artistic" con-pro-testation rather than from purely commercial ones.

Running through each of these essays is not only a concern for the relationship between Aborigines and non-Aboriginal institutions of filmmaking and film criticism but for the articulation of Aboriginal voices and a degree of control over representation. Muecke, Mudrooroo and the other writers in this collection are concerned for the maintenance and renewal of locally - and regionally-based indigenous cultures that exist nowhere else. This brings their concerns close to those of other indigenous peoples in Canada (see Michael Meadows' essay in this volume) and the Cook Islands (see Duane Varan's article in this volume). For his part Michael Meadows contrasts Canadian and Australian indigenous broadcasting initiatives from the standpoint of the indigenous practitioners (itself a matter of protocol). He also notes the odd placement of Aboriginal broadcast policy making in the Australian context. In the new Broadcast Services Act there is no statement or recognition of indigenous broadcasting as a sector of broadcasting. Michael Meadows see this as a weakness of the new act. Varan's study of the Cook Islands' experiment with television also stays close to the audience and people concerned. This enables him to rephrase the Islanders' fears about the impact of largely imported television away from a straight forward "cultural imperialism" optic. He writes that:

the fears of Cook Islanders seem less about "cultural imperialism" than about "cultural erosion" - not about cultural conquest by foreign nations, but about a gradual displacement of particular facets of local culture.

Varan's dual emphasis upon television and the mixed legacies of cultural erosion is continued in Terry Flew's review essay on John Hartley's Tele-ologies and my own Australian Television Culture. Flew uses both works to suggest the scope for approaches which 'combine textual studies, political economy, cultural studies and policy analysis'. Indeed he sees the combination of these aspects into 'hybrid analyses' as marking out television studies' 'distinct field of methodological innovation'. For Flew the medium of television is 'a curious hybrid' (which is why it requies 'a diverse range of methodological resources' to study it); furthermore Australian television is 'particularly an antipodean, English-language, multicultural post-colonial site such as Australia'.

Finally, Ien Ang reviews Elizabeth Jacka's edited collection Continental Shift with its examination of the rhetoric and reality of globalising tendencies and their consequences for culture. Good reading!

This collection is dedicated to Sylvia Lawson, activist, feminist, film and cultural critic, teacher, mentor and friend. Sylvia has set an example in her practice as a cultural activist from the 1960s to the present day that has served as a reference point and standard. Sylvia has always believed that, as intellectuals, we must strive to be generous with our time and our engagements.


1. Australia is particularly vulnerable here as commodity trade - making up so much of Australia's exports - is often conducted on an inter-governnmental basis thereby further weakening the Australian bargaining position.

2. Perera (17) for example writes that this film along with Turtle Beach and Embassy produce South-East Asia as 'a surrogate Middle East of Islam, despotism, violence, oil and sex, a storehouse where young boys as well as women circulate as endlessly accessible objects of derise and of destruction'.

3. On this matter aspects of a left and right politics neatly dovetail with each other differing only on the value assigned to this social cost and moral opportunity. Other Aboriginal and white activists want to muddy up these assumptions of economic costs.

Works cited

Gibson, Ross. South of the West: Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana U P, 1992.

Langton, Marcia. "'Well, I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television...'" An Essay for the Australian Film Commission on the politics and aesthetics of filmmaking by and about Aboriginal people and things." Sydney: Australian Film Commission, 1993.

Muecke, Stephen. Textual Spaces: Aboriginality and Cultural Studies. Kensington, Sydney: U NSW P, 1992.

Perera, Suvendrini. "Representation wars: Malaysia, Embassy, and Australia's Corps Diplomatique". Australian Cultural Studies: A Reader. Eds. M. Morris and J. Frow. Sydney: Allen and Unwin 1993. 15-29.

New: 22 November, 1995 | Now: 25 March, 2015