Whitewashed culture has dark implications



May 30, 2013

Lindy Edwards

Our Anglo-centric identity is a threat to social cohesion.

The mother and stepfather of murdered British soldier Lee Rigby. Photo: Reuters

As Britain reels from another terrorist attack by a British-born citizen, countries around the world need to be looking at how we build cohesion and social solidarity among our increasingly diverse populations. This debate is particularly important in Australia, as one of the world’s great immigration nations, and a country with a predisposition towards a truly dangerous cultural policy.

During the Howard years, a peculiar policy mix developed in which we reasserted an Anglo- centred account of Australian identity, and at the same time had a major expansion of non-white immigration.

At one level the policy rationale is clear enough. As the economy boomed there were strong business and economic demands for high immigration. Howard sought to alleviate Anglo-identified Australians’ anxiety at the change, by reaffirming their primacy in Australia’s society and culture.

Implicit in the Howard narrative is that the real Australians are British-derived, and everyone else is just the supporting cast who should keep their heads down. The multicultural Australian narrative of the 1980s and ’90s gave way to a story of white mateship, barbecues, and an increasing emphasis on the Anzac myth as defining Australian identity.

The signs of the cultural change he created are everywhere. You have probably noticed how in the 1980s the crowd at the cricket was doused in green and gold. In those days, Australian flags were rare and seemed anachronistic, yet now Australian flags with their Union Jacks are all pervasive.

The impact is most marked on our television screens. The Australia of our imaginations is projected onto the small screen. It is an overwhelmingly white world that looks nothing like our city streets.

It is a strategy that worked to a point. There are Australian Electoral Studies poll data that indicates people’s concern about immigration dropped in the Howard years, even as the number of migrants increased. However, it is a policy that is remarkably short-sighted.

The danger is inviting migrants to this country and then creating a cultural policy which locks them into being outsiders. This is not a huge problem for the first generation who usually feel like outsiders anyway, and are grateful for the opportunities their adopted home offers. The bigger problem is for the second generation, who are born here but continue to be treated as on the margins.

For kids of Caucasian appearance the problem is an internal one. Anglo-Australians don’t notice them. They merge into the landscape and don’t appear to be different. However, the young person themselves feels the exclusion of knowing the national story does not apply to them.

The bigger problem is for kids whose skin marks them as outside the Anglo tradition. These kids will grow up being treated like foreigners in the only country they have ever known. This compounds their internal sense of alienation. It creates a sense that they will never be truly accepted, and that the doors open to others are not open to them.

Social fragmentation and threats to stability do not occur because a society has different cultural groups. Every free society has that. We already have a range of subcultures, from corporate high-flyers, to footy-heads, to greenies, to conservative Christians and gay dance clubs. What is dangerous is when group identities become aligned with grievance.

The true threats to social cohesion arise when whole subgroups feel that they are not able to achieve their life goals and ambitions through hard work and playing by the rules – when they feel that, irrespective of merit, they will be sidelined.

The question of how we create a cohesive society in which everyone feels able to fulfil their dreams is a national security issue. The disenfranchised of the past simply became isolated Marxists or anarchists. These days, an increasing number are becoming jihadis with an ideology of violence and an internet of resources on how to take out their vengeance.

This is an issue on which our political leadership has been missing in action. The Labor government has continued singing from Howard’s song sheet, reinforcing rather than challenging the approach. Recent comments by Christopher Pyne suggest an Abbott government is lining up for more of the same.

With 50 per cent of Australians having at least one parent born overseas, this shouldn’t be a party political issue. It needs to be above short-term political stunts.

We need political leadership with the maturity to realise that for the Anglo-identified population there is a tension between their short and long-term interests. In the short term they benefit from preserving their privilege, but in the long term their interests lie in social stability, peace and cohesion.

We need the kind of leadership that can grasp the magnitude of the challenge and bring us together by focusing on the long term.

Lindy Edwards is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of NSW and the author of The Passion of Politics (Allen & Unwin, 2013).


7 thoughts on “Whitewashed culture has dark implications

  1. ” The disenfranchised of the past simply became isolated Marxists or anarchists.”

    Last night I watched “The Assassination of Richard Nixon”. Sean Penn convincingly played Sam Byck, a disenfranchised, downtrodden man who felt sidelined from society while dishonest politicians get away with murder.

    In one hilarious scene, he even tries to join the Black Panthers. He becomes an anarchist and eventually commits what can only be described as an act of terrorism but the transformation is so slow and detailed that it seems a logical outcome that really could have happened to anybody in that situation.

    Sam is Jewish, but that’s irrelevant as his story is not unique to any one background.

    When we see the terrible acts that some people commit, like the murder of that soldier in Woolwich, we only see the end result. It is not only naive to draw conclusions from the murderers’ words and actions at the time of committing the crime, it is dangerous. Dangerous because we risk missing the real root causes of the tragedy and, hence, are doomed to see it repeated again and again.

    As Lindy Edwards’ article so elegantly argues, we need our leaders to rise above the fray and tackle the real causes of social instability, without the distraction of ethnic labelling and stereotyping.

    We’re all in this together.

  2. This article strikes a chord, sums up just what I had tried articulating myself to various people but always came up just short. Very appropriate and if we get the basics started now, we can head off a big problem in the future where we are almost certain to have the self fulfilling prophecy come to fruition, that of home grown anti social and bitter young people being the fertile ground for extremism and hate to flourish, no one sane wants that!

    • A lot of the comments from readers on the SMH original were absolutely dreadful. It must have been the Rent a Racist crowd out and about.

      That’s why I thought it should be re-blogged here.

      • Good choice to reblog. What I love about WordPress is that the people who post their opinion articulate it a whole lot better than the fools posting on mainstream online media posts – even if they’re arguing a different point. I just avoid reading any of the comment sections (sometimes it’s hard not to though haha)

  3. I think that there is a distinction that needs to be made. There is nothing wrong with being proud of being Australian. People being Australian is what allowed my great grandad to flee from persecution from the English in the old country with my wee little grandad in tow, because he fought to liberate his homeland, and even though he was a wanted man by the british government he wasn’t turned in because the local police had no concern for the problems of the old world. Being Australian is what gave my grandad a career in building the snowy mountain river project. Being Australian is why my other grandpa traveled to the other side of the world to stop a man from committing genocide.It’s why my brother went to Afghanistan to try and help rebuild that country, despite the risks. All of these things are things to be proud off, and we by rights are allowed to be proud of it.

    However, I fully expect everyone to give new immigrants the same chance as my great grandad got. Any less and you are a bad person and a hypocrite. It’s not a scale, it’s a 0 or a 1.

  4. There’s going to be a show on SBS world news -a special about the UK and issues with Islamist extremists and the rise of the far right incl. EDL there. Could be worth watching – think its on tonight but could be wrong. (Sorry ’bout the short notice.)

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