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Changing how we describe diversity in Australia

1 May 20230 comments

Australia needs more nuanced language to describe the nation’s diversity, the author of a new report argues.

Writing the latest Scanlon Foundation ‘narrative’, researcher Trish Prentice says that labels are useful, but they also present a challenge.

“By reducing an individual or a category of people to a simpler form, they inevitably take highly complex situations or individuals and simplify them,” Ms Prentice said.

“The loss of detail or nuance can work against the purpose of the label, even having an unintended negative effect,” she said.

Ms Prentice says that the term ‘CALD’ (culturally and linguistically diverse) can be discomforting for some people from diverse communities.

“There is clearly a need for population data that describe Australia’s cultural diversity, but when it comes to service provision or resource allocation, perhaps the label CALD no longer serves the purpose for which it was intended,” she said.

“A ‘box’ for cultural diversity still may remain necessary, but we may need a different box, especially as Australia’s population makeup changes and continues to diversify.

“While we may never all agree on a term, what matters is that people explore ways to build solidarity around collective experiences, shared goals and common challenges,” Ms Prentice said.

One of her contentions in the narrative essay, titled ‘Why call me that? Reflections on labels in a diverse nation’, is that terms that divide are not helpful.

Ms Prentice argues that the term CALD has insufficient clarity as to who is included.

“It is unclear who falls into the category of CALD. While the ABS identified a series of measures to be used to determine a person’s CALD status, it also left scope to include other variables and to omit any that “may not be appropriate or useful,” she says.

“This has resulted in ‘various definitions of CALD being used interchangeably’, making some data difficult to compare. An examination of 108 different public health studies found that no single study used all of the core data variables identified by the ABS to define the CALD status of their sample.”

Ms Prentice also argues the term is too broad, saying that in an attempt to account for the complexity of cultural diversity, the term CALD may mask differences in experiences and circumstances that specific communities face.

“For instance, the term conceals disparities in socio-economic status, as well as levels of “education, health and wellbeing” across culturally diverse populations,” she says.

“An individual from a refugee background comes to Australia with a very different set of circumstances to an individual settling in Australia on a permanent skilled visa. Yet both individuals are considered culturally and linguistically diverse.”

“The grouping together of the relatively advantaged with those who are disadvantaged limits the term’s usefulness as a tool for addressing barriers.

“How we navigate differences, while also embracing commonalities, will help to shape our identities as individuals, as Australians and as people who share a common humanity” Ms Prentice says.

“Labels are necessary to our cognitive functioning and social relations, but through the process of finding the right one, individuals and communities can be empowered, finding connection and a safe place to exist,” she says.

Another contention of the narrative is that labels as they relate to cultural communities are limited and it asks whether term ‘Culturally and Linguistically Diverse’ (CALD) is still the most meaningful way to describe and measure our diversity.

Ms Prentice attempts to answer this question through real stories that examine the tensions individuals face and the power of choice when it comes to labelling and describing oneself.

She highlights the complexity associated with cultural identity and the difficulty in reducing what is personal, layered and nuanced to a single label.

In one of these stories, is that of Brisbane-based writer Michelle Mashuro1, who used to describe herself as an African Australian but doesn’t anymore.

She was born in Zimbabwe and has lived here for more than 20 years but she doesn’t identify as Australian. She uses an entire sentence to describe her identity.

“I’m a Black Queer woman in the creative scene in Brisbane,” she says proudly. “That’s me, in a nutshell.”   

“Being African is one such label. For Michelle, it is a source of pride and a reflection of her nationality and cultural heritage, but some people assume that African means uneducated. Immigrant has similar negative connotations,” Ms Prentice writes.

“While it is technically true in her case, Michelle feels that the term comes laden with a sense that such a person doesn’t belong, that they have only chosen to come here. Moreover, the person is assumed to speak little English and to face a range of barriers to success in Australian society. But for Michelle, none of these things are true.

“She speaks English fluently; she is very familiar with Australian culture; and she has a good understanding of how people interact with each other and what it takes to make a valuable and productive life.

“Labels can be empowering when they are chosen and when they reflect a person’s authentic identity, but damaging when they come attached with associations that simply aren’t true.

“For Michelle, the process of defining and becoming comfortable with her identity has been inextricably linked to finding a community of people in which she belongs. For her, it’s the African diaspora in Brisbane,” Ms Prentice says,

Another story is that of Bwe from Victoria’s Multicultural Commission.

Bwe came to Australia from a context where exclusion meant he could not claim the national identity that was, perhaps, due to him, Ms Prentice says.

“His journey to define his identity has flourished in Australia, where freedom has allowed him to find a new sense of belonging,” she writes.

“Bwe Thay’s identity has been shaped both by his cultural heritage and experiences in his former country of residence. As a designated stateless person he craved a label, an identity, a descriptor, to define who he was and where he had come from, but it was only in Australia he found it.

“His new identity – as an Australian with Burmese heritage – has empowered him to connect with others of similar heritage. Through these connections he has enjoyed both the simple pleasure of hearing and communicating in his native language, as well as the collective power of seeking out, as a group, contributions they can make to Australian society.

“Statelessness disconnected him from his national, cultural and linguistic roots, but celebrating his heritage in his new Australian home has helped him to move ‘beyond injustices’ and to find healing from the past. No longer is his cultural and ethnic identity a source of exclusion, but one with the potential to build bridges with others,” Ms Prentice writes.

In the narrative Bwe, himself, says: “We are so proud that we come from different cultural backgrounds. We are so proud of our faith, our identity. And multiculturalism is all about that. It’s not just about how you integrate into society. It’s about you proudly sharing your heritage with the broader society and bringing out the best of everything and everyone”.