Is it Worth Engaging with Liberal Debates?

Guardian Welcome to Australia

Events in Paris are already provoking new debates about whether trust in multiculturalism is justified.’ A 2015 refugee vigil in Sydney, Australia. Photograph: Mal Fairclough/AAP

That’s small-l liberal debates around tolerance, multiculturalism and interculturalism , within the context of Western liberal democracies.

I think it is worthwhile even if they do seem limited in their capacity to change things — after all, the adoption of multiculturalism and the Racial Discrimination Act 40 years ago has underpinned better lives for non-white people in Australia.

And no, I don’t think anyone should be called a pseudo-white person for participating in debates about where multiculturalism is going now.

Here is an op-ed I published on this in the The Guardian.

Showing solidarity with migrants is more than ‘comfort’ for white people

Tolerance isn’t the most ‘radical’ approach to racism. So why do many non-white Australians participate in movements that promote it as a solution?

Tony Abbott’s prime ministership sparked furious debate about Australia’s commitment to multiculturalism, including a push to wind back 18c, slights against Indigenous “lifestyle choices”, and questions about Australian Muslims’ loyalty to the nation.

As this period now fades into ancient history, Australia’s politicians have begun to re-invest in the multicultural narrative, a prescient move given the polarised debate after recent events in Paris. Earlier this month, the three major political parties made sure to send a high-level representative to address a conference organised by the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia (Fecca).

The mood at the conference was palpable: after years of defensiveness, it was now time to formulate a new national agenda for multicultural policy, practice and public advocacy.

By the end of the two days, Fecca had settled on three themes around which to focus its efforts for the next two years: support for linguistic diversity, opposing discrimination at work and in the community, and national legislation to enshrine multiculturalism as a defining feature of the Australian nation.

The idea of pushing for legislation is bold – such a push would certainly motivate a fierce debate about how to live well in a diverse society, in trying times. Ours is a community that does, by and large, approve of diversity. Organisations like the Scanlon Foundation consistently report high levels of support for multiculturalism, along with large stores of trust by Australians in each other.

At the same time, events in Paris are already provoking new debates about whether such trust is justified, and whether we can protect it in the face of violence in neighbourhoods that look so much like our own.

In light of such debates, many are asking what action we can take to protect our liberal society – not only from the nightmare of suburban violence but also from a dystopia of differentiated citizenship, dispensed based on profiles created by the surveillance state. Of course such a question would beg yet another: is liberal society worth defending, and can liberal politics defend it?

Sections of our community appear to be arguing that the answer to both questions is yes. Indeed, this argument is reflected by crowds at events such as Walk Together, recently organised by Welcome to Australia. Despite its impressive turnout, the event was criticised in Guardian Australia by Alana Lentin and Omar Bensaidi as a futile expression of liberal politics.

In Lentin and Bensaidi’s view – seemingly informed by critical race theories – such expressions will never suffice to restructure a fundamentally racist society. Instead, for them, political liberalism remains intertwined with racist ideas and techniques, leaving liberal anti-racists bound up inside a system they cannot possibly change.

To illustrate their case, Lentin and Bensaidi compared Walk Together with a recent march against racism, also in Paris, and attended by a former Black Panther, no less.

Having created this contrast, they mistakenly assert that the theme of Walk Together was “real Australians say welcome” – an initiative which was in fact created separately by artist Peter Drew. Building on this factual conflation, the authors then argue that having decided to target “real Australians”, organisations like Welcome to Australia must “mainly talk among themselves; the supposed ‘ordinary’ (read: white) Australians”.

These white Australians are supposedly “comforted” by their own liberal anti-racism, leaving racialised Others to contort themselves to fit within ever-shifting frameworks of national identification. Meanwhile, the real violence of racism continues unabated, produced by political structures with colonial roots, as well as everyday forms of micro-aggression.

Such critiques of liberalism are important and valuable. Yet within the structure of such critiques, one point can be glossed over far too quickly. That point is precisely the capacity of liberal national frameworks to shift – or be shifted – in response to pressures generated not only by terrorism, but also by non-violent mobilisation.

These shifts might indeed be constrained by the boundaries of political acceptability, but they can nevertheless underpin better lives for many Australians who are not in fact “‘ordinary’ (read: white)”. This is why events aimed at producing such shifts – including Walk Together – persistently attract such a strong non-white showing.

Demonstrating precisely this point, Lentin and Bensaidi’s critique later drew a comment by Mohamad al-Khafaji, CEO of Welcome to Australia. Al-Khafaji patiently explained that he, like a number of other leaders in the organisation, are not in fact white people. Al-Khafaji himself was a refugee from Iraq, while his colleagues are also first- and second-generation migrants.

Each of these non-white liberals, if you will, carries with them histories that were created within colonial encounters, both old and new. The argument that liberal anti-racists are simply white people comforting each other is therefore unsustainable, even while racism continues to structure many people’s experiences, including those of non-white people who participate in liberal politics.

In reality, 40 years after the abolition of the White Australia policy, and more than a decade after 9/11, the Australian nation is riven by contradictions in relation to its own diversity.

Australian government policies towards refugees are evidence of one side of this contradiction, and so is the securitisation of Australian Muslims in general after the War on Terror. Indeed, the selection of these overlapping groups as particular targets for racism consistently makes it easier for governments to gradually introduce differentiated tiers of Australian citizenship.

Meanwhile, Tim Soutphommassane, the Race Discrimination Commissioner, has spoken of a “bamboo ceiling” operating in Australian workplaces. The Diversity Council of Australia also reports that people of Asian backgrounds are significantly under-represented in leadership roles, at precisely the same time that businesses are being encouraged to engage more, and better—with our Asian neighbours.

Many – especially those in new communities or those particularly targeted for vilification – rely on strong group identities simply to achieve basic recognition. Others – say, from established communities consisting of skilled migrants – might find that while they value their group identities, they are also more than capable of representing themselves within the structures of liberal politics.

These structures do impose constraints around the forms of political engagement they deem acceptable – not only for migrants, however, but also for governments. Intercultural mobilisations such as Walk Together can generate stronger bonds around gestures and practices of cooperation, while also addressing the forms of micro-aggression that might prevent them from forming.

These networks can also be influential in pushing back against what might as well be termed as macro-aggressions, such as those that force refugees into detention centres, and push Muslim youths to the fringes of a society whose diversity multicultural advocates have themselves been reticent to defend for more than a decade.

As events like Walk Together show, it remains entirely possible for Australians to create broader, more inclusive forms of national citizenship with intercultural cooperation at their heart. To the extent that liberal structures provide space for them to be effective, it would be remiss of those who value difference to abstain from participation.

  • First published in The Guardian. Picture: Mal Fairclough/AAP.

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