From White Australia to Cosmopolitan Melbourne in 40 years: really?

The recent coverage of Sol Trujillo’s parting comments that Australia is a racist country, in fact, ‘backwards’, has got me thinking. Here I am, writing a paper about the ways in which Melbourne is or isn’t cosmopolitan and how I’m testing that question via Melbournians’ foodways, and Sol pops up and says he’s found the country racist.

The media have been typically inane in their coverage, and the sound bites from members of government have been similarly disappointing (in that horribly predictable sort of way). No matter what one thinks of Trujillo (and I’m sure many people have rather strong sentiments about the former CEO of Telstra), and further no matter what his motivations are for making the allegations now, as he unhappily departs, the issue remains that a Mexican-American claims he has suffered racism in this country. He may or may not be ‘right’, so to speak, in that it’s entirely possible that nobody who made him feel he was being singled out for his race in some way actuallly meant to, or harbours any racist sentiments. Then again, to suggest Australia is devoid of racism is high farce, and you may as well join the ranks of Stolen Generations deniers like Andrew Bolt immediately. Of course there’s still racism in Australia, as there is in America, China, England, and everywhere else in the world. Why would Trujillo not have felt some of that? Dismissing his claims so snottily, as have the politicians, seems permissible because he’s such a figure of power, but do we want to be those revisionists? I don’t.

Imagine if the claim was from a well-respected academic, say, Ghassan Hage, that Australia still harbours a great deal of racism. Oh, Hage has made that claim, and still is in many nuanced and polemical ways (yes, I believe you can be both nuanced and polemical). And Hage gets mixed responses, it seems. What about a woman making claims of sexism in the workplace? She’d probably be told she was imagining things, if my experience of Australian reception of such critiques is anything to go by.

Is Australia ‘racist’ and ‘backwards’? As a national imaginary, I certainly believe we are not such a place anymore. The top-down rhetoric since Hawke and Keating has been that we are a multicultural country, a tolerant nation, arms wide open. The bottom-up response certainly seems to be increasingly matching that hopeful national imaginary, though we will never be rid of division and unfortunate habits of essentialising Others, no matter who ‘we’ are. Trujillo probably rightly perceived that he was sometimes marginalised by (especially the more homogeneous white, middle class) Australians who were unaccustomed to cultural diversity in ‘their’ territory. I’m sure most of them didn’t mean anything by their behaviour – but the folks he would have been with would probably be better described as cosmopolitan capitalists than cultural cosmopolitans.

How far have we come since the White Australia policy was officially repealed in 1967 (though not operationally until about 1973)? It’s not that long ago, really. The people who supported that different national imaginary are not just still around, they’re largely running the country at the moment. Is it any wonder that the World Values Survey is finding that with generational change comes higher levels of cultural cosmopolitanism – expressed as a belief of ‘belonging to the world’. Perhaps if Trujillo sends one of his children (does he have children?) back to Australia in another five or ten years, they’ll have a different story to tell. In my 16 years in Australia, I’ve found it to be increasingly diverse and comfortable with difference, but then, maybe that’s merely a reflection of either a) I moved suburbs or b) I want to believe the cosmopolitan version of us in order to reify my own sense of myself as cosmopolitan. Hence my project of interviewing a broad cross-section of people in terms of age, ethnicity, education, income, etc is so important – to stop all these (stupid) common-sense claims about what Australia ‘is’ or ‘isn’t’. Now to write that paper…

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Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community…

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