Not Yet, But Maybe Soon
The notion of a multicultural society is difficult for many people to accept, and not only because they yearn for the purity of a singular description. If a city, a region or even a country is multicultural, how do we define its multiculture? Of the many definitions proposed for culture, perhaps the best is that it provides a common system of signs and signals by which a group of people can function as a group of people. In a sense, culture is the sum of our presumptions, the net of our possibilities.
So the coexistence of more than one culture, as distinct cultures in themselves, would seem impossible in the same society. As a policy, multiculturalism has always stumbled at this hurdle, failing to satisfactorily negotiate the hazards of divergent cultural practices, discrepant ways of living, juxtaposed against each other.
Perhaps that’s why the Chinese government calls minority ethnic groups ‘nationalities’ – it skirts the issue, places them at the edges of supranational life, with their own cultural spheres only loosely connected to the Han whole. Conceptually, assimilation isn’t an issue because minority cultures either continue at the margins or disappear as the centre expands. There’s no room for compromise.
This is quite obviously a case of xenophobia, but so then are the many failures of coexistence in Western societies. Allow me to give a brief example that involves not ethnic cleansing – nothing so extreme – but merely the pursuit of everyday life.
Over the long decade of recently ended conservative rule in Australia the government shrank back from adequately contemplating how a mess of cultures – at once singular and interdependent – could satisfy the dominant culture’s need to be recognised as the universal Australian culture. People in the majority no longer considered themselves British, as my grandparents did, but were encouraged to maintain the sort of systematic biases that allowed them to go about their cultural lives in much the same way.
The newly elected Labor government has done little to reverse this myopia. Australians tend to accept that they live and speak and write in a multicultural society without much considering the multiples beyond cuisine and unusual faces glimpsed quickly on sometimes crowded streets.
So we have much the same situation in two very different countries, which suggests that despite an enormous amount of chest thumping around the world – both in an out of academia – very little has been done to reconcile the urge for an illusory national unity with the accidents of history that people every country with groups never quite fitting the norm. It is within this climate of disguised cultural indecision that Professor George T. ‘Sam’ Crane at The Useless Tree asks an intriguing question. Can a black man ever become Chinese?