Experiencing Multiculturalism: When is Diversity, Diverse?

Growing up in middle class Australia, concepts of tolerance, respect, and the abstract celebration of diversity were part and parcel of my family’s commitment to multiculturalism as a social principle.  People were different – and that was A Good Thing. After all, if we were all the same it would be well, pretty boring. In practice, growing up in Sydney’s inner city, our experiences were overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic, diversity unthinkingly portioned out more in eating habits (“Indian for dinner tonight kids”), limited interactions with children from more ethnically diverse backgrounds, or the handful of ageing southern European migrants who still remained in our increasingly gentrifying suburb, rather than cheek-by-jowl reality.

Reaching adulthood, those experiences would become more varied, although at almost thirty, among those who I would consider close confidants are a relatively limited group with fairly similar – if perhaps more international – backgrounds. That is, they are all largely products of a middle-class upbringing, and a consensus model of liberal democracy, if not one that was necessarily exclusively Anglo-Celtic. For those around me, diversity remains A Good Thing – even if it is still experienced once again mostly in debates over where to eat dinner on a Friday night.

Somewhere over the past few years however, what I had assumed was a consensus held by all except a marginal few, seems to have frayed in Australian society. Conservative, hard-right, anti-immigration groups are increasingly agitating for an end to non-discriminatory migration and praying for the end of multiculturalism. These concerns are not just limited to Australia, but can be increasingly observed globally. With the election of President-to-be Trump and the rise of right wing populist movements across Europe, tackling these issues head on is more pressing perhaps than it has ever been.

Living with diversity

The phrase ‘living with diversity’ is now widely used to advocate for the kind of heterogeneous cultural and racial entrepôts that are understood to be characteristic of places like the US, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, to a lesser extent Germany, and sometimes ‘post-national’ cities like London. Yet the model of diversity advocated is indistinct, something observed as ‘diverse’ rather than understood as ‘diverse’ by those who participate in it in the daily capacity. Shopping in a market place side by side with Bangladeshi migrants might feel diverse for someone who has grown up in a mostly white suburb, but for migrant populations, is it anything other than just ‘regular life’?

As I have mentioned, growing up, my understanding of Sydney’s suburb of Newtown was that it was ‘diverse’ – after all it was home to a large gay and lesbian population and had a reputation (deserved) for bohemianism. However, as Lisa Pryor noted back in 2007, it is, at least in terms of country of birth, far less diverse than ‘homogeneous’ suburbs out in Sydney’s leafy north.

In Iran, I was frequently told that the country was ‘diverse’ – home to various languages, ethnic groups, religions, etc. For my informants, every new village was an opportunity to hear dialects and try new food. When I first arrived however, I found Iran to be remarkably not diverse. Ninety-nine percent of the population was Muslim, hamlets across the country looked the same, and the food was basically universal – five staple dishes with rice no matter where one went. Arriving in the forested north of the country for a brief holiday, we were implored to try the ‘unique’ keteh kebab – made from beef rather than the usual chicken or lamb, with rice simply boiled rather than the usual ‘boiled and fried’ method common to other Iranian regions.

It was only towards the end of my stay in Iran that I realised that these small differences that I thought of as being minor signified to many Iranians significant culture specificity and variation across the country. Although those who had travelled to ‘multicultural’ societies like Canada and the United States would agree that the Islamic Republic did not possess “chandfarhangi” (“many cultures”), for those whom meaningful social horizons often ended with their neighbourhood, these ‘microdiverse’ moments of culinary variation were evidence of broader national diversity.

This brings me to the broader point I am trying to get at. Many of us in multicultural societies might squirm at the homogenising impulse of the new right that is rising in much of the Western world, and for good reason. But we might also want to consider the way in which our thinking about diversity is itself superficial and limited. If Iranians can find meaningful differences between beef and chicken, parboiled vs fried rice, rather than simply seeing two kinds of meat and one kind of grain, how can we also find variation amidst homogeneity? Further, what then should we make of these conservative and new-right movements that rail against diversity? What is the nature of the projects they hypothesise, and, is our alternative little more than the preservation of the status quo?

[Image: “Making the popular Persian cuisine Kabab Koobideh / Koubideh” by PersianDutchNetwork]

Leave a Reply