Labels can be useful for diversifying the arts

 

The lack of cultural diversity in many realms of Australian society, such as politics, the media and creative arts, is both a low hum in the background for many of us associated with these sectors, and an issue of cyclical mainstream relevance.

Cover of the 'Shifting the Balance' report by Diversity Arts Australia portrays stacked plastic chairsDuring one such cycle in 2012, actors Jay Laga'aia and Firass Dirani spoke up about the absence of multicultural actors in Australian-made dramas. Their complaint garnered some mainstream attention, and a certain current affairs show decided to produce an episode on it. When the producer rang me at the time for a comment as a co-convenor of the Asian Australian Film Forum and Network, I pointed to the paucity of culturally diverse leadership as one of the root causes of the problem.

Since then, we have had global momentum around the #Oscarssowhite hashtag, with ripple effects in Australia leading to the 'Seeing Ourselves' report by Screen Australia in 2016. There is more advocacy for culturally diverse representation all round, even though the categories that should have enabled this have been around for much longer in arts policy.

For instance, the term 'Culturally and Linguistically Diverse' (CALD) was introduced in Australia in 1996 by the Ministerial Council of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, to replace the designation 'Non-English Speaking Background' (NESB). Among other issues, NESB was perceived as ascribing negative connotations to non-Anglo communities. Other multicultural societies use variations of such monikers: Canada has 'visible minorities', while the UK prefers 'Black and Asian Minority Ethnic' (BAME). While the latter terms may be seen as more specific than Australia's CALD, they have been critiqued in domestic contexts.

A recent groundbreaking report on the lack of CALD representation in arts leadership in Australia is called 'Shifting the Balance' and recognises the limitations of the CALD label. According to Diversity Arts Australia (DARTS) CEO Lena Nahlous, 'we recognise that terms like CALD — used to categorise non-Anglo migrant cultural identity — are both limited and problematic, because they have been constituted by discourses that homogenise and erase economic, political and other intersections of identity and power'.

Launching the report, ABC radio presenter Beverley Wang remarked that this label cast her and breakfast television host Karl Stefanovic (of non-Anglo ancestry) as equals. At the same time, DARTS and other organisations insist on the practical need for a category like CALD to set benchmarks.

As a student of postcolonial theory, I was introduced to the concept of 'strategic essentialism' and continue to employ it in my work and everyday life. This means that while primordial identity markers can be reductive, they can transform into valuable tools of resistance when groups facing similar systemic marginalisation join forces.

 

"CALD inclusion is not being advocated in place of Indigenous communities, but alongside it, and with the acceptance that all non-European migrants are also beneficiaries of settler colonialism."

 

In an era marked by ideological rifts and media bubbles, it is more vital than ever that we use categories such as CALD to build bridges, while not losing sight of our differences and varying levels of disadvantage. This does not mean that we shouldn't come up with a more specific classification to signify non-European migrants, but that the box itself is necessary, and needs to be a reminder for reflection rather than an exercise in pigeon-holing.

'Shifting the Balance' is only focused on CALD as a measure of diversity in Australia's creative sector, but this does not mean that it is not cognisant of, or wishing to obliterate, other kinds of diverse representation in leadership. Towards the conclusion, the report notes 'a need for generational, intercultural and intersectional diversity among decision-makers, including existing CALD decision-makers'.

In the recommendation for further research, it identifies, 'sophisticated and nuanced research into the intersections of cultural and or linguistic identities with socio-economic status, gender, age, sexual orientation and disability, and the impact these intersecting factors have on the inclusion of CALD communities in arts organisations'. These measures should not be seen as alternatives to, or in competition with, cultural diversity.

Along similar lines, the representation and leadership of our First Nations is vital for a thriving arts sector. CALD inclusion is not being advocated in place of Indigenous communities, but alongside it, and with the acceptance that all non-European migrants are also beneficiaries of settler colonialism. What is required is a recognition of common goals to build solidarities that lead to action. This has already begun in grassroots youth-oriented initiatives, such as the Bankstown Poetry Slam in western Sydney and Soul Lounge in Adelaide.

Finally, I am heartened that the conversation about arts leadership has begun in Australia. This is not only because DARTS has provided us with evidence and policy instruments for improvement through the report. It is also because Australia is now more prepared to have difficult dialogue around what constitutes meaningful diversity and inclusion, why it matters, and who should care.

Representative leadership in particular matters because organisational change (across levels, sectors and roles) cannot occur without the willingness to commit and implement targets. We want the low hum to be replaced by the decisive roar of progress. The creative arts sector that results will not only reflect Australia's demographic reality, but also set benchmarks for equity that everyday Australians can look up to.

 

 

Sukhmani KhoranaSukhmani Khorana is Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of Wollongong. She has published extensively on diasporic cultures, refugee narratives, and the politics of empathy. Sukhmani also writes creative non-fiction, and is the author of The Tastes and Politics of Inter-Cultural Food in Australia (Rowman and Littlefield).

Topic tags: Sukhmani Khorana, arts, diversity

 

 

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