Multicultural Differences: Canada, USA, Australia.

Sneja Gunew (University of Victoria, B.C.)


Setting the Debate

The 'political correctness' (PC) controversy in the US has intruded on Australian intellectual debate, but there seems to be little awareness of the controversy's origins and specific resonances within North America. The PC debate has variously been described as a covert attack on all the reforms that have happened in the name of cultural democracry in the US since the 1960s, and as a 'call ... for the politicisation of academic knowledge by the Right, in the name of "the mainstream" or of "Western civilisation" '. One way of surveying the nationally specific connotations of this debate is through a discussion of multiculturalism, which is central to the argument in the US, but less so to its Australian counterpart

The history of the PC debate is conveniently detailed in two recent publications, Patricia Aufderheide's Beyond PC and Paul Berman's Debating PC. The Major statements, individuals and organisations arrayed in these volumes reveal that, while PC was initially perceived as a binary opposition between left and right, it has now become a more complicated spectrum of positions in which the left can sometimes sound like the right -- as when Miles harvey argues that PC actually contributes too sexism, racism and so on -- or vice versa, as in the following quotation:

I'm in favor of a multicultural curriculum that emphasises what Matthew Arnold called the best that has been thought and said. Non-Western cultures have produced great works that are worthy of study, and I think that young people should know something about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. To do so it is helpful to be exposed to the Koran. Young people should know something about the rise of Japanese capitalism. Is there a Confucian ethic behind the success of Asian entrepreneurship in the same way that we hear about Max Weber, the Protestant ethic, and the spirit of capitalism? These are legitimate questions.

These words come from Dinesh D'Souza, one of the architects of both defining PC and of mounting the campaign against it. What are the major assumptions in this passage, and how do they differ from those we are used to hearing when multicultural issues are aired in Australia? The reference to Arnold is a standard rhetorical ploy for those who invoke cultural excellence; yet Arnold is a rather ambiguous ally, as he was raising the bastions of culture against the anarchic forces of what would now probably be called cultural democracy. More novel is the author's attempt to set up multiculturalism as being centrally concerned with the non-West. In Australia the homogenising term multiculturalism usually refers to groups that are defined oppositionally as non-Anglo rather than non-Western. Post-war European communities are seldom distinguished from more recent non-Europeans arrivals, except in the context of debates about curtailing immigration from 'Asia' (another homogenising term), while in the next breath hoping that the 'Asian market' will lift Australia out of its current recession.

The quoted passage represents, in its way, a defence of multiculturalism. So the quotation gestures towards a certain elitism, implicitly at least. Note, however, that the speaker justifies the study of other cultures as a search for sympathetic capitalist resonances ('Is there a Confucian ethic...?'). Similarly, the author invokes Islam only in terms of the spectre of fundamentalism, as though this were exclusively a non-Western or Islamic characteristic. The piece continues in the following manner:

But they are not the questions routinely pursued in most multicultural courses, which instead have degenerated into a kind of ethnic cheerleading, a primitive romanticism about the Third World, combined with the systematic denunciation of the West.

Can this be translated into the Australia context? It probably accords with many people's prejudices about what they believe happens in Australia in the name of multicultural pedagogy or, more accurately, in the name of an amalgam of multiculturalism and postcolonialism. Postcolonialism resonates more strongly in Australia and Canada than in the US, which does not seem to see itself as ever having been either a colonised nation or a coloniser. Postcolonialism in Australia draws its impetus partly from the need to tackle the question of the treatment of Australia's indigenous peoples and partly from the new republican push to cast off Australia's ties with Britain. In Australia, as in the US, the shift in pedagogical practices has elicited a reaction from traditionalists.

But how we stage our culture is not entirely governed by institutional fiat, either in state or academic arenas. While policies designed to manage demographic diversity come and go, and the institutions set up to be conduits for state edicts are comparably ephemeral, the issues which produce the necessity for 'management' are not going to disappear so easily. For example, the closing down of the multicultural programme in a new Victorian university with a largely 'ethnic' constituency does not mean that we no longer need to think about the nature of Australia's cultural diversity and its impact on our pedagogical vision and planning. Australia has, and in some respects has always had, a population characterised by the variety of its linguistic and cultural reference points, but until quite recently this obvious fact has not been accepted as a key element of Australia's national institutions and, indeed, its certified national imaginaries, the arts and culture industries. The ways in which Australia defines itself both internally and externally need to be thoroughly infused with this perception at a conscious level. The repression of this knowledge is registered unconsciously in a number of symptomatic irruptions, of the kind I have traced around such terms as 'migrant', 'home' and 'mother tongue', and in relation to 'ethnic' food, deploying Freud's analysis of the uncanny and Kristeva's powerful concept of abjection. One can envisage a future research industry dealing with this element, just as Australians are attempting to deal with the suppression of the histories, cultures and lives of Australia's indigenous peoples.

Whether it is acknowledged or not the challenge represented by Australia's demographic mixture links this country to comparable debates around the world. Because this simple fact is not generally being explored in intellectually rigorous ways, there is a tendency to create some lazy slippages. Questions of cultural difference and nationalism, for example, have been bundled under the umbrella of postcolonialism. There has been a burgeoning of academic courses and conferences dealing 'belatedly' with Australia's legacy of oppression toward its indigenous peoples. Cynics could argue that in effect this absolves non-Aboriginal Australians from having to analyse Australia's neo-colonialism, its internal colonisations, or the many other ways in which power relations operate unequally in this country. Consideration of one kind of history produces an even greater amnesia regarding other histories, including post-war migration histories. Australians continue to seek national unities, coherent narratives of the nation. They are still embroiled in arguments over whether to treat linguistic and cultural diversity as anything other than a set of sociological problems that supply convenient scapegoats for the current malaise and provide imperativeto close the traditional ranks. It seems particularly difficult for those who fought initially as outsiders to insert their own differences -- as women, or Irish-Australians, or the Old Left -- to recognise competing claims by other excluded groups. Yet if Australians consign the need for a continued analysis of multiculturalism to the sidelines, they run the risk of losing the momentum that allowed Australia in the Whitlam era to take the lead in acknowledging its hybrid population and all it entails. Furthermore, far from averting divisiveness (as the opponents of multiculturalism constantly argue), such neglect would compound it. The necessary theoretical work on this subject is hardly encouraged within Australia, where multiculural studies (insofar as they exist), remain the daggy cousins of radical chic postcolonialism.

North America has outstripped Australia in the analysis of ethnic/racial difference, sometimes under the label of multiculturalism. It is unecessary to become too engrossed in determining the correct terminology for anchoring these debates;the controversy over terminology has long operated as an excuse for refusing to deal with the substantive socio-political issues involved. Certainly, the elements aligned under the banner of multiculturalism in Canada and the US are different from those familiar to Australians. To some extent , the difference can be measured in terms of a movement between ethnicity and race. For example, many have pondered the etymology of ethnicity as a way of teasing out some of its coded or hidden meanings: on the one hand, it means those like ourselves and on the other it refers to the pagans and barbarians. Discourses of ethnicity differ from those organised around race in that they are deemed to incorporate an element of choice. Those groups and individuals defined in terms of race are, in a sense, defined by racism; they often have no choice but to be designated 'other'. 'Visible minorities' cannot choose to stop being black or shed the other external characteristics that Joan Scott calls the 'mark of difference'; it is this difference that in turn precipitates the host of prejudices that are involved in the paralysing process of stereotyping.

It is also the case that the distinctions between ethnicity and race as designating different kinds of representational economies have been suspended in the face of the 'ethnic absolutism' governing recent events in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. While ethnicity may in the past have been used to mask the mechanisms of racialisation this can no longer be argued in the wake of 'ethnic cleansing'.

How Does Multiculturalism Circulate in the US?

As I have already indicated, discussion of multiculturalism in the U.S. has to some degree been subsumed by the notorious PC debates. As Berman has made clear, far from being a recent phenomenon, these controversies are at least a decade old. In the PC context the multicultural factor comprises an array of assaults on cultural norms as defined within a national context. Joan Scott contends that 'if "political correctness" is the label attached to critical attitudes and behaviour, "multiculturalism" is the program it is said to be attempting to enact'. For the Chicago Cultural Studies Group multiculturalism is:

a desire to rethink canons in the humanities -- to rethink both their boundaries and their function . . . to find the cultural and political norms appropriate to more heterogeneous societies within and across nations, including norms for the production and transmission of knowledges.

While the terrain and terminology are hotly contested in the context of the PC debates, the catch-all term 'multiculturalism' is used to include ethnics (including Hispanics and Asians), Blacks (African-Americans who are united by their common history of slavery that has functioned as an excuse for occluding their contribution to the construction of the nation), indigenous peoples, feminists, gays and lesbians, ecologists, deconstructionists (usually meaning poststructuralists and postmodernists) and a generalised left. These motley groups are apparently united by their opposition to the West or Western values, also defined as Eurocentrism, and by a framework in which universal propositions or truths are intoned from positions that remain immune from being defined as positions. Clearly, these debates are not characterised by a nuanced attention to detail or accuracy. Given the restrictively coded meaning accorded the 'West', we have the absurd situation where Hispanics are at times arrayed against the West and outside Eurocentrism. To comprehend this, we need to realise that the defining element in such formulations is oppositionality; the substantive nature of the opposition remains valid, although the terms used are often misleadingly ambiguous, or, at the very least, function metaphorically. Critics of multiculturalism operate from a number of positions. Those from the right see it as undermining Western/American values, including individual liberty and free speech. Yet even a cursory analysis reveals that the degree of dissidence supposedly represented by PC advocates has been much exaggerated and is scarcely impinging on 'business as usual' across American campuses. Stanley Fish analyses the contradictions in the free speech argument , helpfully pointing out the anomalies inherent in trying to dissociate speech from its performance and content. Free speech is only an appropriate concept if speech is seen as content-less, or as mere noise. Any assertion, Fish argues, is built on restriction; there is always the underlying assumption that some forms of speech further one's purpose, while others do not. As he observes, 'people cling to First Amendment pieties because they do not wish to face what they take to be the alternatives . . . politics'. In a related vein, Richard Perry and Patricia Williams ponder the implications and effects of permitting 'freedom of hate speech'. The right see multiculturalism in those caricatured terms intrinsic to the binary approach which translates any questioning of power or positionality into rule by the other, that is, not the redefining of power structures but their inversion.

Those who represent the dissident groups offer a different critique of multiculturalism. Theorists situated in Black -- or, as they are sometimes called in their more exttreme versions, Afrocentric -- studies see multiculturalism as a deflection from dealing with racism. They perceive multiculturalism as focussing on the older ethnic groups that have been thoroughly assimilated, such as Italians, Jews and various Northern Europeans. This version of multiculturalism as an apolitical smorgasbord of cultures, where everyone is free to offer titbits or taste them, has parallels in Australia. Analyses in the name of any specific ethnicity often elicit an impatient response from mainstream critics, who contend that everyone is an 'ethnic' and that pursuing the details of difference can only lead to the proliferation of trivia or to deadly divisiveness.

This pluralist approach is pays little attention to unequal power relations, because the focus on culture supposedly guarantees a neutral, apolitical space. Yet, as Henry Louis Gates reminds us, culture often functions as a Trojan horse for ideologies of race. Similarly, Hazel Carby points out that:

Black cultural texts have become fictional substitutes for the lack of any sustained social or political relationships with Black people in a society which has rigidly maintained many of its historical practices of apartheid in housing and in schooling.

On the other hand references to race in the context of combating racism are also fraught with the danger of reinstating traditional essentialist constructions of race. Paul Berman notes that there is sometimes the hint of fascist doctrines when race is unproblematically invoked in these debates.

Canadian Multiculturalism

Canada has progressively installed a public commitment to multiculturalism over much the same period as Australia, but has arguably given the issue greater political and institutional emphasis. Canada has a Department of Multiculturalism and Citizenship while Australia has an understaffed and underfunded Office of Multicultural Affairs, and there is a Multicultural Act in Canada rather than merely an 'Agenda'. Australia's more cautious approach has left the way open for issues relating to multiculturalism to be used as a political football, and policies are never in place long enough to allow for real action and implementation. While multicultural issues are also used for political advantage by various sides in Canada, there is a more stable acceptance of the socio-political realities encompassed and named by multiculturalism.

In Canada, as in Australia, a firm distinction exists between multiculturalism as a set of government policies designed to manage (in the sense of police and control) cultural diversity, and multiculturalism as an attempt by various groups and individuals to achieve full participatory cultural democracy. Like their Australian counterparts, Canadian critics have shown that official multicultural policies often produce restrictive notions of ethnicity that are still fuelled by assimilationist, and to some extent, racist principles.

Another difference between Canada and Australia is that the Canadian indigenous peoples are often included in the multicultural terrain, which is perceived as dealing with cultural difference rather than being primarily defined by migration issues. Furthermore, Canadian nationalism is effectively split between two 'founding nations', Britain and France. While the Anglo element has been dominant within the hegemonic group, it has never been as complacent as in Australia because of the historically divided cultural reference points that function in the country. On the other hand, the American cross-border threat has undoubtedly served as a unifying force, generating anxiety about cultural and other takeovers, particularly in the wake of NAFTA.

Multicultural or ethnic minority literatures in Canada were initially defined as comprising the work of those born overseas, with an emphasis on writing in other languages. Now, however, there has been a shift towards tackling questions of ethnicity in literature, rather than simply 'ethnic literatures', and works in English by minority writers are also examined as part of this general field. In some ways these correspond to what in Australia are referred to as second- and even third-generation ethnic writers. Canadian discussions are also increasingly affected by the cross-border PC debates, which code multiculturalism in terms of racism and signal an emphasis on so-called visible minorities. Increasingly, there have been charges that multiculturalism circulating as liberal pluralism focuses too much on the older ethnic groups at the expense of the newer groups who are perceived as being more difficult to 'assimilate'. Thus the official policy of multiculturalism is seen as a covert form of assimilationism. As Himani Bannerji puts it:

Multiculturalism to me is a way of managing seepage of persistent subjecitvity of people that come from other parts of the world, people that are seen as undesirable because they have once been colonized, now neo-colonized. So we are not talking about Germans or Finns and Swedes or the French . . . We are talking about the undesirables. It is southern Europeans, sometimes, and Third World People who have to be ethnic.

There appears to be as much racism and occlusion of these groups in Francophone as in Anglophone Canada.

Much as in Australia, there has also been the critique that multiculturalism is too often structured by appeals to unproblematic notions of community. In Australian government policy circles, for example, attempts to implement access and equity decrees relating to multiculturalism glibly solve existing inequities by piously promising to communicate and 'outreach' with 'the ethnic communities'. There is no attempt to understand that these communities themselves are fragmented by many kinds of differences, and that individuals have similarly complex afiliations. In more abstract terms, one thinks of the questions raised by the Chicago Cultural Studies Group: 'Does the authenticity of the local become a trope to escape the problem of mediation and alienation?' Furthermore, ethnic cultures are represented as being continuous with these communities, and are constructed as simply perpetuating the past in petrified form; the spectacle of the exotic artefact is useful for establishing cultural tourism.

When it comes to discussion of multicultural literatures, in some respects there has been more activity in Canada than in Australia. Certainly there has been more official research: the Secretary of State, for example, has commissioned bibliographies on specific language/cultural groups. There has also been a national project organised by the Comparative Literature Department at the University of Alberta, entitled 'History of the Literary Institution in Canada' (HOLIC). This project has used the Polysystem theory, based on the work of Itmar Zohar in Israel, to approach literature as a set of institutional relations: 'The polysystem theory understands literature as a dynamic, functional, semiotic system which is perceived in the form of an institution'. The work has so far resulted in the publication of five volumes, which offer a sustained examination of the literary institution in Canada. Systemic approaches of this kind are open to criticism -- as Canadian critic Francesco Loriggio mildly suggests, they do not sufficiently take into account the impact of 'creative disorder' -- but, whatever one's reservations, the project represents an admirably ambitious commitment to researching the workings of literature as an institution, and suggests possible Australian parallels.

Perhaps as a result of pressures from indigenous Canadian writers, there has been an anti-postmodernist strain in the critical interpretation of minority literatures in Canada. Several critics have condemned poststructuralist and postmodernist approaches as inappropriate for interpreting such texts. Instead, such critics have indentified the major contribution of minority literatures as that of bearing witness, and of linking history to fiction, particularly where this concerns the history of a community or the fictional expression of a community.These debates have also been associated with controversies over the 'appropriation of voice' , which have challenged the rights of mainstream writers to create minority characters from another minority culture or race.

Australian Differences

One of the recurring points made in the PC debates is that the proponents of PC are supposedly 'politicising' cultural and academic life. In Australia, the contention that culture and the study of culture are intimately linked to the political has not aroused the same kind of panic as it has in the US. This may be partly because the academic and public sphere appear to be more closely linked in Australia than in the US. Interdisciplinarity and cultural studies also have more of a purchase in the Australian academy, so anxieties over the erasure of disciplinary borders have had less emotional impact.

Questions to do with race are also differently figured, because Australian migration has a different history and composition. Racism is constructed as much in terms of those who are non-Anglo as of those who are non-white. It is worth remembering that Italians used to be called 'blacks', and that Arab-Australians still are; one even hears Australian-Greeks speak of themselves as 'black' . In other words, this terminology has to do with perceived opposition to a dominant group and with the mechanisms of racialisation which are intrinsic to 'racist cultures'.

Indigenous politics are also configured differently. Australian indigenous peoples have distanced themselves from multiculturalism, which they see as being defined in terms of cultures of migration. At times, there have been unfortunate alliances between right-wingers fulminating against Asian immigration, elements in the green movement who speak of sustainable population, and some Aboriginal activists. On the other hand, Aboriginal activists have also expressed understandable and substantiated fears that discussion of multiculturalism can distract attention from the issue of land rights. By contrast, in Canada there appear to have been more frequent alliances among indigenous and ethnic groups, which have been united especially by the fact that both are targets of racism by virtue of their status as 'visible minorities'.

Discussions of ethnic or minority literatures have also been differently positioned in insitutional terms. In Canada these literatures appear to find their haven in Comparative Literature courses rather than in language departments, as seems to happen in Australia. One could add that, measured in terms of publishing and reviewing activities, multicultural or ethnic literatures as such have barely figured in Australia by comparison with Canada.

But to what extent can discussions in Australia benefit from these debates, and what do Australian critics have to offer?

Shared Problems

The debates in Australia, the US and Canada share a concern with identity politics. Is a renewed emphasis on identity politics a retrograde step after postructuralism and postmodernism, or should one reconsider what identity politics entails? Generally speaking, minority struggles for legitimation and agency have revived identity politics, confounding those who espoused notions of decentred subjects and the demise of universalist principles. Indigenous peoples in all the three countries appear to appeal to unproblematic notions of identity, which trail guarantees of authenticity in their wake. Their speaking positions are legitimated through speaking itself, via appeals to oral traditions, to speaking on behalf of particular groups, and to ownership of traditional stories. Critics have speculated that other versions of renewed identity politics -- for example, in relation to gay and lesbian rights -- may conveniently sidestep questions of access to power, in that legitimation is once again predicated on the authority of experience and appeals to hierarchies of victimage. In such a context one can understand Elizabeth Fox-Genovese's contention that multiculturalism is 'primarily the quest for an acceptable autobiography'. In a recent critique of the work of even such sophisticated poststructuralist theorists as Gaytri Spivak and Trinh T. Minh-ha, Sara Suleri accuses the latter in particular of resting her own discussions of difference on appeals to insufficiently theorised conjunctions of identity and experience. On the other hand, Spivak has drawn a distinction between cultural productions where identity becomes a commodity made for exchange, and identity analysed as a process of struggle and fracture. But, as Joan Scott has shown, identity politics constitutes a differentiated field; there are no immediate certainties that can simply be dismissed as retrograde appeals to essentialism. One could also argue that, refracted through poststructuralism, identity in relation to agency may be usefully formulated as being both provisional and strategic.

Future Challenges

In all three countries surveyed here, questions of cultural/racial difference raised under the banner of multiculturalism have provided an impetus to challenge the traditional production of knowledge, with all its institutional boundaries and its universalist propositions and truth-claims. It has also become clear that if questions of cultural difference are not linked to analyses of power inequalities -- both in access to resources and structures of legitimation -- then we are lost in the maze of liberal pluralism that Todd Gitlin calls ' the shopping center of identity politics'. As Spivak puts it, liberal pluralism presents 'contrite universal humanism in the place of the same, and us being studied as examples of otherness.' The Black Faculty Caucus has suggested that this danger can be averted by the empowering of minorities within institutional structures, yet in certain quarters, for example, in institutions regulating Australia's culture and heritage, these policies prove repeatedly to be the most difficult to implement. Actively seeking a range of people to 'represent' diverse aspects of the demographic constitutency, although admittedly in some respects an essentialising gesture, is at least a step towards undermining and challenging the equally essentialised composition of most of Australia's institutional representative bodies.

Spivak has suggested that the teacher within what she describes as the 'emergent dominant' (the dissident groups brought together under the PC label) needs to be committed to the spread of transcultural literacy. Similarly, Edward Said has argued in Culture and Imperialism that identity formations within new nations are a necessary, but necessarily transient phase; they consolidate national forces in the service of post-imperial decolonisation, but they are implicitly continuous with an epistemology of imperialism. Ultimately, he suggests, one centrism (imperialism) should not be replaced by another (nationalism). Intellectuals should work to restore texts that have conventionally been regarded merely as 'informative ethnographic specimens' to their place as literatures in and of the world. This too is a version of transcultural literacy.

In the rush for cross-cultural training programs, however, we need to bear in mind the Chicago Cultural Studies Group's warning that forms of corporate multiculturalism built around cultural diversity rather than difference have a flattening effect, because they are predicated on an ideology of interchangeability and a belief in the possibility of commensurate translation. Spivak has recently commented on the grotesqueness of related intercultural performances or 'ventriloquisms'. One way of preventing such transgressions is to reconfigure the status and function of the so-called ethnic communities. Diasporic histories and differences within such notional groups link them to other categories of difference such as gender and even region. According to Dimic, literature itself could profitably be conceived of as a set of relations rather than simply a list of texts, canonised or not. The subject here becomes ethnicity in literature, not just the conveniently marginalised study of ethnic literatures. Both approaches unsettle the cultural and linguistic reference points of traditional literary studies. The PC debate's simplistic strategy of portraying the 'West' or 'Eurocentrism' or English Literature or American culture as entities under siege can usefully be reinterpreted by reminding ourselves of the hybrid histories of the 'West' and its cultural institutions.

Finally, we return to the dialogue, or non-dialogue, between multiculturalism and postcolonialism. Postcolonialism is often a way of dealing with off-shore differences, such as those within the old Commonwealth, or of concentrating on one kind of difference, for example, that between Australian Aborigenes and white settlers, where guilt is safely located in the past. In this model, 'migrants' are a passing phase eventually assimilated and subsumed by the settler group. But multiculturalism is not a passing phase. Just as Australia cannot simply be redefined as a postcolonial society because it is attempting to cut its ties with mother England, so the differing relations between indigenous peoples and various settler groups need to be reinterpreted and linked to wider debates. Shawn Wong's comment that 'Students know they will be unable to compete in twenty-first century America with a monocultural, monolingual education' could usefully be reiterated within the Australian context.

Is there any way that debates around multiculturalism can continue to be a challenging discourse? To echo a Canadian commentator: 'Because multiculturalism uses the rhetoric of inclusion it cannot properly address the politics of exclusion'. This is largely the case in Australia also, particularly if discussions remain dominated by official discourses of multiculturalism. Finding the right terminology will not guarantee that this fundamental paradox is solved. The PC debates have shown us that the right words are no guarantee of correct politics. It is crucial, however, that Australians take issue with the complexities these discussions have engendered in a global context if their own own engagements with cultural difference and/or multiculturalism are to move beyond the repetitive and predictable stage they are locked into at present.