Who We Are: Identity in a Multicultural Society

“What makes Australians true blue?” was the question pasted across the front-page photo of a child waving an Australian flag in the Sydney Morning Herald recently. (Thursday 2/2/17) The answer was on page eight with the report on an international study from America’s Pew Research Centre. (What it takes to be truly ‘one of us’, http://www.pewglobal.org/2017/02/01/what-it-takes-to-truly-be-one-of-us/)

The study was conducted in 14 countries across 14,514 people during April-May 2016. 1000 Australians, aged 18 and over, were surveyed by phone, 50% on mobiles, 50% on landlines. The study reported on four factors that might be seen to contribute to identifying someone as “truly Australian”: speaking English, sharing national customs and traditions, being a Christian and being born in Australia.

According to the survey results, more than nine-in-ten Australians (94%) say speaking English is either very important or at least somewhat important to being truly Australian. Of these, 69% rated speaking English as very important.

Half of Australians believe it is very important to share national customs and traditions if one is to be truly Australian. Older Australians were reported as being likely to see customs and traditions as more important than younger respondents.  A similar divergence exists between respondents who placed themselves on the right of the ideological spectrum and those on the left.  Those with tertiary education are less likely to make a strong link between culture and national identity.

Only 13% of Australians believe that it is very important for a person to be a Christian to be truly Australian and only a further 16% consider being Christian is somewhat important. Roughly half (48%) think it is not important at all. Once again, there is a large gap between the perceptions of young and old Australians on this with 8% of 18-34 year olds and 6% of 35-49 year olds rating being Christian as important. Less educated Australians (19%) are also more likely than those with more education (9%) to rate being a Christian as important to national identity.

Finally, and not surprisingly, given the nature of Australia’s population with 27.7% of Australians born overseas, only 13% reported being born in Australia as being very important for someone to be “truly Australian”.

None of the responses is particularly surprising. What does this mean for us in the context of a discussion of identity within a multicultural society?

Firstly, language, which was reported as seen to be the strongest factor in being “truly Australian”. To state the obvious, there are many people who have lived in Australia, paid taxes, observed the law and contributed to community who would probably “fail” the language test. Does this mean they are less Australian? Of course not.  It would be interesting to pose this question in a multi-lingual nation, such as India. Which language, which languages, would determine “truly Indian”? It is, I understand, and has been over many years, a vexed question.

The second factor of “national customs and traditions” is a little problematic, precisely because Australia is such a multicultural nation. In February 2017, which customs and traditions can accurately be defined as the national ones?  It is one of the problems of the original entry test for immigrants. Surely, in February 2017, the celebration of Lunar New Year is as Australian as the Blessing of the Fishing Fleet, or Ramadan or Diwali. So the fact that only half the survey respondents marked sharing of “national customs and traditions” as important is probably quite healthy.

The same positive message can be deduced from the last two factors: being a Christian and being born in Australia. The low ratings given both these factors seems to point to a growing awareness of who we are as a multicultural country. True, the low rating given “being a Christian” might also be affected by a shift away from formal religious practice in Australia, but it could also point to a recognition that there are people of many faiths, and no religious faith in Australia.

These positive recognitions are to be celebrated.

National identity and the celebration of national days

While debate about the appropriate celebration of our national day begins to fade and discussion about the most appropriate date to celebrate “being Australian” is forced out by other news items, I read Andrew Hamilton’s piece related to the issues at hand. (Andrew Hamilton SJ, Eureka St, 23 Jan 2017)

From the perspective of a beach-side vacation, Hamilton observed the simple delights of families and friends enjoying time together by the ocean and appreciated it for all of that. At the same time, he noted that for some in our communities, there can be deep pain and grief associated with the beach, the ocean.  While for many of us they are places of recreation, fun, friendship and inspiration, for others they can be reminders of death, invasion, defeat, exclusion and bitter memories.

No place, no symbol, no word, can carry a single association for different individuals.  It could be said that even a single individual has different associations with places, symbols and words at different times and in different circumstances. It is even more so for a nation.

What I find most refreshing in Hamilton’s article is that he does not try to deny the painful and the broken in our national relationships.  That is, he encourages us to bring the whole gamut of our responses, that is, the positive AND the negative, to days such as Australia Day.

National days, however, he writes, are more properly about memory and attentiveness to all the relationships that compose Australia. They invite us to notice and be thankful for and to celebrate the tenderness of our domestic relationships and the general amiability of our relationships with strangers and our international relationships.

They invite us also to allow these good things to measure the prejudice, gross inequality and violence in our society and the brutal self-interest in our dealings with other nations. They also measure the historical relationships that have shaped Australia, and particularly the violence, dispossession and subsequent discrimination and neglect in our relationships with Indigenous Australians.

Such an attentiveness calls for nuanced celebrations and more reflective language, ceremony and symbol in our celebration of such national days. In some ways, we have begun to do this in our celebration of Anzac Day, in which we try to balance the honour due to the brave, not only of our own country but of those against whom we once fought many of whom are now part of our nation; a balance, too, between the heroic and the horrors of all warfare – the best and the worst of humankind; between solemnity and iconic larrikinism.

Recent events suggest that we still have some way to go in developing such a balanced attentiveness in our celebration of Australia Day. The challenge of this is finely stated by Hamilton: Whenever it is celebrated Australia Day should evoke memories that make us thankful and memories that make us ashamed. Its celebration should also encourage us to reform what has been bent.

The challenge posed by Hamilton is one worthy of a mature nation. At the same time, a adjustment of date in the celebration of Australia Day might serve as a small acknowledgement of the distress stirred by the association of 26th January with colonial invasion and some of its terrible consequences. Shifting the national celebration to another date will still demand of us regular reflection upon the noble and less noble within our history and society.



A week or so ago while travelling overseas, I caught up with a friend whom I hadn’t seen for a long time – decades, in fact. In a very short time, our conversation turned to issues relating to identity, quickly becoming one of the most stimulating discussions I had enjoyed over the holiday season. How do we determine identity in a modern multicultural, pluralist, society? Are we able to articulate our confusion and uncertainties about where we fit as individuals within such a society? What are the dangers in NOT articulating what is unstated, sometimes, even taboo? And to what extent is support for politicians of the extreme right a factor of this identity confusion?

My friend, like me, lives in a highly-multicultural society, in his case, India, in mine, Australia. Despite obvious differences between the two countries, we found common ground in our conversation.

I arrived back in Sydney in time for Australia Day – and entered back into the largely unresolved issues relating to our national identity. In current discussions, these unresolved issues are being phrased, simplistically, almost as a coded statement, in the question, “Should the celebration of Australia Day be moved so as to separate it from the painful association of 26th January with colonisation of an existing Aboriginal nation by the British in 1888?”

It was refreshing to watch Aboriginal broadcaster and author, Stan Grant begin to open up some of these questions with a panel on ABC TV on 27 January. Here is how he posed them:  We marked Australia Day this week and, again, it’s thrown up all those unresolved questions about who we are as a nation. Should we move the date from January 26? What is the state of black and white reconciliation? Has a multicultural Australia come at the cost of a traditional Anglo identity? This is an uncertain time…There is a return to populism, a retreat to fixed borders, and a resistance to rapid immigration…It’s also a time of economic uncertainty, terrorism, cyberwar and sectarian hatred and radicalisation.

I agree with Grant that ALL of these factors are part of the identity and should be part of discussion about identity. While Australians in past decades have bemoaned our uncertain cultural identity, the questions of 2017 are not the same questions as those of the 1960s-1970s, for example, and Australia is not the same Australia as then. Life-giving discussion about our identity demands considered, courageous and respectful working-through.

I invite readers to contribute to this discussion. In doing so, I declare some of my own starting points: as an educator committed to the future of society through investment in our children, I come with a perspective that is essentially hopeful; similarly, I bring the perspective of someone whose immediate family crosses cultures and countries, who lives our own kind of multiculturalism; and as a student of history, I honour and respect our national story in all its complexity.