Will the cultural melting-pot dissolve ethnicity?

A young man whose German ancestor arrived in Australia four generations ago was a Pathfinder in a British squadron bombing Germany. Like most in that business, he died – because he saw himself as an Aussie. He was actually part Italian too. That was my wife’s brother.

Of course, many an Anglo-Celt Aussie, (like the Americans) showed his ignorance during that war by locking up or, in some way, penalising Aussies with foreign names (and, therefore, distant origins). While my wife’s brother was over German lines, his mother and sister had been taken away for questioning, purely on the basis of their family name. This story could be multiplied all over Australia a thousand times, without stretching the point.

Perhaps it is the memory of such events that led to many of Australia’s ‘ethnics’ rushing to embrace the new ethnic affairs policies. For it did offer them a degree of protection which previously had not existed. Indeed, some of them are reverting to their own first family name.

A case for the perpetuation of ethnicity looks weak. Does the term apply only to minorities? In which case, it would be an excluding term. Where do we place the majority of the population in Australia, with its predominantly four-nation heritage? The ethnics have had the problem of finding a term for this group, for they and we are all Aussies. Initially, it was Anglo-Saxon, until the Scots and others said, “What about us?” and until the Irish accepted that they were mainstream too. Thus the Anglo-Celt was identified.

A migrant friend of mine, whose father was born in Latvia and who was himself born in Germany … is now an Australian citizen. What is his ethnicity, since he denies that he’s Latvian or German, having regard to his Anglo-Saxon mother and his Aussie citizenship? I am not Indian (though I share their culture), nor Sri Lankan (though my father and his antecedents were born in Ceylon), nor Malaysian (though I was born there). Like my non-Latvian friend, will I be denied an ethnic category and therefore be unprotected and uncared for? …

Another friend born in Australia, the offspring of migrant Greeks, says he is Greek; he cannot read Greek, barely speaks it, and has not been exposed to Greek culture: no dance, no music, no arts (this reflects his parents’ humble origins). However, festivals are celebrated, mainly through food and hospitality. His way of life, and his conduct are exactly the same as those of my non-Latvian friend, or of mine. We eat similar foods, share Australian culture. In normal life, no ethnicity is visible (except for my colour) or audible; it is only there in someone else’s mind.

Is it any more than pride in one’s ancestry? Is that not enough to sustain us through life, especially when there are so many different ancestries in this evolving nation?

Perhaps it is time to allow the ethnic Dreamtime to dissolve itself. Whether we like it or not, our cultures are already in the melting-pot. Our personal identity can then be reflective of our current national (or state) identity, not our historical tribal identity. Pride in our origins (rarely unmixed – somewhere, sometime) can be expressed in a reverence for that ancestral identity which we feel sustains us.

(With increasing cross-tribal, cross-cultural marriage in a nation boasting more than a hundred countries of origin and languages, defining people by their imputed or claimed ethnicity would, as shown by the above extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out,’ leave many Australians (including me) falling through the holes in the fabric. I am clearly not an ethnic.

When ethnic identity is self-described and chosen, there can be ego-building identification not supported by the facts; for example, when the Australia-born daughter of my Greek/Italian friend and his Anglo-Saxon wife claimed to be Greek!

Most recently, a fifth-generation Australian girl of Middle Eastern descent decided to adopt the burqa in a desert sand-free Australian capital city, claiming that as an Islamic cultural right; or is this a reflection of a claimed tribal ethnicity?)

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One thought on “Will the cultural melting-pot dissolve ethnicity?

  1. Dear Ratnam, I greatly appreciate your posts. You bring information and perspectives which are quite new to me as a New Zealand Pakeha, but much more as just a human creature fascinated to discover always (and now at 83 years of age more so than ever) my own and others’s sheer conscious existence in the cosmos. George Armstrong

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