Tribal or ethnic identity

About 20 years ago, I wrote a letter to ‘The Bulletin’ (now defunct), then a weekly journal popular with those of us who thought we were intelligent and socially conscious. I asked whether I am an ethnic; and, if so, by what criteria .

Why that question? Since the 1970s, ethnic empowerment (my phrase) had been in fashion in Australia. ‘Managing multiculturalism’ was constructed in the shipyard of policy development, the vessel being multicultural policy. Under this policy, to be administered by appointed and promoted individuals of ethnic descent, ethnic communities were to be encouraged to retain those features of their inherited cultural traditions which were not inconsistent with the institutions and societal mores of the nation into which they or their antecedents had sought to enter.

But, isn’t this what we immigrant settlers were already doing? We did not, do not, need the government, acting through community leaders, to hold each tribe together in a welcoming foreign land. Equal opportunity has prevailed since European immigrants were sought immediately after WW2. Successful settlement has been enhanced by multi-million dollar programs administered by public officials like me.

The reality of immigrant settlement in Australia is that, by the third generation, grandpa’s edicts about appropriate conduct were likely to have given way – through a shared education, socialisation, sport, and habituation involving other ethnic communities – to an evolving culturally-integrated Australian people; unless religious leaders and religious schools delayed the process. Like the tributaries of a great river, successive generations of ethnic communities will merge, to flow smoothly as a coherent people.

We have all contributed to this merging, and been subsumed by the newly-evolved population. We have progressed from a salad to a casserole, or a goulash, or a curry, or a stir-fry; that is, to a tasty blend of culinary ingredients. Indeed, fusion cuisine is the prevailing mode of meal-preparation in the nation.

I received no response to my letter from the ‘young turks’ of multiculturalism. The policy of ethnic empowerment would ebb away, in favour of emphasising a shared citizenship. As well as keeping away from our beds and wallets, governments in a secular democracy (even a nominal one) should keep out of our minds. Australia’s ethnic diversity poses no problem; those who do not like the ethos of this tolerant nation have been invited to look elsewhere.

I am no ethnic. Born in Malaya, of Ceylonese ancestry, of an Indian culture (Hinduism), and a proud Australian citizen, I am comfortable within my layers of identity.

A tribal identity has its place out there in an under-developed world riven by competitive cultures. So does ethnic identity where equal opportunity is constrained. In any event, there seems to be some confusion between these two identities, where unequal power relationships prevail. Some of this confusion may have been triggered by minority communities seeking to be identifiably different and separate. To what end? To whose benefit?

Tje Family of Man beckons from the horizon.