Essay: Suneeta Peres da Costaon multiculturalism

Beyond the ‘Bamboo Ceiling’

Some months ago, I attended the Asian-Australian Leadership Summit, a gathering of some 160 Leaders of Asian Australian background at the State Library of Victoria. The event was a progressive, goodwill initiative of Asialink, PwC and the Australian National University – and a highlight the 40 Under 40 Awards, whose overall winner was Dr Muneera Bano, a brilliant Pashtun Pakistani-Australian computer software engineering researcher from Swinburne University of Technology.

My invitation resulted from an Asialink Global Project Exchange fellowship to North India in late 2018 and I was grateful to be included – especially as one of the few writers or freelance artists there. I eschewed corporate garb and wore some Spanish sandals and beautiful salwar skirt and top I had bought in Delhi during my exchange. Admittedly, sandals were not particularly appropriate footwear for the Summit agenda, nor for the still-chilly Melbourne mornings. Believe me, I do want to have a go at kicking metaphorical ceilings – be they glass or bamboo – but my way now is being comfortable in my own skin. As an Australian woman of subcontinental heritage in her early 40s, being – and being seen as – myself is much more than a fashion statement.

The Summit mantra, articulated in a video address by Senator Penny Wong was, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see!’ There were speakers from the media, finance, academia and elsewhere. Luminaries, like ABC journalist and presenter, Jeremy Fernandes; Ming Long, Chair at AMP Capital Funds Management Funds, and Professor Jacqueline Lo, Chair of the Australian National University Academic Board and Associate Dean (International) shared very personal experiences of institutionalised racism in the workplace; how speaking up places an unfair proof or administrative burden on the one who has already suffered discrimination. Ming Long described how gaining professional seniority may only make the effects of institutional racism more acute. It can be death by a thousand cuts, she said; one risks everything to call racism out and, when the response by the powers that be or HR is that one is too sensitive, this becomes an embittering, self-fulfilling prophecy.

The pervasiveness of racism in Australia, the country of my birth, makes it impossible to ignore in my work as a creative writer. Although set elsewhere, in Portuguese Angola, my novella Saudade, published by Giramondo in 2018 (and by Transit Books in the USA and Canada in November late last year) examines legacies of colonial guilt and complicity and could be read, if not as an allegory of, then certainly with reference to, ideas of settler, migrant and native politics in Australia. Racial intolerance is far greater now, both nationally and globally, than when I wrote my first novel, Homework, about a family of Goan migrants failing to assimilate in Sydney, twenty years ago. And my exasperation and fury about this has also intensified.

Today, with borders closing to contain the spread of Covid-19, and all the attendant concern this raises about the safety, wellbeing and rights of racial and ethnic minorities occupied in or outside official national borders, closer to home I am aware of stories of Asian Australian friends being verbally abused while shopping for groceries, putting out the garbage, getting on a plane to return to Australia; in one instance, an Asian Australian nurse was vilified while tending to patients in a Sydney hospital. Perhaps our current health emergency, and the underlying racial intolerance which it exposes, will be the reckoning of what sociologist Ghassan Hage has called a white restoration politics, wherein white entitlement (itself based on the founding lie of ‘terra nullius’) faces the crisis of capitalism and social mobility without the usual access to ‘Others’ such as ‘Chinese viruses’ and ‘Indian students’ to maintain its denial. Or maybe not.

I am most often an object of casual, apparently well-meaning, sometimes sexist, but mostly paternalistic, racism. At my last workplace, a respectable state government department. I was just one of a few Asian Australians in my Unit. The colleague who inducted me, commented on how ‘interesting’ my name was and proceeded to guess where it was from. As I had many times before, I explained that my parents were from a part of India, Goa, that was once part of the Iberian Empire. I wanted to reciprocate the anthropological curiosity and ask about my colleague’s own surname – which was the equivalent of ‘Brown’ or ‘Smith’. I wanted to upend the assumption that her name, but not mine, was ‘Australian’. Somehow the topic turned to the innocuous (and I would have thought inclusive) topic of cheese, but I did not go further as, chattering on, she told me that she did not like to shop at the Aldi in her neighbourhood because, ‘there were too many people from Housing Commission’. Noticing my consternation, she self-corrected – ‘I mean, too many migrants and refugees’.

Against the dubious dichotomies of Outsiders/Insiders and Us/Them, into which the conversation unconsciously slipped, I wanted to tell my colleague how three tall ships among the First Fleet – the Charlotte, Lady Penrhyn and the Scarborough – having transported convicts who may have been her ancestors to Australia, were then chartered by the British East India Company to carry on colonial enterprises collecting tea in China for the English market. From 1795, East Indiamen were regularly commissioned by the British Government to ply convicts, ‘free settlers’ and supplies between Port Jackson (and Tasmania) before returning via India with textiles and other trade goods. That the Portuguese imperialists had likely seen Indigenous people in Australia several centuries before James Cook told the ‘terra nullius’ lie. Nevermind evidence of Gondwanaland or the philological reality that Sanskrit is the sister of all European languages… so we are more linked-in than we both knew!

Yet intellectual arguments are in my experience ineffective in the invariably personal moment of being made the object of racism, and can quickly become essentialising and exhausting too. Not long after this, an older, Anglo-Australian male colleague whom to whom I had never been formally introduced, called across to me at the photocopier, ‘Where are you from?’ When I answered, just as loudly, ‘I am from Australia, where are you from?’ He got up and approached me and apologised: ‘I did not mean any offence, it’s just that you look so much like my sister-in-law who is Greek.’ In a composed tone, professional but firm, I responded:  ‘That’s very nice, but you see, we are all from elsewhere. The only original inhabitants of this country are the Indigenous people. It’s just as interesting to me where you come from as it is to you where I come from.’ Ironically, we were standing near the break-out area called ‘Dulili’ – which means ‘together’ in the Noongar language. A few other colleagues had overheard and gave me the thumbs up for standing my ground, but later, sitting at my desk, I was shaking.

After the Summit, I went to see the film, The Australian Dream which told the story of twice Brownlow-medal-winning, Australian of the Year, Aboriginal Australian, Adam Goodes. Written by Stan Grant, and recently aired free-to-air on the ABC, it’s a devastating documentary that reveals how Goodes was vilified precisely because of the leadership stance he took against bigotry he experienced on the field. When in 2014 he was named Australian of the Year and used the platform to campaign about anti-racism, he was further accused of being unAustralian. Goodes not only had to be a model Aboriginal Australian citizen, but the ‘bridge between white and black Australia’, while the burden of racial bigotry, proof and exhaustion wore him down. As we know it resulted in a period of self-exile and announcement of early retirement from the game. The film should be mandatory on higher school curricula.

In his keynote speech, former Race Discrimination Commissioner, Professor Tim Sim Soutphommasane warned that Australia risks becoming a country of ‘professional Asian Australian coolies’. He was citing statistics collected in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Leading for Change: A blueprint for cultural diversity and inclusive leadership (2016; revised, 2018) which found that, while Asian Australians make up 12 per cent of the total population, they constitute just 1.6 per cent of Chief Executive Officers, federal government ministers, heads of federal and state government departments and vice-chancellors of universities. Dr Tseen Khoo, Senior Lecturer in the Research Education and Development team, Graduate Research School, La Trobe University, also present at the Summit, cautioned in an incisive blog post against measuring the contribution of Asian Australians in terms of economic value, utility or model minority status – as this also demeans their citizenship.

At one moment at the end of the Summit, an echo chamber formed and we were told to, ‘Be the change you want to see!’ – a lofty Gandhian ideal and perhaps an admission of the challenges ahead. I commend the ideas behind such a Summit and that the work which must logically happen – to collect data, report, set targets or quotas (Australia is one of the few OECD countries that does not by law collect data on ethnicity in employment and other institutional figures). However, I disagree that the administration or proof burden should be borne by those who are already being marginalised, excluded and suffer discrimination. This work is not ours, since the ‘bamboo ceiling’ is a construct of the dominant, white Australian imaginary.

Like every equity and diversity issue, institutional racism is a structural problem of the dominant culture which enables and benefits from it. Conscious or unconscious racial bias, bigotry and prejudice depends on cultural privilege and entitlement. As bystanders, we are all responsible for calling out racism. Decolonising the racial hegemonies in our minds and culture should not be seen as something being done, heroically, by one group for another, but as a historical corrective that levels the playing field. Anti-racism training, which must form the core of this work, must also demystify the mythology of white Australia and national identity which was founded in the violence of the colonial interface and the experiences of racism of non-white Australian immigrants.

Changing what one sees is particularly relevant in the arts where the representation of reality is core business. Unconscious bias in statements from decision-makers to which I have been both privy and at the receiving end that – to take just a few examples – CALD Australian artists do not ‘bring in a crowd’ or that any success we may enjoy is due to a prevaling ‘ethnic commodity fetishism/favouritism’ is no less offensive or ghettoising for being contradictory. In light of this, Diversity Arts Australia’s recently released report, Shifting the Balance: Cultural Diversity within the Australian Arts, Screen and Creative Sectors (August 2019), should also be obligatory reading. It found that CALD Australians (39 per cent of the population) were under-represented across every leadership role, in every cultural sector and organisational type and (due to access, not participation-levels) CALD Australians were nine times less likely than their non-CALD counterparts to occupy cultural leadership roles.

The unfinished work of multiculturalism, which this is, cannot be simply left up to the market or corporations – though they may lead by example and leverage power to influence government. Ultimately, like Reconciliation and Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous people, or having a Bill of Rights to protect all Australian citizens and those who seek asylum, diversity and inclusion are measures of the strength and quality of our democracy – and of particular urgency in these neo-colonial times.


An excerpt of this essay was due to be read at an event celebrating multicultural literature organised by Mascara Literary Review for Harmony Day at Stanton Library, North Sydney, on 19 March, 2020.