Diversity is a word which gets thrown around a fair bit these days. It pops up in schools, universities, workplaces, entertainment, fashion, advertising and even awards ceremonies (#OscarsSoWhite, anyone?).
It’s a pretty important concept, which is why we’ve decided in recent years it should be a focus in schools – thumbs-up, Australia! – but most of the discussion around it seems a little one sided, with teachers spending an hour standing in front of a class of bored teenagers, talking at them rather than to them about empathy, diversity, multiculturalism and globalisation.
So what do those teenagers actually think about Australia’s reputation for cultural diversity, and how is it measuring up in recent years?
Well, something that popped up in every conversation I had was that young people feel there is a frustrating generational gulf when it comes to tolerance and acceptance of differences.
“Our generation is a lot more open to it, but the problem is our generation isn’t in power,” said Abby, 17. “Kids are very accepting – they don’t go, “Oh, someone from a different country”, they go “Oh, here’s a new person to be friends with.” It depends on how you’re raised.”
“I think schools try and encourage it with stuff like Harmony Day and NAIDOC Week, but it’s not celebrated in the wider community,” said Madison, 18.
There is also an awareness of the impact location has on diversity – traditionally, Australian cities have been a melting pot for people from all walks of life, while regional areas are a little more set in their ways.
“Country towns tend to be a lot more closely knit,” said Madison. “And they tend not be exposed to as much culture, so they’re not as welcoming.”
“Cities also have the market for jobs, so people just stay there,” said Abby.
Many young people are hyper-aware of the influence the government and media can exercise. One group discussion made the observation that globalisation has allowed diversity in Australian culture to reach an all-time high during the 21st century, but with extreme right-wing parties such as One Nation gathering momentum and Trump hysteria sweeping the world, acceptance is dropping alarmingly.
Historically, Australia has a fairly abysmal track record with accepting and celebrating cultural diversity, despite our famed “fair go” attitude. The treatment of Indigenous people by the colonies; the anti-Chinese legislation during the gold rush of the mid-1800s; the incarceration of Germans and vilification of Japanese during WWII – Australia has stains on our history as dark as any other nation, but we don’t like talking about them very much.
“We say we’re a multicultural country, but the way we’ve treated people is awful, and we get taught a sugar-coated version of it. We say we’re multicultural, but we don’t support multiculturalism,” said Abby.
And yet, young people still have hope for the future. Madison notes, “We’re still not quite at that level where we can just not look twice at someone different,” but Abby says, “Acceptance has definitely increased over the last year, I think.
“I just don’t think it’s in our natural mindset to hate,” said Madison.
Photo by Will Oey