Assimilation: multiculturalism or racism at the core?

Last year, I had a conversation with another researcher about my work on Vietnamese diaspora in Australia. I shared with her my project of examining cultural artefacts from Vietnamese newspapers in Australia. My analysis revealed proliferation of business relations within the close community of Vietnamese-Australians. At the same time, promotions of these business alliances in Sydney were juxtaposed with melancholic overtures of Saigon’s pre-1975 years.

I argued that the Vietnamese sense of ‘self’, home and belonging are constituted within the Vietnamese social and cultural norms of close family and community networks. These networks are intentional in procuring the social relations predominantly within the Vietnamese community. It is intentional because of economic pragmatism, rather incidental as they adjust to new life in Australia.

This researcher, whose work is in multiculturalism, was unhappy with my argument. She asked, “Are you not concerned that what you say will feed into the narrative that immigrants don’t try to fit in with the Australian ways?”

My argument actually rejects the “assimilation” premise of this researcher’s view – the idea that immigrants must assimilate to the Australian way of life, although what that is remains unclear in a country like Australia whose population comprises mainly of immigrants.

The problem with the “assimilationist” view is that it often is spoken by those who appear to fight against cultural oppression. Yet, it also implies that immigrants need to change their behaviour, their culture, who they want to hang around with in order to catch up to the new society and assimilate into that society. Unsurprisingly, the assimilation arguments tend to be located in the white Western countries, in telling stories about people from the non-White non-West.

I recall visiting Kuching in Borneo, Malaysia, and marvelled at the cultural diversity of the region. In this small area, there are over 40 cultural groups including the Malays, Melanau, Chinese, Indians, Iban, Bdayua, Orang Ulu, Melanau, and many more. They all seem to live happily side by side each other. Their ways of life, distinctly different, are all visible in the market stalls or food, and in different areas in Kuching. There is no dominant group that is seen as the cultural identity of Serawak. In conversations, people talk about food, languages, ways of life, clothes, traditions, houses in references to particular sub-ethnic groups without “othering” the groups.

Communities in Kuching are what I see as cultural diversity and inclusion. We must not be afraid to live our life predominantly within our ethnic groups because we have a sense of connection with our ethnic groups. If multiculturalism is viewed as simply about assimilating to a particular culture, then it risks cultural oppression and racism, and paradoxically it marginalises the fundamental core of multiculturalism.

Racism comes from the perception that different cultures behave differently, often in comparison to a preferred culture, therefore people of different cultures should be treated differently and often marginally to that preferred culture. If we accept assimilation, we are putting the blame for racism onto the people who is encountering racism. This is also Ibram X. Kendi’s view in his latest book about racism and antiracism in the American contexts. Kendi argued that talk of failures in culture or conduct supposes that black people are somehow to blame for the effects of racism—as if they could have chosen, instead, to be unaffected by it.

Perhaps in the Vietnamese diaspora case, networks within the Vietnamese precincts are important because they are the clientele. The mentality of the Vietnamese society is having a business typically a family business. The community in which the people live, and personal networks that they build in these communities are often the basis of their trade because they know the people’s “values” and their products can be offered along these values.

Another explanation could be that the Vietnamese diaspora locate themselves in areas where there are congregations of Vietnamese-Australians like Cabramatta or Bankstown because these clusters provide the opportunities that they otherwise are shut out of in the mainstream labour market.

It could also reflect the close community ideals of closed villages in the Mekong Delta or Red Delta as the fabrics of Vietnamese society. They are simply cultural ideals that transcend geographical borders rather than a resistance to the Australian values.

To address the concern of the researcher whom I had the conversation with, I replied, “I think we should be advocating for cultural acceptance rather cultural assimilation. We can do this by recognising cultural ideals in different pockets rather than according with universally preferred cultures, especially if we are aiming to advocate for those that belong in these different cultural pockets.”