Words by Diana Milena Lopez Duque
Australia is a wonderful country full of people of different backgrounds. Most of them are from England, India, China, New Zealand and the Philippines.1 This multiculturalism is due to waves of migrations from all over the world. Among the reasons people decide to leave their countries are violence, poverty, oppression, discrimination, better opportunities and many others.
In a multicultural country like Australia, we can’t forget that the presence of migrants enriches society, not only from an economic point of view but also from a cultural one. UNESCO says: “The resulting cultural diversity expands choices, nurtures a variety of skills, human values and worldviews and provides wisdom from the past to inform the future. Cultural diversity is a mainspring for sustainable development for individuals, communities and countries”.2
That multiculturalism must be respected, preserved and protected as a fundamental part of the nation’s development. Both Australians and migrants should be aware of how they communicate with others. It goes both ways. You can call it good manners if you want, but please, don’t ask outrageous questions about arranged marriages, terrorism, mafia, genital mutilation and, in my case, about cocaine. They are disrespectful and they make us feel embarrassed, ashamed, bad, resentful or even angry! Asking these kinds of questions it’s a form of microaggression. According to Kevin Nadal, professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, it is a brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or oftentimes unintentional, that communicate bias toward marginalised groups.3
That is not to say that you cannot ask us uncomfortable questions at all. But they should come from a place of curiosity and openness toward our culture, not bias and judgment. And more importantly, make sure that the person you ask the question to, is ok with that. “You need to be more aware of your biases and impact on people. We all need to commit to working on these things in order to create a more harmonious society.”4 For example, the mother of one of my friends was killed on an Avianca flight by a terrorist attack committed by Pablo Escobar, the most famous Colombian drug dealer. So asking him about cocaine can trigger very strong emotions.
This happens in all environments, informal and professional. Once, my bosses invited me to dinner with their friends. Everything was going well. Until my boss introduced me to his friend and said:“She is from Colombia and she has never tried cocaine, neither her family nor friends”.
I felt so embarrassed, that was my emotion, but I have heard some people from other backgrounds feeling upset or even discouraged. This negative experience may create hesitancy about mingling with the broader community. Sometimes we close ourselves up and stick to our communities. As the Harvard Business Review says, some questions about our last names, looks and accents, may reinforce and magnify differences between a marginalised community and the majority demographic, which can trigger feelings of alienation.5
All this reflection to say that this is how we want to be treated:
- Avoid asking questions that even you wouldn’t answer
- Be curious about other aspects of our culture, not just the negative ones
- Don’t make awkward and rude comments
- Be aware of your tone and nonverbal language
- Be empathetic to people
We need to respect all cultures and be proud of our background. Our differences make us rich, make us unique. We need to change attitudes towards migrants and learn more about them.
If you’d like to chat with me, I can tell you about my ‘caleña’ culture (I am from Cali, Colombia and we call people from that city caleños), Colombian food, salsa dancing, pencil drawing, scientific journalism and a big range of topics, but please, don’t ask me about cocaine.
[1.] Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2021. Migration, Australia, viewed 19 July 2021, <https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/population/migration-australia/latest-release#:~:text=For%20the%20year%20ending%2030,due%20to%20net%20overseas%20migration>
[2.] UNESCO. Cultural diversity, viewed 19 July 2021, <https://en.unesco.org/themes/education-sustainable-development/cultural-diversity>
[3.] Nadal, K. L., Wong, Y., Griffin, K., Sriken, J., Vargas, V., Wideman, M., & Kolawole, A. (2011). Microaggressions and the multiracial experience. International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, 1(7), 36-44. Available at:<https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Kevin-Nadal/publication/229051893_Microaggressions_and_the_Multiracial_Experience/links/0a85e537a05f0dcf25000000/Microaggressions-and-the-Multiracial-Experience.pdf>
[4.] Andrew Limbong. 2020. Microaggressions Are A Big Deal: How To Talk Them Out And When To Walk Away, viewed 24 July 2021, <https://www.npr.org/2020/06/08/872371063/microaggressions-are-a-big-deal-how-to-talk-them-out-and-when-to-walk-away>
[5.] Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar. Harvard Business Review. 2020. What’s Wrong with Asking “Where Are You From?”. viewed 24 July 2021, <https://hbr.org/2020/10/whats-wrong-with-asking-where-are-you-from?ab=at_articlepage_recommendedarticles_bottom1x1>