Television presenter and journalist Helen Kapalos, chair of the Victorian Multicultural Commission (VMC), appealed for a deeper understanding of what has driven Australia’s multicultural success this week and called on Australians to challenge an “us and them” mentality stoked by the media.
Ms Kapalos, delivering an impassioned keynote speech at the VMC’s headquarters in Melbourne, used the event to lay out her vision for revamping not only the state’s multicultural agenda, but our use of the ‘m’-word.
Drawing on her own experience and relating a brief history of ‘multiculturalism’ as an expression across the globe, the VMC chair argued that it was time to place the word, used traditionally to describe minorities and minority issues, in the mainstream of contemporary Australia.
“I saw the term as belonging largely to minority groups … a reductionist term, reserved for more vulnerable members of the community, or the newly arrived, or for festivals,” said Ms Kapalos, before adding that as a Greek Australian such a label was difficult to identify with.
“I wondered whether it was that the term had not evolved … or maybe our multicultural policy should be a policy for all, not just for ethnic minorities, because the value which underpins it is a value we can all relate to: the right to belong.”
Relating her own experiences as a journalist with SBS and commercial broadcasters, Ms Kapalos said understanding the difference between cultural diversity as a lived experience, and multiculturalism as a political process was useful to move the debate forward.
“My constant frustration is one which still remains… how we index or rate the value of a human life, which appears to rely on how close to our culture and identity they are.”
Alluding to the Paris terrorist attacks of November 13, the VMC commissioner said media coverage of the attacks, compared to coverage of similar atrocities in recent weeks, raised questions that go to the heart of multicultural concepts.
“Did we get the same coverage about a similar strike in Beirut and why not? Why do some lives matter more than others? There’s one argument that equates it to the ‘relate-ability’ factor. ‘They are more like us’, so we’ll feel more empathy as news viewers, but why do we constantly focus on our differences and not our similarities?
“Why are some cultures and traditions ranked as more acceptable than others? The short answer is fear, fear of what we do not know.”
Ms Kapalos said the path to challenge fear and change the media’s discourse on diversity was about “reviewing our attitudes, our unconscious bias, and increasing intercultural understanding by empowering ourselves about other cultures”
“That way we can form our own perception, not one which has been filtered through the lens of the media. It means we might be less reactive and less likely to feed the media narrative.”
The VMC Chair concluded her speech by quoting Martin Luther King “who dreamt that one day his children would not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. They are often repeated words but it’s still as prescient a vision as ever for the world”.