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The trouble with diversity

By Jeremy Ballenger - posted Monday, 2 June 2008

The general principle here is that our commitment to diversity has redefined the opposition to discrimination as the appreciation (rather than the elimination) of difference. So with respect to race, the idea is not just that racism is a bad thing (which of course it is) but that race itself is a good thing. Indeed we have become so committed to the attractions of race that our enthusiasm for racial identity has been utterly undiminished by scientific scepticism about whether there is any such thing … The argument, in its simplest form, will be that we love race - we love identity - because we don’t love class.

This passage forms part of the introduction to the 2006 book The trouble with diversity: how we learned to love identity and ignore inequality by University of Illinois Professor Walter Benn Michaels. The argument presented has been described as “so tight that to say yes to any one of its sentences is to say yes to all the others” (Stanley Fish, Florida International University). But Michaels is describing the situation in the United States of today. It’s just not applicable here, is it?

Firstl, let’s quickly establish the biological position on the issue of race. Molecular anthropologist Jonathan Marks considered race “a concept that was good to think with. As long as you did not think too hard.”


Scientific American had actually done the hard thinking three years prior to Marks’ essay when in 2003 it asked “Does race exist?” and proclaiming “From a genetic standpoint, no.” Asked and answered in the opinion of this writer, though for some it is only the beginning of discussion. Marks has something for them too - “Races … are rather like angels. Many people believe in them, devoutly. They can even tell you what properties they have. But the closer you try to examine them to discover their real nature, the more elusive they become.”

Yet we refuse to back away from the concept of race, despite ever mounting scientific evidence to the contrary, reinventing it as a social or cultural construct. Such reinventions take many forms, and it is in this context of reinvention we find the source of our troubles.

The Rudd government seems somewhat preoccupied with “working families”, and according to Nick Dyrenfurth in On Line Opinion they have been for a while. While this term may be a re-labelling of the constituency to encompass a broader group for political ends (which certainly worked at the last election), it is also an effort to give voters an identity around which they can rally.

Searching for a definition of the “working family” uncovers a paucity of detail, but based on the volume of sound bites featuring the phrase, there are an awful lot of these families. By implication it also seems, that due to the sheer size of the group, we are all in it together, which is a good thing, as misery likes company. So, while you take it in the neck because of inflationary pressures on interest rates and the rising cost of food and fuel you can take solace, because you are not alone.

It’s a clever trick, designed solely to get rid of what we like to term “classism”, by redefining our collective economic lot and removing any references to the former concepts of lower/middle/upper-middle class (rich is still rich).

In doing so we make easier, if not dispense with, any discussion about the problem where some of us have more money than others. That problem is more difficult to solve. Instead, why don’t we lump everyone in the same basket (we’re all part of a family, and with record low unemployment, most of us work) and focus on things we can do something about - social and cultural diversity.


After all we live in an incredibly diverse society. According to the “Racism. No Way” website, “Australians come from over 200 countries ... Each of these groups has its own cultural diversity as a result of history, regional differences, internal and external population movements, as well as variations related to factors such as class, gender, intermarriage and urban and rural environments.”

Appreciating our differences is the key to solving the problems they cause. By embracing diversity and working hard to celebrate it in our workplaces and wider society we are inching toward removing many of the problems plaguing society.

Our reflection on the causes of the 2005 Cronulla riots are an example of how, by encouraging people to appreciate the diversity of our cultural roots and not vilify “new Australians”, we can, to use the words of Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner Tom Calma, “recommit to multi-culturalism”. The real problem in our society is cultural difference.

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About the Author

Jeremy Ballenger is a Melbourne-based researcher and writer. His website is here.

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