NSW State Library's panel on diversity fails to actually be diverse

New South Wales State Library.

New South Wales State Library. Photo: Glenn Beanland

Last night the State Library of New South Wales hosted a panel event called ‘Multiculturalism: What are we afraid of?’ The event consisted of ‘a multi-media presentation featuring oral histories and images of refugees reflecting on their life experiences’ followed by a ‘conversation’ in which ‘distinguished Australian panelists shared their views on the positive affects multiculturalism has had on Australian society.’

According to both the Facebook page and the original event page on the State Library of NSW website, the 'distinguished panel' was to consist of renowned human rights and refugee advocate Julian Burnside, Director of the Edmund Rice Centre Phil Glendenning, actor Jack Thompson and activist Imogen Bailey. The event would be introduced with a multimedia presentation from photographer Louise Whelan.

Jack Thompson will appear on the panel: Multiculturalism: what are we afraid of?

Jack Thompson will appear on the panel: Multiculturalism: what are we afraid of? Photo: Sahlan Hayes

The website, which has been promoting the event since February, featured a bio and headshot of each of the four panelists. If you are by chance thinking that there is something distinctly uniform about this panel, then you are not alone.


Comedian Aamer Rahman linked to the event’s webpage on his Facebook timeline yesterday morning, writing, ‘Four white people will be on a panel talking about 'Multiculturalism: what are we afraid of?' Apparently we are afraid of letting people of colour discuss race in a public forum.’

Rahman also noted that ‘there’s supposed to be someone of refugee background ‘joining the conversation’ but they don’t even get a bio.’ That someone turned out to be Bahati Samila from Rwanda - it remains unclear why she was never included in the official program.

Not surprisingly, the State Library received a deluge of complaints about the lack of diversity on a panel designed to promote diversity. This prompted organisers to update the event just hours before it took place adding a sole person of colour to the events information page, community organiser Isaac Kisimba.

Now, if token gestures were an Olympic event, then that, ladies and gentlemen is a gold-medal winning effort. I’m not sure what’s worse, only including people of colour when pushed, or planning to include them but not advertising the fact because it wasn’t a strong enough selling point.

I’d like to think that the mistakes the State Library made in the planning and promotion of this event were self-evident, but it’s existence (and the fumbling attempts to fix it) strongly suggest that they are not. So let me break it down.

First, is it really so much to ask that an event, taking place in 2014 and dedicated to the impacts different cultures have made on Australian society, make more than a tokenistic effort to include actual people from those cultures?

Second, those of us from ‘different cultures’ are not specimens to be dissected and discussed by Smart White People. Case in point: this image posted on the Library's Facebook page from an exhibition currently at the State Library (photographed by Louise Whelan). I invite you to read the caption in the voice of David Attenborough:

‘This great image of Congolese children at wedding (Dapto, 2010) is just one of the many fantastic photographs that will take you into homes and urban environments of both refugees and migrants now calling Australia home.’

See what I mean? Whatever intention the photographer may have had is lost by the focus not on the children's humanity but on their blackness; their difference. As such, I can only read it that we are meant to find four children looking bored and surly at a wedding rather remarkable because they are Congolese. Look, guys! Black kids hate dressing up at weddings too! Or maybe they just don’t like people sticking cameras in their faces? Who knows? Let’s organise a panel of white people and find out!If  some of you are thinking that I’m just looking for something to complain about, then just imagine people of colour treating the everyday lives of white people this same way, as if white people were exotic creatures to be spoken about, rather than to. Or you could just visit this website that has already done it for you.

Now, I’m sure that Whelan and everybody else involved in this unfortunate fiasco meant well. But if they handed out awards for good intentions rather than outcomes, then my film school projects would surely have netted me a Student Academy Award.

Part of the history of racism is whitewashing; the marginalisation and outright erasure of the voices of people of colour as both malicious and benevolent white folks thought they knew what was good for us better than we ever possibly could. An event like this - at a venue like the State Library no less - continues this tradition, albeit in a less hostile way. The message this event sends is powerful: we will include people of colour to a point, but the real intellectual insights will be provided by distinguished white people.

A panel of predominantly white people discussing the fears and benefits of multiculturalism is as insulting and othering as a hearing on birth control consisting almost exclusively of men.  Or awards for women’s empowerment where male finalists outnumber the female ones.

Only those who refuse to see the situation from the perspective of the marginalised and the silenced cannot see the problem.

Corrections: This story originally referred to Bahati Samila as a man, this is incorrect. The original story also listed photographer Louise Whelan as a panelist, rather, she delivered a multimedia presentation at the beginning of the discussion .The article has been edited to correct these errors.