Growing up as a person of colour in Australia is a bit like Arya Stark doing her assassin training in Game of Thrones (but with more character development):
“Who are you?”
You are constantly forced to erase your identity. You push your cultural heritage to the background so as not to stand out, so as not to be marked as different to everyone else. You might adopt a more ocker accent to seem like you’re just another normal person, or you might speak in more refined tones to subvert the implicit assumption that people of colour are somehow uncultured or uneducated.
You blend into the background to survive.
I speak from my own lived experience, but I imagine other oppressed groups might feel similar. Part of the problem is the dire level of representation of people of colour in Parliament and public life. If you can’t identify with the people who are representing you, then you’re going to be less likely to engage with politics, and this means your life is less likely to change for the better.
Take the Greens. I broadly support their platform. However, when I look at their federal parliamentarians, I see a sea of white faces. I see a group of people who, by and large, come from privileged backgrounds.
The composition of the Greens, and the way they sometimes behave, perpetuates the stereotype that they are rich inner-city wankers. I don’t think this stereotype is wholly accurate, but it exists, and it deters many voters. When the ordinary punter looks at Greens leader Richard Di Natale paying his au pairs a pittance on the farm that he owns but didn’t properly declare, or starring in that bizarre GQ turtleneck fashion-shoot that he did, they will often struggle to identify.
The Labor Party appears (superficially, at least) to have a more diverse array of representatives, drawn from a wider array of racial and socio-economic backgrounds.
Stefanie Perri, the Labor candidate for the federal division of Chisholm (encompassing the Clayton campus) believes that “the Labor party does quite well in its cross-section of candidates,” citing several women of colour such as Sophie Ismail (candidate for Melbourne), Jennifer Yang (5th position on the Victorian Senate ticket), and herself, a Clayton local from a low socio-economic Italian background.
Even though I disagree with many Labor policies, I seem to intuitively identify with the party. I honestly don’t know whether this is because Labor is actually more representative and diverse, or because the Labor meme game is too strong and I’ve been brainwashed.
It is also important to ensure intersectionality in pre-selecting candidates. As Perri put it, “it’s got to be more than a tick-the-box” system. Having a person of colour, or a woman, or a Queer person who is from an otherwise privileged background might not necessarily be the best person to represent that group.
For example, compare Waleed Aly and Sam Dastyari, the Labor Senator for NSW. They are both Muslim men, prominent public figures, and important voices in progressive politics.
Aly attended an elite inner-city private school before practicing law and becoming an academic. Dastyari attended public and selective schools in the north-western suburbs of Sydney, and dropped out of law school. He has retained his working class identity, and as a result, he’s become a borderline folk hero. While much of what Aly says might be extremely valuable – I think he’s great – he is dismissed as an ‘out-of-touch flog’ by a lot of the population.
It is important that oppressed groups are properly represented, instead of a PR ‘tick the box’ smokescreen.
But why is proper representation of these groups so important?
The most obvious reason is that this representation gives oppressed groups the agency to make decisions in relation to their future. They have the experience to actually understand what problems face them, and how best to resolve them. Oppressed groups can also have their identity affirmed, because they see people like them in visible positions of power.
But what this means for political engagement is that when parties do not appropriately reflect the identity of their constituents, this drives voter apathy. This is particularly the case with the Greens. It means that people who might otherwise have engaged with them, based on their policy convictions, will never do so.
Australia has not been a white nation for several decades, so why are our public figures so monocultural?
Now, more than ever, we need people to be engaged with politics. If it is seen as the domain of elite and out-of-touch upper-middle class white people, then we are shutting out swathes of important views. It means that people of colour do not engage in a political system, or a society, that they feel they have no place in, seriously undermining our democracy.