While there's often a love-hate relationship between pop culture figures and real people, between representation and reality, sometimes pop culture captures reality perfectly. As Keisha, Mutya and Heidi of the Sugababes cavort in an elevator for the "Push the Button" clip, each couples off with a hapless, dorky man and coaxes some hot dancing out of their unexpected dates. So far, so pop. But what interested me was the pairing process. Keisha finds herself a hot black man while Mutya and Heidi pair off with two luscious white chaps. Keisha is dark-skinned, while Mutya and Heidi are white.
This populist - and popular - version of multiculturalism is pernicious, especially in American cultural products. The Sugababes are British, but America's screen-segregation is far more pronounced. Black women date black men. White women date white men. There's a bit of crossover between Latino-white and Latino-black, but white and black skins almost never get cozy, except indirectly, through the medium of the Latino mid-point colour. Whites and blacks can be mates - they make for good buddy-cop movies - but rarely intimate partners. While the concept of intermarriage in Western countries is tainted by the immediate past, where miscegenation was seen as the favoured method to dilute the toxicity of native/slave blood, the present system is not much better. If people stay within their own cultures, ghettoes of privilege and poverty form and become more entrenched. If multiculturalism translates to parallel nations in the same county, antagonism can easily flourish. The images of France burning provides a useful rejoinder to segregation masquerading as tolerance.
The statistics from the US bear out what the Sugababes help visualise. America's rate of intercultural marriage between the dominant and poorest ethnicities are extremely low. In 1990, only 5.5% of black men married white women. In 2000, the figure had crept up to 9.6%, with black women marrying white men in only 3.8% of cases. Why? One reason is economic class. Ghettos of inequality exist throughout America. It's an ethnicised phenomenon - in settler societies, class is often based on culture. Unhappily for America's black population, the successive waves of immigration - Asian, Latin American - have jumped from bottom to middle, leaving African-Americans at the bottom of the heap. If you don't make it out of poverty in those areas not colonised and dominated by whites, like sports or music, or become employed by the saviours and employers of the urban poor the world over, the drug and crime gangs, there's nowhere to go. Intermarriage - and the equalising effect that would have - is hindered by class, the social stigma of cross-cultural dating and effective geographic segregation within American cities.
The phenomenon of 'white flight' has been well-documented since the 1950's, where black Americans move into white areas, sending middle and upper class whites out further into the safety of the burbs and gated communities. Australia is by no means free of white flight. Sydney has seen an exodus of whites from what Mark Latham dubbed the city's Middle Arc, as Asian immigrants arrive. Australian demographer Bob Birrell has shown that these whites head either further into the city, if they have the means to price themselves away from immigrant neighbours, or further out into the burbs, if they don't. Sanitised by shows like "Seachange", some leave for the country or coast. Of course, the seachange phenomenon can't be attributed directly to a fear of immigrants, but it's important to acknowledge that the phenomenon of white flight exists and is influential. These days, Melbourne's inner-city suburb of Carlton has been recolonised and thoroughly gentrified by Anglo-Saxons and rich immigrants, but only after the poor Greek/Italian influx of the post-war years grew rich enough to head to the suburbs in belated pursuit of the Anglo-Saxons.
White flight stems from a fear or dislike of cultural "invasion" which the unkind would dub racism, and those more understanding would call fearful ignorance. During the post-war years, when Australia began replenishing its decimated male workforce with Southern European immigrants, assimilation policies were in place and immigrants were discouraged from forming community organisations, using their own language or living too close to other immigrants. In a more enlightened time, the policy has been rightly condemned as alienating and unforgiving. These days, we're multicultural, and proudly so. During my time in Japan, I went to the Australian pavilion at the Aichi World Expo earlier this year and watched as my country presented itself favourably to the world. Key themes were sport, mateship, nature and multiculturalism. From an embarassment fifty years ago, Australia now flaunts being of mixed race. And with good reason. Culture-based inequality is far less present here than in America or Europe. Race riots are rare, generally coming from the one culture white Australia still hasn't included, the lingering skeleton under the carpet - Aboriginal-Australians, who have moved from tribesmen to inmates under the rule of white Australia, as C.D. Rowley acidly observes. Ethnic cleansing through intermarriage was advanced and developed to a far greater degree here in Australia than was ever the case in America. Australian academic Gary Foley has written that
"With the overt chains of slavery removed, white America felt compelled to construct a system of racial, social and economic apartheid that persists to this day. The sexual component of this white fear removed any notions of assimilation that might
involve a genetic 'absorption' of black people into mainstream American society."
While the Australian system of forced, reproduction-focussed assimilation has been roundly condemned by contemporary historians, the rate of intermarriage between the white majority and Australia's most economically disadvantaged culture remains far higher than in America. The 1996 census revealed that an astonishing 64 per cent of Aboriginal families involved a union between an Aboriginal and a non-Aboriginal partner.
Traditionally, White American males feared that black men would steal white women; hence the obsession with the presumed huge penises of African-Americans (a myth not borne out by fact) and a continued obsession with black sexual prowess. In Black Like Me, an astonishing book of the early sixties, John Howard Griffin darkened his skin and walked the streets of the segregated South of America as a black man. When white men did approach him, they would continually obsess over his sexual feats, an obsession hiding a deep insecurity.
The Sugababes film clip could easily pass as a multicultural document - the sanctitity of culture is preserved, the defences maintained against the past of white cultural colonisation of the assimilation era. But what it also represents is a prissy unwillingness to contaminate, a reluctance or inability to step outside cultures. Having said that, I have to acknowledge my hypocrisy: I've got no first-generation migrant friends. All my second or third generation friends have been Australianised; their faces have abandoned the tautness of their parents - the first generation, on their guard- and relaxed into Australian grins. Is assimilation truly such a dirty word, when it's not imposed, when it isn't bureaucracy so much as demography? Isn't it a far better outcome than a tribalised Australia full of paranoid Anglo-Saxons fearful of losing their top-ranking, marginalised Aborigines and aspirational Asians?
A tacky thought - if the government had to be involved, perhaps it could just produce glossy advertising along the lines of Singapore's Government-sponsored dating programs. Perhaps something like:
- Don't hesitate, miscegenate!
- If you're my baby, it don't matter if you're black or white. Or whatever.