This blog I have put together from a presentation I did at a Symposium in Dunedin ‘Interrogating Multiculturalism in New Zealand: An Asian Studies Perspective’ jointly organised by Otago University and Victoria University. It is still rough and there are some gaps to fully support my argument but I prefer to post it rather than write a longer academic article (and it is still in two parts). A friend advised me to read Foucault and Derrida but I do not have the time to digest such heavy reading. You can either agree or disagree.
The title comes from my documentary film DANCE BABY DANCE naach gaana hum aur tum that I made to examine the representation of the Indian community in New Zealand via the Bollywood dance competition at the Diwali Mela organised by Auckland City Council and Asia:NZ Foundation. The questions I asked myself and put to the viewer were ‘What does it mean to be Indian in New Zealand?’ ‘Who are the people that decide?’
When I first came to New Zealand and discovered that Diwali is celebrated as a publicly funded* festival through the organisations above, I was happy and excited. It was a way of sharing my culture with mainstream New Zealand. But the more I saw this festival the more uncomfortable it made me. Is this how multiculturalism is officially expressed in New Zealand? An annual festival that brings in footfalls and local Indians but to what end? How does this help in integration? How does it create a platform for querying your space and identity in New Zealand? What is the discourse around it? Is there a critical discourse? If not why not? The only way I could find out was by making a film. I interviewed the organisers and followed five different kinds of participants as they rehearsed for the Bollywood dance competition (since this was the ‘showstopper’ and heavily promoted and also the most problematic) . What did I infer at the end?
I needed academic backup to support my conclusion. My arguments come from the point of view of being an ‘ethnic’ media practitioner in the mainstream media of New Zealand who is on the fringe of the community and the mainstream by virtue of being neither or both and hence requiring me to be think in a critical manner. Outside/inside or inside/outside.
To begin, I referred to an article by Henry Johnson and Guil Figgins: Diwali Downunder-Transforming And Performing Tradition In Aotearoa New Zealand. This paper
a) Examines the re-contextualization and transformation of Diwali in New Zealand with emphasis on performance
b) Explores the role that various organisations have
c) The ways in which performances are expressions of self-identity and part of a process of place-making.
I’d like to argue that all three are limited and shaped by neo-liberal ideas of multiculturalism that converts migrant/ethnic cultures into soft, non-threatening consumable exotica to maintain the position of the ‘other’ rather than allow for integration. This then (a) Creates a space for passive participation (b) Continues to ghettoise the community (c) Sweeps social issues to the fringe or under the carpet because those are not part of this form of multiculturalism. Cultural differences are celebrated and accepted but rigidly maintained and not allowed to ‘spill over into an effort to have equality of a form that would run counter to the economic norms the regime is expected in the global context to protect.’ I quote Milton Fisk, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Indiana University who wrote about Multiculturalism and Neoliberalism. “…in the liberalism and the neoliberalism that associate closely with a positive view of the economic market, the notions of equal worth and equal dignity do not imply a right to economic equality but only a right to recognition. Here recognition implies…no more than an acceptance of others with their difference and of the task of maintaining that difference when they desire that their difference be maintained.”
Recognition of diversity is not the same as equality. It is a diversion from normalising and engaging with migrants and their lives and stories in New Zealand. Negotiating multiple identities and existence in New Zealand-they get lost in this ‘recognition and endorsement’ of popular Indian culture (Bollywood) and its economic hegemony. This recognition is like the carrot, it leads to the mirage of freedom and equity. But for the Indian community in New Zealand this multiculturalism continues to underscore and locate representation in food, clothes and performances rather than an exploration of their inherent complexities and space in New Zealand or creating a platform for democratic participation and open, critical discourse. Eventually failing to translate into wider cultural engagement or integration because it is always the ‘other’.
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*The Diwali Mela is funded through various private sponsors, the Lion Foundation and advertisers but the primary organisations are government bodies who ‘raise’ the money, hence I use the term publicly funded.