Should immigrants be forced to assimilate?

Many different people call Australia home and still celebrate, practise and maintain their cultural heritage, traditions and language. That’s because Australia’s multicultural policy encourages the national characteristics of ‘equality and a fair go for all’.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Up to the mid-1960s, Australian policy was underpinned by ‘assimilation’ and a belief in the benefits of racial homogeneity. An assimilated individual was expected to give up their cultural identity and become absorbed into the dominant cultural group.

This was followed by a shift towards integration, where people valued and maintained both their own culture and the new host culture. Having two cultures like this is called biculturalism, and there’s been a lot of research in this area as countries become more culturally diverse.

Many of the studies show that when a person is allowed to navigate two cultures simultaneously – that is, the culture of their new home as well as their heritage culture – they have a better chance of achieving both psychological and socio-cultural adjustment.

In other words, the bicultural person acquires skills through the process of learning to use two cultures together, and this can help them positively adjust to a range of people and situations. This in turn can help buffer the potential anxiety and loneliness that anyone leaving their home and moving to a new part of the world is at risk of – especially if they feel unwelcome and devalued. From an economical point of view this is a good thing for Australia as well-adjusted people can contribute more in the society.

People from the ‘home’ culture can benefit too. There’s research suggesting that being exposed to diversity can result in greater cognitive flexibility, creativity and self-confidence. That’s because people can learn to no longer rely on ‘inconsistent’ stereotypes and get to know the ‘real’ person and their culture.

This makes integration and biculturalism a win-win situation for both members of the home culture and members of the different (and often minority) cultures. Not only does it help reduce intercultural miscommunication, it can make people feel better about themselves.

Of course, another bonus is that members of every culture, both large and small, get to experience first-hand all the rich cultural traditions – like Indigenous art displays, Chinese New Year celebrations and multicultural food festivals – that would be lost if we ended up as one fused society!