Back to Blog

Beyond CALD: what lies behind the labels

July 13, 2020
Featured image for “Beyond CALD: what lies behind the labels”

Some months ago I started a conversation at this blog about how Australia needs to move beyond the simplistic terms in which we talk about cultural difference at work and in policy.

Specifically, I questioned the widespread use of the label ‘culturally and linguistically diverse’, or CALD. I flagged that I wanted to follow up with a post in which I laid out some principles for a new language of cultural difference for use by governments, business and the community sector.

Needless to say the COVID emergency and all the economic and social dislocation it’s caused got in the way of that quick follow up!

But the need for renewal in the way we think and talk about multiculturalism and diversity in contemporary Australia hasn’t gone away. Indeed, the salience of culture in the Australia’s COVID responses, and the flourishing of new conversations and activism about addressing ethnic and racial inequality, have made it all the more important to talk about these problems now.

Last time I argued that the problem with CALD was that it was ‘too broad and too narrow at the same time’. It was too broad in the sense that it wasn’t useful as a way of distinguishing those who are obviously from minority ethnic descent in a white-majority society, lumping together Anglophones from non-European backgrounds. That’s not ideal if you want to measure the effects of racism, obviously, or if you only want to understand equity outcomes of differences in people’s language abilities, regardless of their cultural background.

At the same time, the CALD concept is too narrow in that it writes the contributions of English-speaking, Anglo-Celtic Australians out of our country’s diversity story. In doing so, it presupposes that this Anglo-Celtic ‘majority’ is the ‘default’ culture from which all others deviate.

The fact is that we’re all part of the cultural and linguistic diversity of Australia, no matter what our cultural backgrounds. But only some of us are going to be part of communities which experience social exclusion or are underserved by government because of our cultural or linguistic background. 

What we need is a toolbox of categories and terms which clearly identifies who those groups are when we need to measure the relationship between a person’s cultural background and the likelihood of experiencing discrimination or disadvantage on that basis.

But what do we replace the term CALD with—and indeed, do we need to replace it with anything?

An obvious solution is to do what some European countries do and decide not to risk legitimising divisions by simply not asking about people’s racial or ethnic identities at all. This, I think, gets us nowhere. We owe it to ourselves as a society to be honest about where socioeconomic disadvantage falls along ethnic or racial lines, or whether people from particular cultural backgrounds aren’t receiving equal access —or indeed whether they have particular needs from governments.

The big question, then, is which element of ‘difference’ a new toolkit of categories and terminology should prioritise. A lot of this depends on some assumptions we make going in about what the most important causes of social exclusion are—a person’s appearance and cultural backgrounds? Their language ability? Their country of birth?

As I said in my previous contribution, we need categories that fit people’s needs, not their identities.

Some comparisons between Australia and other Anglophone democracies are worthwhile. A recognition that governments must redress inter-ethnic and inter-racial inequities has infused the United States governments’ collection of data on race in countless official contexts, and by the private sector in its interactions with employees and customers. The use of ‘minority’ has become commonplace in the United States official and colloquial discourse, too.

Canada has embraced a similar terminology, with the term ‘visible minority’ being used in official statistics and entering into the mainstream lexicon over the past several decades. (Though to be sure, the term has been criticised for being divisive and simplistic.) In the UK, the category of ‘black, Asian and minority ethnic’ or BAME has served a similar function, and has been criticised on the same grounds as Canada’s term of choice.

What distinguishes these countries from Australia is the idea of taking race seriously. While Australia’s census and many government forms ask people if they are either from an Indigenous, CALD, or non-English speaking background, we generally shy away from asking directly about a person’s ethnic or racial identity.

But there are multiple axes and causes of social and economic exclusion which aren’t simply down to an individual’s being ‘culturally and linguistically diverse’—whatever that means. It seems to me then, that a path forward out of the problems of the CALD concept needs to be based on a clearer picture of what equity goals we’re trying to achieve by categorising people on the basis of cultural or linguistic difference.

It’s a fact that two key axes of social exclusion are discrimination and disadvantage on the basis of race and language ability. People who are visibly different from the white majority face racial discrimination—a problem that occurs no matter their linguistic or national background. At the same time, people may struggle to fully participate economically or socially because of their English language abilities, independent of whether they are from a ethnic or racial minority.

So let’s begin with two simple propositions: we need to disaggregate the idea of being from a non-English speaking background and being from a ‘diverse’—in reality, a non-Anglo—cultural background.

But as I said last time, ‘the way we talk about diversity both reflects and shapes the way we think about diversity’. When I hear many friends and colleagues describe themselves as ‘culturally and linguistically diverse’, or ‘from a CALD background’, it’s not clear what they’re trying to highlight by doing so. 

Are they claiming to be a victim of racism? Are they saying that they’ve faced professional disadvantage because of their language ability? Are they saying that they are unable to express their culture because there isn’t the space for it? Anyway, one person or thing can not be ‘diverse’. Diversity is an aggregate attribute of a group; in its simplest form, diversity means difference.

Really, saying that one is ‘diverse’—apart from being ungrammatical—is a catch-all way of saying that one feels ‘different’ or ‘othered’ in an Australian society which all too often clings to a national self-image still influenced by the old Anglo-Celtic monoculture. In doing so, one is unintentionally reinforcing this harmful and outdated picture of Australian society.

That’s why, in my next article, I’m going to be attempting to offer some concrete examples and/or suggestions of how we might all embrace a language of cultural difference and claiming identity which doesn’t unnecessarily draw divisions between us or unwittingly privilege the majority.

About the author:

Share this Post

If you'd like to get in touch and experience a one on one demo of Diversity Atlas.

Book a Demo