Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Friday, October 21, 2011

"White flight" from selective schools

A "WHITE flight" from elite selective high schools is entrenching ethnic segregation in Australia's education system, according to a social researcher. In a study of student language backgrounds in schools, Dr Christina Ho, of the University of Technology Sydney, found a clear pattern of cultural polarisation, with few Anglo-Australians in high-achieving selective entry government schools. Students from migrant families — mostly from Chinese, Indian and other Asian backgrounds — dominate the enrolments of the schools.
In Melbourne, 93 per cent of students at Mac.Robertson Girls High School and 88 per cent of pupils at Melbourne High School and Nossal High School are from language backgrounds other than English (LBOTE), a category that also includes those from non-Asian backgrounds. In Sydney, nine out of the top 10 highest performing selective schools have similar high percentages of LBOTE pupils, mainly from Asian backgrounds.
People who speak an Asian language at home make up 8 per cent of Australia's population, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Dr Ho said it was understandable why so many migrant families, put off by high fees in private secondary schools, flocked to public selective schools because of their outstanding academic results.
"Anglo-Australians' shunning of public selective schools is less explicable, particularly among those families with talented children who might achieve the required standard on the selective schools [entry] test," said Dr Ho, whose findings are published in the journal Australian Review of Public Affairs.
"The 'white flight' from these schools must partly reflect an unwillingness to send children to schools dominated by migrant-background children, which simply further entrenches this domination.
"If current trends continue, we risk creating highly unbalanced school communities that, rather than reflecting the full diversity of Australian society, instead constitute unhealthy and unnatural bubbles of segregation and isolation."
Dr Ho's study examined enrolment data given by all schools and education authorities to the My School website. The LBOTE data measures cultural diversity and, unlike birthplace, identifies second and subsequent migrant generations not born overseas but who are members of a cultural minority.
The principal of Melbourne High School, Jeremy Ludowyke, rejected suggestions that the school was not culturally diverse. "We don't see a white flight expressed in the pattern of applications to the school," Mr Ludowyke said.
About 60 per cent of his pupils have a parent born overseas.
"Melbourne High and Mac.Rob have played a pivotal role in providing opportunities for newly arrived migrant communities. They're part of the success story of multiculturalism in Melbourne," he said. [Source]

This is not the first "white flight" article that the Fairfax media has run in recent years; this one in 2008 reported that white students in Sydney were flocking to the independent school system to avoid certain public schools with large Muslim populations, while rural students were doing the same thing from schools with high proportions of Aboriginal students.

The Asianization of Melbourne's selective state schools has been going on for a while - my largely Asian social circle is rife with selective school graduates. I have to say I'm a bit sceptical about whether this "white flight" is a real phenomenon. Are the parents of white students actively rejecting these schools because of their predominantly Asian population, or are they simply being out-competed by Asian students for entry places?

Another article in the same paper this week points to the culture of private tutoring amongst many Asian pupils as a potential cause, which implies that if this "white flight" is really taking place, it is perhaps less about the Asians themselves than about the stress-inducing methods increasingly deemed necessary to remain competitive in an Asian-dominated environment.

So is this a cause for concern, or not?

Yes and no. (Regular readers will know that's my standard answer for most things.)

I've written previously about the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" attitude towards immigrants in this country; minorities are either condemned for not performing and fitting in well enough, or feared for performing too well. It's hard to escape that feeling when reading articles such as these.

Australians tend to have a somewhat laid-back approach to life; it's a part of our national character which has contibuted to this country being a highly sought-after place to live. Undoubtedly some see the Asian approach to education as incompatible with this aspect of Australian life. Yet in a competitive global marketplace, perhaps we have a lot to learn from Asians, and it is hard to argue that cultures that place an extremely high value on education would not be a positive influence.

The question is, how far do we take that? An overwhelming focus on education at the exclusion of sporting and other leisure pursuits can have very negative side effects; in the US, suicide and depression rates amongst young Asian-American women are alarmingly high, for example.

Something else to think about: does the selective school system merely favour the hardworking, the gifted, or both? A lot of evidence shows that many naturally gifted students are wasting away in our public schools, either hiding their intelligence to avoid being ostracised and bullied, or dropping out because they quickly grow bored with the limited curriculum. For these students, the selective system would seem to be a godsend. Yet does an increasingly Asian Australia mean that diligence becomes far more important than natural ability when it comes to academic success?

And if so, is there anything wrong with that? Obviously we are not talking about a dichotomy of gifted versus hardworking students; most of our highest achievers have both qualities in spades, and a student gaining entry to a selective school would undoubtedly need to be of at least average intelligence anyway. But "Asian parenting" (a problematic stereotype, but let's accept it for now) means that Asian students who may not have great natural intelligence can still outperform many who are. As customers, employers and consumers, we expect hard work and commitment from our workforce, and probably value them more than brainiacs who lack work ethic. Is it only right that we reward hard work, rather than those vague concepts of giftedness and intelligence?

Again, the concern is that as a society we are criminally under-utilising some of our sharpest minds, those students who have great intellectual capacity but don't easily fit into a highly regimented culture that relies mostly on extreme diligence as a path to achievement.

The most obvious solution is to have more selective schools, and it's one that the Victorian government has belatedly begun to address.

But multiculturalism is a two-way street, and I think we may eventually see things working out for the best. I like to think that just as the influence of Asian students will be beneficial for the broader Australian schooling culture, Asian students will become more Australianized as well. As Amy Chua laments in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the second and third generations of migrants tend not to have the same fierce aspirational mentality. Let's hope that means a perfect study-life-balance that allows students to reach high levels without becoming stressed-out robots in the process.

Of geeks and gangsters: the "model minority"
Asian kids, Jewish education
On hardass Asian parents
Summation of Wesley Yang's "Paper Tigers"

My favourite thing in the world, this week

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

On Suarez and Evra

In the English Premier League, matches between Liverpool and Manchester United are always testy affairs due to their long-standing rivalry. This past weekend's game had another nasty angle to it due to racism claims on the field. United's black French defender Patrice Evra reported to referee Andre Marriner that he was being repeatedly racially abused by Luis Suarez, Liverpool's Uruguayan forward. He later told French TV station CanalPlus "There are cameras, you can see him (Suarez) say a certain word to me at least 10 times." If you're not sure what that the "certain word" is, it's the one that begins with N that black people are generally not fond of, unless the person saying it is black in which case it's sort of okay. Suarez is a little brownish perhaps, but technically not black, which means he's potentially in hot water as the English FA are conducting an investigation into Evra's claims.

Liverpool, for their part, have completely backed Suarez's claims that he is a lovely person who loves everybody, and have also called for Evra to be punished for making a false allegation should the FA find no proof.

European football is riddled with racism; in some countries on the continent, large sections of the crowd routinely bring banana peels to the game solely to throw at black players (based on the logic that there is some correlation between black people and monkeys). The English league has been one of the more successful at eradicating this kind of rubbish, so the allegations will no doubt be taken seriously.

Evra and Suarez have their own individual baggage that impacts on this furore. Evra has been the alleged target of unproven racist incidents before - which makes it easy for some to dismiss him as someone who was struggling to contain Suarez on the field of play and so played the race card in retribution - although to be fair to Evra, the previous allegations were not made by him personally. For his part, Suarez was sent off in the last World Cup for the most obvious and cynical handball you'll ever see, is continually accused of diving and feigning injury to get other players in trouble, and not so long ago was suspended for biting another player on the shoulder during a game. All of which doesn't mean he's a racist prick - just a prick - but I doubt anyone would be surprised if his list of odious behaviours happened to include racist taunts.

Of course, according to Suarez, he's not a bad guy, just misunderstood, if this amusing statement on his Facebook page is anything to go by:
“I’m upset by the accusations of racism. I can only say that I have always respected and respect everybody. We are all the same. I go to the field with the maximum illusion of a little child who enjoys what he does, not to create conflicts.”
But Liverpool's stance on the matter - that Evra be banned if Suarez is cleared - is ridiculous in what it implies, although that hasn't stopped 'Pool fans enthusiastically embracing it. Unless video replays can conclusively prove what Suarez said, which is unlikely, or unless someone else on the field can credibly verify what Suarez said, then it comes down to one man's word against another's.

Without trying to be hyperbolic, there is a parallel with rape cases here. In an incident in which only the two people involved know what happened and which is difficult to prove, the odds are that the accused is cleared of the charge. But that doesn't mean the incident didn't happen. Obviously making false allegations is very serious, as it potentially leads to an unjust punishment and can ruin someone's reputation even if the charges are found to be baseless. But if we were to punish everyone who made an accusation which could not be proven, it would be an active discouragement for anyone to report the transgression. There is a massive difference between deliberately lying and alleging something that cannot be proven.

There even remains the possibility that neither of them are at fault. Given that English is a second language to both Evra and Suarez, I wouldn't be surprised if it stemmed from a misunderstanding; perhaps Suarez said something in Spanish, or in his Uruguayan-accented poor English, and Evra misheard it as the N-word.

Although Suarez being Suarez, I reckon he's probably guilty. Great player, but he's kind of evil.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Media-led burqa hysteria?

Amusing take from the folks at ABC's The Hamster Wheel on the Australian media's sensationalising of the burqa issue.

But this clip and the content within it represent for me the nature of problematic discussion about Islam in Australia. The Hamster Wheel guys do a good job of showing some of the ignorance that drives the prejudice against Muslims in Australia, and how the media fuel so much of it. But they also hint at the usual idea pushed by the Left that those who worry about the influence of radical Islam in Australia are probably stupid or racist or both.
Our media has essentially created a dichotomy: you are either a Muslim-hating xenophobe, or you accept anything and everything that Muslims do and assume that it'll all be okay in the end. For me, I look forward to a happy medium in which Australians (including Muslim Australians) can accept that Muslims are welcome and valued members of our society, yet acknowledge that certain practices associated with Islamic culture have no place in Australia. Of course, no two people seem to agree on exactly where that happy medium lies, so I guess we are stuck with the polarisation.

See also:

How the media manufactures a racist "controversy"

Is it Islamophobic to ban the burqa?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

"The Slap" and race-bending

The television adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ multi-awardwinning novel The Slap has been one of the most anticipated events on Australian TV this year. Set in Melbourne’s suburbs, it explores the fallout amongst a group of friends and family after a man slaps a misbehaving child (who is not his own) at a barbecue. Tsiolkas focuses particularly on the diverse tapestry of modern suburban Australia, and how ethnicity, gender and age influence the characters’ actions and reactions to the incident.

I should state firstly that I haven’t read the novel, and so don’t have any positive or negative preconceived notions about how it should be translated to film. But it’s interesting to note that one of the notable changes in the production process has been to the ethnicity of one of the characters - Aisha, wife of Greek-Australian Hector and the organiser of the barbecue at which the titular slap takes place. In the novel, Aisha is described as Anglo-Indian, but the Aisha of the TV version is played by British actress Sophie Okonedo, who is Nigerian/Jewish by ethnicity.

According to this article:

As much as possible, the filmmakers looked to actors who matched the characters' ethnicity.
In the case of Aisha, this led to a drawn-out process after Connolly travelled to London to audition British-Indian actresses.
After meeting the ''staggeringly great actress'' Okonedo, a decision was made to change Aisha's cultural background to Mauritian. According to Connolly, Tsiolkas was very open to the changes, even writing a detailed backstory for the ethnically transformed Aisha.
While Tsiolkas's book is specifically about the experiences of Greek-Australian migrants, Aisha's Indian ancestry is explored in less detail. What mattered to Tsiolkas, Connolly says, is that Aisha regards herself as an outsider to mainstream Australia, a common bond that links her to Hector and his close-knit Greek family.
Not having read the book, I can’t yet comment on how integral Aisha’s Indian-ness is to the story, and whether her character would be essentially compromised by being Mauritian instead. Blogger Byron Wong tells me that the Indian element is important and the alteration is extremely disappointing. Tsiolkas obviously didn’t think it was a huge deal.

Now I like Sophie Okonedo, and it’s hard to dispute her ability as an actress, having been previously been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in Hotel Rwanda. But it’s still a shame. Over half a million Australians have South Asian ancestry, and it’s one of the fastest growing segments of our population. South Asian Australians have a very prominent presence in fields like medicine and information technology (as well as some of the stereotypical ones like driving taxis and working at 7-11s). Yet as far as Australian TV drama goes, they may as well not exist.

Notably, this is one of the first times that a major role in a major Australian TV series was of a specifically South Asian character, yet whoever was involved in casting The Slap could seemingly not find an Australian actress of South Asian background anywhere. Now admittedly, I can’t think of any off the top of my head, as there are none with a significant profile. Yet that also says a lot about the industry’s reluctance to give such people the chance.

Even if they had gone with a British-Asian actress instead, that would still have been a positive thing to at least see a desi playing a desi in a sizable role on Australian TV. Alternatively, if someone of Indian descent was required, I hear there’s a country called India which is apparently full of them, and presumably some of them can act too.

At least I’m glad that while Aisha got “race-bended”, she didn’t get white-washed as frequently happens to non-white characters in film and television (see the Billy Sing story as an example). Melbourne has a sizeable Mauritian community and I’m happy to see them get some love, even if Okonedo is obviously not Mauritian herself. It’s good to see an “African” character on Australian TV, and it’s good to see an actress the calibre of Sophie Okonedo on Australian TV. But surely it’s not an impossible task to have a specifically South Asian character played by a South Asian actress.

UPDATE: It turns out that Aisha is not the only Asian character in The Slap who has been de-Asianized. Check it here.

See also:

The lack of Asians on Australian TV, and why it matters

Yellowface is still alive

Monday, October 10, 2011

Guess who's Middle Eastern?

I've just about exhausted my Guess Who's Asian? series for the time being, so I'm going to cast my net a bit wider to the South-West part of Asia. There are lots of famous people who are not widely known to have Middle Eastern ancestry; here are a few. I'm pretty sure none of them are terrorists, in case you are worried about that sort of thing.

Steve Jobs (left) - the late co-founder of Apple was was adopted, but his birth parents were Abdulfattah Jandali, an Arab (Syrian) immigrant to the US, and Joanne Schieble, an American of Swiss-German ancestry.
Wentworth Miller (right) - the apparently drool-inducing star of Prison Break, Wentworth Miller's family tree reads like the Human Genome Project; a father of African-American, Jewish, Cherokee, English and German ancestry, and a mother of Russian, French, Dutch, Lebanese and Syrian descent.

Kelly Slater (left) - arguably the best-known surfer of all time, the Florida-born Slater has Syrian ancestry on his father's side and Irish on his mother's.

F Murray Abraham (right) - The veteran actor, best known for his Oscar for Best Actor in Amadeus, and his role in Scarface, was born to an Italian-American mother and Syrian Christian father. The F stands for Fahrid.

Casey Kasem (left) - if you are like me and grew up listening to the American Top 40, you'd know doubt remember this guy's archetypical radio DJ voice. He was born in Detroit to Lebanese Druze parents, and while his surname is a giveaway as to his Middle-Eastern heritage, he pronounced it in such an American way that it never occurred to me. His real name is actually Kamal Amin Kasem.
Paul Anka (right) - pop idol from the 50s and 60s, best known for the songs Diana and Put Your Head on My Shoulder. Anka is Canadian-born to parents of Lebanese parents.

Andre Agassi - former world number 1 Tennis player; his father, Emmanuel Agassi (originally Aghassian) was an Iranian-born Olympic boxer who was of Armenian and Syrian Assyrian descent.

Julia Sawalha (right) - the UK actress best known as the straight-laced daughter Saffron in Absolutely Fabulous. Her father is Jordanian actor Nadim Sawalha, and her mother is British.
Mitch Daniels (left) - Governor of India and formerly Republican presidential hopeful, Pennsylvania-born Daniels' paternal grandparents were Syrian Christians.

Colombian pop star Shakira (right) is usually thought of as Latin American, but her name (full name Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll) also reveals her Arabic (Lebanese) origins; Colombia actually has over 800,000 people of Lebanese descent. She also has Italian, Spanish and Macedonian ancestry.

Thursday, October 6, 2011