Xenophobics Anonymous (Diversity 101)

Diversity has some crucial foundation stones, and the idea of welcoming and including others into your life is one of them. David Sretenovic serves up some morsels from applied linguistics and parenting his toddlers, to give a message of hope for lovers of diversity.

Over the years I’ve gained some expertise in Applied Linguistics, and there’s one particular concept which stands out head and shoulders above the rest; for me, it’s possibly more powerful and worthy of attention than any other in the field. And I think it holds some of the keys for unlocking and harnessing the depth of human diversity. It is captured by the term “an additive environment”, in the sense of “more value, quality and information” being introduced. In its original usage, an additive language environment contrasts starkly to an environment where another language, or even culture, is undervalued to the point where it gradually atrophies and eventually disappears. Here in Australia, it may come to as a shock to my friends that nurturing an “additive language environment” may in fact be an historical weakness for us as a nation, considering the hundreds of languages that have become extinct since Europeans arrived… but many of us are keen to reverse this uncouth trend! And every time someone uses the word “diversity”, they are echoing this sentiment of historical reversal. When we call for diversity, we are calling for inclusiveness of others… but walking the talk wasn’t easy when Europeans first arrived, and it ain’t easy now. But read on if you love the ideas of diversity, community, inter-generational connection and reciprocal respect.

Inclusiveness. It’s inclusiveness that gives us access to the gold mine which resides within our neighbour (in the biblical sense). But the reality is that living inclusively is hard; moreover, it requires a paradigm shift away from the “fluffy” and “rainbows and candy” slogans which governments and the media use to depict diversity and multiculturalism. It’s so easy to share a meme which lampoons anti-immigration, or to vote for the political party which is welcoming refugees…even go to a candle-light vigil. But including these foreigners, and carrying their burdens… understanding their culture and appreciating which parts of it are sacred. Getting to know why they struggle. Visiting their ghettos and being confronted by the violence in their worlds. Man, that’s life-interrupting stuff. It takes time, effort, money and Saturdays. Public holidays. Sacrifice. Oosh.

I find myself struggling to include my kids sometimes. Well, actually, sometimes I struggle to include anyone but me. Don’t even mention my long-term, Aussie next-door neighbours… let alone the indigenous community on the outskirts of town. The refugees being resettled locally are way down the subconscious priority list – most people ought to admit that to themselves. It’s like step one at AA. I think Australia needs to go to an AA type meeting over this, actually. Xenophobics Anonymous? XA we can call it… hmmm, that’s a bit weird, maybe XO? Yeah that’s better: Hugs’n’kisses Anonymous. And we can advertise it with free beer! I’m being tongue in cheek, of course, and a little harsh too (Australia is awesome!)… but a bit of fair dinkum introspection can go a long way.

Now, although I’m as selfish as any other bloke, I do think I have applied the right idea with my kids from time to time. My daughter, Andje (3 years of age), and Jet (2 years of age), will be sitting and playing beautifully: giggles, interactive banter and intelligent imagination – such a delight to a parent’s ears! But then Jet might pull her hair a little too much. She’ll react, and he might not stop yanking. This spirals into raised voices, shrieks, banging … I’ll be holding back from intervening in the hope they can mediate for themselves. But inevitably sometimes they need me to provide some scaffolding. I’ve pondered what the best forms of intervention are and I think there’s a qualitative difference between these two interventions:

  1. “Jet, stop pulling your sister’s hair!”
  2. “Jet, listen to your sister… she’s upset.”

There are variations on these interventions, but the latter has captured my imagination because I feel like I’m shifting the focus away from me, and onto them. It’s no longer about stopping the screaming (so I can get back to what I was doing, or even to stop Andje’s discomfort). It’s now about engaging with the kids and making this a moment of personal growth and care for one another: I am actively mentoring Jet; Jet is being directed towards empathizing; and Andje is being listened to. Our day’s activity becomes less about an external goal and more about our relationship, shared experience and making space for each other’s very different worlds.

I’ve had to lay down what I’m doing more. I’ve had to let my Saturday plans go sometimes. I’ve had to give up some career ambitions. Oh man, but to see my children’s eyes widen with the discovery of each other and themselves… to see them enjoy the sense of family in all its diversity: it’s so worth it.

To me inclusiveness encapsulates the ethos of an additive environment: adding the priorities of others to your own life without sabotaging yourself. Sure it takes time and energy, and a meaningful sacrifice in order to include the young, the old…those with different languages, strange cultures. But there is a way you can do this without excoriating your own identity and values, or expecting them to either.