“I’m Not Your Typical Blond-Haired, Blue-Eyed Skippy”*: Second Generation Australians and Multiculturalism


This chapter was first published in 2003 by Peter Lang. It is part of an edited book, Social Exclusion: An Approach to the Australian Case.


This chapter explores the experiences and identities of second generation migrants in the context of multicultural policy. It first provides a profile of second generation Australians and their origins. It then addresses the changing policy context, and the extent to which policy has influenced popular understandings of national identity. Next the chapter considers the social mobility of second generation Australians, focusing upon educational and occupational outcomes; their marriage and family practices, highlighting issues of cultural integration; and their sense of identity and belonging. In exploring identity and belonging, the chapter considers qualitative research concerning diverse second generation groups of non-English speaking background. Finally, the chapter considers the meaning of multiculturalism for second generation Australians, its limitations and strengths.


Lucila was born in Australia, but her parents came from Brazil. She does not usually describe herself as ‘Australian’. This is in spite of the fact that she believes everyone has the right to call themselves Australian, given its multicultural character. Rather, she describes herself as Brazilian, like her parents. This is because she is not usually treated as ‘Australian’. In her own words:

I don’t look Australian. I mean, what does an Australian person look like? People don’t treat me like an Australian because I don’t look it. Because I’ve got dark hair, and dark eyes, and not a fair complexion, I don’t get treated like them. I walk down the street and I get, ‘oh, you’re Italian, you’re this, you’re that’, which they never get it right any way. If other people who are really Australian don’t treat me like an Australian, then how am I gonna fit in? It’s very hard. It’s not hard; it’s just the way it is.

Although Lucila does not usually describe herself as Australian, she does describe herself as Australian when she visits Brazil. This is because of how she is treated when she is in Brazil. As she explains:

Of course it depends [on] where I am, because if I’m here in Australia – this is how it is: when I’m here in Australia, I’m considered a Brazilian. But when I’m in Brazil I’m Australian, because I speak English and I was born in Australia. Nobody over there calls me Brazilian. They always call me Australian, even though I’m registered and all that [she has dual Brazilian-Australian citizenship]. I’m not recognised as Australian over here, and that’s because I’m not. I mean, I am. Ugh! See, it’s hard! [Laughs].

Folk musicians at the Polish Festival, Melbourne, 2015
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

It is hard. The experience of second generation migrants is pivotal to broader issues of national identity, community boundaries, inclusion and exclusion. In earlier times it was assumed that second generation migrants should automatically ‘assimilate’ into Australian society. Nowadays it is widely understood that Australia is a ‘multicultural’ society, where second generation migrants will value and preserve their cultures of origin. Yet there is widespread ambivalence concerning multiculturalism in Australian society, and assimilationist views still have wide currency. In any case, there is considerable diversity among second generation migrants in terms of their experiences, strategies and identities.

This chapter explores the experiences and identities of second generation migrants in the context of multicultural policy. It first provides a profile of second generation Australians and their origins. It then addresses the changing policy context, and the extent to which policy has influenced popular understandings of national identity. Next the chapter considers the social mobility of second generation Australians, focusing upon educational and occupational outcomes; their marriage and family practices, highlighting issues of cultural integration; and their sense of identity and belonging. In exploring identity and belonging, the chapter considers qualitative research concerning diverse second generation groups of non-English speaking background. Finally, the chapter considers the meaning of multiculturalism for second generation Australians, its limitations and strengths.

The second generation

Chinatown, Little Bourke St, Lunar New Year 2015
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

In the aftermath of World War II Australian governments adopted a vigorous migration program. Governments initially discriminated in favour of British migrants, but increasingly recruited from further afield; first from northern Europe, and then from Southern Europe. From the 1970s governments maintained an active migration program, but on a more modest scale than before. At the same time, they dispatched the ‘White Australia policy’, and drew a growing proportion of migrants from Asia. The upshot was that Australia went from being a country where the population overwhelmingly came from Anglo-Celtic backgrounds to one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. By implication second generation Australians increasingly traced their lineage from a growing variety of regions, nations and cultures.

By the 1996 Census, there were 17.8 million Australians, and 42 percent of this total population were migrants or had at least one overseas-born parent (NMAC, 1999: 16). Breaking this figure down further, 4.3 million (23.3 percent) were first-generation Australians and 3.4 million (19.1 percent) were second generation Australians (NMAC, 1999: 16; Khoo et al., 2002: 9). Of the second generation Australians, 56 percent had one parent born overseas and 44 percent had both parents born overseas. Almost half (just under 1.5 million) of the second generation Australians were of British origin, reflecting the fact that until 1995 the UK was the largest source of migrants to Australia. The second largest group were those of Italian origin (334,000 ), followed by those of New Zealand (200,000), Greek (154,000), Dutch (142,000), German (139,000), Irish (95,000), Lebanese (83,000), Maltese (77,000) and Polish (55,000) origin. In most of these instances (the exceptions were New Zealanders and Poles), the second generation outnumbered the first generation. This was on account of the fact that most migration from these countries occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1990s many families of European migrants were into their third generation (Khoo et al. 2002: 9-10).

Among more recent migrant groups, the size of the second generation was much smaller. None exceeded 50,000. The largest group was those of Oceanic origin other than New Zealand (48,000), followed by Vietnamese (47,000), Indians (44,000), Chinese (40,000), Filipino (35,000) and Malaysians (31,000). Migrants from these countries overwhelmingly came to Australia after 1975. Accordingly the second generation did not outnumber the first generation of migrants. For example, only one quarter of Australians of Asian origins were second generation. In close connection, the age structure of these second generation Australians was much younger than those whose parents came from Europe. In 1996 about half of them were not yet of school age (Khoo et al. 2002: 10, 18).

Policy and public opinion

Elderly man walking at the Italian Street Festival, 2014
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century the policy of Australian governments – unlike those of many European nations, such as Germany and France (Brubaker, 1992: 138-189) – encouraged migrants and their children to become Australian citizens. At the same time, governments radically altered the terms of this policy. In the immediate postwar decades, the policy of assimilation insisted that migrants and their children ‘fit in’ to the local way of life, which was overwhelmingly grounded in British culture and ethnicity (Davidson 1997: 46). Following this logic, the children of migrants were expected to become indistinguishable from the local population. From the mid 1960s governments retreated from the policy of ‘assimilation’, moving towards one of ‘multiculturalism’. The new policy – as Ellie Vasta observed – was partly a descriptive term for the ‘poly-ethnic make-up’ of Australian society; partly an ideology of tolerance for cultural diversity; partly a state-monitored principle for social policies to protect the civil rights and participation of the migrant population; and also a rationale for special institutions to support migrants, such as Australia’s national ethnic television broadcaster SBS (1993: 212-3; see also Wieviorka, 1998: 883). These various elements were reflected in this 1997 statement from the then Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs:

Australia is ‘a truly culturally diverse nation… While we embrace and celebrate the diversity of the Australian people, we also aim to build a cohesive, tolerant and unified nation of people. Citizenship lies at the heart of a nation founded on all-round equality. (DIMA, 1997: 8)

Michel Wieviorka has placed Australian multiculturalism in a broader perspective, comparing it with other societies that have adopted multiculturalism as public policy. According to Wieviorka, multiculturalism in Australia (along with Canada and Sweden) fits into a ‘relatively integrated model’, due to state legislation designed to promote ‘equality, tolerance of diversity, civic participation and liberty of choice in ethnic identification’ (1998: 886). In contrast, the US exemplified ‘disintegrated multiculturalism’, less institutionalised than the integrated model. By implication, multiculturalism in Australia provided the children of migrants with relatively strong support for choice in their ethnic identities.

During the early 1990s there was a growing sense among researchers and commentators that the Australian experience of multiculturalism was both innovative and cause for celebration. For example, one influential study – Mistaken Identity: Multiculturalism and the Demise of Australian Identity – celebrated that ‘old-style nationalism’ was never able ‘to reach a convincing climax’ in Australia:

Alongside this we have the extraordinarily successful management of the largest population program of the last half century, bar the peculiar case of Israel. Under the rubric of multiculturalism we have developed some of the most advanced policies and practices in the world for managing cultural and linguistic diversity. If only we knew our own history and took it seriously enough, we would realise that the transition from White Australia to multiculturalism over the past five decades – as chequered and problematic we social actors often feel that process has been – in fact amounts to one of the most advanced experiments in practical postnationalism in the world. (Castles et al. 1992: 207)

By the same token, there has always been opposition to multiculturalism. From the mid 1990s this opposition crystallised around the new One Nation Party, led by a former fish-and-chip shop owner Pauline Hanson. In turn, Hanson’s electoral success encouraged the ruling conservative government to draw back from multiculturalism. In close connection, social researchers acknowledged that celebratory accounts of multiculturalism were possibly misleading. In the words of Tim Phillips:

There has been an understandable tendency amongst some researchers to gauge or ‘read off’ patterns of stability and change in popular views about Australian identity from either popular or impressionistic accounts, textual analysis, or social and political shifts and continuities. However, the danger of treating human behaviour and reactions as ‘obvious’ in the absence of empirical research has been well documented. (1998: 282)

Anglo-Australian woman rings a Buddhist bell at the Lunar Festival, Melbourne, 2015
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

From the mid 1990s a growing body of research identified tensions around Australian identity and multiculturalism. Frank Jones’ analysis of the National Social Science Survey, for example, identified four ‘broad clusters of like-minded Australians’ (1997: 297). First, there were ‘dogmatic nativists’, who emphasised ascribed characteristics of national identity such as being born in Australia and being a Christian (hence ‘nativists’), and required a commitment to civic culture also (hence ‘dogmatic’). They comprised 15 percent of respondents. Second, ‘literal nativists’ (8 percent of respondents) also emphasised nativistic criteria for national identity, but they had a weaker commitment to civic commitment. Third, ‘civic nationalists’ (39 percent) had a ‘strong commitment to both “feeling Australian” and “respect for Australian institutions”, but a weaker commitment to Australian nativism’ (1997: 297). Finally, ‘moderate pluralists’ (38 percent) had only weak or moderate attachment to both nativism and civic culture. Jones observed that the two nativist groups were most likely to support the British monarchy and most opposed to immigration and multiculturalism. They tended to be older, less educated, rural and active churchgoers. Altogether they made up about one-quarter of the population, and provided a support base for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party.

Similarly, Phillip Smith and Tim Phillips conducted six focus groups concerning popular understandings of the keyword ‘unAustralian’ (2001: 335). The focus groups were forged on the basis of diverse criteria: regional city, urban blue-collar, urban white-collar, rural blue-collar, urban elderly and non-English-speaking background (NESB) women. Even so, there were no major differences between the groups in terms of the general themes deemed ‘UnAustralian’. Smith and Phillips reported that ‘ethnic groups were especially likely to be stigmatised as UnAustralian. More specifically:

Ethnic separatism is seen as an attack on the norms of civility. By allegedly remaining in ghettos, neglecting to learn English and failing to assimilate, certain minorities were perceived to be separatists, thumbing their noses at other Australians. The focus groups seemed to feel that migrants had a duty to participate in a wider civic culture and to value that culture as at least the equal of their own. Participants, including NESB women, considered that the ethnic was potentially valuable, but only as long as it did not take an inward looking form or come to dominate the broader ‘Australian’ society. As one participant in the elderly group put it: ‘When you’re in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ (2001: 336)

Women folk dancing at the Greek Festival, Melbourne, 2015
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

In contrast, another research team – Ien Ang, Jeffrey Brand, Greg Noble and Derek Wilding (2002) – found that the majority of its representative sample was positive in relation to immigration (67 percent), cultural diversity (59 percent) and multiculturalism (52 percent). Only 10 percent of the sample was negative concerning multiculturalism. Ang and her colleagues also emphasised the extent of ‘everyday cosmopolitanism’ among respondents, reflected in food consumption and leisure activities. In their own words: ‘Cultural mixing and matching is almost universal’ (2002: 6).

Briefly, the extent to which multicultural policy by government has been adopted at a popular level is far from clear. There is certainly a core of hostility towards the policy; hence popular mobilisation for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party and the re-election of conservative governments with an equivocal commitment to multiculturalism. By the same token, this mobilisation did not extend far; there is a good case for ‘everyday cosmopolitanism’ in Australian society; and the majority of Australians apparently support the general principle of multiculturalism.

Social mobility

Crowd walking around the Malaysian Street Festival 2014
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

Sociological research concerning second generation Australians had its beginnings in the 1970s. Mostly it was focussed upon school performance, with particular attention to the children of post-war migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds. These migrants had largely come from rural low-skilled backgrounds in Southern and Eastern Europe, and were concentrated in low-skill and low-paid occupations. It followed that their children were especially disadvantaged on account of class, migration and language. Moreover the children were now reaching their maturity at the end of the ‘long boom’ that had brought migrants to Australia in the first place. In this context, it seemed that there was substantial scope for the formation of an ethnic underclass, stuck in poor suburbs and dead-end jobs.

Contrary to expectations, sociological research found that children of non-English-speaking background (NESB) outperformed the children of Australian-born parents and migrants from English-speaking backgrounds. Jean Martin and Phil Meade, for example, followed a cohort of 3047 Sydney secondary school students. They found that children of non-English-speaking background were disproportionately likely to stay on for their final year certificate compared with children of Australian and other English-speaking origin. This was the case notwithstanding disproportionately low socio-economic background and low IQ scores. Such children remained at school ‘by clinging to high aspirations and staying at school despite a low level of performance as the school assesses it’ (1979: 16) The percentage of parents who wanted their children to continue to the final year of school was 48 percent for Australian parents, 68 percent for Yugoslavs, 70 percent for Lebanese and 84 percent for Greeks. Martin and Meade observed that ‘the family often directs its influence towards neutralising the significance of poor performance and making high aspirations come true’ (1979: 16).

Qualitative studies during the 1970s and 1980s confirmed the weight of parental expectations among migrant families of non-English-speaking backgrounds (Isaacs 1976; Isaacs 1981; Smolicz and Secombe 1981). For example, one 22-year-old Greek-Australian reflected on her upbringing:

We are conditioned by our parents, because as soon as we are able to understand, the question is put to us, ‘What do you want to be?’ The reply is naturally ‘A doctor’. Everybody I visited, I remember, when I was 9 years old, questioned me and rubbed it in. Because they had missed education, our parents want their children to have it. Because the higher the standard of education the children reach, the more it reflects on them – their children’s education adds pride to their life. (Isaacs 1981: 10-11)

In the 1990s research confirmed the social mobility of NESB children through education and career, albeit with qualifications. Bob Birrell and Siew-Ean Khoo (1995), for example, used 1991 Census data to show that the second generation from the countries of Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia had achieved higher tertiary level qualifications than was the case for those in the same age group with fathers born in Australia or Western Europe. This progress was observed for both men and women. The researchers also found that the second generation from Southern Europe and Eastern Europe had achieved striking upward mobility in terms of professional occupations compared to their parents. Children whose fathers had been born in Australia or Western Europe had achieved far less occupational mobility.

Women visit a food stall at the Malaysian Street Festival 2014
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

More recently, Siew-Ean Khoo, Peter McDonald, Dimi Giorgas and Bob Birrell found – on the basis of the 1996 Census – that the ‘second generation who reached adulthood during the 1980s and 1990s were more likely to have tertiary qualifications and to be in managerial or professional occupations than the third generation’ (2002: 117). They also apparently moved more quickly into home ownership. Moreover, younger second generation Australians were still more likely to be enrolled in education than their third-generation peers. This was partly on account of the fact that recent immigrants were likely to have parents who held professional and managerial occupations – but there was more to it than this. Second generation migrants who lived in low socio-economic suburbs, notably the Vietnamese, also outperformed third generation Australians. Indeed, the gap between the second and third generations was greatest in the lower socio-economic suburbs. The researchers concluded that the second generation from these suburbs showed ‘a greater capacity to overcome class disadvantage’ than the third generation (2002: 65).

At the same time, Khoo and her colleagues found substantial variety between second generation groups. The second generation from Southern Europe, Eastern Europe and Asia were ‘more likely to achieve better educational and occupational outcomes than those of other origins’ (2002: vii). The second generation of Maltese origin, notably the men, had especially low participation levels in education. Other second generation groups had relatively high unemployment levels, notably those of Lebanese, Turkish, Macedonian (former Yugoslav) and Oceanic (excluding New Zealand) background (2002: 143). The second generation of English-speaking and Western European origins were ‘more similar to at least third generation Australians in their socio-economic characteristics’ (2002: vii).

Marriage and families

Child in a kimono at the Japanese Festival Melbourne 2015
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

From the time of colonisation to the 1950s patterns of family formation in Australia mirrored those of the United Kingdom, reflecting the origins of most Australian settlers. From the 1950s the arrival of large numbers of immigrants from other countries – notably Southern European countries such as Italy, Greece, Malta and (as it was then) Yugoslavia – raised the prospect of distinctive forms of family formation, insulated through ethnic enclaves. Indeed, this was precisely the point of those researchers who tried to explain the educational achievement of second generation Australians from such backgrounds. As Martin and Meade put it, Southern and Eastern European families and their communities ‘neutralised’ the significance of poor performance and made ‘high aspirations come true’ (1979: 16).

Again, Khoo and her colleagues have conducted the most extensive research concerning family formation among second generation Australians. Their analysis included inter-marriage, age at first marriage, cohabitation, independent living before marriage, marriage breakdown and fertility. They found that family formation for second generation Australians of British origin was almost exactly the same as for third generation Australians. Other groups that showed similar patterns of behaviour to those of the third generation were those whose parents came from New Zealand, Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands. In close connection, these groups had relatively low rates of inter-marriage for the second generation. For example, only 18 percent of British brides and 19 percent of grooms married within their group, while 4 percent of Germans (brides and grooms) married other Germans. Among these groups, those of New Zealand origin were relatively avant-garde, whereas those of Dutch origin were relatively conservative.

On the other hand, the second generation of southern European and Asian origin differed substantially in relation to behaviours involving a strong value orientation; namely, the rate of ex-nuptial births, cohabitation and independent living prior to marriage. In-marriage supported the maintenance of these behaviours. Greeks and Italians maintained especially high rates of in-marriage for the second generation. For second generation Greek-Australians, 65 percent of brides and 60 percent of grooms married within their group; for Italian-Australians, the respective figures were 50 percent and 46 percent. Khoo and her colleagues observed:

The high rates of in-marriage among those of Italian and Greek origins represent a remarkable degree of cultural maintenance in the first generation. It presumably reflects geographical concentration in Melbourne and Sydney and the capacity of these groups to provide group-specific activities for young people. Both concentrate on language maintenance into the second generation, the Greeks through Saturday Greek schools. Both provide group-specific sporting and entertainment clubs for young people. (Khoo et al. 2002: 127)

Whereas second generation Australians of Southern European and Asian origin maintained ‘traditional’ family behaviours in relation to marriage and divorce, this was not the case in relation to fertility rates. Here instrumental considerations concerning economic advancement apparently prevailed. Even in this regard, Khoo and her colleagues observed that ‘Greece-born women in Australia followed the trend in Greece itself much more closely than the trend for Australian-born women’ (2002: 122); exceeding the Australian fertility rate in the 1970s, and falling below it in the 1990s.

On the other hand, Khoo and her colleagues observed some convergence in relation to divorce. Divorce rates for the second generation from Southern Europe and Asia were low, but ‘not as low as might be expected’ (Khoo et al. 2002: 141). This was partly explained by increasing rates of intermarriage. It was also explained by the fact that there was more separation from parents by the time a divorce was contemplated, compared with informal cohabitation and choice of marriage partner.

Identity and belonging

Families sit on the grass during the Wominjeka Festival 2015
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

A 2002 nation-wide survey by Ang, Brand, Noble, and Wilding is a useful point of departure in relation to sense of identity and belonging among second generation Australians. Their survey drew upon three groups: a national sample of 1,437 Australians; 2000 people from five NESB groups (Greek, Filipino, Lebanese, Somali and Vietnamese), with around 400 per group; and 56 Indigenous Australians from diverse communities. Ang and her colleagues found that the majority of respondents in all groups described themselves as satisfied with their lives, and satisfied with life in Australia. Indeed, the combined NESB groups were more satisfied with life in Australia (76 percent), than the broad national sample (71 percent) or ‘long-time Australians’ of four or more generations (69 percent). The researchers also found – in the wake of September 11 – that all of the NESB groups were more likely to regard Australia as a ‘tolerant’ or ‘very tolerant’ society (ranging between 47 percent of Lebanese to 67 percent of Vietnamese) than the national sample (40 percent). All of the indigenous groups agreed that Australia was ‘very intolerant’; those who were university-educated were most likely in the national sample (27 percent) to think that Australia was ‘intolerant’ or ‘very intolerant’; while only 13 percent of NESB groups agreed, ranging from 6 percent of Vietnamese to 16 percent of Greeks and Somalis.

Notwithstanding generally favourable views regarding life in Australia, Ang and her colleagues observed that NESB respondents overwhelmingly did not adopt Australian identities (2002: 40). Whereas 74 percent of long-time Australians described themselves simply as ‘Australian’, fewer than 10 percent of the combined NESB groups did so (Greek and Lebanese 14 percent, Filipino 10 percent, and Vietnamese and Somali 3 percent). Second generation NESB Australians were much more likely to call themselves Australian than their parents, but even among this group – born in Australia – only 31 percent did so. Most adopted identities grounded in their nationality of origin (such as ‘Greek’ or ‘Vietnamese’). A minority adopted regional identities (such as ‘Asian’ or ‘Middle Eastern’) or hyphenated identities (such as ‘Greek-Australian’ or ‘Lebanese-Australian’). As the researchers commented: ‘some of these people experience themselves as in Australia, but not of Australia’. Their sense of belonging was ‘incomplete’ (2002: 48).

Quantitative research can only go so far in tapping into issues of identity, meaning and interpretation. We now turn our attention to small-scale qualitative research, which provides more insight into these issues in relation to specific NESB communities.

Greek-Australians: ‘living in two worlds’

Folk dancer amongst crowd watching a Greek band, at the Lonsdale Street Greek Festival, Melbourne, 2014
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

In the 1970s Gill Bottomley conducted pioneering research concerning second generation identities. Bottomley conducted fieldwork in Sydney, interviewing 23 second generation Greek Australians, 12 women and 11 men. Her participants strongly identified with Greek ethnicity. This identity was forged through a tight-knit network that ensured that the second generation’s ‘life spaces’ – that is their social circle and activities – were ‘predominantly Greek’ (1979: 465). For example, there was heavy emphasis upon attending ‘Greek school’ and celebrating Greek Easter. In close connection, Bottomley emphasised the importance of kinship. For example, relatives were chosen to be koumbaroi (the best man and maid of honour at one’s wedding), thereby ‘doubling’ the ties of those involved. Alternatively, friends were chosen, who were then seen as ‘relatives of choice’ (1979: 139).  Kinship expectations and obligations sometimes resulted in conflict, but were overwhelmingly seen as a positive resource.

Respondents deemed some cultural practices as essential, even though they were no longer widely practiced in Greece.  For example, they supported the use of a dowry for young women. They also practised ‘name days’, whereby children were given the middle name of a saint (celebrated between people sharing the same name) or relative (usually a grandparent). The name provided an added bond between members within a kinship group.

Bottomley described her participants as ‘living in two worlds’. Most (17 out of 23) saw themselves as ‘more Greek than Australian’. At the same time, they distinguished themselves from Greeks in Greece and newly arrived Greek immigrants, whom they described as noisy people with ‘bad manners [and] bad language’ (1979: 166). They also saw themselves as having more scope for personal choice than their parents. In the words of one male respondent:

I have more options open, I’m more mobile. I can operate on a number of levels whereas they [parents] could not. Their style was confined, their path clearly defined and easy to follow.  It’s harder to make something of life when you haven’t got the pressures guiding you in a specific direction. (1979: 172)

Italo-Australians: ‘a unique identity’

Crowd watches a dj at the Italian Festival in Melbourne, 2014
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

In the mid 1980s Loretta Baldassar conducted an ethnographic study among second generation Italo-Australian women living in Perth. Like Greeks, the Italians migrated in large numbers to Australia during the postwar decades. Baldassar examined the friendship networks of 12 women aged between 17 and 25 over an 18-month period, focussing upon the issue of marriage. Social activities were organised through an informal youth network, which provided opportunities to assess potential marriage partners. These marriage partners were ideally Italo-Australians.

Baldassar emphasised the ‘importance of the family’ in Italo-Australian culture, exemplified ‘in the fact that throughout their lives young people are continually, through gesture and word, directed to marriage which encompasses the re-establishment of the family domain’. In turn, the private sphere was in distinct opposition to the ‘outside’, so that ‘everything beyond the family, apart from Italian clubs and associations, is considered not to be “Italian”’ (1999: 6).
In particular, ‘being Italian’ was defined in opposition to ‘being Australian’. The tensions implicit in such definitions were reflected in attitudes towards sex and marriage:

A shared belief of the network participants is that ‘Italian girls are for marrying’ and, by implication, that ‘Australian girls’ are for sex. The use of the labels ‘Italian girls’ and ‘Australian girls’ is not a strict reference to ethnicity at all. ‘Australian’ simply refers to all non-network women whatever their ethnicity. Indeed, Italo-Australian women who have ‘bad reputations’ are said to have ‘become Australian’. Likewise, any woman in a serious relationship with a network male is accepted into the network even if she is not ethnically Italian. The distinction is between ‘serious relationships’ (sex in marriage) and ‘casual relationships’ (sex out of marriage). (1999: 12)

In this context, there was a double standard of morality whereby single men were allowed more sexual license than women. By the same token, network women ‘were far from envious of non-network women and, indeed, given the condescending way they refer to these outsiders, network women appear to feel superior to them’. They saw themselves ‘as having pride, a very important concept in Italo-Australian conception of self’. They also felt in many ways ‘superior to network men’ (1999: 12-13).

All of the women that Baldassar spoke to were already planning their weddings, regardless of whether or not they were engaged. In turn, Italo-Australians spent ‘a great amount of money’ on their weddings, with ‘elaborate and expensive wedding feasts’. The conspicuous consumption of Italo-Australian weddings was renowned among non-Italians in Perth as ‘over the top’, thereby operating as a ‘boundary sustaining device’ (1999: 8). The wedding itself involved exaggerated ritual, including the use of garters and bouquets, and the presence of bridesmaids and groomsmen. This ritual was regarded as a necessary expression of Italo-Australian identity, notwithstanding the fact that it was not mandatory in Italy. Indeed, the large bridal parties were a British tradition, exemplifying ‘that a unique Italo-Australian identity exists in Australia and that it is continually being created’ (1999: 10).

Turkish-Australians: ‘traditional family loyalties’

Women walking, Viva Victoria Festival, 2015
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

In 1989 and 1990 Joy Elley and Christine Inglis interviewed 65 young people (aged 15-24) of Turkish background in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. The Turks were more recent immigrants to Australia than either the Greeks or Italians: extensive Turkish immigration only commenced in the late 1960s. The researchers observed of their respondents: ‘Being Turkish was a critical element in their identity and influenced many of the choices and decisions they made in their lives’ (1999: 198). They noted, in particular, the ‘great emphasis upon the family unit’, and the ‘traditionally strong segregation between the sexes together with the separate spheres of action of the sexes’ (1999: 201). In this framework, the ethnicity and gender of respondents ‘set up two different worlds of experience’ (1999: 194).

On the one hand, young Turkish men were expected to exercise their delikani (‘wild blood’) nature during adolescence. The status of delikani was symbolised by the growing of a moustache, and included drinking, smoking and staying out late. During this time it was expected that ‘young men will have an active social life outside the family home and also that they will develop opinions and attitudes that are not generally approved of by other family members, in particular their fathers’ (1999: 201).  The delikani status operated as a transition between childhood and marriage, whereupon young men were expected to settle down and assume an adult role.

On the other hand, Turkish girls’ freedom was heavily restricted.  ‘The social life of girls was invariably based in the home and in home-related activities’, and involved a strong expectation of helping the mother in household duties (1995: 197).  Unlike the experience of Turkish boys, there was no transitional life stage between childhood and marriage. The researchers reported:

Girls who had married at the age of 15 or 16 remarked on the change in family status which followed. Family and friends treated them more maturely and they were much more actively involved in family decision-making than previously. Girls acknowledged that marriage conferred more freedom on them and one said, rather bitterly: “After you get married you can start to enjoy yourself, but what’s the point of that when you couldn’t enjoy your single life?” (1995: 200-1)

The participants regarded their identity as different from that of their parents, because their parents had only ‘limited’ participation in broader Australian society. They ‘saw themselves as having an identity that had been created as a result of their being brought up in a Turkish community established outside Turkey’ (1995: 198), and identified themselves as ‘Turkish-Australians’ or ‘Australian Turks’.  In turn, participants took pride in their ability to navigate between cultures.

By the same token, the researchers reported that Turkish identity was decisive among respondents. One girl said: ‘I know Turkish, my parents are Turkish, my relatives are Turkish and the crowd I mix with is Turkish’. Another stated: ‘I’m living in Australia but I’m living in the Turkish culture’ (1995: 199).  For their part the researchers concluded that ‘young people were strongly committed to be seen as part of an Australian Turkish community and were therefore bound by its norms and values’ (1995: 199). More specifically, their ‘traditional family loyalties were not being replaced by more individual notions of self-realisation and independence’ (1995: 201).

Lebanese-Australians: ‘strategic essentialism’

Women walking through the Viva Victoria Festival, Melbourne 2015
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

In the late 1990s Greg Noble and Paul Tabar interviewed seven second generation Lebanese-Australian males of Arabic-speaking backgrounds. The participants were aged from 16 to 19; four were Christian and three were Muslim; and two of the respondents had some Syrian background. All attended high school in the south-western suburbs of Sydney. This region was ethnically diverse: 40 percent of residents came from non-English speaking backgrounds, almost a quarter spoke Arabic as a first language, and the Lebanese were the largest single migrant community making up 7.5 percent of residents. The region was also relatively poor, with high unemployment. The unemployment rate for youth of Lebanese background was over 40 percent.

All of the respondents described ‘instances of individual discrimination in school and public places’ (2002: 137). They felt judged by their ‘woggy’ appearance, and ‘hurt’ and ‘offended’ by racist taunts and media stereotypes:

When Ahmed was asked to mention any other word used to describe the ‘Lebanese’, he replied, ‘Oh you know, dirty and greasy. You know what I mean. Or we spit as we talk … Then our appearance … Like we’re big noses or, you know, you look woggy’. These youngsters are conscious of the negative constructions that circulate within the wider community. Mohsen said that ‘Lebanese have got a bad reputation … if a house gets stolen around the area, then the police will say it’s Lebanese. It’s in the paper: “Middle Eastern appearance”, and they mean Lebanese’. (2002: 138)

Negative and criminalized stigma led respondents to adopt a ‘strategic essentialism’. Essentialism meant that respondents forged a collective Lebanese identity irrespective of national differences (between Lebanese and Syrians) and religious differences (between Christians and Muslims, and various groups within these categories). This identity ‘equated Lebanese-ness with honour, respect, morality, courage and the idea of family, as well as particular customs, and these things were usually cast in opposition to Anglo-Australians’ lack of these things’ (2002: 135). The essentialism was strategic in the sense that collective identity provided the basis for ‘a sense of community amongst those of Arabic-speaking background in the face of broader processes of racism and marginalisation’ (2002: 139). In the words of one participant: ‘It’s just that we always stick by each other. Be there when others like need you. Protect others. Just stick together as one group’. Another boy explained: ‘At school, if anyone called me a wog, they wouldn’t be speaking to me alone’ (2002: 139).

More than this: the respondents mobilised their sense of ethnicity not only in a reactive way, but ‘to negotiate the logic of the context in which they are located’. For example, they employed ‘strategic code-mixing’ in the classroom:

They frequently use Arabic to ask for a ruler, to comment on the teacher or classmate, swear, and so on. In a multicultural classroom, most teachers would no longer condemn such use of the mother tongue, so these boys exploit the logic of multiculturalism to provide a space within which the logic of authority can’t intercede. (1995: 140)

Notwithstanding strategic essentialism, the researchers reported that participants ‘happily identify with certain things they see as “Australian”: sport, hanging out, driving around, the beach’ (1995: 141). In other words, they adopted a ‘strategic Australian-ness’. This was especially important in the private context, where it was a vehicle ‘to achieve a certain independence from their “Lebanese” parents and to become entitled to equal treatment to any other citizen in Australian society’ (2002: 141).  They complained about their parents’ failure to change their traditions; they resented their parents’ encroachment on personal choices and social freedoms; and they described conflict around the right to date and the ethnicity of their future wives.

While stressing the value of ‘Lebanese’ tradition and elevating Lebanese-ness to a position of moral certainty, these boys also complain ardently about it. The moral laxity they despise in Anglo culture becomes freedom in another context. (2002: 141)

Briefly, the participants adopted ‘hybrid identities’, flexible and contingent. In turn, they described themselves as ‘Australian-Lebanese’, unlike their parents. In the words of one participant:

It means, like, inside I’m Lebanese, but I’m Australian-Lebanese because I’m living in Australians’ country.  So that’s what I have to follow, but it would be different story if I was Lebanese-Lebanese.  If I was born in Lebanon, that’s what I’d describe myself as. (2002: 129)

Latin-Australians: ‘multiple ethnic identities’

Women talking at the Latin Summer Festival 2014
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

In 2000 Zuleyka Zevallos (2003) conducted in-depth interviews with 13 second generation women aged between 17 to 25 years from South and Central American backgrounds, focussing upon their negotiation of ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Like Turks and Lebanese, South and Central Americans were relatively recent immigrants to Australia. Five of the participants were Australian born, and the remaining eight were around the ages of two and seven when their families migrated to Australia.  All participants lived in the western suburbs of Melbourne.

The participants held multiple ethnic identities.  All of them identified with four identities: a localised Latin identity (for example Chilean or Argentinean); a regional Latin identity (either South or Central American); a pan-ethnic identity (‘Latin American’); and a qualified Australian identity (sometimes framed in terms of ‘my Australian side’). Eleven participants stressed emphatically that they were ‘not Australian’. Instead of holding hyphenated Latin-Australian or hybrid identities, they described themselves as ‘Latin American living in Australia’. One participant, for example, reflected:

I don’t see myself as Australian. I see myself as South American living in Australia. Australia’s my home, but my culture’s very much South American … I don’t see myself as Australian.  I see wherever you’re born, that’s where your culture comes from. But there’s also influences, definitely, from Australia. But yeah, absolutely, I would say I’m not Australian. (2003: 84)

Participants did not see themselves as Australian at least partly because they were not treated as such. In their experience being regarded as an Australian depended upon categorisations of race, grounded in physical appearance. More specifically, it depended upon having an Anglo-Celtic appearance. As one participant bemoaned:

It’s hard in Australia, because I’m not seen as Australian. I’m not. Even though I have no accent, I was born here, but because my parents aren’t Australian, I’m not Australian. And I’m not your typical blond-haired, blue-eyed Skippy. I’ve got the dark features. I mean, you look different to them. Plus my background is different to them. (2003: 91)

The participants identified with a collective Latin American community on the basis of four ‘emblems’ that symbolised a homogenous Latin ethnicity. These emblems were: ‘traditional’ country-of-origin food; language (either Spanish or Portuguese); ‘traditional’ Latin music and dancing (cumbias, salsas and sambas); and festivity, which refers to parties involving the entire extended family, and also community-organised functions. Although these four emblems ‘highlight the continuing influence of multiculturalism on subjective understandings of “culture”, which are centred on folkloric expressions of ethnicity … these emblems [also] act as a site of resistance to dominant narratives of Australian-ness’ (2003: 92-93). In the same way, participants also strongly identified with the view that Australia is a ‘multicultural society’, wherein everyone should be included within the national identity.

While participants rejected being Australian, they nonetheless acknowledged ‘Australian influences’ in relation to issues of gender and sexuality. There were five areas of parental conflict due to the incongruent cultural and inter-generational ideals about gender: sleep-overs, going out, bringing boyfriends home, moving out of home, and constructions of Latin femininity and masculinity. It was on this last issue that they drew upon their ‘Australian side’. More specifically, participants ‘emphasised that Australian society is egalitarian and therefore they cannot “put up with” inequality’ (2003: 94).  While their fathers, brothers and boyfriends embodied ‘macho’ masculinities, they emphasised that their gender ideals were ‘influenced by the Australian context in which they had grown up’ (2003: 95).

The partial adoption of an Australian identity in family disputes highlighted the contingent and contextual nature of the participants’ identities. The same processes were apparent when participants travelled overseas and returned to their countries of origin.  One participant explained:

If you go overseas – this is the really contradictory thing about living in Australia – you go overseas, someone asks you where you come from, you say ‘Australia. Born there.’ And they go, ‘oh, okay’. But when you’re in Australia, when you say, ‘I’m Australian,’ they go to you, ‘no what nationality are you?’ Then you go, ‘oh, Chilean’. So in the end, I think a lot of people just cut out the ‘Australian’ and just go straight to the ethnicity.  This happened to me a lot in high school. [Consequently she decided] ‘Well I’m not going to think of myself as Australian’. (2003: 91)

The second generation and multiculturalism

The Australian-born children of migrants are a diverse category of Australians. Some – especially those from English-speaking countries – are barely distinguishable from third and fourth generation Australians, at least in terms of educational outcomes and family practices. Others – especially those from non-English speaking backgrounds – are distinctive in a variety of ways, including social mobility, family practices and sense of identity.

The fact that the majority of NESB second generation Australians do not describe themselves as Australian highlights the limitations of multiculturalism and ‘everyday cosmopolitanism’. Qualitative research consistently identifies a pattern of ‘strategic essentialism’, whereby respondents adopt identities based upon country or region of origin. This essentialism places strong emphasis upon the family. It also involves the construction of a ‘cultural other’, whereby ‘being Australian’ is the counterpoint of their own identities. The essentialism is at least partly a response to discrimination, causing the children of NESB migrants to feel that they are not Australian. It is strategic insofar as it provides ‘the basis for cultures of resistance’ against exclusionary ideas about what it means to be Australian (Vasta, 1993: 218).

By the same token, NESB second generation Australians do not form an underclass, on the margins of Australian society. They deploy their families and communities to negotiate local institutions, resulting in educational achievement and social mobility. They also construct ‘hybrid identities’ that are flexible, contingent and inventive. More specifically, they both adopt their parents’ ethnic identities on a variety of symbolic markers and challenge their parents’ values, especially in relation to gender and personal autonomy. In the process, there occurs a cautious accommodation with Australian identity.

Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

In this context, the second generation is consistently well disposed towards the policy of multiculturalism. First, multiculturalism is a resource to command autonomy and equality in the private realm of the family, notwithstanding strategic essentialism. Second, it is a resource to command respect for cultural difference in the public realm, providing a defence against discrimination and marginalisation. Finally, it holds the promise of renegotiating national identity and expanding the boundaries of what it means to be Australian, notwithstanding the fact that many still feel excluded by such boundaries.

It is on this account that Lucila – the Australian-born child of Brazilian immigrants who was introduced at the beginning of this chapter – is able to categorically reject an Australian identity at one point of her interview, and categorically claim it at another. She does not feel Australian because she is not treated as one. Even so, she is optimistic in her view of Australia: ‘here I can think big’, she declares, ‘I can make something of myself’.

* ‘Skip’ is slang for an Anglo-Celtic Australian, used by Australians of non-English speaking backgrounds. It derives from the 1960s Australian-made television drama about a crime-solving kangaroo, Skippy The Bush Kangaroo.


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Obtain the published chapter via the link below from the publisher (available as a book for purchase).

Citation for published chapter:

Zevallos, Z. and M. Gilding (2003) ‘“I’m Not Your Typical Blond-Haired, Blue-Eyed Skippy”: Second Generation Australians and Multiculturalism’, pp. 186-207 in D. Weiss (Ed.) Social Exclusion: An Approach to the Australian Case.  Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.


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