Race, Culture & Data: Dealing with Difference in Schematic Technologies

Presented by ANU College of Asia & the Pacific

The onset of the pandemic has coincided with a change in how the Australian state perceives China’s power and motives, surfacing racist attitudes that circulate in Australian society anyway, even without this type of data. Further, without it, we cannot understand Australia’s “cultural political economy,” in Jakubowicz’s words, given that “ethnic groups are not distributed randomly across either the economy or the landscape, but are rather clumped into certain occupations, localities, and socio-economic classes.” Nor do we understand the behaviour and preferences of second- and later-generation migrants or how we/they navigate Australian society.

Yet simply rolling out schematic tools that track data against categories like “race,” “culture,” or “ethnicity” can be dangerous, carrying the risk that the state or other powerful institutions might simply adopt aggregate categories that group us up for their convenience. Worse, they might attach seemingly “old,” colonial race theories to those categories. Many Australians have experience living under such schematics in their countries of origin, across the former European colonies in Asia, for example. These categories can feel like a generational burden that we have to bear. Even if they are used benignly, they might be hiding processes of cultural differentiation over time, or obscuring other salient sociological realities like class and access to opportunity.

There are long-standing traditions of Asian history and historiography, anthropology, linguistics, and archaeology, that show how cultural identity groups are constructed through social and political processes. Debates about race and culture in Australia could learn from this scholarship, instead of always comparing Australia with other white-majority nations that practice “multiculturalism.”