Multicultural middle class and ‘foreign
negotiating the field of symbolic power
in Australia
Val Colic-Peisker, RMIT University
‘Language on the move’, Macquarie University, Sydney, 12 Oct 2012
When I came to Australia [1948, aged 28] I realized what I have never thought
of before, that for the rest of my life I would speak a borrowed language with
an accent. I was overwhelmed by the sense of loss and grief that stayed with
me for all the years to come.
Magda Bozic, Gather your Dreams, (Richmond, VIC: Hodja,1984)
The sacred cow of privacy precludes one from talking about money, politics,
religion, personal tastes, love and family affairs, indeed anything personal,
any topic that might involve emotional response from the interlocutor. I do not
quite understand how can one have a completely disengaged conversation.
On the other hand, I understand.
I learned a new appropriate social distance from people who take a step back
when I talk, because I’m standing too close, crowding them or just sound too
intense, perhaps slightly dangerous.
Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation: A life in a new language (Penguin 1989) migrated
from Poland to Canada aged 13
P. Bourdieu (1991): Language and Symbolic Power
Communication process situated in the field of power; a social situation always
structured along the lines of power
• not only an overt exchange of information but also a covert exchange in the
economy of symbolic power
• a medium of communication: the language that unifies (an overt function)
• an instrument of distinction: the language that separates (a covert function)
Legitimate language: [accented] immigrants’ speech and discourse may not be
‘accredited, worthy of being believed’ (Bourdieu 1991:69)
• This is similar to the way women are ‘heard’ differently from men -- not
automatically accredited to talk and be taken equally seriously, even when
they hold positions of power
Symbolic power is derived from linguistic and cultural capital, as ‘a power of
constructing reality, and one which tends to establish a gnoseological order:
the immediate meaning of the world and in particular of the social world.’ (p.
Multicultural middle class (MMC)
• Changes in the socio-economic composition of the ethnic minority population: people
with accents and ‘funny’ names (NESB first gen) in ‘good jobs’, i.e. regularly interacting
with the Anglo majority
• Still underrepresented but present and visible in the positions of power and influence:
government ministers, media personalities, influential academics, businesspeople
• MMC created from a large skilled NESB migrant intakes (from Asian, Eastern Europe
etc.: in top 10 source countries for skilled settlers in the 2000s, 8 were Asian countries)
and social mobility of the NESB second generation (funny names but no accent)
• Before the end of WAP & economic restructuring the linguistic and cultural divide of
NESB versus ESB neatly translated into a gap in occupational status and income:
segmented labour market
• Over the past 3 decades: weakening of the overlap of class and ethnicity that is a
gradual weakening of ethnicity as a structural barrier (?) [BUT: ethnic ‘factory fodder’
still exists, mainly recruited from the humanitarian immigration and growing temporary
intakes (international students, working holiday makers, 457 visa]
• MMC : (at least to a degree) bi-lingual & bicultural, that is not fully assimilated, e.g.
foreign accent
• The onset of MMC is a significant new stage in the development of Australian ethnic
relations which may lead to either productive rearticulations of multiculturalism, and
multilingualism or an Anglo backlash
‘MMC’ vs. ‘Anglos’?
• The growth of MMC: a new power deal between Anglo Australians and ‘ethnics’?
• According to Forrest and Dunn (2008:11) the policy of multiculturalism have definite
‘‘negative implications for the former hegemonic status of Anglo identity’’
• the ideas of ethnic cultures, ethnic communities and collective cultural rights, central in
the original state ideology of multiculturalism, may lose its discursive power and policy
impact, reflecting a real shift in ‘ethnic’ power and style
• Another paradox of multiculturalism: a high degree of assimilation may be a necessary
condition for the social mobility of ethnics [structural aspect of m]. But if we assume an
intrinsic value of cultural diversity [cultural aspect of m], can the two aspects co-exist? – Is
cultural hybridity the answer? [The Bhabha’s ‘third space’]
• An optimistic scenario: an increased influence of MMC will lead to an increasing
recognition of the value of cultural and linguistic diversity in civil society and government:
Anglo-Australians, who still hold the hard core of power and wealth in Australia, willing to
share it with MMC (for a mutual advantage in the globalised world…?)
• This would have to include new ways of ‘listening between the lines’ and new meanings
attributed to foreign accents: can accented Englishes be included into the realm of the
‘legitimate language’
• Alternative scenario: the retreat from multiculturalism as an ideology is a reaction to the
ascent of a multicultural middle-class and pressures of globalisation: a political reflex
aimed at maintaining the Anglo-Australian hegemony? This ‘political reflex’ includes calls
for assimilation and ‘Anglo-conformity’, asserting that dominant Anglo-Australian values
as superior cultural values; xenophobia; ’? [L. Hawthorne (1995) 'Home and Away' offers
a clone of the 1950s Australia, a place whose surface acceptance of NESB migrants
masked a collective will to conformity and a loathing of difference].
• The global context: the end of the ‘American [Anglo] century
Multicultural middle-class: a Croatian-born variety
• How does ‘living in another language’ affect these people (mostly engineers,
all highly educated)?
• Research into issues of migration, mobility, language, identity, class, ethnicity
Before I migrated to Australia, I thought in three months nobody would
be able to tell the difference between me and real Aussies, but of
course, this wasn’t the case. Many people [Croatian professionals]
were disappointed with the same thing. In a way, I still have this
problem. I have a foreign accent I cannot get rid of, no matter how
hard I try, I’ll always have the accent and it does bother me, although
Australians do not seem to mind; they say accents are “interesting.” It
bothers me because I can always be identified as a stranger.
I personally never felt discriminated against. […] But when you look for
work, if you have a foreign name, or a foreign accent, or your English
is not all that fluent …that’s a big disadvantage. I think as long as you
send along a CV with a “funny” name, it decreases your chances…
that’s definitely a minus. I was lucky myself, I found a job, but when I
applied for other jobs later on, I was not successful…it’s not easy. I’ve
been at the same job for ten years…but I like my job. I am not
–(Mr D. B. engineer, migrated age 26, working for Testra)
I was involved with the local community through my
daughters’ school. I feel at home here, but we are always
recognized by our accent and in most cases, we are
asked where we come from, which is annoying. I do not
think they want to offend us, but I feel challenged in my
right to belong to this society and to be part of it in the
sense that whatever happens here affects us as much as
them, the people without a foreign accent.
(Ms D., an IT engineer in full-time employment at a university, lived in
the US before migrating to Australia)
My favourite quote…
Although my English is much better than it used to be when I first
came here, I still feel language is a barrier. I can conduct a
meeting at work but if I get engaged in an argument I may
sound rough because the fine nuances of expression do not
come naturally to me, especially when I have to act quickly, so
I am still trying to learn, not only the language but the
communication style. We [Croatians] tend to be more direct,
which I think has certain advantages, but English has these
indirect ways of saying things . . . which you can also use to
hide your incompetence or insecurity. Well, I do not have this
shelter. I do not have this trump card up my sleeve, so I have
to perform. I have to be better than them in order to be equal.
• (Mr R. K.,a senior engineer on a large alumina project, completed
MBA degree in Australia)
Foreign accent and social inclusion
• The issue becomes especially pertinent with the advent of
MMC (multicultural middle class) competing for good jobs
• FA – for Croatian professionals, an internalised symbol of
otherness (non-belonging, not-being-a-real-Australian)
• the ‘accent ceiling’ [for most accents, depending on a
concrete work role and ‘ethnic specialisations’]: the
‘foreignness’ and assumptions about it detract from the merit
in the employment market (cf. Piller 2011, Fraser and Kelly
• Seen as an unwanted social marker and a barrier to SI, held
in low esteem by the NS Anglo-Australian majority [although
there is a hierarchy of accents and various assumptions
attached to particular accents (cf. Eisenchlas and Tsurutani
Otherness by accent: possible futures
• Audible difference by accent is the same [inerasable] tool of distinction
as the embodied visibility (‘race’)
• Even if NESB professionals ‘integrated’ and ‘assimilated’ the accent
intimates they are culturally different*; they are suspect of not sharing
cultural assumptions and ‘values’; also as being less competent
• As we become more accustomed to seeing ethnic diversity and
inevitably become less sensitive to the embodied difference—is it likely
that hearing difference—the foreign accent—will morph into the main site
of otherness and exclusion? …especially with a large influx on MMC
speaking in their different accents?
• Or - just like Australian now come in different phenotypes (not the ‘white
nation’ any more), will the sheer level of presence of foreign accents
(MMC) in a mobile and globally connected Australia counter the Anglo
*Problems with defining culture and therefore also ‘cultural difference’
Bourdieu, P. (1991/1982) Language and Symbolic Power, Cambridge: Polity Press (with
Basil Blackwell).
Colic-Peisker, V. (2002) ‘Croatians in Western Australia: migration, language and class’,
Journal of Sociology, 2002, 38(2):149-166
Colic-Peisker, V. (2011) ‘A new era in Australian multiculturalism? From working-class
“ethnics” to a “multicultural middle-class”’, International Migration Review, 45(3): 561586
Colic-Peisker, V.(2011) ‘Ethnics’ and ‘Anglos’ in the Australian labour market: Advancing
Australia fair? Journal of Intercultural Studies, 32(6): 639-656, Dec 2011
Eisenchlas, S. A. and C. Tsurutani (2011) ‘You sound attractive! Perceptions of accented
English in a multilingual environment’, Australian Review of Applied Linguistics 34(2)
Forrest, J., and K. Dunn (2008) ‘“Core” Culture Hegemony and Multiculturalism.’
Ethnicities 6(2):203–230.
Fraser, C. and Barbara F. Kelly, (2012) ‘Listening between the lines: social assumptions
around foreign accents’, Australian Review of Applied Linguistics 35(1)
Hawthorne, L. (1995) ‘Soap opera in a multicultural Australia: Home and Away v.
Heartbreak High’, BIMPR Bulletin, No. 15, pp. 32-35
Hebbani, A. and V. Colic-Peisker (2011) ‘Communicating one’s way to employment: A
case study of African settlers in Brisbane, Australia’, Journal of Intercultural Studies,
33(5): 529-47
Piller, I. (2011) Intercultural Communication : A Critical Introduction, Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press

Multicultural middle class and