Back in 2017 I wrote a piece called ‘Selective Worries about Selective Schools’ about how most media surrounding these schools promulgated the idea that they were ‘full of Asians’ who were implicitly ‘taking the place’ of Australian students. I concluded that while there was research about the ‘changing demographic’ of selective schools, authors were deliberately selecting information and framing it in a way that supported their moral panic.
I focused on the research of Dr Christina Ho, an academic who had attended a selective school herself. While I give benefit of the doubt to the validity of the hard facts and figures of her academic work, I came across an article about her shortly after my own was published, which made me wonder whether those original authors referencing her work had misinterpreted her after all.
The Asian Aisle
Titled ‘Why this Hong Kong-born mother won’t send her kids to selective schools’, the article explores her primary concern that while she loved and indeed benefited from her experience, these schools just don’t “reflect Australian society” anymore. The main reason being that the vast majority of students are of Asian background. Consequently, the students cannot “learn everyday multiculturalism in an organic way”.
The assertion that all of these “Asians” are undermining multiculturalism is a disingenuous and, quite frankly, false argument. Lumping all Asian Australians together as one monolithic, homogenous culture is the equivalent to making an Asian Style Salad from the free recipe magazine at the supermarket. What salad encompasses the cuisines of the entire continent? This is a continent with 46 countries (including Pacific), literally billions of people, multitudes of ethnic groups, hundreds of languages and dialects and all the combinations of culture and migration in between.
Dr Ho herself is a Chinese person born in British-occupied Hong Kong – which makes it likely that she grew up speaking English and Cantonese, not Mandarin. Even the current political situation in the region makes it obvious that ethnicity is not the only demarcation we have as citizens of the world. My experiences as an Australian-born Chinese person whose family came to Australia via Malaysia noticeably differs from the experience of my friends whose parents were born in China.
And these examples are only focusing on a fraction of Chinese diaspora experience! When we remember the other 30+ countries in Asia, we see that Dr Ho’s concerns are simply unfounded.
You are Ethnically Chinese
“I wanted to fit in more than anything else. I didn’t want to be defined as racially different,” she states halfway through the piece. I can understand. As a young person, you want to feel like you fit in. But I’m curious as to how those experiences have shaped her views for her children in an Australia almost thirty years later.
The truth of the matter is, she and I are racially different. That is, until you ask – different from what? Different from whom? If we were in another country, we could be the majority. Being racially different only matters if we perceive one race as the ‘norm’. But in a colonised land like Australia where everyone other than First Nations peoples came from across the seas at some point in their personal or family history, we need to rethink what that default actually is.
The ‘Australian identity’ has always been ‘Australian + something else’. An automatically White Australia shouldn’t and can’t be the ‘baseline’ we accept. How many MPs in the citizenship debacle were of *ethnic* background? Why weren’t First Nations people able to vote on their own land until 1967? Australian is a nationality, not a race.
Celebrate Multiculturalism! (But not your own)
Another concern that Dr Ho shares regarding the consequences of a “disproportionately large majority” of Asian Australians in selective schools, is that students would only see the world through the lens of race. For example, choosing the ‘Asian Five’ subject groupings. I disagree.
If Dr Ho feels concerned about these kind of jokes – and yes, they are jokes, then I wonder how she feels about the immensely popular social media group Subtle Asian Traits and all of the similarly administered pages.
Studying abroad this semester I was proud that my Asian American and Canadian friends who I’d met also loved the group, which began in Melbourne. It didn’t even matter that I wasn’t one of the founders or had never contributed, or that I didn’t always understand posts on the page. We could relate to those common experiences on some level.
Using a social media analogy (apologies), making jokes about strict parents or laughing about why our white friends can’t do an ‘Asian Squat’ (seriously though, is it actually genetic?) is just one page that students have ‘liked’ on their profile, along with their countless other interests.
When we are concerned that young people are talking – even joking – about culture (their own, mind you), we’re implicitly saying that it’s good to have multiculturalism! But don’t be too proud. Make sure you stay the minority. Don’t play the race card. Clearly race does not form 100% of human identity and I’d be surprised to find a young person who thinks that this is the case. Why then, should we let others who feel defensive about their own identities tell us how to be?
The Irony of Choice
Despite her enjoyable scholastic experience, Dr Ho is adamant that her kids won’t be attending a selective school themselves. One of these reasons is that these schools are increasingly becoming bastions of inequality rather than acting as a social leveller to remove barriers to quality education for bright but disadvantaged kids.
While it is counterproductive to deny that there are implied economic barriers within the selective school system, for example, costs associated with the coaching school some students attend prior to the selective school entry exam, this is not a unique problem. The role of money and privilege is something that Dr Ho alludes to herself.
“My kids … have parents who are well educated and connected,” she says, “and we’re not going to let [them] fail!” Aside from the question – how did she herself become educated? – the irony is that she thinks that by rejecting coaching and selective schools, she is removing her children from competition and “narrow, results-oriented” education.
What she is choosing instead is what selective schools were designed to circumvent in the first place – quality education through elusive ‘connections’; where it’s about knowing the right people and parents having a certain level of education themselves.
Even if she was not utilising her ‘connections’, there is still the unavoidable topic of school zoning. As a recent article in the ABC revealed, the four richest schools nationwide spent more money than the poorest 1,800 schools combined. Like it or not, different suburbs generally reflect different socio-economic groups and, consequently, differing capabilities for funding, student/teacher advocacy and resourcing.
With the right policies, selective schools have the capacity to break this barrier on a wider scale.
I have nothing personal against Dr Ho. I appreciate that no one is responsible to speak on the behalf of their perceived community. Granted, she does also acknowledge some racism within this discussion.
However, I’m cautious that with her public platforms in the media and as an academic with cited work, articles such as this where race is the implicit headline, can be used by detractors of selective schools or even genuine multiculturalism to justify and furnish their positions with the voice of an ‘insider’. If she said it, and she’s Asian and went to a selective school then these groups may infer permission to unfairly criticise.
There are many areas in which selective schools must return to their original mission. This is undeniable. But, this is a discussion that needs to be addressed in reference to a plethora of socio-economic factors including education funding and policy, not just race. Using race as the main point or an attention grabbing headline diverts the conversation away from how we can actually make selective schools work for society as a whole.