It was with great trepidation and much hope that I accepted a secondment as Academic Program Leader in University of Wollongong’s brand-new South-West Sydney campus, which was to be housed in a couple of floors of a Council building in the Liverpool CBD. For those unaccustomed to Sydney’s western and south-western suburbs beyond the recent incessant focus on Parramatta, Liverpool is about 25 kilometres from the centre of Sydney, a lower median income than the New South Wales average and could be classified as ‘super-diverse’ as no single ethnic group dominates.
Also worth noting are the growing cohort of young people, many of whom are children of migrants and refugees. Liverpool and nearby Fairfield are the two Local Government Areas (LGAs) of Sydney where most newly arrived refugees are resettled, leading to particular needs for housing, education, and employment infrastructure.
In other words, this new position would have been ideal for operationalising many conceptual tools in my growing scholarly arsenal on multiculturalism and its embodiment in the Australian context. I had also been writing my first monograph on food in inter-cultural contexts and was equally excited to expand my inner-city palate and foodie know-how. Despite these obvious intersections with my 1.5 generation migrant identity and academic pursuits, my first trip to Liverpool for early admission interviews for UOW’s Bachelor of Arts program turned out to be a checklist of privilege and positionality.
During the interviews themselves, I was heartened that so many students who hailed from racialised backgrounds were interested in pursuing an Arts degree. Some were especially interested in majoring in politics and international relations, while others were keen to explore teaching pathways alongside a major in cultural studies or sociology. This interest in understanding their world through the lens of the humanities existed despite the fact that many hailed from schools where ‘Culture and Society’ was not on offer as an HSC subject. They nonetheless understood how the vocabulary of a discipline akin to cultural studies could enable them to self-represent and claim belonging on behalf of their communities.
However, many were candid about how they had an uphill battle ahead convincing their parents about the value of an arts education. Still others had lived complex lives as always-already politicised subjects in Western Sydney and wanted to find the language to both articulate their experiences and advocate for better conditions for their families in Australia as well as in the Global South.
Stepping away from the campus and my teaching and governance hats, what I was less prepared for was the intensity of guilt I would experience in the course of being a walker/ethnographer/insider-outsider in the streets of Liverpool. This was the first time I encountered my own class and educational privilege vis-à-vis many people of colour who call western or south-western Sydney home. While I had been well-versed in the pedagogical and aesthetic dimensions of cultural diversity, my training and life experience did little to expose me to the habitus of these suburbs and the visceral reactions such exposure would evoke.
What I have been endeavouring to do for the last five years is learning from and collaborating with these communities rather than imposing my own understanding of what would work here. This constitutes very slow research and very patient teaching and my cultural studies training has equipped me for both. It means re-conceptualising cultural capital and what it means to be at home and continue to want to stay in a place that others see as deprived. It implies embracing ‘productive discomfort’, an idea that many cultural studies scholars and colleagues have actively practised and championed
Dr. Sukhmani Khorana is a Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at Western Sydney University.