Dreaming Diversity: Second Generation Australians and the Reimagining of Multicultural Australia





dreams, second generation, everyday multiculturalism, Australian identity, media, popular culture

How to Cite

Ballantyne, G., & Podkalicka, A. (2020). Dreaming Diversity: Second Generation Australians and the Reimagining of Multicultural Australia. M/C Journal, 23(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1648
Vol. 23 No. 1 (2020): dream
Published 2020-03-18


For migrants, the dream of a better life is often expressed by the metaphor of the journey (Papastergiadis 31). Propelled by a variety of forces and choices, migrant life narratives tend to revolve around movement from one place to another, from a homeland associated with cultural and spiritual origins to a hostland which offers new opportunities and possibilities. In many cases, however, their dreams of migrants are deferred; migrants endure hardships and make sacrifices in the hope of a better life for their children. Many studies have explored the social and economic outcomes of the “second” generation – the children of migrants born and raised in the new country. In Australia studies have found, despite some notable exceptions (Betts and Healy; Inglis), that the children of migrants have achieved the economic and social integration their parents dreamed of (Khoo, McDonald, Giorgas, and Birrell). At the same time, however, research has found that the second generation face new challenges, including the negative impact of ethnic and racial discrimination (Dunn, Blair, Bliuc, and Kamp; Jakubowicz, Collins, Reid, and Chafic), the experience of split identities and loyalties (Butcher and Thomas) and a complicated sense of “home” and belonging (Fabiansson; Mason; Collins and Read). 

In this articles, we explore what the dream of a better life means for second generation migrants, and how that dream might reshape Australia’s multicultural identity. A focus on this generation’s imaginings, visions and hopes for the future is important, we argue, because its distinctive experience, differing from that of other sections of the Australian community in some important ways, needs to be recognised as the nation’s multicultural identity is refashioned in changing circumstances. Unlike their parents, the second generation was born into what is now one of the most diverse countries in the world, with over a quarter (26%) of the population born overseas and a further 23% having at least one parent born overseas (Australian Bureau of Statistics). Unlike their parents, they have come of age in the era of digitally-enabled international communication that has transformed the ways in which people connect. This cohort has a distinctive relationship to the national imaginary. The idea of “multicultural Australia” that was part of the country’s adoption of a multicultural policy framework in the early 1970s was based on a narrative of “old” (white Anglo) Australians “welcoming” (or “tolerating”) “new” (immigrant) Australians (Ang and Stratton; Hage). In this narrative, the second generation, who are Australian born but not “old” Australians and of “migrant background” but not “new” Australians, are largely invisible, setting them apart from both their migrant parents and other, overseas born young Australians of diverse backgrounds, with whom they are often grouped (Collins, Reid, and Fabiansson; Ang, Brand, Noble, and Sternberg; Collins, Reid, and Fabiansson; Harris).

In what follows, we aim to contribute to calls for a rethinking of Australian national identity and “culture of interaction” to better reflect the experiences of all citizens (Levey; Collins, Reid, and Fabiansson) by focusing on the experiences of the second generation. Taking our cue from Geoffrey Levey, we argue that “it is not the business of government or politicians to complete the definition of what it means to be Australian” and that we should instead look to a sense of national identity that emerges organically from “mundane daily social interaction” (Levey). To this end, we adopt an “everyday multiculturalism” perspective (Wise and Velayutham), “view[ing] situations of co-existence ... as a concrete, specific context of action, in which difference comes across as a constraint ... and as a resource” (Semi, Colombo, Comozzi, and Frisina 67).  We see our focus on the second generation as complementary to existing studies that have examined experiences of young Australians of diverse backgrounds through an everyday multiculturalism prism without distinguishing between newly arrived young people and those born in Australia (Ang, Brand, Noble, and Sternberg; Collins, Reid, and Fabiansson; Harris). We emphasise, however, after Mansouri and Johns, that the second generation’s distinctive cultural and socio-structural challenges and needs – including their distinctive relationship to the idea of “multicultural Australia” – deserve special attention. Like Christina Schachtner, we are cognisant that “faced with the task of giving meaning and direction to their lives, the next generation is increasingly confronted with a need to reconsider the revered values of the present and the past and to reorientate themselves while establishing new meanings” (233; emphasis ours). Like her, we recognise that in the contemporary era, young adults often use digital communicative spaces for the purpose of giving meaning to their lives in the circumstances in which they find themselves (Schachtner 233). Above all, we concur with Hopkins and Dolic when they state that “understanding the processes that inform the creation and maintenance of ... ethnic minority and Australian mainstream identities amongst second-generation young people is critical if these young people are to feel included and recognised, whilst avoiding the alienation and social exclusion that has had such ugly results in other parts of the world (153).

In part one, we draw on initial findings from a collaborative empirical study between Swinburne University and the Victorian Multicultural Commission to outline some of the paradoxes and contradictions encountered by a particular – well-educated (currently or recently enrolled at university) and creative (seeking jobs in the media and cultural industries) – segment of the second generation in their attempts to imagine themselves within the frame of “multicultural Australia” (3 focus groups, of 60-90 minutes duration, involving 7-10 participants were conducted over 2018 and 2019). These include feeling more Australian than their parents while not always being seen as “really” Australian by the broader community; embracing diversity but struggling to find a language in which to adequately express it; and acknowledging the progress being made in representing diversity in the mainstream media while not seeing their stories and those of their parents represented there.

In part two, we outline future research directions that look to a range of cultural texts and mediated forms of social interactions across popular culture and media in search of new conversations about personal and national identity that could feed into a renewal of a more inclusive understanding of Australian identity.

Living and Talking Diversity

Our conversations with second generation young Australians confirmed many of the paradoxes and contradictions experienced by young people of diverse backgrounds in the constant traversing of their parents’ and Australian culture captured in previous research (Ang, Brand, Noble, and Sternberg; Harris). Emblematic of these paradoxes are the complicated ways they relate to “Australian identity,” notably expressed in the tension felt between identifying as “Australian” when overseas and with their parent’s heritage when in Australia. An omnipresent reminder of their provisional status as “Aussies” is questions such as “well I know you’re Australian but what are you really?”  As one participant put it: “I identify as Australian, I’m proud of my Australian identity. But in Australia I’m Turkish and that’s just because when someone asks I’m not gonna say ‘oh I’m Australian’ ... I used to live in the UK and if someone asked me there, I was Australian. If someone asks me here, I’m Turkish. So that’s how it is. Turkish, born in Australia”

The second generation young people in our study responded to these ambiguities in different ways. Some applied hyphenated labels to themselves, while others felt that identification with the nation was largely irrelevant, documented in existing research (Collins, Reid, and Fabiansson; Harris). As one of our participants put it, “I just personally don’t find national identity to be that important or relevant – it’s just another detail about me – I [don’t] think it should affect anything else.” 

The study also found that our participants had difficulty in finding specific terms to express their identities. For some, trying to describe their identities was “really confusing,” and their thinking changed from day to day.  For others, the reason it was hard to express their identities was that the very substance of mundane, daily life “feels very default”. This was the case when many of our participants reported their lived experiences of diversity, whether related to culinary and sport experiences, or simply social interactions with “the people I talk to” and daily train trips where “everyone [of different ethnicities] just rides the train together and doesn’t think twice about it”. As one young person put it, “the default is going around the corner for dinner and having Mongolian beef and pho”. 

We found that a factor feeding into the ambivalence of articulating Australian identity is the influence – constraining and enabling – of prevailing idioms of identity and difference. Several instances were uncovered in which widely circulating and highly politicised discourses of identity had the effect of shutting down conversation. In particular, the issue of what was “politically correct” language was a touchstone for much of the discussion among the young people in our study. This concern with “appropriate language” created some hesitancy and confusion, as when one person was trying to describe white Australians: “obviously you know Australia’s still a – how do you, you know, I guess I don’t know how to – the appropriate, you know PC language but Australia’s a white country if that makes sense you know”. Other participants were reluctant to talk about cultural groups and their shared characteristics at all, seeing such statements as potentially racist. 

In contrast to this feeling of restricted discourse, we found many examples of our participants playing and repurposing received vocabularies. As reported in other research, the young people used ideas about origin, race and ethnicity in loose and shifting ways (Back; Butcher). In some cases, in contrast to fears of “racist” connotations of identifying individuals by their cultural background, the language of labels and shorthand descriptors was used as a lingua franca for playful, albeit not unproblematic, negotiations across cultural boundaries. One participant reported being called one of “The Turks” in classes at university. His response expressed the tensions embedded in this usage, finding it stereotyping but ultimately affectionate. As he expressed it, “it’s like, ‘I have a personality, guys.’ But that was okay, it was endearing, they were all with it”.  

Another finding highlighted more fraught issues that can be raised when existing identity categories are transposed from contexts strongly marked by historically specific circumstances into unrelated contexts. This was the case of a university classmate saying of another Turkish participant that he “was the black guy of the class because … [he] was the darkest”. The circulation of “borrowed” discourses – particularly, as in this case, from the USA – is notable in the digital era, and the broader implications of such usage among people who are not always aware of the connotations of a discourse that is deeply rooted in a particular history and culture, are yet to be fully examined (Lester). 

The study also shed some light on the struggles the young people in our study encountered in finding a language in which to describe their identities and relationship to “Australianness”. When asked if they thought others would consider them to be “Australian”, responses revealed a spectrum ranging from perceived rejection to an ill-defined and provisional inclusion. One person reported – despite having been born and lived in Australia all their life – that “I don’t think I would ever be called Australian from Australian people – from white Australian people”. Another thought that it was not possible to generalise about being considered Australians by the broader community, as “some do, some don’t”. Again, responses varied. While for some it was a source of unease, for others the distancing from “Australianness” was not experienced negatively, as in the case of the participant who said of being singled out as “different” from the Anglo-Celtic mainstream, “I actually don’t mind that … I’ve got something that a lot of white Australians males don’t have”.

A connected finding was the continuing presence of, often subtle but clearly registered, racism. The second generation young people in the study were very conscious of the ways in which experiences of racism they encountered differed from – and represented an improvement on – that of their parents. Drawing an intergenerational contrast between the explicit racism their parents were often subjected to and their own experiences of what they frequently referred to as microaggressions, they mostly saw progress occurring on this front. Another sign of progress they observed was in relation to their own propensity to reject exclusionary thinking, as when they suggested that their parents’ generation are more likely to make “assumptions about culture” based on people’s “outward appearance” which they found problematic because “everyone’s everywhere”. While those cultural faux pas were judged as “well-meaning” and even justified by not “growing up in a culturally diverse setting”, they are at odds with young people’s own experiences and understanding of diversity.

The final major finding to emerge from the study was the widespread view that mainstream media fails to represent their lives. Again, our participants acknowledged the progress that has been made over recent decades and applauded moves towards greater representation of non-Anglo-Celtic communities in mainstream free-to-air programming. But the vast majority reported that their experiences are not represented. The sentiment that “I’d love to see someone who looks like me on TV more – on a really basic level – I’d like to see someone who looks like my Dad” was shared by many. What remained missing – and motivated many of the young people in our study to embark on filmmaking careers – was content that reflected their local, place-based lifestyles and the intergenerational dynamics of migrated families that is the fabric of their lives. When asked if Australian media content reflected their experience, one participant put it bluntly: “if I felt like it did, I wouldn’t be actively trying to make documentaries and films about it”.

Dreaming Diversity

The findings of the study confirmed earlier research highlighting the ambiguities encountered by second generation Australians who are demographically, emotionally and culturally marked by their parents’ experiences of migration even as they forge their post-migration futures. On the one hand, they reported an allegiance to the Australian nation and recognised that in many ways that they are more part of its fabric than their parents. On the other hand, they reported a number of situations in which they feel marginalised and not “really” Australian, as when they are asked “where are you really from” and when they do not see their stories represented in the mainstream media. In particular, the study highlighted the tensions involved in describing personal and Australian identity, revealing the struggle the second generation often experience in their attempts to express the complexity of their identifications and sense of belonging. As we see it, the lack of recognition of being “really” Australian felt by the young people in our study and their view that mainstream media does not sufficiently represent their experience are connected. Underlying both is a status quo in which the normative Australian is Anglo-Celtic. 

To help shift this prevailing view of the normative Australian, we endorse earlier calls for a research program centred on analyses of a range of cultural texts and mediated forms of social interactions in search of new conversations about Australian identity. Media, both public and commercial, have the potential to be key agents for community building and identity formation. From radio and television programs through to online discussion forums and social media, media have provided platforms for creating collective imagination and a sense of belonging, including in the context of migration in Australia (Sinclair and Cunningham; Johns; Ang, Brand, Noble, and Sternberg). By supplying symbolic resources through which cultural differences and identities are represented and circulated, they can offer up opportunities for societal reflection, scrutiny and self-interpretation. 

As a starting point, for example, three current popular media formats that depict or are produced by second-generation Australians lend themselves to such a multi-sited analysis. The first is internet forums in which second generation young people share their quotidian experiences of “bouncing between both cultures in our lives” (Wu and Yuan), often in humorous forms. As the popularity of Subtle Asian Traits and its offshoot Subtle Curry Traits have indicated, these sites tap into the hunger among the Asian diaspora for increased media visibility. The second is the work of comedians, including those who self-identify as of migrant descent. The politics of stereotyping and racial jokes and the difference between them has been a subject of considerable research, including into television comedy productions which are important because of their potential audience reach and ensuing post-viewing conversations (Zambon). The third is a new generation of television programs which are set in situations of diversity without being heralded as “about” diversity. A key case is the television drama series The Heights, first screened on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Australia in 2019, which explores the relationships between the residents of a social housing tower and the people who live in the rapidly gentrifying community that surrounds it in the melting pot of urban Australia. 

These examples represent a diverse range of cultural expressions – created informally and spontaneously (Subtle Asian Traits, Subtle Curry Traits), fashioned by individuals working in the entertainment industry (comedians), and produced professionally and broadcast on national TV networks (The Heights). What unites them is an engagement with the novel forms of belonging that postwar migration has produced (Papastergiadis 20) and an attempt to communicate and represent the lived experience of contemporary Australian diversity, including negotiated dreams and aspirations for the future. We propose a systematic analysis of the new languages of identity and difference that their efforts to represent the evolving patterns and circumstances of diversity in Australia are bringing forth. 


To dream in the context of migration implies, more often than not, the prospect of a better material life in an adopted country. Instead, through the notion of “dreaming diversity”, we foreground the dreams, expectations and imaginations for the future of the Australian second generation which centre on carving out their cultural place in the nation.

The empirical research we presented paints a picture of the second generation's paradoxical and contradictory experiences as they navigate the shifting landscape of Australia’s multicultural society. It gives a glimpse of the challenges and hopes they encounter as well as the direction of their attempts to negotiate their place within “Australian identity”. Finally, it highlights the need for a more expansive conversation and language in which that identity can be expressed. 

A language in which to talk – not just about the many cultures that make up the nation, but also to each other from within them – will be crucial to facilitate the deeper intercultural understanding and engagement many young people aspire to. Our ambition is not to codify a register of approved terms, and even less to formulate a new official discourse for use in multicultural policy documents. It is rather to register, crystalise and expand a discussion around difference and identity that is emerging from everyday interactions of Australians and foster a more committed conversation attuned to contemporary realities and communicative spaces where those interactions take place. 

In search of a richer vocabulary in which Australian identity might be reimagined, we have identified a research program that will explore emerging ways of talking about difference and identity across a range of cultural and media formats about or by the second generation. While arguing for the significance of the languages and idioms that are emerging in the spaces that young people inhabit, we recognise that, no less than other demographics, second-generation Australians are influenced by circulating narratives and categories in which (national) identity is discussed (Harris 15), including official conceptions and prevailing discourses of identity politics which are often encountered online and through popular culture. Our point is that the dreams, visions and imaginaries of second generation Australians, who will be among the key actors in fashioning Australia’s multicultural futures, are an important element of reimagining Australia’s multiculturalism even if those discourses may be partial, ambivalent or fragmented. 

We see this research program as building on and extending the tradition of sociological and cultural analyses of popular culture, media and cultural diversity and contributing to a more robust and systematic catalogue of multicultural narratives across different popular formats, genres, and production arrangements characteristic of the diversified media landscape. We have focused on the Australian “new second generation” (Zhou and Bankston), coming of age in the early 21st century, as a significant but under-researched group in the belief that their narratives of aspirations and dreams will be a crucial component of discursive innovations and practical programs for social change.


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The empirical data reported here was drawn from Zooming In: Multiculturalism through the Lens of the Next Generation, a research collaboration between Swinburne University and the Victorian Multicultural Commission exploring contemporary perspectives on diversity among young Australians through their filmmaking practice, led by Chief Investigators Dr Glenda Ballantyne (Department of Social Sciences) and Dr Vincent Giarusso (Department of Film and Animation). We wish to thank Liam Wright and Alexa Scarlata for their work as Research Assistants on this project, and particularly the participants who shared their stories. Special thanks also to the editors of this special issue and the anonymous reviewers for their insightful feedback on an earlier version of this article. 


Zooming In: Multiculturalism through the Lens of the Next Generation has been generously supported by the Victorian Multicultural Commission, which we gratefully acknowledge.

Author Biographies

Glenda Ballantyne, Swinburne University of Technology

Senior Lecturer (Sociology) and Deputy Chair, Department of Social Sciences

Aneta Podkalicka, Monash University

Lecturer (Communications and Media Studies), School of Media, Film and Journalism