What is the cost of being ‘Australian’?

17 Nov 2015

The past week has seen a continuation and an escalation of terror. Attacks of terror and counter-attacks of terror have hit numerous countries, leaving hundreds dead, thousands of friends and family members in mourning, and many around the world feeling lost, fearful, hurt, confused, and looking for something, anything, to ‘do’ in response to all of it.

In Australia, like in many countries, we saw our social media channels filled with things people were trying to do in response. From calling for peace, to calling for war, to comparing the emotional responses given to one act of terror over others. This was to be expected, even if it seemed distasteful to be going on in the midst of such acts. The sense of quiet respectful mourning and contemplation, if such days ever truly existed, certainly do not apply in an age of instant and endless commentary.

But what commentary do we want? What commentary do we expect?

What commentary do we need?

The Australian media responses were for the most part to be expected – lacking information, depth, perspective, and any shred of humanity. We saw the likes of Pauline Hanson on breakfast news shows calling for the countless Muslims who oppose IS to abandon their faith, and for a Royal Commission into Islam because, well, because it’s Pauline Hanson and she says shit like that sometimes.

The one shining moment amongst this came from Waleed Aly, who pointed out why inciting an ‘us vs them’ mentality and promoting hatred is the exact opposite of what we should be doing, and instead called for unity and solidarity.

I will not add my own views on why we need to do this, as I would hope that the audience of this site takes that as a given and does not need to have the obvious truth of his words explained to them anymore than he has already done himself.

However, when I set my mind to this idea of promoting unity within Australia, I was instantly reminded of some other stories in the media recently. Of Miranda Tapsell being attacked and condemned online for expressing the view, a view shared by many, that she doesn’t always feel ‘Australian’. Of Adam Goodes and David Jones being booed not his appointment as an Ambassador to their store, and the countless comments about whether Indigenous people ‘even shop at David Jones anyway’? As though it was understood by these people that Adam Goodes is not an ‘Australian’ but an ‘Aborigine’. As though the only people who this promotional strategy could only have any impact upon are Aboriginal, because in their minds Adam Goodes is not an Australian,and could not possibly inspire non-Aboriginal Australians.

This is the ‘us vs them’ attitude that already exists in Australia, and has done for a very long time. White Australia vs non-White Australia. From the politically palatable racism of the Bolts and Hansons, to the unhinged attitudes of white power groups seeking to ‘Recliam Australia’, to the casual racism of the ‘but where do you really come from?’ crowd. The attitudes that too often see the media, instead of acknowledging that it is a phenomena we are responding to, complains it is one we are ourselves creating.

This is the barrier I see to building any true sense of Australian unity.

The inability to readily accept that a non-white Australian can be ‘just as Australian’ as a white Australian.

For my own part my response to this pre-existing an long atanding phenomena has been that I do not feel sufficient pride in the history and ongoing reality of the White Australian dream to readily identify as ‘just Australian’. Coming from an understanding that the desire for Aboriginal people to identify as ‘just Australian’ has long been driven by a desire for Aboriginal people to no longer exist, makes it effectively impossible for me to do so.

Assimilationist agendas, not acceptance, makes me feel that to do so would be to justify and to enact cultural genocide.

I think White Australia always knew that this was always going to be a tough sell, and we see the failure of Australia to embrace and respect Indigenous cultures and identities reflected in our understanding of what the costs of ‘just being an Australian’ carries with it.

This is the same cost Pauline Hanson asked of Australian Muslims when she encouraged them to show their disapproval of the terrorist acts committed in Paris by denouncing their faith. As though this might somehow earn them respect and acceptance of their ‘Australian status’. That this is the prerequiite for moving from being one of ‘them’ to being one of ‘us’.

This is the perceived cost of acceptance, and it is an asking price that is far too high.

It is an asking price that can only push more people away from wanting to just be ‘an Australian’.

So what is the counter offer?

Is it similarly too much to ask White Australia to stop asking ‘but where do you really come from?’ whenever someone who isn’t white tells you they come from somewhere within Australia? To understand that their family history in Australia might go back just as long as your own, or maybe even thousands of years longer?

Is it too much to ask for an understanding that the legacy of the White Australia Policy is not just ‘still being felt’, it is still being actively promoted?

Is it too much to ask that we shift our understanding of ‘Australian’ from meaning ‘white Australian’ to an understanding that ‘Australians’ have heritage that comes from all the countries of the world, including this one? Or that coming to Australia from anywhere other than the UK should not mean that you also need to abandon your culture heritage, religion, and identity?

Is it too much to ask that we breath new life and meaning into our claims of being a multicultural country? Or that we embrace and embody the words of our National Anthem ‘for those who come across the seas we’ve boundless plains to share?’

If the ‘us’ Australia wants to create is one where everyone holds up whiteness to be supreme, then it is an ‘us’ that I simply cannot be a part of.

However, if the ‘us’ that we strive for is one that recognises that an ‘Australian’ can just as readily mean anyone whose heritage comes here from any country (even this one), anyone of any colour, of any religion, and is no more or less ‘Australian’ because of it, then maybe we have a hope.

I don’t know what this looks like exactly and I doubt we can ever eradicate extremism completely, but maybe we will see steps towards it when he have more hope and less hate on our television screens, when we see our nation collectively striving to promote harmony and humanity, and opposing hatred and extremism even when it comes from Within White Australia, maybe even when (if) we have our first non-white Prime Minister.

Maybe when being Aboriginal, or being Muslim, or both, can be understood to exist simultaneously with being ‘Australian’ rather than detracting from our Australian-ness, maybe then we will be closer to building an ‘us’ that does not ask too high a price for admission than we can afford to pay.

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