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Whose Australia Day?

Fatima Measham |  21 January 2016

In the last couple of weeks of January, as non-tourists buy all manner of Australiana, an old adage often comes to mind: 'There is nothing more Australian than debating what it means to be Australian.'

Australians of all kinds wear T-shirts portraying different kinds of AustraliannessActually it was me who said that. I was on a panel at the National Ethnic and Multicultural Broadcasters Council (NEMBC) conference last November. We were musing about postmodern identities, whether 'ethnics' were in fact mainstream and not peripheral, to what extent things like food, footy and fashion amount to 'culture', and whether 'Aussie values' are in fact universal.

I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion, but part of me felt worn. It seemed to me that black and brown folks like us are actually less concerned about what it means to be Australian than how Australian we would have to be, in order to be as Australian as everyone else.

What does it mean to belong? Australia Day is certainly not an occasion of belonging for most Indigenous Australians. How could it ever legitimately be? As someone who benefits from their historical dispossession, do I dare feel like I belong — at their expense? In Australia, must a sense of belonging involve compliance with colonial narratives? With political imperatives around immigration?

It goes without saying that 'love it or leave' does not speak to how a person develops a sense of place. Ultimatums are assertions of power, and grotesque as a framework for love. Love of country is an abstraction in any case. We can only love an idea of country, and ideas of country are malleable and varied, bent into shape by personal experience, politics and socioeconomic purchase.

It does not matter how Australian a young Muslim believes herself to be if security policies and ultra-right protests make her feel separate. It does not matter how much of a life has been crafted — an education, career, family — if a former refugee is still made to feel like he has only just arrived, and must ever manifest gratitude.

Pride in mixed heritage does not matter in spaces where passing as white confers privilege.

A lack of a sense of belonging, then, is not so much a repudiation of what makes Australia good, but disequilibrium between internal and external experiences — asymmetry between reality and desire.

This tells us that belonging is not something to be conferred, nor is it the default effect of being here. In the end it depends on whether we feel fundamentally safe being who we are. It is difficult to feel that we belong to a group when it is ambivalent about our place in it. It is difficult to feel safe in a society that is threatened by you.

The democratic project in this sense should move us to reflect from time to time not just on whether our laws secure life, labour and property, but whether the stories we tell about ourselves make people feel unsafe or excluded.

It is always worth pondering what value such stories have, who they ultimately serve and for what purpose they are being sustained. Asking questions is a kind of love, isn't it? It is in the nature of love to seek truth, to struggle with the truth, and to hope despite the struggle.

It is likely that 15 or 20 years from now, such earnest navel-gazing will continue to be part of our national character. But I hope by then that kids born today — into a technologically adept, highly mobile and diverse world — will at least approach such topics in interesting ways.

As the centrality of whiteness inevitably corrodes, how would those motley generations of the future feel about Australia Day?


Fatima Measham

Fatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston



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Submitted comments

You’ve nailed it Fatima, only when the newly arrived, the migrants and refugees, feel secure about expressing themselves exactly as they are and who they are, anywhere, everywhere and at any time, will they know that they truly belong. I always try to do my little bit by encouraging the refugees of my acquaintance to do just that in my presence and I like to think that I have succeeded when they feel safe enough to tell me what they really think about my language and its excruciating orthography and pronunciation. Could I also congratulate you on your elegant avoidance of the excruciatingly abominable gender neutral ‘their’ and ‘themselves’ in this piece? Now, if only you can get the likes of David Marr and Ross Fitzgerald to follow your style you will have struck a real blow for Australian letters.

Paul 22 January 2016

Did you read about the ten year old kid in Britain who wrote that he lived in a terrorist house when he meant to terraced house? He was visited by a friendly policeman. Think about the teacher(s) passing this on to police. What sort of community does he live in?

Jim Jones 22 January 2016

Indigenous people suffered from their inevitable dispossession. Indigenous people, and the rest of us, however, all benefit greatly now from it. For all its faults, British - largely Christian- civilisation has made Australia what it is. Admittedly an old (80 on Australia Day) 15/16ths white British Australian, I do get tired of all these tedious discussions on or near Australia Day in which ordinary people are mostly un-interested. Why not join - not in them - but in the varied and very enjoyable and enthusiastic , flag-waving, multi-ethnic (not "multi-cultural") celebrations that will take place in every part of our wide sometimes green and sometimes brown land on Australia Day - much more celebration now indeed than on what was then "Anniversary Day" in my childhood.

Chaplain John Bunyan 22 January 2016

There's some validity in this, but some serious over-thinking too. I've grown up in a very multicultural group - all surfers from one beach - and no one needed (or needs today) to have conversations about victimhood, or the privileged position of white people. My Asian, Lebanese or Indian friends in this group wouldn't offend me by calling into question my white culture and how it may limit their identities, just as their identities are never questioned by me. More broadly in Australia - undergoing mass immigration - it's gargantuan expectation that in a couple of generations a whole culture is expected to suddenly transform - ideally/Utopian-like - to perfectly adapt to hundreds of different world views they now encounter, such all their beliefs suddenly feel at home. We all want it, but finger pointing at an entire (very stable, and fair by world standards) culture for failing to transform in this way - is not only wishful, but expects a level of transcendence that defies human nature. It also teaches minorities - like the ones in my group - that they're victims - when they're clearly not - they're just my mates.

Ben 22 January 2016

I am a Boomer, born in the UK, came to Australia with my parents (ten pound poms). I assumed that I was Australian, but apparently I missed out on the automatic naturalisation by six months. So I was naturalised in the 1970's. I live in South Australia again now, but when I moved to NSW for work, I was asked if I was going to live permanently in Australia. The penal colony of New South Wales does not recognise the free colony of South Australia as part of Australia. I identify as a South Australian and I couldn't care less about what happened on January 26th, 1788. It is a tragic accident of history to call it Australia Day.

Gwilym 22 January 2016

Thank you for the thought provoking article Fatima... it is no easy for taken-for-granted-white-privilege to be unravelled and explored from another's perspective. It is imperative though if all are to live with a feeling of cultural safety in this land called Australia.

anne foale 22 January 2016

An excellent reflection for all Australians, no matter where we came from or when.

Ian Fraser 22 January 2016

It was my privilege to train a number of Asian surgeons sent here by their governments to learn to transplant kidneys. A Chinese surgeon told me that he thought that I was very good at it, but if I were to work in Asia I would be "no good". He qualified that by adding, 'And if I worked here I would be no good'. He went on to explain that he did not understand the heart and soul of the people, the ethos, the "ethnic essence". He could not speak to the patients as I did and said he felt that the patients didn't fully understand or trust him. He could not be a real doctor to them. He said that if I worked in Asia I would be the same. My experience tells me that those born in a country, regardless of skin colour, racial origin, indigenous or emigrant descent understand attachment to "their country". Some, but not all, enlightened first generation immigrants realise the challenge and adopt the country as some good soul might adopt a child no longer dependent on its progenitor. I am a second generation Australian born of Irish extraction. People say I am "very" Irish (read Asian or Arab or any other identifiable ethnicity). I have an attachment to Ireland but it is sure as God made little apples not my home and never will be. Australia Day means more to me than St Patrick's Day.

john frawley 22 January 2016

Just as:- ‘Handsome is as handsome does’ , Australian is as Australians do. Unfortunately although there are vast numbers of Australians who exhibit the qualities most people would be proud and happy to regard as representing the true Aussie spirit, there are still relics, in all levels of our society, and on both sides of the debate, of the narrow and outdated values and attitudes of less enlightened times. This is particularly obtrusive with the yobbos who drape themselves in the Australian flag and promote bigotry. (Surely this should be at least as Illegal as burning the Australian flag?)

Robert Liddy 22 January 2016

"“passing as white confers privilege.” ??…. We have a lot to live down, with our history of the White Australia Policy. But it is not so much the colour of another’s skin that causes more than an initial reaction, but the presumed difference in ability to communicate and share interests. After all, we take pride in the Bronze Aussie legend, and spend hours on the beach trying to acquire a tan, despite the risk of skin cancer. And I remember a new addition to the office staff - he had just arrived from Scotland- being derided, ‘Isn’t he white!’ And once while I was passing through Ireland, Australia had just won an unexpected Olympic Gold Medal, and I looked around to see if I could find someone to share with the joy of the news, and felt quite deflated when I realised the most I could expect would be a polite ’Oh, really?’ Shared interests and ease of communications are much more important than skin colour and ethnic origins.

Robert Liddy 22 January 2016

Bring on the republic. *cough*

Fatima Measham 22 January 2016

Ben, how lucky you are, as I am. I for one, because I am white and male in Australia don't really know what racism is except from a distance. That is just the way it is in our quietly racist, in my view, society. This racism, as a default position, seeps out in a multitude of ways. For example, the Sudanese girls I taught at a high school in Melbourne found travelling by public transport OK unless some people on the trains or buses were intoxicated and then they hated public transport. Racism, that I believe is far more prevalent than we think, seeps out far too often for these girls .

Tom K 22 January 2016

I agree with Ben - a tad too much overthinking here (and I'd add postmodernist theorizing). Whether here in Australia or in other countries in which I have lived and worked, my personal sense of 'belonging' to any of the groups and communities that surround me, and the extent to which they perceive me as 'belonging' to 'them', seems to be affected by a lot more diverse and diffuse factors than me or 'them' being white, brown, yellow or black. For example, when over half of us in Australia are 'new Australians', in the sense of having been born elsewhere or having one or both parents born elsewhere, what about the simple fact of being a 'new kid on the block', which usually means belonging is to be earned as much as granted? Our own expectations of what it means to 'belong' also need scrutiny: being idealistic is one thing, accepting being different another.

David Palmer 22 January 2016

I do not understand Fatima, the way she feels about Australia day, and not feeling Australian. I wasn't born in Australia. I arrived in Australia in the early fifties, when migrants from many nations migrated to Australia and I am sure that I quickly accepted the Australian way of life. When I was called up for military duty, I did serve in the National service, and when I turned 21 I voted, I joined the political party of my choice and I became an accepted member of my Parish (Catholic Parish) and I was nominated and elected to the Parish Committee (prior to the introduction of Parish Councils) I have been and still work for Pro-God, Pro-Life and Pro-Family organizations. Yes once many years ago I was called a wog, after having an argument with a fellow worker and you know what Fatima, I didn't like it, but I did not respond. I love this country and I am proud to be an Australian citizen. Every day I hoist our beautiful national flag with the Cross of St George, Saint Andrew, St Patrick, and the Southern Cross.

Ron Cini 23 January 2016

The 'official' Australia Day on 26th January is an English racist celebration. It is divisive! Indigenous Australians remember this day as Invasion Day when the English imperialists invaded Australia on 26th January 1788. Australia Day should be celebrated on 1st January because the anniversary of the federation of the Commonwealth of Australia dates from 1st January 1901. The 26th January is meaningless for people whose ancestors emigrated from central Europe, Asia and other parts of the world. In my opinion, we need a day when people from all backgrounds and cultures can acknowledge and celebrate their cultural history. The divisiveness of 26th January has also resulted in Anzac Day on the 26th April becoming a crass jingoistic day of nationalism.

Mark Doyle 24 January 2016

Some years ago I was in the UK.I was astounded to learn that they were going through a crisis of identity as what it meant to be British! I felt and was often treated as a "colonial" while I was over there. I have never got over that . I am of Irish extraction and I am proud of it but I still call Australia home. I feel a little sad that each year we have to go through the process of 'being Australian'. By the way the history of dispossession is as old as human kind. Last week I was in New Zealand and spoke to a wonderful Maori gentleman - I was so ever impressed by his advice to me. Forget the past and concentrate on the future was his advice to our 'first people'. I was edified by that advice. Bring on the Republic!

Gavin 26 January 2016

Fatima, I read your column in church last Sunday and feel very disconnected from your views. We all have a lot to celebrate. Treating Indigenous people and immigrants as victims is soul destroying for them and diminishes their own sense of worthiness. I oppose gay marriage and have concerns about the Islam, the Koran and particulary Saudi Wahhabism. Does that makes me Islamophobic and Homophobic; not fit for the Catholic church? I sense an intolerance of other peoples views in your column. Totalitarianism is ugly. Freedom of speech is the light against tyranny.

Mark Nevill 27 January 2016

An excellent article, Fatima! I suspect that it's more than just "passing as white" that is at issue but "passing as conventional". Speaking from my own experience, while incidents of bigotry have been rare in Melbourne, the fact that I have an obvious disability meant that I would cop some form of abuse fairly regularly while living in Sydney. I would agree that (quite apart from the anti-refugee and religious discrimination) there can be a social demand to comply with a stereotype - and sanctions if one does not.

Justin Glyn SJ 28 January 2016

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