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New nationalist myths entrench white denial



There is a poster on the wall of the underpass leading to Auburn station in Sydney. If you look closely you can make out the profile of a red turban poking out from under a black smear of paint covering the face of the man beneath it.

The defaced cameleer portraitBelow his chin the word 'Aussie' has been similarly obliterated by the slash of a paint tin wielded by one unknown.

The poster is part of a campaign by street artist Peter Drew, and the man wearing the red turban is Monga Khan, an 'Afghan' cameleer.

This campaign seeks to create inclusivity through asking the question 'What is a Real Aussie', but as the hasty defacement of Monga Khan's poster in Auburn illustrates, not everyone is on board.

Drew's 'Real Australians say welcome' campaign, and the 'What is a Real Aussie' campaign which followed it, have received extensive coverage and a large amount of private donations. This campaign ties into an increasingly common brand of Australian nationalism. It is a 'civic' nationalism in which belonging is according to contribution to the state, and appeals because it seems free of the normal ethnic and religious requirements of nationalist mythology.

Instead of national identity defined along the lines of a primarily cultural (here: white) heritage, it offers a tale of a shared investment in the 'Australian' state, first as colonies and then as Commonwealth.

The Afghan cameleers seem the perfect candidates for an anachronistic projection of civic nationalist legitimacy into the Australian past. But at the same time they illustrate the problem with such appeals.

Recruited from within the British Raj and the border regions of Afghanistan (later a British protectorate), the cameleers were an indispensable part of the exploration and exploitation of large swathes of the Australian continent. Working short contracts and frequently returning home, they were often treated with disdain by those they served.


"While at first glance the story may seem to have an inclusive potential, it is an inclusion predicated in efforts expended in the expansion of British territory."


As victims of Australian racism, they were simultaneously an integral part of the displacement of Aboriginal people and the spreading of British Empire into the interior of Australia.

The story of the Afghan cameleers, many of whom we can speculate would have baulked at the title 'Aussie', is an important one. Firstly, it presages some of the issues that arise among many Muslims today; as targets of Australian racism but also as settler colonials. Secondly, the presence of Muslims in Australia at this point in time has a powerful rhetorical quality, and its invocation is a strong counter to the whitewashing of Australian history more generally.

However, it is not these issues that seem the purpose of the story plastered on the wall of Auburn train station and mentioned in a collection of 'Australian stories' on Australia.gov.au. While at first glance the story may seem to have an inclusive potential, it is an inclusion predicated in efforts expended in the expansion of British, later Australian, territory. Real Aussies displace.

Dismantling white myths about history is a positive step for those still in denial, a potential pin in an ethnic nationalism which lingers here. Yet these posters pop up often not in bastions of that denial, but rather on walls across Western Sydney, in suburbs whose demographics hardly tell tales of fortresses of white privilege. It seems that, less than a project to dismantle white myths about history, the popularity of these stories is more an attempt to bring non-white Australians into a new myth in the making.

This myth is one of an Australianess that is redeemable, an Australianess that deftly sidesteps nationalism's ugly past in this country. Rather than countering white denial, it is instead its own kind, where racist legacies are swept under the rug by projections of acceptance back into the past.

Today, 'Real Aussies' overwhelmingly support mandatory detention. In the past, Real Aussies displaced, massacred and set up systems which to this day oppress the Aboriginal peoples of this land. Being a 'Real Aussie' is nothing to aspire to. Rather than a blow to Australian racism and white denial, the 'Real Aussies' campaign and its civic nationalist partners is an affirmation of both.


William Scates FrancesWilliam Scates Frances is a PhD Candidate in History at the Australian National University. His writing covers intellectual history, colonial history and Islam in Australia.

Topic tags: William Scates Frances, cameleers, nationalism



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Existing comments

I think we will only be able to breathe easier on the matter you raise when we have people like Saddiq Khan and Marvin Rees elected to the equivalent here of the offices they were recently elected to in the UK. Politics in Britain is much more multi-ethnic than it is here. Not surprising as Britain was the centre of the Empire you appear to be not so happy about. Both Khan and Rees are English by birth and very much part of the mainstream. Khan, who is a practising Muslim, but proven as neither anti-Semitic nor homophobic, received death threats for voting for same sex marriage as an MP. It is not easy to whitewash certain aspects of our history but I would hesitate to see it as all black. Nor would I tar the majority of Australians with the 'racist' brush: that strategy merely alienates many people. With all due respect, I find your article somewhat academic and possibly not so grounded in what actually goes on in major Australian cities like Sydney.

Edward Fido | 10 May 2016  

Our major cities are named after British politicians, or a Queen or a governor. But we are multicultural. There is recognition that Australia has a long history. Much more needs to be achieved though. Non-European immigrants contribute richly to our culture and are 'Real Aussies' just like European immigrants. We all need each other and that will be our narrative in the future.

Pam | 11 May 2016  

We need an aboriginal population several times its present size, as integrated as any other immigrant group into economy and society, a serious aboriginal cultural industry in academia and in business, more non-Aborigines to speak Aboriginal tongues (if white South Africans can speak Xhosa or Zulu....) and perhaps an 'Aotearoa'-like addition to the name of the country --- not because we're bleeding hearts but because international identity is all important and in the face of snarky jibes from the Mahathir Mohamads of our near neighbourhood about Australia being white, stolen and not really a part of the neighbourhood, we can say we came, we stole, but then we fixed our historical defects and are now as indigenous to the neighbourhood as our adjoining Pacific neighbours. 'Aboriginal' is important because God put those complexes of culture here first and he must have had a reason or our indigenes might have been Mongolians. And he does insist that wrongdoers repent and those wronged forgive, and once forgiven, the past isn't any longer for the pesky Mahathirs to dredge up. If Mrs Thatcher can do business with Mr Gorbachev, so can we with Aborigines. They should be business partners, not recipients of charity.

Roy Chen Yee | 11 May 2016  

It is time to say again "Sorry" simply sorry you expose the past truly and now we must strive all the harder to " Build a better America" no Australia, no UK, Yes World. In 1913, a time when these atrocities abounded, better thinkers dared to build a "Peace Palace" in The Hague and the following year the horror of WW1 unfolded. They had a long way to go before they realised their dream. Are we just simply dreaming?

Paul | 11 May 2016  

"Real Aussies displaced, massacred and set up systems which to this day oppress the Aboriginal peoples of this land. Being a 'Real Aussie' is nothing to aspire to." Real Aussies also built this country from literally nothing into one of the greatest countries in the world. Inspired by their Christian heritage our forefathers established a society that educated the poor, cared for the sick, was governed by law and is democratic. It has become multicultural and free and the desired home for people of all cultures from around the world. AS the son of post WW2 immigrants i cannot understand the denial by so many so called academics of the positive aspects of western civilisation. Ask someone who is a minority and who has lived in a non western country and you will know what i mean. No one is saying that we are perfect or that we haven't made terrible mistakes and could have done things better, especially towrds the indigenous people of this nation. A more balanced approach is needed rather than judging a country on its worst mistakes. How about judging it also on its brightest achievements. Being a real aussie IS something to aspire to.

Ron | 11 May 2016  

Can't help but think that this article misreads and misunderstands what would seem a genuine attempt to offer alternative views. The posters offer some kind of a challenge to solidified thinking. While not enamoured of the term 'Real Aussies' or even 'Aussies' I can appreciate the artist's intention. People are capable of subtlety of thought and I'd rather have a nuanced nationalism than be governed by Global Corporatism - so it is better than advertising billboards. If we look a little closer and step aside from our own internal dogmas the world may appear a whole lot less polarised than we think it is. I appreciate the arguments put forth in this article but they are after all only the presentation of different ways of viewing the world - just as the artist has presented different ways of seeing.

Cheryl Howard | 12 May 2016  

I'm with Cheryl, I think the artist is trying to illustrate the diversity that is the Australian people. I suspect that the yobbo who defaced the image had no idea of whose portrait it was, s/he just saw it as an image of his uncomprehended and therefore feared other. S/he would just have readily defaced a portrait of Namatjera without knowing who it was.

Ginger Meggs | 13 May 2016  

Monga Khan was not an Afghan Cameleer he was from the Punjab and was a hawker in Victoria. He lived near Lt. Lonsdale St. & worked in the Ballarat district. Australian Indian Historical Soc. Inc.

Crystal Jordan | 14 May 2016  

Yes Monga Khan was neither Afghan nor a cameleer. This infomarion has been widely publicised yet this author seems to be unaware of it. Now that adds another layer of othering the otherness of the " foreign" looking person. Further to think that the cameleers were the only "other" that lived In the 19th century Australia, also does disservice to notion of the presence of multiculturalism in early Australia.

Oh No No ..! | 23 May 2016  

As is noted above, the Australian/Indian historical Society has done some great work in illustrating some of the faulty research behind Drew's project, particularly the use of a Sikh man he mistakenly believed to have served at Gallipoli. In the article, 'Afghan' is in quotation marks because, as I acknowledge, that was a term used for people recruited from large swathes of British dominion in the Subcontinent, as well as Afghanistan. The men themselves would likely have identified more along ethnic or lines of lineage. As to him being a hawker not a cameleer, this was often not a clear distinction as both professions were related. Travelling hawkers used camels, and cameleers carried wares. As far as I am aware anyway.

Will | 23 May 2016  

An interesting article. Challenging and one that rightly questions dominant ideology . Thank you.

Kathryn | 30 May 2016  

'Real Aussies' helped to establish the UN, led the world in universal suffrage and treated Australia's indigenous population better than virtually every other colonial group at the time. The attempts by cultural Marxists to shame-storm White Australia do nothing but drive more into the arms of far right populists. Australia's organised Left is now so intellectually shallow that it does nothing practical to address the structural causes of inequality, but alienates those it should represent in a hail of parsimonious virtue signalling. A warm inner glow will not slow Australia's descent into oligarchy.

Nina | 14 September 2016  

2 days ago (18.11.16), a 21 year old Rohingya Muslim asylum seeker from Myanmar carried a large container of fuel into a crowded Melbourne Commonwealth Bank foyer. He set the bank on fire. 26 people were injured. 6 critically injured. The people injured are also Australians. Most of the injured were from recent Asian migrant groups.

Jeff | 20 November 2016  

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