Hating Australia Day from afar

Today is the second Australia Day since I moved to the United States.  After the Christmas consumerist orgy, the stores did not immediately move to put up cheap patriotic paraphernalia–they put up Mardi Gras beads and king cakes.  The cars here have not begun flying flags on the sides, and today is not a public holiday.  But just as surely, I am as keenly aware of Australia Day as if I were in Perth, with my friends.

I have complicated feelings about Australia Day, as the celebration of English colonialism.  There was a piece on the ABC’s The Drum this morning from Liana Neri, an Italian-Maltese woman, about loving Australia and not being a bogan.  As a Greek Australian, I understand the urge to embrace the country which your family has emigrated to, but this analysis to me seems to rush too quickly over the bloodier pasts of our country’s history and present.  The Aboriginal tent embassy has been going for forty years today.  Forty years.  Forty years, and there is still so much work to be done.

Golden map of Australia showing all the indigenous regions associated with different groups, on a background of black above and red below

image via There's Our Catastrophe via Siriusly Deep on tumblr | original source unknown

It’s not just “bogans” who make the display of patriotic pride so problematic, it’s our foundation on a colonial violence that continues from the sailing of Captain Cook Phillip into Botany Bay in 1788 that we “celebrate” today to the Intervention in the Northern Territory.  Racism has been a huge part of our history as a country, has been a huge part of our governmental policy, and it is a huge part of the way that Aboriginal and other non-white people experience Australia today.  So it’s not simply the apparent tackiness of the particular codes (the flag cape, the fuck off we’re full sticker) that stand for Australian white racism, it is the violence those symbols and rhetoric is embedded in.

It was only seven years ago that the Cronulla race riots happened in Sydney, a month and a half before Australia Day.  Looking at the pictures of the participants, it is very hard to tell the difference from a particularly rowdy Australia Day celebration.  The Cronulla riots were a reminder of not just the racist violence against Aboriginal people, but against Muslims, Lebanese people, and more.  One of the most surprising things for me to experience out of Australia was people saying–even in the American South!–Australia’s really racist, isn’t it?  On Australia Day evening, the hum of beer and violence is in the air at the Perth foreshore, just as surely as the fireworks.

And personally, I hate that.  I hate that there is such a strong implicit idea of who an Australian “is,” and how racist and dependent on assimilation that is.  I hate the way that is enforced with violence and ugly rhetoric, and I hate the policies that our country mobilises against Aboriginal communities and refugees.

And yet.  For all that I hate what Australia Day represents, I am more homesick than usual today.  Because for all of its many faults, I do love Australia, and I do miss it.  It is home to me, and it will perhaps always be.  Australia Day is also my aunt’s birthday, and I miss celebrating that with her and the rest of my family, too.

From across the ocean, it is easy to romanticise Australia, to shrug off the serious ethical challenges that Australia Day poses as a person with anti-colonialist sympathies and solidarities, to simply just whack some Vegemite on some toast, put on the Hottest 100 and slurp down the Bundaberg that I managed to track down and mumble a little bit of “Advance Australia Fair” to my uncomprehending partner.  I might be in America still, to misquote the Waifs, but that is too easy.  You don’t just wave away history and your complicity in it like that.

What is clear to me then, is that what I need to properly celebrate Australia Day, to properly hate Australia Day, is to be in Australia.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, history, indigenous, social justice, violence

Tags: , ,

17 replies

  1. Lovely, lovely post and nice to see you back here.

    • I’m wondering when all the “patriotic merchandise” made the switch over from mostly green and gold to the current emphasis on the Union Jack and the Southern Cross? I’m sure I remember there being mostly green and gold, then a mixture, but now it’s hard to find.

  2. Great points Queen Emily and great to see you here.
    Small clarification, Captain Cook arrived in 1770, the First Fleet in 1788 – the only reason I know this is because I cheated on a history exam to get the question right – it’s been suck in my brain forevermore. Clearly cheating on history exams is the way to go for me.

  3. Right you are Rebecca! How embarrassing. I was actually top of my history class, clearly it was not a good year 🙂

  4. The events today where Gillard’s security detail dragged her away from a group of peaceful protestors are yet another instance of racial prejudice – had they been a bunch of yahoos denying climate change mitigation measures I bet her AFP ‘protectors’ just would have stood by while she made a short speech to them. But because the protestors were indigenous they somehow thought it was OK for them to manhandle her away from people who were just chanting in protest.

  5. What the AFP did today is standard procedure. First thing is get the Principal (in this case the PM) away from the ‘threat’ – which in this case was a number of people crowding around. Who they are is not important, it would have been the same had it been a group such as those holding the ‘Ditch the Witch’ placards. Their intentions are not important, simply the fact that they are crowding around and her personal protection team cannot guarantee that someone isn’t going to come at her out of the crowd (based on crowd behaviour stats I assume). They would do the same with any PM or Opposition Leader.
    Perhaps the fact that the PM tripped caused the minor panic, I don’t know.

    • @Mindy, I know you have more ‘local knowledge’ on this than I do, so I really do hope that you’re right.
      Either way, a distressing display that is down to Abbott being an arse with his Culture Warrior stance.

  6. Living overseas for a few years always made me homesick too. Now that I’m back for good I find Australia Day a bit of an odd one. Since I was 14 it’s been a day that my friends and I have sat around, relaxing and listening to a certain radio station recap the previous year’s ‘alternative’ music. I’ve down this so many times that we’ve started saying ‘Happy BBQ and Music Day!’ because honestly, that’s what it means to me. And saying ‘Happy Australia Day’ makes me uneasy for all the reasons you so eloquently outlined.

  7. Absolutely tigtog, it would seem that Abbott got exactly what he wanted and the media is playing it that way too. Abbott photoshopped out of pictures of the PM looking distressed, shots in the media of police holding the line against protesters it all plays into his nasty little story so well. How can this man still be put up as a potential PM? The requests to Malcolm Turnbull on Twitter are hopefully having some small effect.

  8. Where’s the “Like” button again?

  9. I believe there was much over reaction on all sides yesterday
    Videos do not show the PM being in danger, unless from her own security people.
    I believe there was much over reaction on all sides yesterday
    Videos do not show the PM being in danger, unless from her own security people.
    Yes the crowd was noisy but I do not believe out of control.
    The Police appear to have the situation in hand.
    Mr. Abbott’s comments would have been better unsaid on such a day. If he does not mean for the Tent Embassy to be shut down, what does he mean. I can also see where being told things are much better and it’s time to move on can offend. Especially when one believes this is not the case.
    Yes the crowd was noisy but I do not believe it was out of control.
    The Police appear to have the situation in hand.
    Mr. Abbott’s comments would have been better unsaid on such a day. If he does not mean for the Tent Embassy to be shut down, what does he mean. I can also see where being told things are much better and it’s time to move on can offend. Especially when one believes this is not the case.
    I do believe it was handled badly by the PM being pulled along as she was. Experts in protection should be able to do better.
    Yes we do need to accept that we are in some aspects a racist country which Australia day seems to bring out in us. Yes we need to do something to address this racist behaviour.
    It is not caused by multiculturalism, because Australia day also shows us what exciting and vibrant country we have come because of 60 years of accepting people from many countries, cultures and religions.
    Australia is a wonderful country, but to be so arrogant to think we are above all others, undermines and sells short the people we are
    We are not perfect, this is OK as no country is. It is important we strive for something better.
    Celebrating the day the country became a penal colony is not my idea of Australia Day.
    When we became a Federation is probably the day, but this is News Years day, and we did not cut our ties to Britain on that day. We did not become Australian citizens until the 1950’s. The British Courts were still what we appealed to. We used the British anthem.
    Maybe the Real Australia Day will have to wait until we become a Republic and all ties are cut.

  10. My read is the same as Mindy, on Abbott. Iago, if it’s not too melodramatic to announce it that way. I think it also follows the same pattern of hazing as has been directed against Obama and family in the States- sometimes nasty stuff and a sort monotonous back ground hum all the time.

  11. I felt uneasy all of yesterday, a combo of Australia Day and other minor annoyances. I always get ‘… for we are young and free!’ in my head and argue with it, ‘60,000 years of living in Australia isn’t *young*, and Aboriginal people being almost twenty times more likely to be incarcerated isn’t *free*’. And I foolishly read comments under an ABCnews fb post about Charlie Teo’s speech (a lot of people want him to ‘go back to China’ – sigh). I posted something on facebook about how much joy I get out of international students coming to Australia and contributing to our scholarly community, so I guess I got into the spirit somewhat. I am just glad it’s over…. until next year.

  12. This isn’t a criticism of what you’ve actually said just a quick correction. James Cook reached mainland Australia in 1770 but the First Fleet and Captain Arthur Phillip didn’t arrive until 1788, which is what the date of Australia Day marks. Apparently Captain Cook had died before the First Fleet got here.

  13. I’ve been trying and trying to think of what I should say about what happened the other day, but it’s hard to find words that are adequate. I’m horrified and ashamed of the way that the concerns of the tent embassy protesters (and Aboriginal Australians in general) are continually dismissed, I’m horrified and ashamed of how this incident is being used as an excuse to villify Aboriginal Australians who dare to be upset and angry about the way their countries have been stolen from them.

  14. Somehow all white Australians are not racist rednecks because of the actions of a few at Cronulla but all Aboriginal Australians are terrible people because a few of them protested in Canberra? Absolutely ridiculous.

    Also I really feel for those elders of the Tent Embassy who may have had to distance themselves from the disturbance (not calling it a riot) because of the media narrative on the issue.

  15. As an Indigenous woman and in fact simply an Australian woman, I thank you for this post. You brought a tear to my eye.

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