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.
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.