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AUSTRALIAN VOICES:
THE UNHEARD

By Tatenda Chikwakukire| 4 | 11 | 2022

What really makes someone Australian? Other than the original custodians of this land, no one really has any claim to being a ‘true, blue Aussie’. However, like many other countries with histories of colonialism and severed ties with their First Nation peoples, the ideas of nationalism is rooted in European ideals, morals, and values. This makes the question incredibly difficult to answer for non-white individuals as they grew up embracing Australian culture but are automatically othered because of their appearance.

According to a study by Nola Purdie and Lynn Wilss, Australian National Identity: Young Peoples’ Conceptions of What It Means to be Australian,  the traditional belief on Australian identity is an individual who exhibits,

'Physical toughness, ‘mateship’ and the ability to withstand hardship.’

Essentially, this statement is the Aussie version of the ‘American Dream’ which packages the narrative that dreams, and goals can only be achieved through hard-work, determination and loyalty in friendships.

However, as systematic disadvantages and racial biases are entrenched in Australian culture, everyone may work hard , but very few reap the benefits of hard work as Australia was historically built for white people to succeed.

 

A brief look into Australia’s immigration history is an indication that race, and ethnicity plays a major role in who was considered Australian in the past.

Dr Indigo Willing OAM is a sociologist and lecturer at Griffith University in Meanjin (Brisbane) Australia. As a Vietnamese Australian War adoptee, she has applied her diverse background to her theoretical work on subjects like issues of power and social change.

Dr Willing suggests Australia’s problematic history accounts for the disconnect between the diversity rhetoric and its reality.

‘There can be a big disconnect between Australia being portrayed as a very diverse place where everybody is egalitarian and has a fair go and mateship, that does exist, but it can’t be removed from the bigger question about how this nation was formed.’

As much as Australia is a multi-cultural hub, the ‘diversity’ rhetoric is truly disconnected from reality and unfortunately, Black People of Colour's (BIPOC) experiences prove this.

Sara : Settling Down

If people where to ask me where I was from, I would say Australia...I live in Australia, I am from Australia

Sara is 20-year-old support worker from Brisbane Australia.

She was born in Sudan in 2002 after her parents fled from Eritrea. After four years in Sudan, her family immigrated to Australia in 2006. In 2011, the family received their Australian citizenship. Though she is Eritrean by ethnicity and Sudanese by birthplace, Sara identifies as Australian.

Sara initially described her experience as a non-white Australian as reasonable.

​‘it’s been fine, I would say, it hasn’t been crazy, I say it is worse for my parents because they don’t speak English. It was nothing crazy just mainly picking on their skin tones.’

​She further recounted her experiences where she felt singled out because of her appearance .

‘When we came to Australia, when teachers would go around asking questions, they would slur their words to me as if I didn’t understand.’

​ ‘Fine’ is a word Sara used often as a descriptor for her experiences. But some of these experiences were blatantly racist.

Sara acknowledged her causal tone when addressing her experience, stating, ‘it was crazy but was nothing like… lynching.'​ For most BIPOC, macro-aggressions like being picked on for your hair or consistently hearing the N-word in non-black spaces is a universal experience that is unfortunately considered normal.

 

Like Sara, Azhar has experienced prejudice, however Azhar has fully categorised the macro-aggressions for what they are.

 

Racism.

Azhar: Casual Racism

Personally I believe hidden racism is much worse than obvious racism. I would rather understand from the beginning that an environment is hostile towards me.

Azhar, a 19-year-old student who is originally from New Zealand with Somali heritage. Having lived in Australia and New Zealand , Azhar has had her fair share of micro and macro aggressions in predominantly white spaces.

​‘I often experienced  being one of the few coloured people in academic areas, people will assume you are dumb and are often visibly surprised. The micro aggressions you face are often downplayed or not seen as a big deal.’

Azhar is also a Muslim woman who proudly wears her hijab. This proud display of her Muslim faith in addition to her being a Black woman furthers fuels the racist commentary she receives.

‘Oh, you speak English very well’

‘Omg your parents have higher education?’

‘You know you don’t have to follow that religion in Australia, you’re free.’

Azhar explained that she hears these comments daily.

AZAR VIDEO

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, causal racism refers to ‘negative stereotypes or prejudices about people on the basis of colour or ethnicity.’ This type of racism is not loud or obvious, it is quiet, subtle and recipients will often be gaslit into thinking the act was harmless.

The commission further explains that causal racism is not intentional or meant to cause offense.

 

However, it is hard for non-white Australian’s like Azhar to accept the behaviour as not offensive because it can be very uncomfortable.

‘Australian culture is very “chill”.

‘ White Australians don’t like seeing themselves as racist because they recognise the word as a bad thing and because of this you often feel a fake sense of comfort. But as soon as you feel that comfort you will face another micro aggression and then you’re back to being alert and uncomfortable,’ Azhar said.

Dr Indigo Willing coincided with the notion that Australian humour can often cross boundaries and provide a platform for casual racism. 

‘The racism is in this country can be very casual. I think it’s something academics really need to pay attention to.

‘Racism needs to be looked at in law but also those everyday interactions where there is this expectation to just laugh it off. We can joke with each other; we do have that culture in Australia but playing down things can dismiss really important emotions when something is offensive.’

Though Azhar’s experience has similar to other unambiguously black men in Australia, Sol has had a contrasting experience as a bi-racial gay man. Nonetheless, he has encountered unnerving situations that are a result of racism.  

Sol: Fetishisation 

I’ve experienced a lot of racial assumptions especially within the queer community where there is large levels of fetishisation for people that are ethnically ambiguous

Sol, a 21-year-old retail worker from Brisbane. He moved from Toowoomba to Brisbane in 2022.

His mother is white Australian, and his father is ethnically Samoan.

As a bi-racial person, his experience differs from the macro aggressions other BIPOC face.

‘My experience has been interesting…neither fitting in with the white kids or the brown kids. It wasn’t until I moved from rural Australia to the city that I found a sense of community in likeminded people with shared experiences.’

Despite meeting diverse groups of people by truly immersing himself in the city life, Sol often receives unwanted sexual attention due to his racial ambiguity.

This is not unheard of as fetishisation parallels with racism.

Cambridge Dictionary describes fetishisation as ‘a sexual interest in an object, a part of the body that is not a sexual organ, or a person as if they are an object.’ The latter applies as Sol’s racial appearance as an ambiguous gay man has reduced his great character to just a sexual object. A study by Lawrence Stacey and Tehquin D. Forbes, Feeling Like a Fetish: Racialized Feelings, Fetishization, and the Contours of Sexual Racism on Gay Dating Apps, found there was a clear link between racial fetishisation in men of colour, and racialized feelings connected to racial and sexual inequality. Racial fetishisation can often be confusing to BIPOC as it further perpetuates stereotypes whilst masquerading itself as a positive attraction.

 

Like racial fetishation, European beauty standards are an equally confusing subject to BIPOC as they tend to not fit the status quo of what is considered ‘attractive’.

Kendra: Beauty Standards

‘I still have some anti-blackness that I developed when I was younger.’

Kendra is a 24-year-old provisional psychologist from Brisbane in Australia. Although she was raised in Australia and has her citizenship, Kendra identifies with her birthplace, Zimbabwe.

‘ I’m Zimbabwean first, before I am anything else.’

Kendra grew up in Sunshine Coast, Queensland just 100 kilometers from Brisbane but moved to pursue her degree. The area is not as diverse as the city.

‘Growing up in the Sunshine Coast was definitely a reminder that I did not fit in.

‘ I used to wish I had finer hair like my white friends .’

Kendra further explained what it was like growing up in a less media diverse Australia.

‘If you’re young and you look the way I do, it was difficult opening a magazine, walking to a shop or even buying makeup, … no one looked like you.’

‘Beauty standards in Australia back then didn’t really favour black and brown features, however they have broadened over the last couple of years.’

Media diversity is only a recent phenomenon as Australian media has had a nasty habit of only casting white people unless there is a need to use to fill a diversity quota.

Kendra reflects on having to watch American media for representation.

‘ When I was growing up, all you would see is people who look like Miranda Kerr being uplifted, I was lucky to find that representation elsewhere on American shows.

‘ But I will say, now more than ever I see beautiful women of all cultures on TV, magazines and other mediums, it’s so refreshing.’

Dr Willing reiterated Australia’s progression in diversifying their media. 

‘The way that "Australianness" has been portrayed is very monoracial, if we think about media now, there’s a lot more diversity like Heartbreak High, where people are no thinking about what they are consuming. ’

The recent Netflix series Heartbreak High gained praise and admiration for its diverse cast which featured  different ethnicities and cultures that many felt truly represented multicultural Australia. The show runner Ayesha Maddon who plays Amerie is an actress of South Asian heritage. Not only is she the main character but she plays a love interest which is unheard of in Australian media as love interests were solely reserved for white women. But most importantly, her race and ethnicity was not mentioned as a plot point. In the show, she was simply a foolish teenager who made bad decisions that happened to be South Asian. There is also First Nations representation by Thomas Weatherall and Sherry-Lee Watson who respectively play Malakai and Missy. Their portrayal is particularly notable as they normalise aspects of First Nations culture through phrases and practices. Like Amerie, Malaki is a love interest.

Further exhibiting the idea of BIPOC being effective show runners without the application of racial stereotypes and tropes.

Now that we have heard the perspectives and experiences  of BIPOC who have lived in Australia, they were asked Australian culture progress to a more accepting community?

Here are their raw and honest answers.

Sara said that Australian school systems often dismisses racism, and that accountability can facilitate change. 

‘More education would be nice because in school they would push anything to do with race under a rug also holding people responsible for being racist or saying racist slurs.’

Sol has two words and two words only.

‘Land Back.’

Kendra sees time as a major factor that can facilitate change as well as repairing the strained relationship between our First Nations peoples.

‘Time is one of them. I think it will take a subsequent amount of time for Australia to truly get rid of the racist foundations it was built on and has further perpetuated. It goes so much deeper than we think. Racism here is subtle but also very systematic. I also think listening to the needs of indigenous and aboriginal communities. I feel like the Australian government hasn’t really gone beyond surface level with listening to their perspectives and implementing them.’

Azhar said that acceptance and accountability is at the root of change.

‘Let’s start with accepting that Australia is racist. That’s the first step to fixing the problem. Accept that this country is just as racist as other problematic countries and then try to fix it. Stop demonising immigrants when they excel in the country. I feel like if racism in Australia is well known in other countries, Australia should stop trying to hide it.’

Dr Indigo Willing also gave her answer, citing change can occur through education and leadership.

 

Ultimately, if we revisit our first question of What makes someone Australian, the perspectives told in this story concluded that there really is no answer. Australian isn’t a look; it isn’t a born-place, and it certainly isn’t a lone experience.

'Australian' is possibly just a blanket term for the melting pot of ethnicities and cultures that have settled down and have historically lived in a land that was and continues to be one of the oldest living cultures in the world.

Dr indigo willing
00:00 / 01:22

What really makes someone Australian? Other than the original custodians of the land, no one really has any claim to being a ‘true, blue Aussie’. However, like many other countries with histories of colonialism and severed ties with their first nation’s peoples, the ideas of nationalism are rooted in European ideals, morals, and values.

This makes the question incredibly difficult to answer for non-white individuals as they grew up embracing Australian culture but are automatically othered because of their appearance.

According to a study by Nola Purdie and Lynn Wilss titled, Australian National Identity: Young Peoples’ Conceptions of What It Means to be Australian,  the traditional belief on Australian identity is an individual who exhibits,

‘Physical toughness, ‘mateship’ and the ability to withstand hardship.’

Mateship is an Australian term meaning companionship or friendship between men. Essentially, this statement is the Aussie version of the ‘American Dream’ which packages the narrative that dreams, and goals can only be achieved through hard-work, determination and loyalty in relationships. However, as systematic disadvantages and racial biases are entrenched in Australian culture, everyone may work hard , but very few reap the benefits of hard work when Australia was historically built for white people to succeed.

A brief look into Australia’s immigration history is an indication that race, and ethnicity plays a major role in who was considered Australian in the past.

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