Who are we, anyway?: Searching for Australian identity

“I think Australian culture and Australian history is a culture of deception, is a history of deception.”

— Vernon Ah Kee in GOMA Talks: Life [06:39]

Vernon and his fellow panelists went on to discuss the papering over of Aboriginal history in this country; the privileging of an idyllic traditional painting style over contemporary and experimental art; the ‘not black enough’ phenomenon; the inability of a hierarchical society comfortable with representation to meaningfully engage with the radically egalitarian indigenous societies. It was a fascinating discussion. But I found this statement, so early in the talk, to be enormously powerful.

In March this year I repatriated to Australia after three and a half years in Latin America. I’d travelled a lot before, sure, but never before had I spent so much time in a non-Western society, and never before had I immersed myself quite so deeply in another language and culture.

Coming home has been an odd sort of experience, as I turn a curious and disaccustomed eye on my own culture and society.

I’ve realised how little I know about indigenous culture in my own country. A failure of the educational system of my generation, or of my own curiosity, or of both, perhaps. Certainly the resources exist now to rectify that, and I’m working on it. But I think this is perhaps indicative of a broader failing of Australian society. A deception, if you will.

We are a prosperous country: most of us are genuinely lucky. But we are not good at sharing our luck, and we have a strange habit of thinking that those who are less lucky must be, in some way, responsible for their own misfortunes.

[Regarding the current refugee policy and public attitudes]

It is not easy to understand how this has happened. Those of us who think Australia is better than its behaviour suggests now feel like aliens in our own land: bewildered at how quickly the country has lost its moral bearings.

Australia has constructed a myth about itself which cannot survive unless we forget a number of painful truths. We draw a veil of comforting amnesia over anything which contradicts our self-image.

— Julian Burnside at The Conversation 

I’m not sure this myth we’ve constructed is a recent adddition to our national character. We are an incredibly multicultural society: 26% of us were born overseas and 19% of us speak a language other than English at home [ABS]. I think racism and fear of the ‘other’ is an ugly part of human character in general, susceptible to manipulation by canny politicians worldwide. We don’t have a monopoly on this.

Nevertheless, every wave of non-Northern European migration to this country has been met with enormous societal pushback, and apparently now a majority of us thinks its OK to indefinitely detain those who (legally!) seek protection in this country. And the commoditisation and marginalisation of our first nations continues.

Again, and I stress, these are complex societal issues that every nation needs to deal with. But I find it curious that this country – a country of larrikins, travellers, mates; a country that markets itself as the friendliest nation in the world and way more egalitarian than those stuffy old Brits; a young, energetic, democratic country of immigrants – should use the language it does about asylum seekers without making itself sick.

It is a curious deception. Is it because we have yet to come to terms with the violence of colonisation? Is it simply the mark of an immature democracy? Is it a result of the abysmal level of political discourse in this country, or is this discourse simply symptomatic of something deeper within the Australian identity? Do we just lack curiosity about our own past and the indigenous and immigrant people who built it?

Julian Burnside, in Alienation to Alien Nation, suggests that much of the vitriol is the result of a deeper alienation of individuals from society. It’s a compelling argument.

This is a post of unanswered questions. I don’t feel all that Australian these days. I love this country, and I identify strongly with the values we espouse. But I’m not sure I see these values being embodied in the greater society. I’m terrified at the thought of being a cultural link, a tour guide to an identity I don’t really understand, when I begin volunteering with the Multicultural Development Association shortly. Maybe I’m alienated and this is all some weird repat phase. At any rate, as projects go, a search for Australian identity should keep me out of trouble for a while.

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