• "Whiteness is the secret quotient, unless our perception of what’s Australian changes." (AAP/MOODBOARD)
'Go back to where you came from' might be the catchcry of racists everywhere but it’s long been part of a national rhetoric that frames immigrants’ Australian identities as provisional, writes Neha Kale.
By
Neha Kale

20 Sep 2016 - 2:54 PM  UPDATED 20 Sep 2016 - 3:10 PM

Pauline Hanson’s “maiden” speech to the senate a couple of weeks ago was so riddled with ignorant missives masquerading as grave kernels of truth, it’s hard to choose a defining moment.

There was the baffling reminder that “Australia had a national identity before Federation, and it had nothing to do with diversity and everything to do with belonging,” as if a verb that conjures the comfort of a summer camp sing-a-long could seriously apply to a country that was seized by force.

There was the questionable lament that bibles are no longer found in hospitals and that public swimming baths have set times for Muslim women.

Of course, Hanson didn’t invent “go back to where you came from” as much as she invoked the phrase’s ugly past.

Personally, I’d choose Hanson’s suggestion that if you don’t respect the Australian way of life, “you can go back to where you come from” complete with an (thoughtful!) offer of a lift to the airport and not because catching a ride with someone who considers me a blight on society while overlooking my winning sense of humour is my personal Nightmare on Elm Street.

This seven-word phrase doesn’t offend as much it simply states the obvious. If you’re an immigrant, you could subsist on a diet of meat pies or sing Waltzing Matilda backwards or embrace whatever passes for Australian these days and still be exiled to your imaginary homeland. That this homeland often exists less as fact and more as a daydream, manufactured by racists as proof that you can never truly belong here, is entirely beside the point.

Of course, Hanson didn’t invent “go back to where you came from” as much as she invoked the phrase’s ugly past.

As Amal Awad points out in an October 2015 Junkee article, when Olympic swimming legend Dawn Fraser told the Today Show that Canberra-born Nick Kyrgios, a Wimbledon tennis player with a Greek and Malaysian background should “go back to where [his] parents came from”, it was simply a symptom of an Australia that sees white people as gatekeepers and people of colour as double agents, whose loyalties are always suspect.

10 times Pauline Hanson got the facts wrong in her maiden speech
Pauline Hanson's maiden speech in the Australian Senate this week harked back to her original explosive debut in the House of Representatives in 1996.

There’s a reason that you’ll hear “go back to where you came from” hurled at targets like Lindsay Li, a Chinese-Australian woman who was verbally assaulted while catching a bus home in Sydney’s Willoughby and not at a British backpacker who might have overstayed his welcome.

In July 2016, Jerome Forbes, a 19-year-old with Māori ancestry, was the victim of a racist tirade at a Brisbane bus stop, courtesy of a woman who recommended that his father “pack up his bags and go back to New Zealand” and that although she “has nothing against foreigners personally, it’s just that they don’t fit into the Australian way of life.” She doesn’t mention that fitting into the Australian way of life is like climbing Escher’s impossible staircase or passing a dictation test in a language you’ve never heard of. It isn’t a matter of allegiance or a willingness to dispense with your traditions. Whiteness is the secret quotient, unless our perception of what’s Australian changes.

This argument, however well-intentioned, also plays into the idea that immigrants can only reap the benefits of being Australian if they earn their keep. Anyone who doesn’t can get out.

It’s easy to imagine “go back to where you came from” as the catchcry of far-right senators and pensioners with retrograde politics. What’s painful to admit is how much the phrase is etched into a national rhetoric that erases Australia’s bloody colonial history and treats people of colour, who built their lives here, as if their presence is provisional, guests who are subject to a litany of rules.

An April 2015 ABC report points out, immigrants, who mostly arrive in Australia at prime working age and participate in the workforce at higher rates than average Australians, are the country’s greatest economic asset. This argument, however well-intentioned, also plays into the idea that immigrants can only reap the benefits of being Australian if they earn their keep. Anyone who doesn’t can get out.

For the times that I’ve been told, covertly or otherwise, to “go back to where I came from”, I honestly haven’t known where to go.

For a minute, I think about how my chest tightens when driving past the Karri forests of Western Australia, that fraught landscape whose ancient presence always reassures me or remember the bone-deep thrill of watching the sunset paint Mumbai sepia on the rare occasion I’ve gone back to visit.

In Portuguese, saudade refers to a profound state of longing for something that doesn’t exist. Hanson’s imaginary homeland might be a racist daydream but sometimes its absence hurts, like a phantom limb.

 

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @Neha_Kale, Instagram @nehakale

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