• So intent was I on fitting in and speaking ‘like an Australian’ that it didn’t occur to me the very notion was fraught. (Getty Images)
Any deviation from whiteness could trigger the seven most hurtful words that can be hurled at an immigrant: “Go back to where you came from”.
By
Sonia Nair

28 Sep 2018 - 10:55 AM  UPDATED 2 Oct 2018 - 12:44 PM

I was 18 when I moved to Australia for a second time. The first time, I was a baby. It was the late 80s and my parents had decided to leave Malaysia for an adventure and better work opportunities. As it turns out, that adventure was short-lived. We packed our bags for Malaysia again in 1996 — and it was where I would spend most of my school years.

That second time in Australia, I’d returned alone for university. In those early days, one of my favourite compliments came from someone in my journalism tutorial: that my English was excellent despite where Id come from. I remember wearing it like a badge of honour. So intent was I on fitting in and speaking ‘like an Australian’ that it didn’t occur to me the very notion was fraught. It was only after hearing the same ‘compliment’ time and again that I began to question the underlying sentiment. Why wouldnt my English be excellent? Contrary to popular assumption, English is the first language of many people of colour — thanks to the linguistic imperialism of the British Empire. Many people of colour, in fact, can’t converse in any other language.

The feeling of being defined by “where we came from" is something all too familiar to non-white Australians. Whether it’s our birthplace, our accent or the colour of our skin, it’s as if any deviation from whiteness could trigger the seven most hurtful words that can be hurled at an immigrant: “Go back to where you came from”.

There is, of course, the less offensive (though no less alienating) version: “Where are you from?” The implication being you can’t possibly be Australian if you aren’t white — a highly problematic misnomer considering the original inhabitants of Australia were black.  

Interestingly, "Go back to where you came from" is often wielded when Australians of minority backgrounds dare to express dissatisfaction at the status quo: when we speak out about our government’s refugee policy, our failure to accord First Nations people constitutional recognition, or our constantly rotating cavalcade of prime ministers. Though, ironically, what could be a truer, more passionate ode to our home than rallying in the belief that it could be so much better?

There are many other ways non-white Australians are asked to "go back to where you came from" without being expressly told to do so. I’ve been called a "f***ing curry" by passengers in a car whizzing by as I waited at a tram stop. I’ve had random strangers waggle their heads at me and utter "namaste" in a cloying Indian accent as I’ve dared to pass them on a footpath or cross the road in front of them. I’ve had a friend of a friend insist that I must be Sri Lankan because I looked “exactly” like someone she knew.

There is, of course, the less offensive (though no less alienating) version: “Where are you from?” The implication being you can’t possibly be Australian if you aren’t white — a highly problematic misnomer considering the original inhabitants of Australia were black.  

To anyone from a minority background, each act of microaggression or explicitly racist interaction reminds them that they aren’t welcome in the country that they call home. That their sense of belonging, legitimacy and safety will always be predicated upon the colour of their skin. It’s galling to be faced with those seven damaging words when Anglo-Australians are never presumed to be from anywhere else other than Australia – simply by virtue of their whiteness.

The conflation of whiteness with Australian-ness is inaccurate at best, harmful at worst. In addition to its rich Indigenous heritage dating back more than 50,000 years, Australia has a diverse history of migration – the first non-white migrants arrived in Australia as early as 1851 in the form of Chinese and Pasifika people. Yet two centuries on, descendants of this first wave of Chinese migrants are still proving that they belong to Australia, despite the fact they’ve never belonged anywhere else.

Surprisingly, the assumption that “Australian-ness equals whiteness” is less common away from home. Author Zoya Patel delves into how she felt more Australian than ever when she was in Scotland in her debut book, No Country Woman. “Scots accept my Australian identity without question,” she writes, “And when I tell them I’m Australian, not a single person has asked me where I’m ‘really from’. I can’t be proud of my Australian identity in Australia because a day rarely passes without another Australian questioning it. In Australia, to claim my citizenship is always a challenge, never a given.”

'Go back to where you came from’ is often wielded when Australians of minority backgrounds dare to express dissatisfaction at the status quo.

It’s telling that I feel more Malaysian than I do Australian, despite having spent more than half my life living, studying and working here. For many people, “going back" to where they came from isn’t an option. For refugees who have been displaced by ongoing violence and oppression in their countries of birth — in some cases due to wars that Australia has played a role — Australia is their home. By the same token, for first- or second-generation Australians who – whether by virtue of birth of early migration – grew up in Australia, this country is their home.

When white settlement is a small part in the long history of this continent – why should the colour of our skin determine who does and doesn’t get to call themselves Australian? With the exception of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, our ancestors have all come from elsewhere, but it doesn’t mean we have. We belong here.  

Sonia Nair is the general manager of human rights media organisation Right Now. She has been published by The Wheeler Centre, Kill Your Darlings and The Big Issue. Follow Sonia on Twitter @son_nair.

This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_


 'Go Back To Where You Came From Live' airs over three consecutive nights, October 2 – 4, 8.30pm, LIVE on SBS Australia and streaming live at SBS On Demand. 

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