This month, La Trobe academic Roz Ward almost became the latest casualty in Australia’s culture wars.
The co-founder of the controversial Safe Schools program was temporarily suspended by the university over a private Facebook post in which she wrote she would like to see the “racist” Australian flag removed from parliament house and replaced with a “red (i.e Marxist) one.”
Clearly, there are some aspects of Australian identity and culture it is almost impossible to criticise without being soundly punished. In referring to the Union Jack as “racist,” Ward has also touched the raw nerve that is Australia’s inability to deal with its racist past – and by extension its present.
Is the Union Jack racist? Well, it certainly isn’t inclusive. The flag under which Great Britain colonised much of the world, no one can seriously argue that colonialism and its associated violence isn’t racist.
However, the real issue is not about the accuracy of Ward’s statement. Rather, it’s the fury that is unleashed whenever someone makes a statement that casts doubt on the cherished myths that mainstream Australian society tells itself.
Australia has constructed for itself an identity built on such things as the ‘fair go’, mateship freedom, and innate moral goodness. These are considered so fundamental to our identity that any criticism of our country that calls them into question, creates a cognitive dissonance so great, the response is as swift as it is furious.
It should go without saying that critiquing your own country – and whether people like it or not, Australia is my country - does not mean you see nothing good in it all.
Why is Australia so resistant to self-criticism? From personal experience, whenever I discuss issues around race and racism, I am predictably told to “go back to where I came from,” the fact that I have lived in Australia since I was two and became a citizen just a few years later, seemingly inconsequential. And this, as we’ll see shortly is precisely part of the problem.
It should go without saying that critiquing your own country – and whether people like it or not, Australia is my country - does not mean you see nothing good in it all. Nor does it mean you should just up and leave. Mainstream Australia, however, in its denial of its true history seems to regard any failure to see Australia as completely and utterly morally good as the worst kind of treason.
There is no escaping the inconvenient truth: Australia was indeed founded as a racist society, with white supremacy the justifying factor of European colonialism. Across the globe, from Australia to India to Africa to the Americas, Europeans used their own self-proclaimed superiority as a right to colonise, subjugate, and massacre.
This has resulted in a lasting legacy of racial superiority, as seen in the White Australia policy (only overturned 50 odd years ago), and in Australia’s relationship with its Asian neighbours. Australia’s attitude to Asia was for so long predicated on two seemingly contradictory beliefs; superiority and fear. Australia, as white, western, and European-in-spirit, saw itself as inherently superior to everyone else in the region. At the same time, there was a terrible fear that it would be overtaken by the vastly more populous Asian nations, a fear that Pauline Hanson was still spouting before she turned her attention to Islam.
Until we reckon with our true history, we cannot move on from it. Like it or not, this history lives on.
This duality of superiority and fear lives on in the widespread resistance to Muslim Australians. The idea of subscribing to multiple identities is already seen as a threat (hence those demands I go back to where I came from), but add to that the fact that Islam, never having been sanctified by the West, remains a religion of the racialised ‘other,’ and presto- anyone who follows it is regarded as a dangerous, and infinitely inferior, outsider.
The pull of a monoculture is strong and non-white Australians are accepted only in so much as they are willing to espouse the superiority of so-called western and Australian values above all else. Cue the outrage whenever anyone offers an alternate perspective on the ANZACs, or on our own supposedly benign origins.
If our identity hinges on the belief that the arrival of the British was the most favourable thing that could possibly have happened here, and that we weren’t invaded but settled, it’s easy to see why moral panic ensures when anyone suggests otherwise. After all, such criticisms demand we reassess exactly what it means to be “Australian.”
Far easier is to simply deny the violence inflicted on Aboriginal population - and their resistance. Easier still is to ignore the racist laws and xenophobia that has greeted each and every wave of immigrants to these shores, themselves often the victims of colonialism and Western imperialism in their own countries.
Bringing this up should not be dismissed as an “attack” or as being “divisive.” Because, until we reckon with our true history, we cannot move on from it. Like it or not, this history lives on.