The debate around Australia Day predictably swells as January 26 approaches. Should we change the date? Should we have it at all? What does it mean to be ‘Australian’? For me, as an Australian-born woman of Palestinian heritage, I’d like to add: how do I justify any of it when I protest Palestinians living under occupation? When I feel such sorrow for that injustice? When Palestinians every year acknowledge Al Nakba – the ‘catastrophe’ of 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were ejected from their homes.
In the US, a similar debate about Thanksgiving Day is emerging, eroding the ‘innocence’ of a holiday that ignores the loss of land and life for its Indigenous population.
We’re living in a time when identity is in sharp focus in Australia and in western nations in general. In an increasingly communicative era, many are questioned on their right to be here with a few keyboard strokes, if not through the use of more violent methods. So it’s not surprising that more honest conversations about belonging are disrupting the convenient narrative that Australia is a multi-cultural paradise; that our history is free of trauma, and that people wishing to come here ‘illegally’ are dangerous to our way of life.
Australia’s legacy is one of colonisation. Nothing will change that reality, even as we try to portray a modern, enlightened Australia with messages of unity and humour. Quite rightly, not everyone thinks a light-hearted reimagining of colonisation is an appropriate way to sell meat to Aussies or promote harmony. And when a billboard featuring two young girls in hijab was removed due to threats, a perhaps well-intentioned person started a fundraising campaign to not only reinstate that billboard, but add more of them throughout Melbourne. In response, Muslims have, quite rightly, objected to making the focus about discrimination against them and are vocally rejecting this campaign: the money raised could be put to better use.
It’s not appropriate to forget how we landed here, or to paint over the ugly parts to make Australia Day a celebration when it commemorates the establishment of a nation at the expense of its original inhabitants.
In recent times I’ve found myself immersed in the excellent columns written by Indigenous writers who, I believe, are the only people equipped to talk about how they feel and what they are experiencing. So the next question I ask is: what can we do?
The answer does not lie in defending January 26 as a day of celebration, wrapped up in fierce and at times dangerous patriotism.
And on that note, as the child of Palestinian migrants raised in Australia by parents who came to Australia decades ago, I don’t feel compelled to choose one culture over another. In fact, I refuse to be defined by any culture.
We’re living in a time when identity is in sharp focus in Australia and in western nations in general.
Unlike the many vocal ‘Strayans calling for a Southern Cross-drenched pledge of loyalty, I don’t believe that good citizenry requires a sense of fierce patriotism, particularly one that is so myopic. You can be a law-abiding Australian citizen and not feel compelled to drape yourself in a flag. For what it’s worth, I don’t feel compelled to wrap myself in any sort of flag. Nor do many Australians I know.
And let’s be honest: even as people of ethnic minorities are chastised for not being dutiful ‘Team Australia’ players, they’re not welcome in the Aussie tribe either. Without a trace of self-awareness, racists tell people of ethnic minorities, ‘We grew here, you flew here’, and ‘If you don’t like it, leave’. They conveniently forget an entire history that saw First Nation peoples uprooted from their land, that their own presence here is because of colonisation.
When self-appointed Aussie defenders demand ‘you should be Australian’, what they’re really saying is “be like us, talk like us, act like us”. To do otherwise is to upset their fragility in a country that is looking less ‘white’. This false call to fealty is a defensive response designed to set people up for failure: you’re picked on because you’re considered an ‘outsider’, which makes you ‘different’ to the dominant culture. I have no desire to prove my Aussie stripes.
The rage towards migrants may remain – it’s not at all new, even if the fear behind has changed shape and focus over the years. Ignoring Australia’s roots, however, is no longer an option. If the conversation around Australia Day achieves one victory, it will be that we can no longer comfortably pursue our collective denial about the right to be here.