OPINION: ‘Aussie' Posters Miss the Inclusive Mark
WORDS BY RADHA WAHYUWIDAYAT
If you’ve taken a walk along King Street in Newtown recently or read the news, you would be familiar with the poster of a turbaned man captioned with the word ‘AUSSIE'. The poster is part of a campaign by Peter Drew; the artist responsible for the “Real Australians Say Welcome” campaign. It is one of 1000 spread across the country and has received unanimous support from media outlets across the country. It looks like this:
Drew and his supporters have patted themselves on the back for bestowing the coveted ‘Aussie’ label upon a turbaned man and then continued on with their lives, blissfully unaware that the idea of the ‘Real Australian’ itself is built on racial intolerance. You only have to examine the life of the man in the poster to see why.
Monga Khan was a North Indian Muslim cameleer who lived and worked in Australia. His photograph, taken in 1916, was for an application for an exemption to the White Australia policy, made on the basis of his ‘good character’.
In his application, Khan attempted to fulfil this arbitrary requirement using testimonies from white Australians describing him as ‘law-abiding’, ‘hard working’, ‘trustworthy’ and ‘respectful’. He attempted to prove ‘good character’ with evidence of his hard work, suggesting that the good ‘Aussie’ immigrant was one because they made a contribution to wider Australian society.
‘Good character’ remains to this day an impossible set of criteria assigned to non-white immigrants. Khan was judged as one only because white Australians testified to his desirable qualities. But white Australians are not subject to the same criteria. Their ‘Aussieness’ does not depend on their contributions or qualities: it just is.
The ‘Aussie’ label is racist because it is only ever given to non-white Australians, and can only be given (and taken away) by white Australians. Based on a set of vague criteria always subject to change, non-white immigrants can be stripped of their ‘Aussieness’ at any moment.
Drew’s campaign ignores these racial hierarchies of Australian society: where those who must earn their label as ‘Aussie’ sit below those who are unconditionally ‘Aussie’ from birth.
The ‘Aussie’ label is granted to immigrants who have been perceived to have made a contribution to society. Monga Khan worked to ‘open up’ the outback to white Australia by laying infrastructure, mapping the land and supplying colonists. His contribution was valid because it assisted European colonialism, which viewed the outback as a ‘frontier’ that must be conquered, rather than land that had been lived on for tens of thousands of years.
The idea of the 'good Aussie' is fuelled by racial intolerance because our idea of ‘giving back’ is judged by Western standards of civilisation and progress. These standards are based on white supremacy; the idea of Western European culture as a superior, civilising force which justifies imperialism.
In modern Australia, immigrants are expected to abandon elements of their (inferior) culture and way of life, from food to religion to language, in order to make way for their superior ‘Aussie’ identity. What’s more, they are expected to like it, and those who don’t are accused of being ‘ungrateful’. Our idea of “giving back” is a vehicle of forced assimilation in the modern day.
Expanding the ‘Real Australian’ label to include ‘good immigrants’ such as Khan enforces a false dichotomy; an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality with the only choice being for ‘them’ to assimilate into ‘us’. Those who don’t are perceived as undeserving of citizenship.
The ‘Real Australian’ is not even real. It is a constructed identity that ignores Indigenous people and history, and the fact that the vast majority of Australians have their ancestral roots overseas.
Despite this, the ‘Real Australian’ style of racism is widespread, because it frames itself as accepting and inclusive. For this reason, it is far more insidious than the overt racism of Reclaim Australia. It is visible in the testimonials about Monga Khan, and it permeates current immigration rhetoric.
Take a walk, and you might even see it on a poster.