Sunday, April 15, 2007

colour in Australia

I want to write about colour in Australia, to move away from the rhetoric of "multiculturalism," to explore other ways of understanding ethnic diversity in contemporary Australia.

People of colour today are a minority in Australia. White people are numerically and politically dominant. But these facts have been historically produced through violence, exploitation and discrimination; I would argue that this state of affairs continues to be produced through various factors, including violence, exploitation and discrimination, but also through more subtle powers, such as policing immigration, regulating "multiculturalism", controlling how the history of our nation is taught, owning the media, etc. White people in Australia have a vested interest in keeping for ourselves the fruits of colonisation. ironically, many people of colour also share in these fruits.

Internationally, people of colour are overwhelmingly the majority, although international power is disproportionately held by White people. Historically, Australia was entirely populated by people of colour. The landmass now known as Australia was multicultural, with no dominant group. People of colour from neighbouring countries would visit, perhaps stay. It was only when White people came though that the balance of power began to radically shift. It should be noted that it is not only White people who colonise (e.g. Ghengis Khan, Ottoman Empire, Japanese colonial expansion, etc), but that this is historical process in Australia.

For many years after invasion, the numerical dominance of people of colour continued, but the political dominance of White people spread. Indigenous peoples were still the majority for some years. There were also non-Indigenous people of colour (e.g. Chinese people, Afghan camelleers, Lebanese people), who were marginal to White society, present but not welcomed by the White authorities. Some Indigenous communities continued to welcome other people of colour (e.g. from what is now known as Indonesia).

The boundaries of the category of "White" have always been permeable. White society had its own critically important ethnic divisions, those between British Protestant and Irish Catholic, and between upper and working class (which in some ways mirrored the former division).

To be welcome in Australia during the first half of the twentieth century - when Whiteness was explicitly identified as critical to being welcome - some immigrant groups (e.g. Lebanese) maintained that they were White. Others, specifically Indigenous people with some White parentage, were considered partially White and forcibly separated from their Indigenous communities, often raised in ignorance of their ethnic background. Other communities lied about, fudged or made less explicit their ethnicity, claiming a status that was considered more "White" (eg. Indigenous people identifying as Greek, Iranian people Anglocising their name).


Coming to terms with this history, and writing this has been a journey for me, as a White person. I think I've taken White-dominance for granted, believing that the minority status of people of colour is natural, that they are but spice in the main dish (us Whities). White centrality (supremacy) has been constructed and I've internalised it in my mind. e.g. when John Howard says "We decide who comes here", I instinctively know that by "we" he means people like me, and whereas people of colour can only "come here", be rejected or welcomed by us, and possibly be "sent home" if we Whities change our mind about their welcome. Like the question "where does your family come from" is rarely asked of me, and it's a shock when it is (or rather was, just the once). I too come from somewhere.

One of the guys at the theatre workshop I attended talked about his experience of being Iranian. He said, "it's not too bad being different. It provides conversation topics, it makes me a bit more interesting and the food tastes GREAT." It was funny and arresting. I realised that I always hesitate to claim my English ancestry (which is, I believe, the majority of my ancestry) because it's boring and the food tastes crap. At least claiming the Irish or Scottish parts is interesting, like, there's pride in claiming Rob Roy as my 11th great grandfather. You know, he fought the big powers. It's an interesting challenge to claim the pride in my heritage, to own my middle-class Britishness (do i proclaim my passion for classical music?)

your thoughts appreciated.

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