Journey to the centre of the universe

When author Roxane Gay asked the question ‘Are there black people in Australia?’ on Twitter a few weeks ago, the internet, in its natural, pre-offended state, was ready for a scandal. How ignorant she sounded! How typical of Americans to not know anything about the world in general, and about Indigenous culture in particular! Of course we have black people. Of course we are a culturally and racially diverse nation.

Gay followed up her question with a clarification – she had meant immigrants from Africa, rather than Indigenous Australians, but most of those responding were angry and dismissive. Granted, it was a stupid question, or at least, a stupid question to ask on Twitter. But what Gay probably didn’t realise, as she defended, then removed herself from the debate, is that Australians’ reaction to this is less about her ignorance of our migrant population and more about our indignation that people from other countries don’t know anything about us.

Let’s face it: in the scheme of things, nobody quite knows where we fit. We are part of Asia and yet not, like New Zealand and yet not. We’re hours away – both physically and temporally – from the epicentres of Europe and North America. Unless people overseas specifically go looking for it, what they do know about us is usually limited to what they might see online or TV, and such information that does get through often still places us in the ‘it’s a weird world’ category, rather than in the main headlines.

So perhaps Australians are justified in feeling as though we’re not taken seriously, as if we’re a holiday destination, or a curiosity, or simply a colony. But we can’t get upset that others only know the stereotype if that’s all we choose to show. The fact that Gay doesn’t know about our cultural and ethnic diversity might just be an illustration that the only Australians – actors, politicians, musicians – she might have met or seen on-screen are white. What exactly are we exporting to the world to dispute the impression that we are a homogenously Anglo-Saxon country? And what are we telling ourselves?

Once here in Australia, Gay also observed how even our commercials lack diversity, not only with regards to race, but also to gender. It’s certainly true that advertisements feature predominantly white Australians, and a lot of them men, and that’s interesting, given the obvious reality that it’s not only white men who have purchasing power. If we are to champion diversity, at the very least this should be a topic for discussion, but when it comes to race or gender issues, the way in which they’re reinforced through advertising is rarely up for discussion. Does this mean that we are ignorant of, or are we just ignoring, the blatant message that white heterosexuality is what it means to be Australian – and the political and cultural implications of this?

The recent controversy over the Australian Marriage Forum’s advertisement opposing marriage equality seems to indicate otherwise. Not only was there uproar that the ad was shown on Channels 7 and 9 during the coverage of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, but the ad has also proven to be immensely unpopular on Youtube. Conversely, there’s a vocal group criticising SBS for not showing the ad. This kind of debate shows that we’re not necessarily as conservative as the policies our leaders produce. Why, then, have we not passed the marriage equality act, and why, then, are we also voting predominantly white men into office?

Too often, the big questions about race and gender get subsumed by the challenges of the everyday. It’s too easy to put cultural change in the too-hard basket. Raising social justice issues in conversation is all well and good on the internet, or at arts festivals, or in university coffee-shops, but mention them on the shop floor or at playgroup and most Australians are reluctant to engage. If it doesn’t concern us directly, we shrug it off as not our problem.

If most of us are reluctant to talk about such issues other than in discussions with like-minded friends, or we’re too apathetic to approach our politicians, then we certainly can’t be offended when overseas visitors ask questions about us, and if we don’t accept that there’s room to evolve, then we won’t. Our culture is whitewashed, those who represent anything non-mainstream are quickly deemed ‘unAustralian’, so that we can shut down discussion about how we could change for the better. For as long as this continues, those overseas will see us as friendly but bland, monocultural and lacking significance. Our apathy to effect change is our own fault, not that of others who only see us from a distance.

But perhaps, given the ways in which our prime minister has recently approached UN condemnation about our treatment of asylum seekers, or the potential closure of Indigenous communities in Western Australia, or St Patrick’s Day, it is just as well we exist out of the world spotlight. If it were to shine brighter on us, we might have to actually explain just how we are allowing this to happen in our names.

Rebecca Freeman

Rebecca Freeman is a writer and editor, living with her family in Albany, Western Australia. She is currently enrolled in a PhD in Media, Culture and Creative Arts at Curtin University.  She is on Twitter at @path_ethic

More by Rebecca Freeman ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. this article, i think, unfairly conflates the complexities of responses that the twitter medium allowed in reaction to Roxane Gay’s initial tweet with the way the country overall appears to people overseas. it’s as though those responding to Gay were also responsible for the racist actions of the government and media combined. twitter is one of the few places that we get to see and participate in these sorts of conversations outside our closeknit, like-minded circles. i’m curious, i suppose, to find out who this ‘we’ refers to. it seems unhelpful in a discussion about the multiplicities of racial identities under late capitalism and continuing colonialism.

    Also, it wasn’t just anybody asking that question. It was someone who clearly had an interest in race/colonisation/&c. and probably that’s what shocked people about her flippancy initially (as well as her initial defensiveness). i think the conversations that came out afterwards were mostly great; my initial reaction that she should have known better! or should have at least known better in terms of understanding the amount of extra work people of colour have to put in to describe and explain and teach others about racist structures.

    finally i have a problem with the phrase saying that we are allowing these things to happen ‘in our names’ discounts the countless amounts of work and effort put in by so many people in various positions, fighting in collective action. the truth that a communal, united force of people can make positive change does not automatically infer the inverse (i.e. that the government doing what it does is a direct result of ‘our’ complacency’.

  2. Thanks for such a detailed and thoughtful comment.

    I think the fact that it happened on Twitter is part of the problem, not least because the medium makes it difficult to have an in-depth conversation, especially about something so multi-faceted. I was also quite surprised and a little confused by the question itself, given, as you point out, Gay’s reputation. I agree, she should have known better. But that did make me wonder why she didn’t. Someone so well-versed in discussions about race and colonialism, and she asked a question like that? Ignorance about Australia and our ethnic makeup aside, could she not have used Google?!

    Thus with the questions on impressions people overseas are getting about us. And I agree that there are many hardworking and passionate people (some of whom spoke up and furthered the discussion about this on Twitter and elsewhere) who are working towards a nation which is more racially inclusive. The trouble is that representatives like Abbott are really what gets out there, and what he does (for example) is, as far as those with just a passing interest in us are concerned, in our names.

  3. It’s a typical Australian attitude to blame the white washing of media, culture and representation on the government. Explain to me how Abbott who only has been in power since 2013 is solely responsible for why Australia is perceived as white?

    The fact that Roxanne had to ask that question is reflective of a deep seated white Australian culture that takes no responsibility for the ways in which non-whites Australians are refused access to mainstream media and culture then scratches it’s head when foreigners ask “are there Africans in Australia”

    1. But isn’t that what the author was arguing above? That there’s a problem with how deep-seated these things are? I kind of agree with the piece and everyone’s comments since. There’s a serious problem with how white and bland Australian media is. It’s offensive and racist and doesn’t reflect the experience of many Australians but it’s also boring and eliminates all kinds of difference.

      But I agree with the author that its not only media – politicians are mostly white supremacists and they have racist policies and so itsd little wonder people have the perception of Australia as a white nation. Besides, it wasn’t that long ago it prided itself on being such.

      1. Sorry. My comment was largely to E – the first commented and the author response to E, both comments disengage Australians from the whitewash and place blame on politicians only

  4. I sometimes wonder whether NZ/Aus has this perception that we are offended because you should recognise that this is an offence to us.

    That ignorance that other countries have of us, particularly that NZ moreso perhaps that we are a nation of 70+ million sheep to 4 million people, we are recognised by our ability to make hobbit films and the sort, our scenery… but should another country make a situational comment about something such as Lorde or some jibe remark we get all offended because of the ignorance shown towards us when we in fact are totally capable of doing the exact same.

    Our race relations is a murky area that I am not willing to dip my toe into for the main reasoning that I am not well versed enough to make an argument let alone a statement.

    But at least amends are being made via the Treaty of Waitangi.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.