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.