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Racism

Welcome! (Kind of.) The problem with being declared ‘Aussie’

If you’re a city-dwelling human armed with basic perceptual skills, chances are you’ve come across a visually striking poster collection that showcases portraits of unidentified individuals emblazoned with the word ‘AUSSIE’ in large, capitalised print.

The poster campaign, launched by Adelaide artist Peter Drew, has been enthusiastically embraced by much of the Australian public. While Drew was initially the sole distributor of these posters, they have since been made available for purchase on his website, meaning that anyone can help circulate the campaign’s message. The sentiment promoted by these posters therefore speaks not only to the artist’s imagination but that of thousands of Australians who wish to see these unidentified individuals as ‘Aussie’. In doing so, both the artist and his supporters likely wish to promote an Australian identity that is able to envelop all ethnicities.

Sightings of the posters across Australia’s capital cities have been shared on social media by a number of high profile individuals and organisations, including Greens Senator Scott Ludlam and Melbourne’s Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC). A quick glance at the comments that these posters incite makes it clear that Australian progressives go completely apeshit for assigning an ‘Aussie’ identity to a group of bygone individuals that we know literally nothing about.

‘These posters make me so happy!!!!’, one person enthused in response to a post that referenced the campaign on Scott Ludlum’s official Facebook page.

‘I love these posters, makes me feel so good inside when I see them’, gushed another.

Others expressed disappointment that the posters’ virtue had been sullied by the likes of vandals.

‘I saw the one on the right in Melbourne today. Someone had written “not” above Aussie…it made me sad’, one Facebook user lamented.

‘There’s always an ignorant few’, opined an equally distressed white person.

‘Did you cross the “not” out? If you go by again, do that, don’t let the racism/idiocy survive.”

Presumably, the man who wants to cross out the ‘not’ sees himself as ideologically opposed to the racist vandal. After all, he believes that the subject of the poster, whoever he is, should be included in the nation, while the vandal believes that the individual is unworthy of that apparent honour.

The two, however, share the belief that that they have the authority to make a call about the national identities of their non-white counterparts. More broadly, both individuals believe that they have the right to determine the ways in which non-white people may inhabit the Australian nation space.

The perception that white Australians have the authority to dictate non-white identities fits more broadly into what anthropologist Ghassan Hage refers to as a ‘white national fantasy’. According to this fantasy, white Australians assume the role of ‘spatial managers’ of the Australian nation space.

Importantly, this fantasy does not prohibit the mere presence of non-white individuals in Australia. Rather, central to it is the assumption that white Australians have the right to ‘direct the traffic’ by assuming a managerial role over their non-white counterparts. According to this fantasy, then, non-white individuals are rendered objects that are expunged of their autonomy.

A common way for this fantasy to persist, particularly among Australian ‘progressives’, is for white folks to embrace the fantasy that they wield the authority to ‘accept’ non-white people into the Australian nation space. This is precisely the fantasy that Drew’s poster campaign so successfully traffics in.

Indeed, the artist avers that a key aim of his project is to ‘expand Australia’s identity’. It is perhaps odd however, that anyone would see non-white individuals as in need of acceptance as Australians in 2017. Almost half a century has passed since the white Australia Policy was dismantled and many non-white Australians today don’t have a problem with claiming an Australian identity.

Why then, do Drew and his supporters feel the need to ‘expand’ an identity that has already been expanded? To accept those of us who don’t need accepting?

In framing non-white individuals as in need of acceptance, Drew’s artwork works to establish a power relation between the ‘accepting’ and the ‘accepted’ – that is, between white Australians and their non-white counterparts. This power dynamic allows white Australians to unreflexively see themselves as ‘hosts’ of the Australian nation space, thus reproducing the perception that first and foremost, this country belongs to them.

As Hage suggests, if an identity can be granted, it follows that an identity can be withdrawn. In enacting the authority to ‘accept’ a non-white individual as ‘Aussie’, the genuineness of that identity is called into question. As Hage puts it, ‘acceptance translates into doubt’.

As a result, the posters imbue the white Australian who consumes them with a different mode of inhabiting Australia compared to those who are accepted into it. They empower the former with the fantasy of authority to dictate the terms by which the latter may inhabit it.

The campaign’s attempt to accept the non-white body as Aussie therefore doesn’t subvert racist practices of exclusion but in fact, works to reproduce the assumption that ‘real’ Aussies are white. Paradoxically then, Drew’s poster campaign celebrates a form of inclusiveness that reinforces a dichotomy between white Australians and their non-white counterparts. The poster campaign reproduces the racial divisions that it wants to transcend.

 

That passers-by know nothing about the individuals represented in these posters only adds to the strength of the fantasies that they promote.

The posters, for example, sanitise the reality that many of its subjects were likely in Australia under short-term exploitative contracts issued by a fledgling nation that sought cheap labour. It beggars belief that anyone dealing with such circumstances would have identified as or wanted to be an ‘Aussie’ at all.

Of course, national identity is a complex matter. While many people of colour today see ourselves as Australian, others do not identify as such. Many of us embrace diasporic or hybrid identities, identities that are constantly in flux.

The bottom line is that the process of national identification is one that is irrevocably personal. It’s one that must be reckoned with by the claimant themselves, not externally assigned, regardless of how well-meaning that designation may be. A huge amount of harm has been and continues to be enacted by white Australians who see themselves as the custodians of non-white identities.

Non-white individuals, both those featured in the poster campaign and their current day iterations, carry identities that develop and change independently of how white people want them to, think they do, or believe they should. The good feeling surrounding Peter Drew’s poster campaign, then, may in large part speak to a desire on the part of white Australians to assert control over that which is uncontrollable – the hearts and minds of people of colour. The poster campaign allows white Australians to inhabit a fantasy in which the identities claimed by non-white individuals is under their remit.

Indeed, as Hage says, a clear condition of the white nation fantasy is that non-white individuals in Australia are deprived of any will or anima of their own.

The subjects of Drew’s posters are long gone. The campaign sees their portraits stuck to the walls of capital cities, nameless, stripped of their sociocultural complexity, denied the dignity to contend with their identities on their own terms.

The campaign feels good because its nameless subjects are ideal objects of white nation fantasies – indeed, there are none more bereft of will than the dead.

 

See past Overland articles on these topics: Ben Reichstein’s ‘Rethinking ‘Real Aussies’: our history of migrant labour’ and Cher Tan’s ‘Seeking welcome while Australian

Image: Martin Anderson / JAM Project / flickr

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.

Reena Gupta is a writer and a Cultural Studies student at Melbourne University. She can be tweeted at @purpletank.

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Comments

  1. If you go to Peter Drew’s website you’ll see that the man in the poster is not a ‘bygone individual of whom we know literally nothing’. He is Monga Khan, a Pashtun spice trader. Could you amend the article?

    • That would nullify the premise of the article, which seems to be that non-whites were cheap exploited labor who probably didn’t want to be considered Australian.

      :S

      • Hi Andrew,

        I wasn’t suggesting that all the people in the poster were ‘cheap exploited labour’ – I don’t know much about them, but I was trying to flag the power relations in place at the time that may have made it difficult for some people to embrace an ‘Aussie’ identity.

        Maybe they did identify as ‘Aussie’ but we don’t know, so it’s important not to speak for them.

        Thanks for the comment!

    • Hi Caroline,

      Thanks for your comment. In my article I’m referring to Drew’s poster collection as a whole (not just the ‘Monga Khan’ poster). My argument relates how the casual onlooker experiences these images. The casual onlooker has no information about who these people are.

      Re: ‘Monga Khan’, there’s been some discussion about who this man actually was. While Drew initially described him as an Afghan cameleer on his website, apparently he was a hawker from Northern India (see the articles/discussions that Declan links to in his comment below). This is a pretty big oversight IMO and I think it adds to my argument – intentional or not, the identities of the people in the posters are clearly not seen as important, as the campaign prioritises the good feelings of the progressives who consume them.

  2. Ok…an interesting argument about white people being arbiters of identity excerpt for that bit where the author erases the identity of Monga Khan as another commenter has said, to make an argument.
    Identity Inception.

    But another point is the institution that decided & awarded citizenship were/are themselves white/capitalist/colonial/patriarchal. What mattered was Monga Khan’s economic worth. That system needs examining.

  3. To call Monga Khan a ‘bygone individual of whom we know literally nothing’ is certainly an exaggeration. But I think Renee Gupta’s larger point is worthwhile. I believe that point is this: that an accurate and sensitive engagement with Khan’s identity, given he was an ordinary person of whom little is publicly know, rather than a well-documented historical figure, would require a degree of historical research and personal engagement that Peter Drew may not have necessarily undertaken.

    True, Drew may not be a professional ethnographer or historian, and the fact that he isn’t does not necessarily undermine his artwork or its value. But it *does* demonstrate the need to be humble – and careful – when engaging with people in such a public artisic project. There are larger questions here regarding historical and personal sensitivity (does Monga Khan have descendants? If so, are they aware of how his image is being used? Could they have been consulted?), all of which I think are well worth considering. As Gupta notes, the risk of not doing so is that cultural and historical erasure or misappropriation can easily occur when such precautions aren’t engaged in, even though Drew’s campaign and artwork may be well-intentioned.

    Having said which, I think that, insofar as Drew’s artwork does motivate people to think and learn more about the complexity of cultural and ethnic histories more generally, as well as to make critiques such as Gupta has offered here, there is value in it.

    For those who are interested in these questions, particularly in relation to Monga Khan, it’s worth checking out this: https://newmatilda.com/2016/06/13/how-the-afghan-cameleer-campaign-accidentally-hides-diversity/

    this: http://www.sbs.com.au/yourlanguage/hindi/en/content/revealed-never-heard-story-indian-cameleers-australia

    these two pieces, which are quite similar to Gupta’s (as well as the “Rethinking ‘Real Aussies’ piece Overland have linked to her article): https://www.usu.edu.au/News/OPINION-Aussie-Posters-Miss-the-Inclusive-Mark.aspx?feed=f0a71440-e57a-4878-b843-042c6eaf0fa7

    https://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=47248#.WNZUyC196Uk

    and this Facebook exchange between Peter Drew and the Australian Indian Historical Society: https://www.facebook.com/australianindianhistory/photos/a.993256630757273.1073741857.133280213421590/993256654090604/?type=3&theater

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