Human beings are constantly forced to recreate, reimagine and readjust their personal identities.
They can be gradually redefined as we grow older and realise a more definite sense of “self”, forcibly reshaped during times of war as territorial boundaries change, or adopted in order to assimilate to existing circumstances. In Australia, we like to think of ourselves as a culturally diverse and inviting nation, a “melting pot” of different nationalities, faiths and traditions that are celebrated as part of our multicultural national identity.
It is hoped the dark relics of our collective past such as the White Australia Policy and One Nation Party stay precisely there. But we only have to look to the immigration policies of our current government or the grossly xenophobic reactions targeting innocent Muslim communities following the uncovering of the recent Sydney terrorist plot to realise that we are still grappling with the subject of race relations.
Becoming an Australian is the aspiration of so many asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants. Our “Lucky Country” offers promises of democracy, safety and security, and a “land of plenty”. Yet even amongst those fortunate enough to navigate through the politics and legal requirements, naturalisation does not give rise to an automatic feeling of “being Australian”.
According to citizenship.gov.au, “becoming a citizen represents a commitment to Australia and its people. It gives a sense of belonging because you can fully participate in all aspects of Australian life.” But what about those with dual citizenship? To what extent do Australians who possess more than one understanding of national identity feel this sense of belonging?
For many Australians, national identity is a cross-generational hybrid of factors, including but not limited to: family history, personal experience, community, spirituality, belonging, prejudice, ethnicity, politics, and citizenship. For some dual citizens, balancing their national identities may not actively play on their consciousness or affect their day-to-day goings-on; their citizenship was achieved by a previous generation and enjoyed by the present. Yet for others, the link to their family heritage and cultural diaspora is not relinquished upon “becoming Australian.”
When asked about how strongly he identifies with his Australian national identity, dual citizen Nicholas* explained his difficulties with accepting the Anglo-Australian perception of identity, which he feels he was conditioned to believe is synonymous with true “Australian-ness.” As both a Greek and Australian citizen, Nicholas is a second-generation Australian on his mother’s side and third on his father’s. He describes his strong cultural ties with Greece, which he feels are in a sense “easier” to recognise given the clearly forged Greek national story that comes from a distinct language, religion, mythology and philosophy.
Yet this does not mean one must draw a line between their dual nationalities. Nicholas says:
Both Australia and Greece are important elements of my identity. Australia is a great place to live, full of economic opportunity, respectful of the rule of law, and gives many people the chance to live a good life. However there are many aspects of my Greek identity which are also very important. I have always spoken Greek with my grandparents, I was baptised as a Greek Orthodox Christian, I have travelled to major soccer tournaments to follow the Greek national team, and have a much stronger sense of family. My Greek heritage means that I show a lot more affection, I place a strong emphasis on the value of family.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, Article 15 establishes the universal right to a nationality. As there are no international conventions that govern how nationality is determined, we must look to domestic laws as well as self-identification. Granting of Australian citizenship comes with the recognition of basic human rights and liberties such as non-discrimination and equality. The Australian citizenship test resource booklet outlines a core democratic belief in the respect of all individuals regardless of background and recognises the different cultural heritage, beliefs and traditions that come with those who settle in Australia from other countries. It states:
In our democratic society, we are all free to follow and share these beliefs and traditions as long as they do not break Australian laws … We value this freedom and expect all Australians to treat each other with dignity and respect, regardless of their race, country of origin, gender, sexual preference, marital status, age, disability, heritage, culture, politics, wealth or religion.
“Instead of judging how “Australian” a person is by using a contrived Anglo-Australian story,
we must embrace the cultural differences brought with each new citizen.”
Given this social model of multiculturalism that forms our national narrative, to what extent is it even possible to “assimilate” in Australia? Can it be said that the perception of “Australian” is still the white Anglo-Saxon identity? Are the aforementioned dark historical policies of Anglo-centric identity truly a thing of the past?
These questions are perhaps tied up in broader arguments of indigenous recognition issues, asylum seekers and resistance to non-European migrants and can be further discussed here. It is interesting to consider, however, the argument of historian and philosopher Justin E.H. Smith, who draws comparisons between the French and American models of immigration – and by extension, Australia.
He contends that many European countries see themselves as the historical “natives” and thus perceive immigrant “outsiders” as a threat to the fabric of their national identity. In contrast, America has had to accept its so-called constructed identity and hybrid of cultures, as the Native American population are recognised as the only people to “plausibly lay claim to native status.”
Instead of judging how “Australian” a person is by using a contrived Anglo-Australian story, we must embrace the cultural differences brought with each new citizen. As comedic duo Nazeem Hussain and Aamer Rahman of Fear of a Brown Planet have noted, “all of our cultural exports are white. People don’t know how culturally diverse Australia actually is.”
Reconciling multiple identities does not mean immigrants must relinquish their cultural heritage. Becoming Australian should not require the casualty of other identities.
As Irish-Australian, Phillip Moore, explains, “to discover myself as an Australian, I need to understand what my heritage is because that’s from which we come.”
[*]Name changed to protect anonymity
Isabella Royce is a staff writer for Right Now.