We are one but we are many: A reflection on modern Australian identity

By Anika Baset

I recently spent some time in continental Europe, which – despite the high quality of the cheese – was an exhausting exercise in responding to racial microaggressions. No one incident left me completely bereft but slowly, the patterns of people’s responses to my existence as a non-white Australian started to chip away at my usually upbeat demeanour. I tried to laugh off the multiple comments that my English was perfect (yeah mate, we speak it in Australia); the men who yelled ‘Looking good, India!’ in the street (um, thanks?); and even the person who asked me when I would be returning to Bangladesh after my stay in Australia, as though my entire, meaningful life in Melbourne has been a fun experiment of a brown girl trying to put on a Western identity.

Now, despite the view of Australia as a racist backwater that’s held in some circles, I have never been made to feel this small at home so consistently; never have I felt as though I did not have a legitimate claim to proudly claim my political identity as an Australian, even in the face of very real adolescent confusion about living between two cultures. But in some European countries (facing their own migrant crises, I might add), apparently my skin colour and my passport could not fundamentally coexist without an elaborate explanation of my genealogy.

The conception of Australia as a land of migrants feeds into the myth of terra nullius and exacerbates the continual denial of Indigenous rights.

All of this left me feeling deeply grateful to have grown up in a country where multiculturalism does not require a multi-tiered justification. Despite the existence of the far right fringe, this consensus generally tends to be bipartisan. Earlier in 2018, when Tony Abbott questioned the value of migrants, members of his own conservative party promptly shut him down.

It feels strange to even mention that my friends, classmates and colleagues have a multitude of backgrounds that can be traced to every corner of the world. It feels stranger still to think that this would make anyone any less Australian. That is precisely what should be celebrated: multicultural norms that are self-evident, embedded in public life – that it is only from a geopolitical perspective that their existence seems special or unique.

We are one, but we are many,

And from all the lands on earth we come.

(‘I am Australia’ 1987)

This is not to deny the very real race issues that remain and that I speak from a particular socio-economic context, as an urban professional living in progressive, inner-city Melbourne. A recent report by the Australian Human Rights Commission into diversity and inclusion confirmed that, despite the celebration of Australia as a multicultural triumph, there remains a significant number of issues. The underrepresentation of cultural diversity in the senior leadership of Australian organisations persists; Australia continues its inhumane and oppressive policies against refugees and asylum seekers; state-sponsored racism thinly veiled under security and border policy concerns. Further, the conception of Australia as a land of migrants feeds into the myth of terra nullius and exacerbates the continual denial of Indigenous rights.

I would contend, however, that it is possible to be both privy to these challenges and remain optimistic. As my recent trip taught me, we are starting from a fundamentally positive and generous concept of Australian identity. We have grown from the political and legal foundations that allow for this. In Switzerland, it takes three generations before a child is naturalised as a Swiss citizen.

For my parents, it took three years to become Australian citizens. With that came the right to care about the political future of their adopted country, contribute to the communities where they built their home, access health care and the availability of quality education for their children. I am one of the beneficiaries of the upward social mobility and firm conception of national identity that direct access to citizenship allows for.

The goal, then, is to watch carefully for the erosion of these safeguards of political equality, and to actively advocate for the inclusion of groups that continue to be marginalised. The alternative is to exist in a two-tiered system, where people and children who have known no other home continue to feel as though they will never belong anywhere.

Somewhere between gratitude and the pressure to be the perfectly assimilated, model migrant, patriotism does exist – it does not have to be the sole domain of the ultra-nationalistic. I, for one, love the songs I learnt in primary school too much to not believe in them wholeheartedly.

But no matter how far or how wide I roam,

I still call Australia home.

(‘I still call Australia home’ 1980)