The African Australian Question Part I: Trying to form an identity on an anxious and isolated island

By Leon Kalumba | 22 Jan 21
Brisbane, Australia, Anti-Racism Protest - 6 June 2020 - Andrew Mercer

This is the first part in a two-part series on Australian identity and the African Australian Question. To read the second part click here.

This question, like many others, rests at astronomical distances beyond my ken. Identity saturates much of contemporary writing, often producing a flurry of introspective ramblings on the written page that have devolved from some kind of fruitless melancholy.

The practice, very much in trend, seems intentionally exclusionary and the results, underwhelming. Perhaps the idea of collective identity is lost in the modern world. Rather than a well-defined group, collective identity resembles a petri dish that hosts a cosmopolitan range of multi-faceted individuals. This piece may fall blissfully into the very category of identity writing that I criticise, and if that is the case then I hope that the reader is at the very least entertained. 

As a first-generation Australian of Congolese descent, identity has been a topic I have for some time now brooded over. I feel that I have been bracketed into this category of African-Australian and this has led me to adopt behaviours and a manner that corresponds with this identification. 

With the ubiquity of the Black Lives Matter movement, the representation of South Sudanese youth in mainstream media and the fearmongering of Chinese presence both at universities and in the housing market it appears to me now, more than ever, to be an exciting or rather a dubious time, to assess Anglo-Australian anxieties and the impact said anxieties have on the genesis of a ‘hyphenated identity’. The African-Australian.

Before migrating to Australia, my family and I were repeatedly informed about the ‘laid-back Aussie’, ‘the larrikin Aussie’ and even ‘the racist Aussie’. We were told they spoke with an excited drawl that would suggest the Anglo-Aussie was completely comfortable in themselves, self-assured and fair. There was something slightly amiss about this information, as it soon became clear that this was a country formed by immigration.  

We have modern Australia, an island large in mass, Western in values and anchored funnily in the Asia-Pacific region. A European country-manque, nestled amongst countries and cultures its Anglo mien deems to be the ‘other’. Not to mention, that European settlement was a result of this already inhabited land being established as a penal colony for barely troublesome Brits. The perfect temperature for an identity quagmire.

For stretches of Australia’s colonial history, an attachment to British culture has been tenaciously held. It was with the ‘mother country’, that both allegiance and familiarity rested.  A yearning to maintain this connection to the mother country led to the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act, that entailed the blocking of non-European migration to Australia. 

News of gold in Australia in the mid-19th century blew the sails of Chinese migration upon its shores. This arrival displeased colonisers, and the relationship between the two groups became one plagued in mistrust. The mistrust, as it usually does, manifested into fear and an act was passed in 1855 to limit the inflow of Chinese migrants, an extension of anxieties already inherent to the Australian Project. 

‘The battler’, a term so frequently abused in Australian sports commentary is used to trophy the supposed fighting spirit of the ‘Australian’. It appears to be a virtue in Australian life, the term an embodiment of laborious courage and resilience. It is blindly accepted by the general public as a core Australian virtue, one that symbolises the nation. It evokes a sense of an underdog, one well-loved and decorated.

Why the battler? Much of Australian nation-building commenced post World War I, ‘the baptism of fire’ refers to young Australians assuming the metaphorical role of sacrificial lambs for the British empire. From this bloodbath, national identity was conceived on foreign land then forced upon the public at home. This rite of passage enabled terms like ‘battler’ to enter the national vernacular, and later, achieve the status of national virtue. 

Not only does the nation understand itself as an underdog, it believes the rest of the world perceives them as such. What is meant by such dogged persistence? Is it a response to being culturally isolated? Geographically isolated? Or perhaps even a hangover, linked to its origins as a penal colony? It is difficult to determine yet one could, with some stretch of the imagination, conclude that Australia’s most valued national attributes have not risen organically. Rather, they have been narrated outside the physical borders of the country. 

George Orwell in his essay England your England challenges the notions of national characteristics, “National characteristics are not easy to pin down, and when pinned down they often turn out to be trivialities or seem to have no connexion with one another”. Perhaps like England, Australia’s character as Orwell suggests lives under the surface and metamorphoses into many forms, like a dialogue between two city dwellers, farmers in Tasmania, scenes in Arnhem Land, bedlam in parliament and the culturally diverse commission housing buildings. All these settings frame a separate piece of contemporary Australia, however, looked at from a distance they present a panoramic view of modern Australia. Difficult to pinpoint and rapidly changing.

There is no matrimony between Australian stereotypes in government advertising campaigns and tourism clips and that of the real ‘Australian identity’. The latter exists under the belly of marketing, it is multi-faceted and at times grimy. 

The essence of my point is to describe Australia’s ongoing transformation in regards to its identity. A transformation that will flow into new shapes, colours and adopt new narratives. In Australia, there seems to be a constant battle between the cultural phenomena actually underway in real Australian life and that presented and selected by the holders of power. Identity is accepted by many Australian nationals as something tangible and acceptance of this simulated reality eradicates the potential of an internal threat or challenge.

Contemporary anxieties are the latest in a genealogy of fear. Misguided, conflated and exaggerated by segregation. Although Australia boasts of its multiculturalism, it has not managed to quell the racism that is entrenched in the Australian psyche, the media and official institutions. When academic Michiel Baas was conducting research for, ‘Curry Bashing: Racism, Violence and Alien Space invading’. He was fascinated to find that several students found it infuriating when Indian students would flock together in groups of ten. They claimed they did not feel intimidated but felt that the Indian students occupied too much space or spoke loudly. 

What Baas attempts to explain in the piece is why this sentiment is so readily held, he posits that it may be due to a lack of integration and an emphasis on supposed differences. He then contrasts opinions held by Anglo-Australians in regard to Lebanese migrants around the time of the Cronulla riots. The general consensus then was that the Muslim Arab population was aggressive in their manner, especially towards Australian females. Their attitude was seen as abhorrent and violent and the antithesis of that of the Australian male. 

In both cases, we see the creation of narratives. Not only the creation of the ‘other’, be it the Lebanese in Sydney or Indians in Melbourne, but also of the self. It presents a crisis of identity in which the idea of the Australian is being perpetuated as benign and courteous. Classist liberals will incorrectly contend that these are just notions held by backwards ‘bogans’. However, the point remains that these views are widely held at least subconsciously due to the proliferation of narratives and a lack of cross-cultural interaction exacerbated by factors such as residential and municipal spatial distances.