Whitewashing The Australian Identity

What and who is an Australian?

My Answer: Anyone Albino. Wait. I’m following it with the Larrikin Caveat: Just Joking.

Last Saturday a lovely Nepalese man came to my door to pick up a couple of things. We got chatting. Half way through the conversation he bluntly tells me and asks ‘You’re not Australian, where do you come from?’  I asked him to guess and of course, as usual, he was way off the mark.  You see an Australian is someone white, preferably the striking image of a displaced Pom (English person). To be a person of any other colour, especially olive, is to be ‘from elsewhere’. Not so long ago and in some media portrayals today, this excluded indigenous people too.

I went to school with an Australian Chinese girl who was 3rd generation Australian but looked Chinese because her father who was born in Australia of Chinese parents, married a Hong Kong Chinese immigrant.  She struggled all her life with identity as she looked Chinese but spoke English only and with a broad Aussie accent. The Chinese didn’t know what to quite make of her and she didn’t hold any Chinese values in how she saw the world but she has NEVER in her life been mistaken for an Australian- the country where she was born, holds the same values, pays taxes in, and is a law-abiding citizen. As she tells me constantly, ‘I feel invisible’. Well done to those past PMs of Australia- your social engineering to make this a white country to the exclusion of the indigenous and others has worked.

Meanwhile, we have the likes of 10 pound Poms settling into Australia in the 1950s. Their offspring would be up to 3rd , some 4th generation Australians but no-one, absolutely no-one would ever mistaken them for being from elsewhere, even though their families would have spent an equal amount of generational time in Australia just like post war Greeks, Italians and everyone else of a non-white hue. In fact, we even managed to elect a PM from a 10 pound Pom family.

At what point in time do non-white migrants become part of the National Australian Identity?

SHE COULD BE AUSTRALIAN, CANADIAN, AMERICAN, NEW ZEALAND.

HE COULD BE AUSTRALIAN, CANADIAN, AMERICAN, NEW ZEALAND.

BUT WHY DO WE QUESTION THE IDENTITY AND NATIONALITIES OF THE FOLLOWING PEOPLE DESPITE BEING BORN IN ANY ONE OF THE FOLLOWING COUNTRIES:

AUSTRALIA, AMERICA, NEW ZEALAND, CANADA?

Check out this article on this topic a former Human Rights Commissioner :

https://www.smh.com.au/national/why-being-an-australian-citizen-doesn-t-mean-others-will-believe-you-truly-belong-20190205-p50vus.html

In addition, SBS released in 2021 an excellent documentary on the first Africans that were transported to Australia in the late 1780s. Little was known about these folk and yet they contributed significantly to early settlement in Sydney and Melbourne.

Here is an article about the documentary by Kate Meyers:

Santilla Chingaipe shares the stories of the trailblazing men and women who made big contributions to our history.

John Randall, Billy Blue, John Martin, Fanny Finch, John Joseph. It’s a list that should read as a roll call of some of the most influential figures in Australia’s history, but if their names are unfamiliar to you, chances are you’re not alone. While they should be as central to the post-colonial narrative as the Ned Kellys or Mary Bryants that have secured their place within our national mythology, these figures have instead been largely ignored.

For journalist, filmmaker and author Santilla Chingaipe, the absence of the African-Australian story within prevailing historical accounts is a reality she is determined to change as she investigates the circumstances that saw them fall out of national consciousness in her new documentary, Our African Roots. Inspired by the evidence collected as research for her upcoming book of the same title, Chingaipe uncovers the contributions that individuals of African descent have made to our continent from the time of the British invasion. The rhetoric around African-Australians in contemporary society, and the consequences of this, particularly on younger members of the community, inspired her to approach the issue from a completely different angle.

Our African Roots_Host and co-producer Santilla Chingaipe

‘Our African Roots’ host and co-producer Santilla Chingaipe.
Source: Warsan Mohammed

“What drove me to the archive was the so called ‘African crime wave’ and the fact that a lot of commentators and people in the media were talking about this as some sort of Australian rite of passage,” she says.

“It was as if every other migrant group had copped some sort of negative opinion and chatter, and it was now time for the spotlight to be on the African community. I knew that wasn’t right.”

It was a need to challenge this attitude that saw Chingaipe begin her investigation into the very first African migrants to land on these shores. 

“If I can find evidence of these people as early as the First Fleet, then surely the discussion can’t be about the fact that they are newly arrived groups experiencing this discrimination. There must be more to it,” she explains.

It turns out that when colonists first arrived on Australian shores in 1788, there were indeed ten convicts of African descent among them. It’s a fact that remains largely undocumented in most school history books. It also fails to capture the important role of these convicts, and their ongoing significance to Australia’s cultural landscape. There’s a personal frustration with the limited reference to these early settlers for Chingaipe; when her family migrated from Zambia when she was just a child, she struggled to connect with the historical narrative she was taught and recognises the impact this can have.

“A lot of young African-Australians talk not just about the overt racism they experience, but also how it impacts their sense of belonging and identity,” she explains. “It’s already hard enough being a young person trying to find your place in the world without having the added burden of discrimination and racism thrown into that.”

“(The absence of this history) ultimately reinforces this idea that one group might be inherently predisposed to doing these amazing things and everyone else isn’t. A lot of people don’t know these stories, they’ve been erased.”

One such story is that of Billy Blue, a well-known figure within early colonial Australia who, despite having a great many contemporary Sydney landmarks named after him, has largely had his African heritage erased from popular imagination. Entrusted with the responsibility of transporting people to the sparsely inhabited northern side of Sydney by Governor Macquarie, Billy was arguably the first person to connect the two sides of the harbour. His legacy is not only the communities that came to be established on the lower north shore, but also the ingenuity and determination he displayed in the face of an Anglo-dominated society.

North Sydney Council historian Ian Hoskins and Our African Roots host and co-producer Santilla Chingaipe on the trail of African-American convict Billy Blue who became Sydney harbour’s first licensed ferryman.

North Sydney Council historian Ian Hoskins and Santilla Chingaipe on the trail of convict Billy Blue, who became Sydney harbour’s first licensed ferryman.
Source: Tony Jackson

Though parts of Billy’s tale are dispersed throughout historical commentary, others like Fanny Finch have, until recently, been almost entirely omitted from the conversation. As Chingaipe discovers in her conversations with Fanny’s descendants in Castlemaine, she was a pioneer of Victoria’s gold rush era, a single mother and business owner who campaigned for the right of women to vote. Why then has our society, which applauds Australian achievement and success, not embraced these stories?

“It’s one thing to outlaw and abolish racist legislation, it’s another to do the same with cultural attitudes,” Chingaipe says. “How do you begin to get people to unlearn something that they’ve been wired to think for a good seventy years?”

“Part of it is who gets to tell the stories. Even early on, I was very reluctant to publish the research because I kept thinking, I am a young, black woman; people like me don’t tell history, people like me don’t write history.”

It’s lucky then that Chingaipe overcame this uncertainty as it is her curiosity, expertise and obvious passion for sharing these stories that engage audiences, as she brings to life more than 200 years of African-Australian history. Though it’s clear that the existing accounts lack depth, the documentary is not an attack on the legends around which Australian identity has been formed, but rather an attempt to showcase components of that identity that are too often neglected.

“I do hope that when we do think about the stories that we tell ourselves that reinforce a certain form of Australian-ness, that we recognise that Australian-ness does not mean whiteness or relationship to the Anglo empire,” she says.

“I also hope that people embrace these histories and I hope it leads us to a place, as a country, where we start telling the truth in many ways about the foundation of colonised Australia. Australia’s foundational story is way more interesting and diverse than we were told.”

Our African Roots premieres Sunday 17 October at 8:30pm on SBS as part of SBS’s Australia Uncovered documentary series.