“You don’t look Australian,” someone once said to me in a bar overseas, elaborating when quizzed that the typical Aussie look was of “blond surfers”.
I couldn’t fault this man for forming that perception. I haven’t looked Australian my entire life. Because there is a look that is distinctly Australian, one we have long internalised as well as projected to the world. I was taught that in the schoolyard. The “Aussies” were the kids with white skin with easy-to-sound Anglo names that could be transformed into slang like “Jonno”.
The sense of exclusion, or feeling lesser in this country based on your skin colour or ethnic background does not end in the playground, or the backpacker bar. It is by no means a new revelation. Neither is the idea of a double standard approach based on the ethnic group in question. Peter Dutton made that clear when he sought to provide “special attention” to white South African farmers facing land confiscation in 2018 while presiding over the indefinite detention of mostly Muslims fleeing conflict and persecution in offshore facilities.
So, the decision to criminalise Australians in India for entering the country was not made in a vacuum, or out of context. It’s the logical progression for a society that to a large degree still affords different levels of inclusion based on the colour of one’s skin, the language spoken, the tone of one’s English accent, and the religious customs one exercises – or, quite simply, through “Othering”.
Government ministers have insisted that protecting the public health of Australians was the foremost consideration behind its decision. And perhaps that is true, that consciously, our leaders made a snap decision in the best interest of those of us here; to keep our Covid situation under control and our domestic economy moving. So far, the overwhelming majority of Australians have backed their leaders in making the tough calls, including shutting state borders on each other.
But it’s the different approach between how our government has responded to a surge in cases in India versus previous surges in predominantly Anglo-Saxon nations that has brought attention to our unconscious biases.
Many of us are conditioned to see people of colour as less Australian. We understand in this country, from quite an early age, how to define “Australian” and “Other”. In fact, it was spelt out for us in the white Australia policy 120 years ago.
“The programme of a ‘white Australia’,” said Alfred Deakin, the architect of the policy in 1901, “means not merely its preservation for the future – it means the consideration of those who cannot be classed within the category of whites, but who have found their way into our midst.”
The success of the policy is that even today, almost half a century after it was abolished, that definition of “Australian” still informs much of our popular perceptions of who we are.
Othering and excluding does not simply come in the form of outspoken Trumpian vitriol, but also subtly - in our daily lexicon and perceptions.
For example, the “Aussie” label is widely understood to be reserved for Anglo-Celtic kids at school. Likewise, asking someone of colour who is born and raised in this country “where are you from?” or “what’s your natio?” is based on an unwritten social understanding that their non-Anglo attributes exclude them from being from here, from being ‘Australian’. For people who don’t fit the popular stereotype of what an Australian looks or sounds like, the sense of feeling lesser is understood through these social hints that begin early on and continue throughout life.
Acknowledging that we are a society largely conditioned to “othering” even those among us helps illuminate that what the Morrison government did last Friday was very much in context. It also explains why many of us lack empathy for those we have “othered” – Australia’s harsh border policies have consistently drawn widespread public support. Part of the process of “othering” is to dehumanise those we perceive as different, unfamiliar, or a threat to our own sense of self.
Abandoning Australian citizens, mostly of Indian heritage, to peril neatly captures the real-life consequence of how we distinguish ‘Australian’ from ‘Other’. When we dehumanise certain corners of our society, we subconsciously absolve ourselves of any responsibility to come to their aid in times of need. We become more detached and less concerned.
The white Australia policy is often spoken of as a regrettable relic of our history with a false assumption that we’ve been dismembered from its ignorance. But we haven’t, not entirely. Despite the significant progress, both legislatively and culturally, since its abolishment, the policy’s prejudiced worldview still casts a shadow in the consciousness of many in this society.
One obvious lesson from the Black Lives Matter movement is that racism does not need to be intentional or overt. Courtesy of this nation’s colonial upbringing, many of us instinctively minimise the worth of people of colour without at times being aware of it, and it’s often demonstrated through an inability to empathise. Just ask the families of the nearly 500 Indigenous people who have died in custody over the last 30 years or, now, the families of Australians in India now abandoned by their own government.
This failure of empathy, failure of inclusion, sadly, still influences, consciously and unconsciously, how many in our country continue to perceive each other, and ultimately, how elements of our government act.