written in early 2019.
A veil of innocence
An affectation of innocence underscores white Australia’s relation to non-white migrants who arrive here. It exists as a certainty in the inherent goodness of the structures of liberal democracy, a belief that the welcome that has been given to us migrants is charitable and tolerant in such a way that reinforces a position of benevolent authority. In conjunction with this belief is the sense that non-white migrants are always looking to exploit the naïve, kindness of white Australia. This is a continuation of racist, colonial narratives that disguises the violence of colonisation by positioning white people as constantly endangered by the lurking, dangerous brown/ black other, who will use any means – barbaric and violent or sneaky and underhanded – to access all the goodness of white society. The sense of fragility and paranoia that these colonial narratives engender mean that migrants’ place here is predicated on endlessly demonstrating our gratitude for having been allowed to stay. We are expected to display our affection and attachment in ways that are both recognisable to, and uphold, the assumed neutrality of liberal democracy by not calling it for what it is: white, liberal democracy. This veil of innocence, of impartiality, attempts to obscure a founding violence that defines all racial politics in this country, while allowing for the ongoing exploitation and dispossession faced by First Nations people.
The affective demands that are placed upon migrants are implicated in upholding the racial power that whiteness claims across this continent. Instead of orienting a position within so-called Australia towards such load-bearers of colonisation, could migrants seek out the possibilities of a radical and anti-colonial solidarity where we affirm our presence here by turning towards First Nations struggles for sovereignty and self-determination? Rather than assimilating, might we recognise how our sensibilities have become sharpened and resilient through generations of adaptation, through creating new ways to be against and within the historical, social and cultural dislocations that have followed our experiences of colonisation and migration? While acknowledging our position as settlers in this country, might there be some commonality in these experiences of dislocation and resilience that can cohere around an anti-colonial affection?
To try and ground some of the generalised potential intimated in such questions in actual, concrete relations, I will turn my attention to the activity of Anticolonial Asian Alliance (AAA). Somewhere between being a solid, functioning group and a loose network, AAA is an attempt to build a base of solidarity with Indigenous struggles from within migrant and diasporic communities. Most active in Sydney, the group participate in acts of immediate, material support as well as organising around longer-term campaigns. I will draw on my own peripheral participation and observation, as well as more in-depth conversations with some of its core members, to suggest that AAA exemplifies what such a pivot towards Aboriginal custodianship could begin to look like for non-white migrants. It should be noted that while the generalised migrant position that I am referring to is useful as a rhetorical device in identifying racial power dynamics, relations of class, gender, migratory histories and residency/ visa status mean there are myriad ways that migrants experience access to institutional power, are able to feel a sense of belonging, or make political choices.
Coerced affection and colonial complicity
“They screaming, ‘love it or leave it’,
I got more right to be here, if you could believe it.
Won’t salute a constitution or who’s underneath it.”
– A.B. Original, ‘January 26th’.
The social and political institutions of white Australia emotionally and structurally coerce non-white migrants into assimilating towards its expectations.Our affection is required to be bestowed upon the structures of the coloniser state, and the cultural symbols and values that uphold it. This is captured in the pre-eminence of the nationalist demand to ‘love it or leave it’, whether viewed as a bumper sticker on the back of a ute, alongside an image of the Australian flag, or delivered from the pages of the national media. It is a statement bursting with an aggressive insistence that migrants display a gratitude for being here that validates white Australia. This is an ultimatum imbued with an indignant belief that such a wholesome, innocent welcome has been given that we are obligated to reciprocate with love. Corresponding to the demand for love, the ‘leave it’ clause contains a glaring reminder that the place of migrants here is always contentious, capable of being condemned if unable to contort itself to display attachment in ways that satisfy the insecurities of white Australia. Apart from adhering to the political structures and legal apparatus of the state – without calling into question their assumed legitimacy – the assimilation that is expected is emotional, psychological and behavioural, as well as social and cultural. The ensuing, abusive tantrum when this affective reciprocation – that is, assimilation – isn’t deemed satisfactory, is a hallmark of colonial, patriarchal relations.
While the general effect of the ‘love it or leave it’ ultimatum might leave first generation migrants feeling compelled to display and re-state their attachment to the host country, this compulsion is worn out when the generations following are expected to do the same. Racial power dynamics in Australia necessarily means that for migrants to establish any actual sense of purchase, of being here, involves orienting towards white, colonial hegemony. At the same time, that very hegemony ensures a place that will be peripheral. Aileen Moreton-Robinson – a Goenpul writer of the Quandamooka nation – argues in her essay, ‘I Still Call Australia Home’, that:
“Non-white migrants’ sense of belonging is tied to the fiction of terra nullius and the logic of capital because their legal right to belong is sanctioned by the law that enabled dispossession. However, whiteness is the invisible measure of who can hold possession.” (2015, p.6)
Moreton-Robinson’s clause that whiteness still determines who holds possession is a crucial, nuanced adjunct in terms of understanding my argument about the material and social position of migrants. However, this position should also be understood as being a part of the colonising process that has facilitated the dispossession of Aboriginal people from country.
In the verse that begins this section, Indigenous hip hop duo A.B. Original assert that they “got more right to be here”. While it seems ridiculous that two Indigenous mc’s would need to do this, it points to how power, affective attachment and the ability to feel at home in Australia is dominated by whiteness. As Moreton-Robinson explains, “who calls Australia home is inextricably connected to who has possession, and possession is jealously guarded by white Australians” (2015, p.7). This jealous and paranoid possessiveness is borne of an ontological crisis, an embedded memory of the illegitimacy of origins – the lie of terra nullius in particular – that permanently destabilises any claims to the validity of white belonging. As part of a continuous struggle against that founding violence and its ongoing manifestations, it makes sense that First Nations people will assert their ‘right to be here’ or, as Moreton-Robinson does, their “ontological relationship to land, the ways that country is constitutive of us, and therefore the inalienable nature of our relation to land” (2015, p.11) For non-white migrants attempting to assert a place here against the same jealous possessiveness of white Australia, there are a very different set of complications involved.
The complex, contradictory position of migrants within a settler-colonial society partially ensures a complicity in obscuring the founding violence of colonisation and downplaying the ongoing material effects it has in the present. Additionally, our place here affirms the feel-good false narratives of ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’ within the Australian national imaginary. Ghassan Hage explains that:
“To speak of an Australian memory is not politically innocent. It is part of a hegemonic disposition on the part of the coloniser to complete the integration of the colonised into the reality of the coloniser.” (2003, p.94)
Kenji Khozoei, an active member of AAA, refers to this process of ‘integration’, as it occurs to migrants, as “a big fucking gaslighting”. It exists as the pressure to assimilate and contort cultural difference to the service of the ‘we’ of white Australia. Feminist and race theorist, Sara Ahmed, noted in a critical analysis of multicultural Australia from 2000, that “this multicultural nation accepts those differences that do not threaten the ‘we’ of the Australian being: the differences that cannot be reduced to mere appearance become the unassimilable” (2000, p.106).While multiculturalism undoubtedly fostered some social changes, it was no actual attempt to transform the underlying base of (racialised, colonial) power. The national imaginary of white Australia – whether the conservative ‘land of the fair go’ that is tolerant of difference up to a point, or the liberal ideal of the always welcoming, multicultural nation-space – exists on such a narrow precipice between insecurity and historical delusion that no amount of validation can make it feel secure.
French-Algerian anti-colonial writer and activist, Houria Bouteldja, provides a direction to consider how a turn away from white Australia might be framed. While her context is different – migrants in France do not have to consider perpetuating a cycle of colonisation upon the Indigenous people of the country in which they reside – her reflections on building anti-colonial alliances resonate with important lessons for non-white migrants here. She urges that “we must accept our role in the crime. In euphemistic terms our integration”. As I have argued, this is a crucial first step. However, she also knows that racial power dynamics, combined with our own experiences of colonisation and confronting racism means that this ‘integration’ is never complete, that it is always tenuous. Her response emphasises the need to cut entirely against the grain, to reject the comfort of white liberalism, who’s ‘anti-racism’ is predicated on our assimilation without offering any transformative change in racial power structures. Instead, she asks “what if we took advantage of racism to invent new political horizons? What if we took advantage of ‘the failure of integration’? Dare I say that we must even draw some satisfaction from it” (2017, p.120)? This is a useful point to turn specifically towards Anticolonial Asian Alliance and the possibilities of solidarity and affective attachment that their activity brings into play.
Taking responsibility as an act of care and solidarity
“White Australia is not a host, it’s a parasite really…“
-Eliza Wright, AAA member.
During my conversations with a few active members of Anticolonial Asian Alliance (AAA), one small anecdote seemed to capture the significance of the work they do in trying to undo the erasure of Aboriginal presence from the lived reality of many migrants. Eliza relayed how a parent of a AAA member had seen one of their posters where the phrase “you are on Aboriginal land” is translated into multiple languages. This parent commented that he had never previously thought about how the word ‘Aboriginal’ would be written in Sanskrit. If the migrant position within white Australia has been complicit in concealing the ongoing material effects of colonisation, it makes sense that an important counter would be to make that reality legible and understood within migrant and diasporic communities. AAA insist that migrants need to take responsibility for their role in the obfuscation of the ongoing colonial reality that Indigenous people face. AAA member, Suu-Mei Chew, makes the point that “a lot of migrants will have this thing about giving back… but the way you should be doing that is by addressing yourself towards, and making relationships, with Mob”.
Understanding that the country we are on is not simply ‘white Australia’, but has traditional Aboriginal owners with historical, cultural and environmental connection to the land, who were violently dispossessed of their custodianship, is crucial in building anti-colonial solidarity. This is something that AAA acutely recognises and works from, with Kenji describing how, “as Asian migrants, our access to some degree of institutional stability is intentionally at the expense of the original people of this land”. At the same time, AAA’s strategy also recognises that migrants often want to give back to the community that they have settled in. Separate to the coerced obligations towards white Australia, this tendency can be considered a positive attribute for fostering social bonds and solidarity. However, it tends to be misdirected, with no recourse given to the history of colonisation in this country and who’s actual land we’re on. As Eliza goes on to explain:
“Why do people like our parents feel the need to give back? And is that a good thing? Well yeah, but it’s just about re-routing and re-framing that same concept (giving back) and understanding that this is not white Australia. White Australia is a lie.”
This re-routing is partially a question of sharing information. Suu-Mei adds that “the point of engaging with Asian communities is that a lot of people don’t even think about it that way, but if you talk to them (they’d recognise that) I’ve been addressing myself to the wrong person”. Shifting the scope of who gets addressed towards Aboriginal sovereignty begins to undermine the presumed right to power of white, colonial institutions.
AAA frame anti-colonial solidarity as a responsibility that migrants should assume as part of navigating their place in this country. Even as it is accepted that migrants occupy a complicated socio-political position in relation to colonisation here, AAA explicitly base their activity on an understanding that like white Australia, they too are settlers on Aboriginal land. This has given the group a focus beyond its origins as a Facebook-based meme page that drew on the idea of a common Asian identity to humorously and politically counter white supremacy. Individual member’s participation in campaigns and rallies in support of First Nations’ struggles were a precursor to this shift. AAA member, Harry Bonifacio Baughan, recalls that “there was a fair bit of figuring out why we have to be accountable from a practical reason and a moral reason”. This resulted in a turn towards a more active phase where AAA began to appear as a more noticeably organised presence at rallies such as the annual Invasion Day march. They also became more involved in supporting other Indigenous campaigns, organising from alongside, and within, the group F.I.R.E. (Fighting In Resistance Equally) – an Aboriginal led group that facilitates involvement and action across a variety of political and social issues. One of the most significant campaigns that AAA have been involved in, is in assisting with efforts to provide support to people in Gamilaraay country, in north-western NSW (specifically around the towns of Walgett and Collarenebri) who have no access to safe drinking water due to the environmental crisis that has seen rivers run dry in the region. The practical solidarity that they have contributed has involved fundraising, spreading information about the crisis, as well as participating in the delivery of water and installing water filters in the affected areas.
Further to this political shift, all four participants articulated scepticism about the value of ‘identity politics’ as an organising principle, suggesting that basing political struggle purely around the commonalities of an ‘Asian’ identity was insufficient. Eliza made the point that the group “started to reject what Asian-ness is, in terms of settler-hood”. The problem being that ‘Asian-ness’ did not account for the material and structural issues of colonisation and exacerbated the problem of making Indigenous struggles invisible. This wasn’t outright denying that Asian migrants had experienced structural racism. Instead, it looked to the inter-connection between racism, white supremacy and colonialism. Harry described how ideologically their position became one of “identifying that the problem is capitalism, identifying that the problem is colonialism, and then acting accordingly”. This recognised migrants’ experiences of racism and built from there to assert that another basis of commonality – that became seen as more significant – was that all people involved in AAA were settlers in relation to colonisation and Indigenous struggle.
Acknowledging a position as settlers and how this relates to colonisation and structural racism, is an important step towards making migrancy political in a way that does not merely assimilate to white Australia. In ascribing how “migrants are in a contradictory colonial location”, Ghassan Hage argues that “migration is, in an important sense, a continuation of the colonisation process”, but also that “they [migrants] are quite capable of relating to Australia’s history from the imaginary ‘we’ of the colonised”. He concludes by adding that “’becoming responsible’… might just as well mean contributing to a struggle for Aboriginal sovereignty” (2003, p.96). Confronted by the racism of white Australia, finding commonalities with Indigenous struggle would not only be an imperative for migrants to take responsibility, but become something of a solution to the psychological toll of race dynamics in Australia. Kenji suggests that “if you’re an Asian person in this country and you’re sad because people are racist towards you, it’s kind of logical that you end up in this (Aboriginal, anti-colonial) struggle”. That is, ‘taking responsibility’ might not only be framed in relation to Indigenous dispossession and colonisation, but also be about migrants finding an active direction for the resentment that arises from incessantly having to prove attachment and belonging to white Australia. The alliances that are formed in doing so can be a base for acting against the damage of colonisation and white Australia.
AAA’s efforts in enacting solidarity with Indigenous struggles has seen them form close working relationships with a number of Aboriginal activists involved in these campaigns. Harry recounts that Aboriginal activists have generally received the presence of AAA at rallies and organising spaces very generously, telling him that “you (AAA) belong here in the struggle, because our struggles our parallel”. This is a generous appraisal, an invitation that we might find common cause due to some crossover in our experiences of racism in this country. As an invitation it stands in stark opposition to the insistence of ‘love it or leave it’ – instead of a threatening ultimatum it carries the potential of a recognition of each other that can be forged through active struggle and solidarity. As traditional owners who have faced the violence of more than two centuries of colonisation, there should be no expectation of such an extension of welcome. However, simply in facing some degree of the racism of white Australia, there are certain relatable experiences that can be a point of connectedness. As Eliza explains “there are real consequences (of racism) that people who aren’t white will understand to a degree”. As such, taking responsibility for our place as non-white migrants and settlers presents an opportunity to put our own experiences of racism and colonialism to use through acting in direct solidarity with Aboriginal campaigns.
Possibilities (or making nightmares a reality).
“I also think in terms of fighting white supremacy, it’s just a lot of racist white peoples’ worst nightmare”.
– Harry Bonifacio Baughan, AAA member.
The existence and activities of Anticolonial Asian Alliance only begin to suggest at the possibilities which might exist as migrants come to understand their place here as being on Aboriginal land and therefore acting in solidarity with First Nations’ struggles for sovereignty. Such a move begins to undermine the coherence of the national imaginary of the racist, colonial state and the symbols and values that uphold it. In rejecting the conditional ‘welcome’ of this country on anti-colonial grounds, migrants would help to expose the founding violence at its core and the lie in its appearance of neutral, liberal benevolence. As Harry alludes to, even early manifestations of such formations are “racist white peoples’ worst nightmare”. This is not to suggest that these alliances are on the verge of forming broadly in such a way that will overturn the colonial structures of white Australia. As has been suggested, for migrants to claim responsibility for their complex and contradictory social location requires a re-routing of attempts to create a place here away from the institutions and expectations of white Australia and towards Aboriginal sovereignty. This would involve questioning what it means to even ‘create a place’ on colonised land. These are difficult questions, yet they also point to the significance of AAA – that just before such thoughts become too abstract or seem too far away, they are a real, grounded example of what it is to start acting upon them. Partaking in anti-colonial solidarity with Indigenous struggles holds the potential to open a space for migrants to establish new forms of affective attachments that reject white Australia’s insecure demands for love and validation. Instead of trying to fulfil such demands, there can be a taking responsibility for conflicted emotions and positions, for tensions that might even be unresolvable, that might lead us to finding a basis of anti-colonial commonality, care and affection.
Ahmed, Sara. (2000). Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. Oxford, OX: Routledge.
Bouteldja, Houria. (2016). Whites, Jews and Us: Towards a Politics of Revolutionary Love. South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e).
Hage, Ghassan. (2003). Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society. Annandale, NSW: Pluto Press.
Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. (2015). I Still Call Australia Home. In The White Possessive: Property, Power and Indigenous Sovereignty (pp. 3- 18). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.