Demystifying Citizenship in a Post-Colonial Australia

Andre Van Eymeren
November 20, 2020
4 minute read
'My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.' Desmond Tutu

I must admit, having lived my whole life within one country, I’ve only thought about citizenship in the last few years. Up until then, I just took it for granted. I remember hearing about the Australia test that prospective citizens needed to take, and wondering what would be on that test.

Perhaps questions like:

  • What do you throw on a barbie?

               a. Shrimp

               b. A new outfit

               c. Rice

  • What do you wear on your feet when you go to the beach, or anytime in summer?

               a. Boots

               b. Thongs

               c. Slippers

  • What is a tinnie?

               a. Tin of tomatoes

               b. Anything made of tin

               c. Can of beer/small fishing boat

  • What does fair dinkum mean?

               a. Genuine/acceptable/expression of surprise

               b. Fairground attraction

               c. Party game

  • What do you do with Vegemite?

               a. Play it

               b. Drink it

               c. Eat it

  • What is a dunny?

               a. Funny person

               b. Toilet (especially outdoors)

               c. Bad joke

(How did you go?)

While this quiz s my poor attempt at humour, it reflects the sense I carried for a long time that as an Australian, I didn’t really have a culture. At best, our cultural references were kitsch compared to the richness I witnessed from other parts of the world. Subtly though, my attitude portrays a deeper reality; I was so immersed in my culture, everything we did seemed ‘right’ and anything else was different and ‘not quite right’. Until recently, nationalism was also not a big thing in our country- at least not in my experience. Being the son of an immigrant from the Netherlands, I saw Australia as a place that welcomed people from other cultures, giving them an opportunity to live a better life.

It’s clear now that this was never really the case. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull, giving European explorers the right to colonise, convert, and enslave peoples they encountered in their exploring-with the proviso that the land wasn’t already owned by a Christian monarch. This way of thinking penetrated the Australian psyche. Additionally it was enshrined into public international law in the US in 1823 and became known as the Doctrine of Discovery. It is too reductive to point to one decree or doctrine as the only cause of an entrenched attitude. However, those laws have set a pernicious culture throughout the world, hallmarked by the belief that white is best. The idea of whiteness, in turn, puts expectations on other cultures, such as: achieving a high level of education, working hard at a job, living in a nuclear family, owning a house, etc. And here’s the kicker, if we see other people-particularly from another culture, or their skin is not white-not doing things our way, we tend to feel they are wrong, or somehow they just haven’t seen the better way. The white way.

A way of understanding this subtlety is The Pyramid of White Supremacy (what a confronting name). The pyramid shows the progression from indifference to mass murder. It’s easy to think that mass murder of this sort would never happen amongst us, but on 15 March 2019 an Australian killed 51 people worshipping at a mosque in Christchurch, injuring a further 40. Based on race, he thought he was justified. Of course this is an extreme example; however, there are cultural understandings and biases within our country that allow and, to an extent, justify this kind of thinking.

I wonder, if you are being completely honest with yourself, where do you sit on the pyramid? Where do you think we sit as a country?

I recently had the privilege of speaking  at a forum on racial justice- talking about our Flourishing Framework®  and the need for systemic change. One thing that struck me was the acknowledgement that as a white man, I come with a particular cultural knoweldge and understanding — one amongst many. It’s in the true and deep exchange of cultural knowledge that we might just find our way forward as a nation and global population.

While I acknowledge and want to enter into a deeper understanding of the immense pain Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to suffer due to the effects of colonisation - like in Africa, and in many parts of Asia and Latin America - colonisation cannot be rolled back; its effects can never be undone. This fact needs to be lamented, not just by those affected, but by our whole nation. As we lament, the deep grief experienced  quite often mysteriously becomes the genesis of hope, and the birth of something new.

Entering into lament is one way for us to move to a place where we are open to truly hear the wisdom of the other, and come with humility to the place of meeting- the riverbed, in the words of Mark Yettica Paulson. At this point, the Desmond Tutu quote at the beginning of this article rings loud and true- as human beings, we belong together. Our common humanity is stronger than the elements that would seek to divide us, particularly forces such as our inherent complicit consent to white supremacy and nationalism.

What would it mean for us to sit together around the one table; to truly recognise the beauty of diversity, and our connectedness as citizens?

For we are, first, citizens of the human race. The flourishing of one depends on the flourishing of all.

Answers to quiz: 1. a. Shrimp; 2. b. Thongs; 3. c. Can of beer/small fishing boat; 4. a. Genuine/acceptable/expression of surprise; 5. c. Eat it; 6. b. Toilet

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