[First posted on my Tumblr on 8 August 2010, republished here with edits and additions.]
The Tomorrow, When the War Began series was a big part of my early adolescence, and I really appreciated those contemporary teenage voices — especially, perhaps, Lee’s character.
as much as I loved this series for giving me a young Asian-Australian who wasn’t ‘exotic,’ who was just struggling with stuff and living his life and having romantic teenage entanglements with people who weren’t Asian, I hated this series for giving me an agressor who fed into the Australian zeitgeist of imminent invasion by the yellow hordes to the North.
天高皇企鹅远: tomorrow, when the war began and the myth of the imminent invasion
But like Steph, I resent the series for reinforcing a popular (if implausible) invasion narrative. The fact that the invader is unspecified in the book doesn’t help much — though all descriptions are left ambiguous, they are marked as culturally and linguistically Other in ways that are associated with Asia and Yellow Peril (see Catriona Ross’ article referenced in Steph’s post).
In The outsiders within: telling Australia’s Indigenous-Asian story, Peta Stephenson traces white Australia’s obsession with invasion narratives to its own colonial history. She quotes Meaghan Morris, who calls this anxiety that “something we did to others … could happen all over again” a chain of displacement.
We replay our genocidal past as our apocalyptic future.
The idea of a chain of displacement has great resonance in Australia, even among the left. It’s common to see pro-refugee slogans and imagery pointing out that the British First Fleet were the original boat people.
But the British weren’t refugees. And the elision of various arrivals, for disparate purposes, is dangerous and naive whether it comes from the left or the right. Colonisers aren’t refugees. Convicts aren’t migrants. Migrants aren’t refugees. In fact each category of arrival, at any point in time, is subject to its own specific conditions. And the colonisation of Indigenous people by the British can’t be replicated. Whether new arrivals are resisted or welcomed, the chain of displacement solidifies and legitimates white Australia as native, erasing Indigeneity and evading power. In Tomorrow When the War Began (p 170), Robyn says
We ‘ve got all this land and all these resources, and yet there’s countries a crow’s spit away that have people packed in like battery hens. You can’t blame them for resenting it, and we haven’t done much to reduce any imbalances, just sat on our fat backsides, enjoyed our money and felt smug.
but her shame about the unfair distribution of space only serves to make her possession of it more natural. She talks about it later as something to change, after the war (ie, social change as an act of altruistic service in the luxury of peacetime), as if her possession of land, space and wealth isn’t something that’s maintained through violence every day (which is particularly obvious in the novel, but just as evident in real life if you’re paying any attention at all.)
There’s been a lot of heat on refugees, immigration and population leading up to this election. I’m reluctant to detail either my post-national utopia or my desires for current federal policy. Suffice to say that the concept of sovereignty is complex and anti-intuitive for me, but not something I wish to disregard completely.
What I want to say here, now, is that Indigenous people in Australia fight to exist at all. And people of colour immigrants and refugees fight to exist here. Debates around population and environment can be disturbing for many reasons — there is just so much classism, racism and sexism at work, I don’t even know where to start — but I think its particularly irresponsible when people talk about population without acknowledging that some people are never asked to justify their existence, their presence, or their reproduction. The right to be here is something most Australian-born English-speaking white Australians just have. Inalienably. And you might be persecuted for a billion different things, but you’ll be persecuted here.
If you are a non-Indigenous person of colour, the onus of proof is enormous. You need to justify your presence by political necessity or economic value or whatever else. And things like permanent residency, like speaking English with an Australian accent, like citizenship, like being born here, even, only give you so much. Regardless of your legal rights, if you’re a person of colour and convicted of a crime, you can bet that the tabloid press will call for your deportation. (I have heard the Herald Sun call for a white immigrant to be deported, but ey was a NZ citizen and convicted of a crime. I regularly hear calls for people of colour to be deported, regardless of whether they are citizens or born in Australia.)
If you’re a non-Indigenous person of colour, here is this presumption that there is always somewhere else for you to go. Even if you’re a refugee and there’s far fewer places in the world that are safe for you than the millions of Australians who could travel freely, who could easily be somewhere else. We don’t have statistics on how many refugees are deported to their deaths. But many of the places refugees come from are probably safer for wealthy white Australians – nobody’s ever going to suggest an exchange program though. So when Lady Sovereign sings, “I’m English, try and deport me”, I want to sit her down and say, “No one is trying to, honey.”
I’m an Australian citizen, so personally my legal rights are fairly secure. And I’m a migrant, so the presumption that I have a “somewhere else” is correct, and in my case it’s somewhere I can plausibly be, quite safely. But even my friends of colour who are third or fourth generation Australian-born, whose only language is English, whose only English is Australian, whose only home is here, are asked to justify their presence all the time. Not legally, no. Not to any government department, not to anyone with concrete authority, perhaps. But to clerks and fellow commuters and strangers in the street and friends’ parents:
“Where are you from?”
My reaction shifts between anger, indifference, empathy and suspicion. I know it is sometimes innocuous, sometimes just phatic speech, a polite show of curiosity. I have heard many bitter jokes — to answer, “my mother’s cunt”, or that it means “Why aren’t you white?”
At the moment, for me this question usually means “Where can I put you?” And whether it’s a category in your mind or a country I don’t belong to, I’m sure it’s somewhere I don’t want to go.
Though it can be a powerful slogan and positioning tool, saying we are all boat people actually misses the point on both Indigenous sovereignty and immigration and refugee policy. It reinforces the fallacy that Indigenous people are asking white Australians to “go back to England”. It analogises racist rejection of refugees and immigrants with resistance to colonisation. It presumes that everyone has equal access to “somewhere else”. And it evades the question at the centre of it all: Who has the right to be here? Who decides? Who benefits?