Disclaimer: My education experiences are not necessarily representative of Australia as a whole, or even what things might be like now. I went to high school between 1996-2000, with a predominantly white population. That’s the background I’ll be referencing.
When I last wrote about some race related issues, a friend of mine commented to me that she found it interesting that I didn’t mention Australian Aboriginals in the entry. I didn’t think it was relevant to the topic I was writing at the time, but it did get me thinking about how we treat discussing race in Australia.
The thing is, I haven’t lived in Australia in over four years. I feel like a bit of an outsider now, and as such, what I learn about Australia tends to coincide more with international media attention, or at the very least whatever ends up being shared on Facebook as newsworthy amongst my Australian friends. From my perspective, as an Australian who no longer lives there, it feels like Australia has become more racist now than it was when I was growing up. That may not actually be true, and may just be based on personal experiences I’ve had.
I don’t claim to know how to fix the problem of racism in Australia, but I can offer some thoughts. It seems like a lot of the national dialogue is that the media likes to drum up the attention of “stopping the boat people,” like refugees are a bad thing. They seem to ignore the fact that a lot more illegal immigrants enter Australia by plane. The thing is, we’re not really educated on what it means to be a refugee, and we rely too much on what the media tells us about them. Let’s face it, as far as I’m concerned, Australia does a poor job educating us about other races, full stop.
Here is what I learned about race related issues within Australia’s borders in my entire 5 years of social studies/TEE history:
1. The Japanese bombed Darwin during WWII.
2. White people killed a lot of Aboriginals when they started colonising the country.
3. A lot of Chinese people came out in the 1800s during the gold rushes.
That’s it. And we barely spent any time on those subjects as it was. Most race issues were taught to us more from a distance. In year 11, it was specifically Nazi Germany, and Apartheid South Africa (which was only studied because that’s what my class voted for). In fact, I don’t think there really was any other focus on racism throughout the rest of my high school education, as far as I can recall. It wasn’t until I was in university and saw the film Rabbit-Proof Fence that I learned about the stolen generation. That’s a similar time-frame for when it was starting to be discussed in the media that the government should apologise for it. You might be surprised to learn I didn’t even hear about Australia’s former White Australia Policy until I’d moved to Malaysia.
I want to write a little about World War II now, because it was one of the subjects we covered the most in high school history, and yet… there is so much that was omitted from our education. Since moving to Malaysia, I learned a lot more about the war in the Asia-Pacific region, with Japan working its way down as far as Malaysia and Singapore for its occupation. I’ve learned about it in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Hawaii. Why was this something I never learned about in school? It was happening practically in Australia’s backyard, and all we learned about was, “Oh yeah and by the way, the Japanese bombed Darwin, but it’s okay because the Americans were around and then nothing else really happened on our shores”? We learned about our allies fighting in Europe, we learned about why the war started, and the evils the enemies committed, but we didn’t learn anything of our own evils. History is written by those who win. And winners don’t like confessing to their misdeeds. It’s so much easier to paint the losers that way.
What kinds of misdeeds am I referring to? On Saturday night, I watched this short film set in Western Australia during WWII, based on true events. Italian men in Australia were taken away from their families just because we were at war in Europe, and Italy was on the enemy side. Why is this the first I’ve learned of that? (Okay, admittedly I do vaguely recall some brief mention of Australia treating its German population that way during my education). The US did similar with its Japanese population, but at least they got to redeem themselves and help win the war for America in the end. Oh, I didn’t learn about that in school either. I learned about that in museums in Hawaii. (Side note: It inspired part of my short story, Siren, which is being published in Fae Fatales).
I kind of feel that if we want to change the national dialogue, if Australia wants to actually embody the all inclusive “everyone deserves a fair go” attitude it purports to have, a lot could be done about educating kids about the region they live in. The Vietnamese in the 1970s were the first “boat people” we let in, but only because we didn’t have a choice. And that’s sad, considering Australia was involved in the Vietnam War. Oh, yeah, that’s another thing I didn’t learn about in school. My awareness of that war came from movies that didn’t really interest me, until I went to Vietnam myself, and learned about it from their perspective. Now that was full on. If that was a subject taught in schools, we might even have a bit more respect for refugees, and understand better why Australia should accommodate them. I also think I would have been infinitely more interested in learning about WWII in the region I lived in than what happened in Europe. Don’t get me wrong – I think the lessons of Nazi Germany are great, and I do value what that taught me… but I barely remember the rest of it.
I grew up with the idea that Australia was a multi-cultural country, but didn’t really have a great understanding of what that meant. I don’t know if that’s the fault of where I lived, where nearly everyone was white, or if there was more to it than that. I’ve joked though that Australia isn’t really all that multi-cultural – not compared to Malaysia. Malaysia is a country that has public holidays specific for the Muslims, and for the Chinese, and even some Indian holidays. Australia only has Christian and non-denominational holidays. There is little opportunity to learn about other cultures, which makes it easier to fear them. In some ways it’s getting better – the Australian kid’s show Bananas in Pajamas did have a special Chinese New Year episode – but in other ways I think it’s getting worse. Especially when the media likes to hype up the fear aspect.
I think it’s time for Australia to acknowledge more of their own poor behaviour, rather than putting it all on other nations as behaving badly. It can be easier to ignore if you don’t think it affects you. The problem with only acknowledging that white people killed Aboriginals when they first moved in is that it ignores how poorly Aboriginals can still be treated now. Hell, sometimes it’s like we ignore that they even exist in our society. Their history is part of Australia’s, too. Let’s not continue to whitewash the history and learn only of the colonial influence on society. It’s no wonder that my default is to think about white people in Australia when that’s the education I had.
How do your own experiences with studying race and history compare? What have you been surprised to learn about your country or region, after your secondary education?