Behind this smile I believe that identity is everything.
In my lifetime I have encountered many distasteful incidents of racism. If I had spent time to respond to these situations I would be up to my ears in conflict. One way of avoiding hurt is to smile and walk away. Sometimes you take the time to respond. I remember one time in particular where I responded to an email group I had innocently joined upon making a new friend. The network I had become part of had been circulating racist jokes among themselves and making sure to include me on their recipient list.
Jack was a recent friend; we started emailing each other and exchanging jokes. I would get several racist jokes a day. It seemed that he and his email friends saw themselves as ‘true blue’ Aussies who thought it funny to send racist jokes to me because I would accept them and smile. But it came a time when I decided that I needed to tell Jack a few things. I felt that Jack could benefit from a little reflection on what being ‘Australian’ really meant. My thought was to address his apparent neglect in recognising the outside influences on what he so patriotically declared to be the ‘Aussie’ way of life.
I believe we need to recognise just how much multiculturalism has shaped, inspired, motivated, affected, changed, guided and exists in the everyday life, of every ‘true blue’ Australian.
When we emphatically declare ourselves to be Australian, we should know that the typical day of an Australian involves encounters in every aspect of our lives which reveal the contributions of other cultures, other peoples, other ‘non-Australian’ histories; the world has, and is, forever exchanging, serving and receiving among its people and has been doing so since time began.
Here is a short extract from my email to Jack:
“Rising from his bed Jack wears pyjamas; pyjamas, an item of sleepwear that’s an inherent part of bedtime attire for any Aussie, pyjamas which were originally worn by Muslims in India and adopted by the Europeans. The bed from which he rose is an item of furniture which Jack has never considered as anything other than Australian, but has Jack considered that the bed is a piece of furniture dating back to 77,000 BC in South Africa? He would have been lying on cotton sheets too; what Australian doesn’t lay on cotton sheets; cotton, a fabric dating back to prehistoric times in Mexico, Pakistan and India. He may even have been laying under an eiderdown, commonly known in ‘Aussie’ vernacular as a ‘doona’, originating in rural Europe.
That’s right, the simple act of rising from bed, exposes exactly how ‘Aussie’ we are; what makes us, is what we have taken in, accepted, into our lives.
Let’s just briefly continue, so that you get the point. Imagine Jack glancing at a clock, first appearing in 13th Century Europe. Once sure of the time, Jack would likely proceed to the bathroom and use the toilet, as did the ancient civilizations of Rome, Egypt, Pakistan and India, well before Englishman, Thomas Crapper, invented the flushing toilet we know today. In his bathroom, our ‘Aussie’ Jack would hopefully use soap to wash his hands after using the toilet; soap which can be traced back to Ancient Babylon. Next he might brush his teeth, a practice which came to Australia in the late 18th Century. Let’s say he then shaves, a ritual first developed by the Ancient Egyptians, using a blade made from steel, an iron alloy discovered in Turkestan. You get the picture?
We ‘Australians’, our ‘Australian’ way of life, is the sum of parts. Parts of ancient, exotic, medieval, tribal, global civilizations; we can stand up, proud for how we have adopted, engaged, accepted and embraced the practices, the initiative, the ingenuity and the invention of other cultures. When we declare ourselves ‘Australian’, we can declare ourselves truly multicultural, because THAT is exactly what being Australian actually is.”
..And that is what this proud ‘Australian’ from XXX heritage was so happy to share with Jack; the friend I can do without.
You can see George's image at Laverton Community Hub, Altona Library and Altona North Library