What does it mean to be Australian? Is it just living in the country? But who defines those borders? Does it mean some kind of shared “Australian” values? Who says what we value and when those change? Or does it mean some kind of deeper connection with this country, its land and its history?
These are the kinds of questions that Stan Grant wrestles with in his book, Talking to My Country, a response to the Adam Goodes “booing” scandal last year and the debate throughout the country as to whether it was racist (it was). Inspired by Te-Nahisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Stan Grant writes a personal account of his experience as an Aboriginal man growing up in Australia, and the challenges that come with that. Australia inherently treats Aboriginals differently to every one else, as Grant says “Whenever we enrol in school, apply for a job or join a sports team: there is a box to tick that asks if we are Aboriginal or Islander. No one else is asked this.”
So what does it mean to be Australian? Is it living within the country? Grant reminds us that there were hundreds of nations that existed on the land before the European came to say it was just one. Is it some kind of shared value? Grant says that government records show that the Aboriginal people have been defined and redefined sixty-seven times, values constantly shift, but who says what those values are? But if being Australian is some kind of deeper connection to the land and its history, then I think that most of us would be guilty of not being Australian.
Grant points out that the country of Australia was built at the expense of the Aboriginal people, and how history often ignores how they resisted this change and were subsequently massacred in a “war of extermination”. A history that is clearly marked by places named “Poison Waterhole Creek“, where European settlers poisoned the water supply of Aboriginal families because they were “annoyed” at the Aboriginals on “their land”, but is often ignored by the wider society despite being in plain sight.
“…because the darkness of our past often goes unspoken, does not mean it doesn’t plague us.”
– Stan Grant
As a first generation migrant, my history with this country only stretches back so long. I am neither of this country, nor of any country, a feeling that I increasingly feel every time I leave Australia and come subsequently come back. But my documents say that I am Australian, despite whatever my feelings are, and with that comes a responsibility to know what this country is. Especially now, when the country’s values and it’s place in the world are shifting under our feet. To call oneself Australian should mean to understand what Australia was and what Australia is now, so that we can properly see what is we are becoming.