Today is a painful day for Indigenous Australians; the 26 January is a date commemorating the day British ships (”the First Fleet”) arrived on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands. It is a day that marks the decimation of First Australians; the dispossession of their land; the removal of children to be raised in Missions and in White foster homes with no ties or knowledge of their culture (“the Stolen Generation”); amongst many other human rights crimes. This history impacts Indigenous life chances in the present-day.
Australia Day was only observed by all states and territories from 1935 and it was relatively recently that it was made a national holiday in 1994. Indigenous Australians have been protesting this date since 1938, on the first ever Day of Mourning, 150 years after colonialism. Since then, Indigenous Australians have also held both Invasion Day and Survival Day events to continue resistance against colonialist, patriarchal views of what it means to be Australian.
Join me through three case studies about the problems arising from Australia Day celebrations. First, I analyse a national advertisement that has been lauded as well as critiqued for its depiction of colonial arrivals. Second, I discuss a funding campaign to reverse the removal of Australia Day billboards featuring two Muslim girls. Third, I reflect on sociology’s role in the change the date protests, given the colonial origins of our discipline.
These three case studies will allow us to think about the limits of mainstream feminism and the gaps in sociological practices. I end with advice about how we might contribute to the change the date protests.
Please note that in this post, I use the phrase Australia Day to contextualise recent national debates about the celebration held on the 26 January. This phrase is hurtful to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and I use it only in context of discussing its colonial origins.
Every year, at the beginning of January, the Meat and Livestock Association releases a TV campaign promoting eating meat (specifically lamb) on Australia Day. The campaign always takes a “provocative” and “comical” approach, usually promoting the idea that not eating meat is “un-Australian.” (By the way, this term is a racist slur used on migrants.) In the past two years, the ads have made light of Australia’s colonial history. This is even more egregious because the change the date protest is growing.
The latest ad shows Indigenous Australians welcoming the “First Fleet” of British officers with broad smiles. In reality, Indigenous Australians told them to leave, the British declared Australia “terra nullius” (no one’s land) and Indigenous people were massacred.
The ad then shows ship after ship bringing in different waves of migrants. A prominent Chinese-Malaysian artist and chef, Poh Ling Yeow, says, “Aren’t we all boat people?” This is equally problematic given that the first law to be passed after Federation in 1901 was the White Australia policy that officially excluded people of colour from migrating (with only some groups allowed in as cheap labour). Our refugee policies remained stringent until the 1940s due to the advent of WWII. South East Asian refugees (so-called “boat people”) endured long-term hostility from the mid-to-late 1970s onwards. Moreover, since 2001, Australia has sustained its most inhumane immigration policies on record, by locking up asylum seekers indefinitely in offshore detention. So — no — we are not all boat people, and “boat people” have never been greeted with cheers.
The ad ends with “the float people,” a play on the Mardi Gras parade. While LGBTQIA inclusion would be welcome in any other context, in this setting they are another minority group seen partying and oblivious to colonial invasion. This is a time when LGBTQIA Indigenous Australians face the greatest prejudice of all groups, and gay marriage remains unrecognised by the law.
The message of “we’re all different” is something we need to promote as a nation, but not in this misguided way, and not for this cause.
“The idea that we have a national ad campaign aimed at telling a version of Australian history where each new group that arrives in Australia simply ‘joins the party’ is simply something I just can’t swallow… Maybe I’d have been a bit kinder to this latest attempt if it was a standalone, and not just the next chapter of a series I already don’t like, written for an company I already don’t like, tied to a day that I do not like… Just change the damn date already.”
Last year’s Australia Day lamb ad was based on a mock military campaign to “rescue” Australians from other countries. It was called “Operation Boomerang,” once again appropriating Indigenous culture for laughs, and using a theme of invasion.
While the latest ad appears to be celebrating Australia’s diversity, it succeeds only in deflecting racism. Every year, this campaign erases the long history of activism by Indigenous Australians to change the date and meaning of the 26 January.
In mid-January 2017, a billboard featuring photographs of Australians from various backgrounds had drawn racist ire specifically because one of the photos was of two girls in hijab, proudly holding the Australian flag, taken at a previous Australia Day event.
The billboard featuring the Muslim girls had been removed due to the racist objections. Advertising executive Dee Madigan, together with lawyer and political commentator Mariam Veiszadeh and their partners organised a crowd-funding campaign to put the billboards back up.
The organisers initially set out to raise $50,000. At the time of writing, they had raised almost $170,000.
The background to this billboard campaign is important because it goes to the need for intersectionality in Australian feminism. Images of young Muslim girls should not meet racist opposition. Such racism should be publicly denounced and acted on. The fact that a campaign was raised so swiftly in response, and to such enthusiastic support, is heartening.
Then again, the campaign has been hurtful to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. While some Aboriginal feminists have supported the funding campaign in solidarity with the young girls, other Aboriginal feminists have noted that any act that commemorates the beginning of colonialism is a wound to Indigenous Australians on an already painful day.
To put this in context: the campaign doubled its initial goal within hours; it has now reached over three times its desired amount. As Indigenous activists have pointed out, another crowd-funding campaign to help the remote Aboriginal community of Bawoorrooga in the Kimberley had barely raised $5,000 in the first two weeks. The community of Bawoorrooga has burned down. Public empathy for an entire Indigenous community has peaked at half of what the billboard campaign made for two girls in 24 hours. (The Bawoorrooga campaign has now raised over $7,000… still $163,000 less than the billboards.)
Australia has a problem with racism; but the impact of racial discrimination is not felt uniformly. While people of colour from non-English speaking backgrounds experience intense racism, Indigenous Australians experience the greatest institutional racism. In this sense, they are seen as “more Other” than non-Indigenous people of colour. Indigenous Australians are also less likely than other groups to say they benefit from multiculturalism, even though they support diversity.
This billboard campaign reinforces Muslim inclusion through Australia Day in spite of the change the date protests. This has the undesired effect of excluding Indigenous feminists from mainstream feminist efforts. Moreover, promoting Australia Day is a slight on the First Australians who are Muslim.
The activists behind the billboard fundraiser are working tirelessly and proactively to end racism and sexism; however, by focusing on racism affecting Muslim women, Indigenous voices about Australia Day are drowned out. The billboard campaign has tried to address these concerns by removing the mention of “Australia Day” from the new billboards and pledging to donate excess funds to two Indigenous not-for-profits. Yet the new campaign is still timed for Australia Day and therefore it reinforces the colonial meanings of this day.
The fact that the issues affecting Indigenous and Muslim feminists are relegated to different corners of the national imagination show a gap in our collective feminist consciousness.
Aboriginal feminists have been arguing since British invasion that mainstream Australian feminism is dominated by Whiteness.
From Truganini to the other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who stood resilient against colonialism; to Joyce Clague, Dulcie Flower, Harriet Ellis and the other women of the Aborigines Progressive Association who resisted assimilation in the 1930s; to the long-standing activism of Jenny Munro; to the scholarship of Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson, and beyond, Indigenous Australian women have sustained a counter-hegemonic view of what it means to be a woman in Australia. Indigenous feminist aims and achievements, however, are not counted as mainstream feminism.
Without an intersectionality framework, Australian feminism will continue to fall short as a collective project of social transformation.
The same goes for theory and practice in my own field of sociology.
When sociologists call to change the date of Australia Day, we must also ask ourselves what we’re doing within our own discipline to contribute to the racist system that opposes the change the date protests. It is not hard to see why a sociologist would shout “change the date” – but what are we willing to sacrifice to make this happen?
Sociology was established under a colonial tradition and in many ways it remains bound by colonial framing. Many of our founders are White Western European men, and the most cited theorists remain White Western European men. While sociologists of colour have long-contributed to the development of our discipline, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, the sociological enterprise continues to push Indigenous knowledge to the periphery. As I’ve previously argued, Indigenous practices should be central to Australian sociology in every facet of the way we teach, do and communicate the sociological imagination.
Sociology talks about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures but not in a collaborative way that centres Indigenous knowledge within sociological pedagogy. While there is a growing number of Indigenous students at university, they still make up a minority at only 30,000 graduates (3% of those who complete a degree) and a tiny proportion of Australian doctorates (0.5% of people with PhDs). How many of these students are given the opportunity to thrive in an academic sociology career? Very few.
How can we contribute to change the date and other Indigenous rights issues with such low numbers of Indigenous sociologists shaping our teaching, activism and feminist practices?
Sociologists might understand the nuances of the change the date debate, as well as the pernicious racism in lamb ads, and the limitations of billboards that reinforce Australia Day. So what are we going to do to change the date and address other gaps in anti-racism and feminist practices?
I’ll follow up on a collaborate project about Indigenising sociology soon. Today, however, on this Survival Day, let’s support Indigenous colleagues. I also invite you to join me in asking ourselves some hard questions about how we can decolonise sociology and bring intersectionality front and centre.
While it is fine to have fun and celebrate being Australian there is no need to do this at the expense of true inclusion of Indigenous Australians. The non-Indigenous Australians who support the Australia Day lamb ad and the billboards include people who are unaware of the death of Indigenous women like Ms Dhu and who remain indifferent or ignorant to other recent feminist issues directly impacting Indigenous Australians, such as in policing; social justice; dispossession; and broader inequalities like mental health, education and beyond.
If Australia adopted an intersectional understanding of women’s rights, multiculturalism and Indigenous rights, the change the date campaign, along with the other injustices suffered by First Australians, would not be so disjointed. Changing the date would have happened long ago if Australians did not suffer from cultural amnesia every 26 January, as Celeste Liddle puts it. (Note that Liddle is against changing the date and would prefer to focus on more pervasive Indigenous rights issues).
If Australian feminist movements were intersectional and sociology was decolonised, changing the date debates would not further wound First Australians. Indigenous Australian history and knowledge would be central to the way in which we think, act and respond as activists, sociologists and feminists. We would have many more Indigenous sociologists to lead our resistance. We would utilise Indigenous epistemologies (ways of knowing) every day, not just on the occasional issue, lesson or paper.
All non-Indigenous feminists, including myself, need to commit, or recommit, how we do the work required to end the marginalisation of Indigenous women within various feminist traditions. This means reflexive listening to the diverse voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women on why we need to change the date, and on other issues.
Intersectionality requires that we change our feminist practices upon reflection of what we hear, even when it’s hard; whether the entire country is watching us, or whether we are at work or going about our daily lives.
It can start simply by questioning the images we see on billboards and television advertisements, not through the convenient lens of colonialism, or through a limited understanding of multiculturalism. Rather, we should read, watch, engage, support and elevate more Indigenous scholars, commentators, writers, artists and leaders.
Protest in Sydney
In Sydney, I’ll be marching and listening in solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people The Sydney march starts in the mighty community of Redfern and ends at the Yabun Survival Day Festival, where there will be music, kids activities, panels, market stalls, and cultural performances.
Both the protest and festival are family-friendly events. Bring sunscreen, water and food as it’ll be hot!
Around 10,000 people marched in Sydney for the Women’s March. I was one woman among this mass of people who protested for social justice. I saw signs that read: “Women’s rights are human rights.” Well, Indigenous rights are human rights and Indigenous rights are a feminist issue! Intersectionality means showing up for all women, and recognising how racism impacts on gender equality.
I hope that the same people who marched on the 21st will also march on this 26th of January. If you are able, join the march to support the traditional owners of this country. March because Indigenous Australians have always fought for feminist causes, human rights and the environment. It is only through Indigenous leadership that we can make Australia a better and truly inclusive nation.
We can — and must — celebrate being Australian on a day that is less divisive and hurtful. This year, Fremantle council in Western Australia has changed the date to the 28 January in consultation with Indigenous elders and community members.* The rest of the nation must follow this example.
As feminists and as sociologists, we all have to do better to actively redress colonialism, otherwise we are participating in White supremacist patriarchy, despite our best intentions.
Hope to see you at the marches! I will tweet from @OtherSociology for those who can’t make it.
- Find an Invasion Day protest in your nearest capital city – there is even a protest in Berlin! March to tell our officials that we must #ChangeTheDate.
- Join the Invasion Day March in Sydney. The march is organised by FIRE (Fighting In Resistance Equally).
- Can’t attend a march? Check out the other Survival Day events around the country.
- Lend your voice to #ChangeTheDate on Twitter.
- Boogie in solidarity at the Yabun Festival.
- Read about Aboriginal people in Sydney history & demographics, by Dr Anita Heiss, writer and political commentator, and Melodie-Jane Gibson, Indigenous Law Centre.
- How to show solidarity with Indigenous Australians this Invasion Day, by Celeste Liddle.
- Check out the resources below!
*The city of Freemantle in Western Australia has changed Australia Day this year to 28 December to be more inclusive. The city was promptly banned by the federal government from hosting Australia Day citizenship celebrations, which are held in conjunction with Australia Day. As you can see, the date, the ads and the public discourses surrounding Australia Day are needlessly exclusive, racist and profoundly political.
Images and media
- Header image: People at a stall on Survival Day event, with an Aboriginal flag in the background.
- Video: “Celebrate Australia Day with a Lamb BBQ.”
- Image 1: screen shot from the Australia Day ad showing three Indigenous people on a beach with raised eyebrows.
- Image 2: Symbol for fire in red against a yellow sun and black background, the colours of the Aboriginal Flag. Text reads: “Calling all sovereign peoples and supporters to stand with us on Invasion Day 27 January 2017. Keep the fire burning.” Source: FIRE.