I’m Still Learning to be Australian

Ayres Rock, Australia: A Kangaroo warning road sign in the desert near Uluru

Although I was born in Australia and know no other home, calling myself an Australian isn’t a natural thing. It never has been.

I mean, I always recognised that I lived in Australia and that I was an Australian citizen. I knew that this technically made me Australian, but I never felt that I had the right to identify as one.

At best,  I was allowed to be a ‘qualified’ Australian;  a -something- Australian. A Lebanese Australian. A second generation Australian. A Muslim Australian. Truth be told, I’ve never felt like I was Lebanese at all. Lebanon isn’t home to me and has no significant influence on my identity. I just felt I had more right to be Lebanese than Australian because I was ‘allowed’ to be that. It was okay for me to be Lebanese. No one was going to question that or make me defend it. I sure as hell have to defend my claim of being Australian.

Sometimes it’s harmless. People ask me where I’m from, and I say Sydney. Or Western Sydney. Or New South Wales. That’s never the right answer and people press on to say ‘No…but like… your background…’ Here, ‘where are you from?’ actually means ‘explain to me what makes you not Caucasian, please.’ Then I say ‘Oh, Lebanese…but I was born here,’ as if being born here helps me win the argument and my right to be Australian is strengthened. If I’m being asked by a particularly bigoted individual, I add in that my mum was also born here. Y’know, for added umpf. Interestingly I know that if I spoke the way I do while being Caucasian, no one would ask me where I was from and I wouldn’t ever have to say I was Australian. It would just be a given. I try hard not to think about that – it doesn’t help me.

As I said, the above line of questioning is often harmless and if that’s where it stopped, I’m sure I’d be able to accept that I’m Australian with a particular heritage and that would be that.

But it doesn’t stop there.

There is an overwhelming ‘us v them’ that lingers; forced into existence by the community and perpetuated by an under-representation of the non-Caucasian face of Australia in the media. I mean, imagine a hijabi living at Summer Bay or Ramsay Street. It is endemic and rooted in the very fibres of society. It’s a difficult cloak to shake off.

I’m not a sociologist and can’t speak to the academic theories behind why this divide exists; a quick glance tells me that it’s a whole manner of issues that blend together to create the current situation and feed into my inability to say that I’m Australian without stuttering. Maybe I’ll go into my theories in another post. Right now it’s all conjecture.

It is only in recent years that I have actively taken it upon myself to fight against every message that has come through, telling me that I’m not actually Australian. I remember in my younger years, when asked, I would tell people that I was only half-Lebanese. That’s not a lie, really. Mum was born here, making her Australian and dad was born in Lebanon. But if I didn’t feel Australian due to being born here, neither did mum – saying I was half-Australian was a bit of a lie…. or felt like one. It was my desperate attempt at giving my position some justification. I wasn’t just someone pretending to be Australian. I was a second generation Australian and that made me more Australian.

I have come to realise that this really doesn’t make a difference.

I’m Australian whether people like it or not.

A new arrival that feels an affinity to Australia is just as Australian, whether people like it or not. I have actively given myself permission to feel that I belong here. That I deserve to feel like I belong here. I feel like a massive fraud sometimes, but refuse to let it go. This is my home too and I am just as deserving of this title. It’s a semi-regular struggle.

This week it has been a whole different struggle. The Reclaim Australia marches that were held around the country reminded me that some people will never accept that I’m Australian. To get a sense of this ridiculousness, have a skim of this ABC article: Reclaim Australia clashes with opposing groups at rallies around the country over extremism and tolerance. (If they sound familiar, it’s because we’ve talked about them before: read here).

People actively went out into the streets to proclaim that I, a Muslim, did not have a claim to Australia or an Australian identity. They were taking it back from me.

On the one hand, I know that Reclaim Australia is as Australian as Islamic State is Islamic. They have zero legitimacy and do not reflect the views of the wider community (well… that’s debatable. There are some scary statistics out there, but we can talk about those in another post.).

There was something nostalgically painful witnessing it all. Australia really didn’t feel like it was mine to own, and these people were pulling away at a weak part of my identity. A part that is essentially attached to me with some craft glue. I felt myself holding on to it for dear life and thinking of ways to make my Australianness a solid part of me.

A genius from the Reclaim Australia rallies.
A genius from the Reclaim Australia rallies.

To deal with it all, I laughed about Reclaim Australia with my friends and acquaintances – how they’re just a group of angry, uneducated idiots with no appreciation for what they’re actually mad about. I reminded myself over and over again that a large number of counter-protests were held by people who are as welcoming of everyone as Reclaim Australia is hateful. I told myself that I was contributing more to this country than they ever could. The tax dollars that I pay with minimal complaint (mostly) contribute more than they ever could.

I imagined the amazing children that I’ll have one day and how I will make sure that they, from the moment they take that first breath, learn that they’re Australian and that no one can take that from them. Heck, they’ll be swaddled in an Australian flag. In fact, I’ll have more Australian flags in my house than any street of Cronulla on Australia Day.

…I digress.

What fascinates me most is trying to figure out what these protesters wanted. These are the same people that will tell Muslims to denounce terrorist and protect everything that the terrorists are trying to steal from us. This tells me that they want to be part of the same team. Then, they turn around and say that I can’t be Australian and Muslim at the same time. Is it that they can’t delineate between the extremist minority and the lovely majority? Do they just not care as long as they feel comfortable? I find myself realising more and more that there are two groups of extremists that cause annoyance in my life – extremist Muslims and extremist racists. Both making the same arguments, both getting nowhere and both a waste of space.

I don’t understand it. I’m not sure I ever will, or if I even need to. It’s really all just a lot of white noise that I don’t need to listen to.

I guess it’s safe to say that I’m still figuring it out.

Until then, I’m going to practice saying that I’m Australian in the mirror. Maybe one day it’ll be as natural as saying my own name.

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6 comments

  1. I know exactly how you feel. I’m Indian descent, born in New Zealand, raised in Australia and converted to Islam 2 years ago. And that’s literally the same line I end up repeating every single time someone asks me where I’m from. The thing is, I personally feel as if I identify with being “Australian” because this is the life I’ve always known and remembered. I dont remember living in NZ or anything about it. But I still cannot answer that question completely when someone asks me. I feel like my skin colour/partial accent means I am unable to call myself Australian, because essentially everyone believes Aussies to be either Indigenous or white.

    • Sounds like we’re in a similar boat! It’s a real mouthful to get out, isn’t it? Hopefully one day people will learn to accept that we can be one and different at the same time. That’s perfectly acceptable… in fact, it should be encouraged. Here’s to us and our Australianness – that no one can take away.

  2. I might be white (or pink if I spend any time at all in the sun) but my slight German accent still prompts “so where are you from, then?” questions as soon as I open my mouth. As a teenager, when I first came here with my family, I practically stopped speaking for a while because I hated it so much – the whole feeling ‘different’ thing. Those idiots will single out anyone who they perceive to be different. A lot of (mostly) harmless, innocent people of German origin were shipped off to internment camps during the two world wars, because they were seen to be a threat to the country. Seems sometimes that there’s no end to the hysteria and idiocy that some people will fall for. Luckily they’re in the vast minority, even if they are noisy. You’re as much an Aussie as I am – you beat me by having an Aussie mum, I beat you by more years in Australia! 😉

  3. It really saddens me that you feel this way, although given what our society is like, I’m not surprised. Keep up the practicing until you can yell it from the rooftops.

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