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Australia’s Identity Conflict: The Unseen Battle between Us and Them

Picture: Cameron McBroom.
Aboriginal protest against the forced closure of Aboriginal communities. Melbourne, 2015. Picture: Cameron McBroom.

In today’s globally connected world, it’s easy to become another person in the crowd. As to not become lost in the sea of people, we gather together in groups of those with whom we identify. Identity groups are numerous; one rarely identifies in just one or two groups. Your identity can be defined by your nationality, culture, gender, sexuality, political leaning, the list goes on. Every person, whether realising it or not, identifies with groups in which they relate and can feel comfortable. Conversations around Australia’s multiculturalism have been widely pursued, but very rarely do we explore Australian identity. How can Australia become a culturally unified country?

As with every nationality, there are many characteristics that define a ‘typical Australian’. When one sits and reflects on such an identity, barbeques, heavy drinking, flip flops, and angry caucasians come to mind. All of these aspects, good and bad, are generally accepted and shrugged off as a part of Australian society, and therefore, the fabric of the Australian identity. The country’s national day is held every year on a day in which the British invaded sovereign soil and planted their flag in the ground, instead of its day of federation, like most other countries around the world. Australians celebrate this day with strong national pride, and when a group of people choose to fly a different flag and identify as something other, conflict is nevertheless ensued.

Source: Jarah Cook, Flickr.
Australians protest immigration during a “Reclaim Australia” rally in Sydney. Source: Jarah Cook, Flickr.

Australia day, Invasion day, and Survival day all share the same date, January 26th. This day is the linchpin of the shared Australian and Aboriginal identity. This is the day that the linchpin is pulled and we truly see the difference and divergence of these two identities. Invasion, or Survival day, is a day of mourning for Aboriginal people as it marks the day which would lead to those that follow. Days of massacres, death, poverty, stolen children, grief, loss, cultural genocide. It is not a day of celebration as it is for those who identify as Australian, but one of reflection and remembrance of that which is a part of the shared Aboriginal identity. This identity is filled with that of native languages, kinships, connection and harmony with the land, and strong spiritual beliefs.

While Australian and Aboriginal identities do share some similarities in that of the friendly and easy going nature, they also share some of the negatives in alcoholism and violence. Perhaps these negatives have less to do with cultural norms, but more with a product of a shared history in which colonisation has left both parties worse off, arguably one more than the other. Australia has not yet dealt with its past wrongdoings through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission like many other governments have across the world. A commission which would benefit all people of Australia and help those affected by intergenerational trauma seek some degree of resolution.

Cultural identity is one that transcends national identity and underpins ones everyday lived experience. This cultural identity is what brings people together, which takes form and shapes a national identity. When the national and cultural identity are in conflict, this leads to real life conflict which leads to war and revolution. We have seen this division of cultural and national identity in many countries around the world.

We see a similar situation in Canada with the cultural identity of Québec in contrast to the rest of the country, which may lead to Québec’s independence from Canada in the future. In Spain, the cultural amalgamation of cultural identity groups of Catalonia, Andalusia, Galicia, Basque Country, and others, has led to conflict for years with each region having strong nationalist movements fighting for independence. Conflicts in Africa have been brought about by the separation of cultural identities by national borders that were established by the colonisers of the continent. Some argue that to achieve long term peace in Africa, the continent’s borders must reflect its cultural identities, and while this may cause initial short term conflict, national identities will form around the cultural identities and internal peace will follow.

Picture: Cameron McBroom.
Tanderrum: a welcome to country ceremony. Melbourne, 2015. Picture: Cameron McBroom.

If Australia continues down its already established path, the division of cultural identity will lead to conflict and the national identity will always be tarnished with its past atrocities. However, if Australia can recognise this division of cultural identity, it can choose to do one of two things: Allow Aboriginal communities to seek self-determination, and in turn self-governance, leading to a nation building in which Australia becomes an international continent akin to that of Europe today. Or, it must reconcile its past atrocities through Truth and Reconciliation, not so they can feel sorry forever in a day, but so that they can heal and move forward together. Australia can then become a unified cultural identity in which all peoples are accepted and equal.

Cameron McBroom

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