Australia: Lessons on Immigration and Racism
Ethiopian cuisine is not something one would readily associate with Australia. But in Melbourne, Victoria’s state capital, Bama and I get our first taste at Saba’s on Brunswick Street, the main artery running through the bohemian inner-city suburb of Fitzroy. The young proprietor, Saba herself, serves us her mother’s recipes with a gleaming smile. Bama and I share a platter of injera, a spongy flatbread made from fermented teff flour, tearing off large pieces with our hands to mop up a tantalizing assortment of meat and vegetable stews.
We eat mouthfuls of rust-red tel sebhi – tender cubes of goat meat slow-cooked in an Ethiopian spice mixture called berbere – alongside a combination of turmeric-scented potatoes, carrots, and cabbage known as dinish; there’s also a Sudanese recipe of diced okra cooked with lamb, and I can’t get enough of the berbere-infused split red lentils. The burgeoning food scene in Greater Melbourne showcases the sheer diversity of its immigrant population; almost 40 percent of residents were born outside Australia, but the city wasn’t always so multicultural or welcoming.
At the Immigration Museum, housed in the former Customs Building by the Yarra River, Bama and I are confronted with hard truths about the racist beginnings of modern Australia. When Australia became a self-governing nation in 1901, with Melbourne as its de facto capital, one of the first acts by the new federal parliament was to pass restrictive legislation barring all non-European immigration. It was in line with the Australian nationalist sentiment of the time, which feared a large influx of Asians and Pacific Islanders while reinforcing the view that Australia was an “empty” continent that should be populated only by whites. These ideas and laws formed the basis of the White Australia Policy, which was progressively rolled back from 1949 onwards before being completely dismantled in 1973.
Initially, there was a clear preference for immigrants of British origin. Because Australia’s immigration policy could not be overtly based on race, the authorities came up with a compulsory dictation test that could be conducted in any European language – of the officer’s choosing – to filter out non-British and indeed non-European immigrants. Candidates were required to write at least 50 words correctly as dictated by the customs officer, and could be tested several times in different languages until they failed. The Immigration Museum cited real-life examples of Maltese being used on a Dutch immigrant, and someone fluent in several European languages who failed his test in Scottish Gaelic. Even the English dictation test was designed to be long-winded and extremely difficult. The truth was that less than six percent of candidates passed the test from 1902-03, dropping to one percent between 1904 and 1909. In subsequent years not even a single person managed to succeed, with new arrivals refused entry and those who failed within their first five years of residence deported.
As someone whose forebears went through the Chinese immigrant experience in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century and then Canada some six decades later, reading about these policies touched a raw nerve. Even before Australian Federation in 1901, anti-Chinese legislation was passed in the then-colony of Victoria, a reaction to the influx of Chinese laborers during the gold rush. At that point the Chinese were the third- or fourth-largest immigrant community in Melbourne after the British and several other European groups. Much like the U.S. and Canada, the government imposed a head tax on each Chinese migrant who came through a Victorian port, and restricted entry to one person per ten tonnes of ship cargo. Prospective gold diggers circumvented this by coming ashore at the port of Robe in neighboring South Australia and trekking 500 kilometers overland to the goldfields in the fast-growing inland cities of Ballarat and Bendigo.
My shock and anger reach a boiling point inside a mock interview room, where a screen frames an Anglo-Saxon actor with accusing eyes, a bushy moustache, and 1920s clothing. He tells me I am the customs officer tasked with deciding whether or not to renew a temporary visa for a character named Wing Tang, who explains that she is the wife of a furniture businessman and mother to two Australian-born toddlers. When her English vocabulary fails her, the young woman looks directly into the camera and speaks the very language I grew up using with my extended family. The absence of subtitles only makes every single Cantonese word more powerful and piercing. I grant her a visa extension, but the Anglo-Saxon reacts with scorn. Wrong answer – Wing Tang’s application is denied, even if it means tearing the young family apart. I stand up in rage, horrified at the injustice that this country was built upon. “I’m so glad I’m not Australian!” I loudly declare.
And yet, I am thankful that the museums in Melbourne don’t gloss over that shameful history and the institutionalized racism that was written into law at the nation’s founding. Even today, some Australians see multiculturalism as a threat; the Immigration Museum alludes to the success of the One Nation Party in the 1990s, a populist faction founded by the infamous Pauline Hanson.
The discrimination practiced by descendants of white settlers becomes even more jarring when you begin to understand the suffering of the Aborigines at the hands of these strangers from the ocean. Inside the sprawling, glass-fronted Melbourne Museum, just behind the Royal Exhibition Building where Australia’s Parliament was first opened in 1901, the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Center illustrates the loss of land, culture, and sovereignty of the Aborigines during British colonization. The reality is that indigenous peoples were not only displaced and pushed to the fringes of society; European arrivals carried new diseases like smallpox that decimated the local population. Women and children were kidnapped and forced to work for whalers and sealers, who, in their greed to make profit and satisfy the hunger of Europe’s growing middle class for furs and seal oil, almost depleted the seal population of Victoria and South Australia, clubbing and killing until the foreshores were red with blood. The traditional laws and respect for nature long practiced by the Aborigines were thrown by the wayside.
That such an exhibition exists is encouraging in itself – it takes a certain level of introspection and maturity to put the country’s past transgressions on full display. Today the Aboriginal flag flies above Victoria’s State Parliament in downtown Melbourne, and Australian schoolchildren come to both museums to learn these stories. My wish is that Australia will not succumb to the blind nationalism and narrow-mindedness that seems to be sweeping across the globe; may the mistakes of its past never be repeated. ◊