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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 – 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.

Ethiopian injera with a variety of meat and vegetable stews at Saba’s

Traditional coffee, popcorn, and frankincense at Saba’s; old and new Melbourne

Inside the Long Room at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum

A spread of Greek starters at Tsindos, a long-running venue in the Greek Precinct downtown

Chicken gyro and melt-in-the-mouth fried calamari, also at Tsindos

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. 

The Royal Exhibition Building reflected in the facade of the Melbourne Museum

Inside the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Center

The cultural diversity of Aboriginal Australia

Canoes and sails adorned with Melanesian, Micronesian, and Polynesian motifs (from left to right)

A life-size depiction of Australia’s coat of arms

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post James. And sobering facts. My first introduction to Australia’s shocking policies towards aborigines and non-white immigrants were the stories about the stolen generation including the movie: Rabbit Proof Fence. They coloured my opinion of Australia until I began travelling in earnest and realised that a country’s politics do not necessarily define a people. The capacity to introspect and lay bare one’s dark history is not only encouraging but admirable. It is my hope too that the mistakes of history are never repeated. Anywhere.

    November 12, 2017
    • You said it perfectly, Madhu – “a country’s politics do not necessarily define a people.” These words are worth framing and putting on a wall. To view any country from afar, through the often distorted lens of TV, print, and online media, is just so different from going there personally to see what things are like on the ground.

      November 14, 2017
  2. Well said

    November 12, 2017
  3. I hope Pauline Hanson’s horrible party doesn’t gain strength. Australia was built by people from all over the world. The treatment of Aborigines has been deplorable. There is much to like about Australia and I am happy I was born here, and I hope ridiculous racist ideas are a thing of the past. This is wishful thinking I suppose, but I think most Australians are fair minded.

    November 12, 2017
    • Even growing up miles away from Australia, I learned about Pauline Hanson and her anti-immigrant views. But one thing that struck me about Sydney and Melbourne was just how multicultural and inclusive both cities were. It was unusual to go to certain restaurants and have the waitress assume that Bama and I were locals until we explained that we were visiting from out of town.

      November 14, 2017
  4. About a third of adult Americans still think this way as evidenced by the Kremlin’s Agent Orange Donald Trump’s hardcore following that refuses to change their minds about the great flim-flam, con man, fraud, failed businessman, super racist from the dark side, and serial liar that is now the alleged president of the United States who lost the popular vote by more than 2.8 million votes.

    November 13, 2017
    • Oh, it’s just so depressing I don’t make much of an effort to follow the news that comes out of the United States. Trump is currently in our neck of the woods, and one of my classmates couldn’t help commenting on Facebook that “Draft dodger visited Vietnam as commander-in-chief”… I find it incredibly disrespectful that a coward who actively avoided military service could taunt John McCain for his POW experiences.

      November 14, 2017
      • And now we have the latest report on the state of the global climate from most of the world’s leading scientists, while the ignorant, blowhard, conman, fraud, serial liar that thinks he is the greatest thing since manure is doing all he can to speed up climate change and destroy civilization before global warming does that job.

        The Kremlin’s Agent Orange living in the U.S. White House is more dangerous than a nuclear war or climate change.

        November 15, 2017
  5. You know, I wonder how you would have reacted if you did the interrogation in the other two (or three) scenarios provided in that room at the Immigration Museum, because they’re supposed to show visitors how much Australian immigration policy has evolved. However, I really admire Australia’s bravery and humility to confront its own past to make sure such inhumane discrimination will not be repeated by future generations. I would be very surprised if Indonesia ever did the same.

    November 13, 2017
    • I think my emotions got the better of me – though a lot of it was down to that painful personal connection. Your point about Indonesia makes sense, especially when it comes to taboo subjects like the mass killings of 1965, and to some extent, the anti-Chinese riots of May 1998.

      November 14, 2017
  6. It’s a pretty dark past, and a courageous present to own it and have it on full display. I suspect it’s no worse than all the ex colonies invaded by white men from Europe. Their MO was to view the local population as something to be exploited or erased, and to control who did and did not have access to the spoils of their invasion. The White Australia Policy was an appalling piece of legislation, as was the rounding up of Aboriginal children and imprisoning them in residential schools. Excellent, if somewhat unsettling post James.
    Alison

    November 14, 2017
    • Thank you, Alison – I completely agree about requiring courage to own and display a past like that. As Bama mentioned above, that isn’t something we are likely to see here in Asia any time soon. Japan hasn’t openly admitted to or taught its schoolchildren about the terrible atrocities its soldiers committed in World War II, China seems adamant on erasing the memory of what happened in Tiananmen back in 1989, and rewriting the darker episodes of its Communist 20th century history, there is no memorial or official recognition of the mass murders that happened across Indonesia in 1965… and all, I think, because of the concept of saving face.

      November 14, 2017
  7. Excellent post, James. Your photo of the Aboriginal map of Australia feels especially important. So often we learn about indigenous peoples as small tribes or populations scattered across a vast land when in fact they’ve created and been part of a rich cultural history and population far greater than represented. This is the case with Native American history presented in the US school system. Only by reading, learning and going to places like this museum you visited do we realize there’s a far different story that must be told, regardless of how painful it may be.

    November 14, 2017
    • Kelly, reading your insightful comment reminds me that history is written by the victors. And also that there is always something to learn when we use a different approach and mindset to understand the same events. I would love to visit a museum that narrates the history of the United States from a Native American perspective.

      November 14, 2017
      • So true, James! Love your thought about using a different approach to understand the same events. And speaking of different perspectives, if you’re interested in Native American history, I highly recommend reading “The Earth Shall Weep” by James Wilson — comprehensive, sobering and very important reading. Thanks! ~K.

        November 15, 2017
  8. Living right now in a nation that is turning back toward nationalistic postures makes this post even more interesting to me. I, too, love Madhu’s comment that a country’s politics do not necessarily define a people, and I hope every day that people outside the U.S. believe that. I do admire Australia’s facing its past head-on and just hope that education like this enlightens as well as informs.

    November 14, 2017
  9. Great post. it certainly gives food for thought.

    November 14, 2017
  10. Excellent and sobering post! The facts you cite are shocking, but sadly, not altogether surprising. I applaud the museums for telling the real stories about this dark part of history. Australia is not alone in its shame. When I think back at my high school education about Canada’s indigenous people there was a massive information gap.I don’t think I knew the term “residential school” until well into my adult life but these institutions of “aggressive assimilation” that caused irreparable harm existed until the 90s. It has really only been in the past decade that the Canadian government has owned up and apologized for its past wrongs. I echo your wish and do hope that nations, governments, people will learn from past mistakes.

    November 16, 2017
  11. lovely read. It’s disheartening to see what happens with the world today. I hope we won’t repeat the same mistakes.

    November 17, 2017

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