The Cronulla Cape is a White Shroud
Out in the park there is an unscooped dog poo with a tiny Australian flag toothpicked into it. This delicately placed little icon has given me nationalist yearnings. ‘That’s the spirit’ I find myself thinking.
I have only just recovered from all that fatuous flag waving by white Australians on Australia Day. That’s right. They were all white people. Every. Last. One I saw. The media was of course, at pains to show Australians of non-Anglo descent under the Cronulla Cape. They embodied Multinationalism, and our media is inclusive. Good on ‘em.
But it wasn’t representative.
I took a broad survey looking behind the windscreens of every flag-bearing hearse, I mean car, from here to Angelsea, and noting all the beach flag paraphernalia on the way. How well our navy blue goes with alabaster, freckled and scorched complexions.
I took another survey at the Big Day Out, the year the organizers created a furor by requesting patrons be sensitive to multiculturalism and leave the flag at home. Implicitly they were saying what I’m saying. Only white Australians swathe themselves in our flag. And everyone but them knows it.
They were of course roundly accused of denying people’s freedom of expression, and that old chestnut of inanity, of ‘political correctness’.
Tell me someone, anyone, how isn’t it political to swathe yourself in your national flag? Isn’t it being correct to one of the most overt expressions of political allegiance?
But just to be sure I pretended to be a journo and ‘interviewed’ a number of these sprightly young nationalists. Everywhere one looked that Southern Cross had fluttered down from the national mast, and shrouded more parts of the body politic than ever imagined by our fallen servicemen. Given that flags are generally used as shrouds it certainly is a revival.
So I stood tippy-toed within a stand of young men, who explained they hadn’t taken the flag off since Australia Day and had been sleeping with them. I ventured to ask, did they prefer them on top, and they said, rather quixotically, ‘well, you have to get by somehow’ and made oblique references to inflatables. They must’ve meant boxing Kangaroos.
‘Oz Pride!’ another group explained and said that for them Australia was ‘this’ – that is, getting shickered and shouldering swaying girls to the Violent Femmes. Fine. I’m up for that kind of nationalism. But then they said that wearing the flag was about ‘mates’ and when I asked did they leave their Chinese, Aboriginal and Indian mates at home, they replied, by way of explanation, ‘We’re from Tasmania’.
And it seems tattooed Australian flags are becoming so popular one parlour alone is tattooing 12 ‘Aussie Swasis’ a week.
None of this helped me solve the mystery of this epidermal barr in our flag-waving habits. So being an egghead I leafed through some books with big words.
Nationalism it seems is a cultural artefact, and these nations we belong to so fervently, are imagined communities. And the problem with nations is when we confuse them with race. We invent these nations in our heads, and reinvent them everytime we wave the flag. So if predominantly white people in Australia wave our flag what kind of a nation are they inventing? They are inventing a nation that, like Pauline Hanson, confuses being Australian with Being White.
But I think their intentions are honorable. I don’t think they’re noticed their flag-waving comrades are overwhelmingly white, and most of them would be non-plussed and even delighted to see Australians of non-Anglo descent waving the flag. Because any expression of inclusion can invent a community of deep and genuine comraderie.
But the thing is, they’re not. So why has white flag-waving resurged right in the era of globalization? Right at the time we have shored up our borders to refugees and a strong anti-immigration sentiment is seeping through our parliament, in reaction to the biggest intake in our history?
I blame Howard – though I say that a lot even when I burn the toast. But Howard had never quite shaken off the cloak of white Australia. He grew up with it, it was part of the community he’d imagined as a child and I suspect he wanted to reinvent it as Prime Minister. And this flag-waving generation are Howard’s. They are his invention.
We’ve got a bit of a thing about racial homogeneity I’m afraid. It runs deep. Aside from trying to ‘breed out the colour’ by removing ‘half-caste’ Aboriginal kids from their communities, the central policy platform of our country from 1901 until 1973 was the immigration restriction act, better known as White Australia. It was, our first Prime Minister said, a ‘declaration of a racial identity’. But whiteness isn’t a racial identity is it? Whiteness isn’t a colour, and isn’t race only attributable to people of colour?
‘The position of speaking as a white person is one that white people never acknowledge and this is part of the condition and power of whiteness’, says Richard Dyer. Part of what made it impossible to have this argument with my kids in the car down to Angelsea is that they couldn’t see that only white people were flag-waving. Even if they are, they sensibly said, they’re not stopping everybody else waving flags are they?
So the question has to asked, do non-Anglo descent Australians feel uncomfortable waving the flag? Since it seems they do then why don’t white Australians notice? More importantly, has this even been a part of whites feeling more comfortable waving the flag?
Dyer has an answer to this. He says ‘whiteness needs to be made strange’ and strange to itself. The ways that whiteness is triumphal, narcissistic and, given our history, amnesiac, needs to be exposed.
A flag in dog poo is very strange, but it’s also irreverent and mocking of staid and unexamined expressions of an older, exclusive Australia. That’s the spirit.