Australian National Identity: White Patriarchy through the ANZAC Legend

I spot him before he actually notices me. Old mate is drunk and belligerent, not minding his own business like the other men, an older group drinking socially together at the RSL’s bar. They glance up, a bit surprised to see us in their space, but nonetheless return to their drinks and conversation without further acknowledgement. Years of minding my safety as a visibly Asian woman in Australia, as an Aboriginal woman living within the legacy of colonialism, I am quick and experienced in surveying the public space I occupy. I look for white men like this one, groups of white men like them, especially when they have been drinking. I sit with my husband, visibly Aboriginal, and my sister, she looks Asian just like me. On edge now, I go to order food and broaden my Australian accent when speaking to bistro staff. Move my body with a bravado that I hope mimics masculine arrogance. Let me be clear: this is a coping strategy that I do not encourage others to emulate. Born out of a response to an environment of race-based and gendered violence, it is a costume I have adopted, increasingly, since I started wearing the hijab. It protects me in situ but does nothing to change the enduring environment of racial hostility around me.

My accent and my adopted male swagger can do nothing to help me today. Old mate is circling our table, looking at me, holding his beer, staggering back and forth from the bar to the bistro and muttering under his breath. My family are not yet aware, but I can sense what is coming; I keep looking at him nervously, unwittingly encouraging the confrontation. What started in my head as ‘I go to the RSL all the time’ has turned in to ‘but that hijabi was turned away in Queensland, things have changed.’ Here in the RSL, Islamophobia has found its way in. Here in the RSL, old mate tells me repeatedly to remove my hijab, argues the point when I refuse.

I suppose I should not be surprised. White patriarchy has always been part of the ANZAC spirit, a fact that the Australian public has largely been unable to admit in its rush to revere such national legend. Here, the whiteness and the patriarchy, always so synonymous with Australian identity, are attributes that remain unnamed and unchallenged in our national story. Instead, Australians are quick to name core national values as centred around mateship, courage, egalitarianism and larrikinism. Attributed to the World War I digger, such values have been mythologised to the point that when invoked they are able to quell any perceived threat to our most-fragile national psyche. Such threats involve a special kind of vulnerability comprised of simultaneous general ambiguity and specific concern related to the privileging of non-white people over Australians – Australians who are almost always imagined as inherently white.

Scholars, activists, public intellectuals have all attempted to unmask this white patriarchy within the ANZAC legend. Associate Professor Fiona Nicoll writes that in the development of the ANZAC, the digger face was presented as ‘a vital component…that linked national identity to the supremacy of the Caucasian race.’[i] The male white face of the digger is symbolic not only of the white patriarchy embedded in our national identity, it also speaks to the process of Australian national myth-making itself. The ANZAC spirit, first expressed by Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, was turned in to legend by  C. E. W.  Woodrow Bean, war correspondent and historian instrumental in the establishment of the Australian War Memorial. In construction of the digger as part of the ANZAC legend, shell-shocked soldiers were seen to be un-Australian[ii] and digger nationalism was developed to the exclusion of non-White people,[iii] disabled and disfigured diggers[iv] and women[v]. In this way, C. E. W. Bean was able to conceive and perpetuate a national character that has long-been critiqued as more constructed legend than real character. Forged on the battlefield, the digger has been presented to the Australian public as courageous and determined, full of humour, comradery and a sense of the ‘fair go for all.’ Implicitly, the digger as national character has showcased Australianness as physical and mental prime, strong male heterosexuality and inherent wholesome whiteness.

The ANZAC legend is much more than the discourse of ‘Australian values,’ it is white patriarchy borne of the Australian colonial experience, the unnamed foundation of Australian national identity. Transmuted from Britain, such white patriarchy has existed since before the forging of Australia’s national character at Gallipoli and has endured to today. Within the context of armed conflict, Aboriginal trackers sent to the Boer War were denied re-entry to Australia once the war was over, with the White Australia policy coming in to effect in 1901 and restrictions placed upon the entry of non-whites to newly federated Australia. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people served in World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War and other conflicts, but were not properly recognised, refused services and benefits that their white counterparts received upon their return. Importantly, despite Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people serving equally alongside white Australians in armed conflict overseas, upon their return to Australia Indigenous veterans continued to be discriminated against on the basis of their race.

In 2017 Muslim media pundit Yassmin Abdel-Magied was pilloried for ‘disrespecting’ the ANZAC legend. The intense, sustained and vitriolic public outcry against Abdel-Magied as a black Muslim woman highlights the link between the ANZAC legend and the centring of white patriarchy within it. As the antithesis of the white Australian male, Yassmin Abdel-Magied had previously been celebrated for her difference in multicultural and tolerant Australia, even becoming Queensland’s Young Australian of the Year in 2015. However, by using the ANZAC tradition to highlight other atrocities of conflict and violence outside of the ANZAC narrative, she was viewed as disrespecting the ANZAC tradition despite deploying ‘Lest we forget’ in the same spirit as intended. In imploring Australians to remember the human impact of war and conflict – from the realities of its violence in various global theatres to the practicalities of compassionately accommodating violently displaced peoples within Australia – Yassmin Abdel-Magied utilised those same Australian values of mateship and egalitarianism, courage and determination. In utilising the Australian character derived from ANZAC legend, Yassmin Abdel-Magied as a non-white woman speaking to the specific racist treatment of displaced peoples, provoked the white patriarchy at the very heart of the ANZAC legend.

The notion of tolerance utilised in the case of Yassmin Abdel-Magied is one that highlights the centrality of white patriarchy within Australia’s national identity. Those that are other to the white Australian male are tolerated so long as they do not move beyond the confines of the racial and patriarchal boundaries of Australian society, particularly those that have been defined within the ANZAC legend. Such a tolerance centres the white male as tolerant and all others as tolerated but continues to allow the white male to remain unnamed, inherently Australian, the norm. Recent moves to uncover and include the story of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service in armed conflict is part of an Indigenous paradigm that ensures Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences are always remembered, never forgotten. Within white Australian patriarchy, however, this is often conflated with the ANZAC tradition of ‘Lest we forget’ and thus Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans and service men and women are co-opted into the patriotic nationalism of ANZAC Day.

In contrast to this, institutional refusal to recognise the Frontier Wars is indicative of how the discourse of tolerance has been utilised within Australian society via white patriarchal nationalism, perpetuated by and for the perpetuation of the ANZAC tradition. The Frontier Wars, conflicts between Aboriginal people resisting colonisation and European people seeking to ‘settle’ Australia, have been highlighted by historians and academics but decried by conservative historians, politicians and institutions. Since 2009, there have been calls for the Australian War Memorial to formally acknowledge and memorialise the Frontier Wars, but so far these calls have been dismissed.

To acknowledge the Frontier Wars as a formal event in history, as part of Australian military history and in the tradition of the ANZAC, would be to acknowledge that Indigenous sovereignty was fiercely defended and never ceded. In this way, acknowledgement of the Frontier Wars would disrupt the discourse of tolerance, whereby Australia tolerates the conquered and assimilated native so long as this native abides by Australian white patriarchal nationalism. If the myth of the conquered and assimilated native is challenged via institutional recognition of the Frontier Wars, then such a move would disrupt white patriarchal possession of the continent and challenge the very idea of Australian nationhood and national identity.

The ANZAC tradition is the commemoration of the fallen in war, a solemn reminder of the follies of armed conflict. More recently, the ANZAC legend has become a celebration of Australian nationhood, a practice in white patriarchy through expression of Australian national identity. ANZAC traditions should continue to be observed, solemnly and with respect, but can no longer be used to perpetuate the myth of the white patriarchal Australian nation. To do so is to tell us all that only some narratives are worthy of legend.



[i] Fiona Nicoll, From Diggers to Drag Queens: Configurations of Australian National Identity, (Sydney: Pluto Press, 2001), 113.

[ii] Nicoll, From Diggers to Drag Queens, 38.

[iii] Nicoll, From Diggers to Drag Queens, 43-44.

[iv] Nicoll, From Diggers to Drag Queens, 43-44.

[v] Nicoll, From Diggers to Drag Queens, 71-72.

Eugenia Flynn is a writer, arts worker and community organiser. She runs the blog Black Thoughts Live Here and her thoughts on the politics of race, gender and culture have been published widely. Eugenia identifies as Aboriginal, Chinese and Muslim, working within her multiple communities to create change through art, literature and community development.

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