Teaching Nationhood: An Asian-Australian Story

When Anzac Day approaches, I reflect on my experience of teaching about Australian nationhood in the context of being a non-Indigenous, Asian migrant to Australia. I have taught Australian Cultural Studies for more than a decade. This is what I tell people who ask me what I do for a living. This is not exactly what I teach, nor is it the only thing I teach, but the heart of my teaching and subject content is about different aspects of Australian life: ideas of nationhood, gender and sexuality in Australian media representations, colonial histories, and so on. In other words, I look at political sociology through the lens of Australian case studies.

But I say ‘Australian Studies’ for a number of reasons:

  • A lot of people find it easier to understand than if I say ‘Communications’ or ‘Cultural Studies;’
  • I find the reactions of different people interesting when I disclose to them what I do.

‘But you’re Asian?!’ ‘But, you’re not really Australian?’ are some of the responses I get. For these people, having an Asian heritage is antithetical to teaching about Australia and that being Asian-Australian makes me not Australian enough or not Australian at all. My hyphenated identity reflects this position of being in this country but not being of this country: ‘Asian-Australian’ so not solely ‘Australian.’ And this sense of being here but not quite ‘belonging’ to the dominant culture speaks of the ways in which national identity and feelings of belonging to a nation are concretised through marking hyphenated identities as something additional to a ‘normal’ Australian identity.

When I ask what these people see as ‘Australian,’ every single one of them responds with ‘white.’ Indigenous-Australians are excised from this idea of what constitutes ‘authentic’ Australianness. Instead, whiteness becomes nativised to the point that belonging to the nation-state becomes synonymous with being white. Here, whiteness becomes constituted as the absence of race and ethnicity and instead comes to stand in for the ‘universal,’ or simply recognised as just ‘Australian.’

So, how do I teach on topics that focus on critically evaluating nationhood? Or more precisely, what are some of the challenges and complexities that I have encountered in teaching about Australia while being (mis)recognised as not being Australian enough?

Firstly, one of the most important things that I note when asking students to critically reflect on the traditional narratives that they have learnt about Australian history is to always acknowledge that we are learning, teaching and living on black land that was never ceded. For some (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous), this is par for course and something that they already acknowledge. For others, this is a shocking statement for them to hear, and not simply because they may disagree with it, but because of who is saying it. In this context, my ‘Asianness’ is read as something that disconnects me from acknowledging Indigenous sovereignty. Yet again, I am seen as ‘not Australian enough;’ constituted within what Joseph Pugliese terms as the ‘modality of the quasi-prior.’ Pugliese conceptualises the modality of the quasi-prior to theorise the way non-white bodies invariably come before the fact of the subject. Pugliese specifies:

An elliptical space opens . . .
It is punctuated by three points of suspension:
a body in excess of itself
an identity not of my making
a passage of violence from one to the other

 The above passage illustrates how discursive positionalities, stereotypes and assumed characteristics are engendered before the facts of one’s lived experience. In other words, before even getting to know a person, one is already seen as a composite of the discourses that frame their identity (gender, race, ethnicity, religion, ability, and so on).

In the context of my ‘Asianness,’ I become in ‘excess’ to myself, contained within Orientalist narratives that define Filipinos as outside of a western/Australian sphere and therefore as ‘other’ to an Occidental social order. Further, these positionalities (dis)place me within a violent exchange of ‘excess’ and containment that reduces my voice as unintelligible when speaking of ‘Australian issues.’ I know this because a few of my students have remarked that they find it odd that an ‘Asian’ person ‘cares’ so much about Indigenous-Australians. I get this comment from many international students from across Asia and they are genuinely curious about why I ask them to think about their position in Australia vis-à-vis the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous-Australians.

These kinds of comments are not surprising in light of the fact that the emphasis is placed on white/black connections in many discussions about Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations in Australia. This can be evidenced within dominant media representations as well as within the majority of critical race studies, cultural studies and postcolonial studies. This myopic focus on black/white relations poses a problem; that is, the relevance of ‘non-white’ and non-Indigenous Australians towards issues such as reconciliation, the racialised relations that inform the Australian nation-state, and connections with Indigenous people can be curbed and unacknowledged.

There has, however, been much done over the past few years in the area of ‘everyday multiculturalism’ which looks at intercultural relations in daily life. Anita Harris, Ien Ang, Amanda Wise, Kristine Aquino, and Amelia Johns, Fethi Mansouri and Michele Lobo, for example, have made significant contributions to the study of lived multiculturalism from a non-white centre or have shown how these relations de-centre whiteness.

However, this is not something that I have seen much of in my classes. When my students discuss Indigenous sovereignty, they usually contextualise this in terms of whiteness. While this is important to do, in order to unpack the vestiges of white colonial oppression, it also runs the risk of making non-white, non-Indigenous Australians feel a lack of complicity in the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous-Australians and thus contribute to misunderstandings between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

So, I always specify that race in this country is not simply black and white, even while emphasising that whiteness, as a pervasive hegemonic force, needs to be acknowledged in order for race privileges to be challenged. Consequently, I try to help students challenge racial privileges by offering discussion points and class exercises where they look at the ‘commonsensical’ everyday things that compose their life and see how much different forms of privilege inform them. One example of this teaching technique is to ask them what they learnt in high-school about Australian history. Many of them respond by saying that they learn about Aboriginal history in terms of the Dreamtime and the Stolen Generation. Local students share that their class timetable shifted and paused to watch the former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generation. When I ask them what they learnt in Modern History, students disclose that it was very Euro-centric and very much about wars. When I ask them whether this included the frontier wars, many respond with ‘huh? What are they?, with some even saying: ‘No, we didn’t really learn about the American civil wars.’ Such unfamiliarity and lack of education about the massacre of Indigenous peoples from the onset of European colonisation of Australia is enabled through the construction of the nation/nationalisms in the context of war, but only through the wars where white Australians are seen as the victors and/or survivors. This is most apparent in their celebration of ANZAC Day, which is normatively the version of war that becomes ‘truth’ and is popularly valued, represented, taught and celebrated. This is not to state that ANZAC Day should not be celebrated, but that a more thorough appreciation of all of Australia’s wars and battles is needed in order to remember, celebrate and learn from the myriad of successes and losses that have framed the Australian nation-state.

Moreover, even if Indigeneity was acknowledged through lessons about the Dreamtime (in Religion classes in terms of Aboriginal spirituality) and the Stolen Generation, they are couched in terms of seeing Indigenous cultures and people in the past and also as a people who non-Indigenous Australians have made peace with through Rudd’s apology. Blood and violence are rubbed clean from the slate of Australian national history.

I also ask my students about 1901 in context to Australia: ‘What happened in that year?’ The majority of local students immediately reply that this was the year that Australia became a federation. However, they do not know that the issue of non-white immigration to Australia united the different states and territories, so much so that the Immigration Restriction Act was passed. Many of my students are shocked to know that such a discriminatory Act was passed during the onset of Australia’s becoming as a nation-state, even while knowing that Australia was founded through the legal myth of terra nullius.

One of the reasons of passing the Immigration Restriction Act was to curb Chinese immigration into Australia and to suppress the successful intermixing of Asian migrants with Indigenous people in the northern end of Australia. The idea of Australia as a pristine white space that is marred by its ‘ethnic’ and Indigenous inhabitants thus gains traction through the failure to acknowledge the multi-ethnic connections that decentre whiteness.

Students are surprised to know about this multicultural, multi-ethnic past; thinking that ‘multiculturalism’ is only a buzz word for the present and only to be recognised in conjunction to Anglo-Australian ways of knowing and defining diversity and difference.

Here, the corpus of the Australian nation-state excises its Asian bodies, their longevity in this country and their relevance to conceptions of identity, place, (non)belonging in more contemporary contexts.

These are some of the issues and challenges that arise in my classrooms. And we go through the complexities of race, nationalism, nationhood, and identity. Sometimes this occurs through heated debates, but simultaneously, kindness and respect shines through. Many students are thoughtful, open-minded and respectful of difference, and some are even brave enough to self-reflexively evaluate their own (im)positions within Australia and beyond.

I aim to teach about nationhood in a nuanced manner, so I continue to teach Australian Studies, whether or not I am seen as Australian or not. Or more precisely, because I am seen as not Australian enough. To problematise the grounds through which certain aspects of nationhood become valorised while others are discounted marks the ethos of my teaching and learning. And to remember that the nation’s story has not ended, it is culturally contextual, changing, edited, and is in fact about stories that demonstrate that the nation is continually becoming.

 Lest we forget.


See also

The X the Nation Built


Elaine Laforteza teaches in the School of Communication in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney. Her book, The Somatechnics of Whiteness and Race: Colonialism and Mestiza Privilege is available through Routledge. Since 2002, she has written for the Filipino-Australian newspaper, The Philippine Community Herald on topics that examine Australian multiculturalism and community development. She has also published in The Griffith Review, Peril Magazine and in peer-reviewed academic journals on the topics of race, colonialism, ability and Asian-Australian relations, particularly in context to Filipino-Australians.

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