Fighting the myth

The editorial is the voice of  The Saturday Paper. Since our first edition, it has been written by the paper’s editor. This week it is written by Nakkiah Lui, a Gamillaroi/Torres Strait Islander woman. Change is about giving up space, and the editorial is a newspaper’s most privileged space.


I’m not writing this from Australia. It’s ironic: I’ve had to leave the country of my birth so as not to feel the emotional toxicity of being an Aboriginal person in Australia on Australia Day.

Don’t even bother saying it: “If it wasn’t for white people, you wouldn’t have had the technology to even go overseas.” I’ve heard that one before. That’s also part of the experience of being an Aboriginal person: if you ever articulate any kind of oppression or opposition to your oppression, you are quickly shown how inferior you are to your oppressors. That, or your Aboriginality is questioned. Or you’re gaslighted into thinking you are the problem or that your articulation of your identity is creating a problem. That’s exactly what January 26 celebrates: the erasure of Aboriginal people.

For me, being an Aboriginal person, life is about trying to reclaim my freedom – especially on January 26, when the crime that was colonisation was committed against my people. Being an Aboriginal person is about trying to reclaim the freedom to have hope.

This freedom to hope is one of the things that has made Australia great. It is what lies at the heart of the story of Australia: the migrant coming here, escaping hardship, to start a new life of opportunity and hope. To embark on the great Australia dream. To start anew a narrative that has remained constant since 1788. As Australia has grown increasingly multicultural, there is a different face on that same narrative.

Aboriginal people aren’t allowed the freedom to have hope in this country, because our hope means validating our existence, saying we are here, and all of a sudden that destroys the myth of Australia. That is what January 26 celebrates.

When you don’t acknowledge the past, the legacy continues. But here is the thing: looking back, straight into the eyes of the past, isn’t like looking into the sun. It’s not going to make us blind. It is ignoring the past that does that.

We can’t keep pretending it’s terra nullius. We are here, we breathe your air, we share your space.

Multiculturalism cannot be a dream that leaves out Aboriginal people.

We need to change the date of Australia Day. We need to practise empathy as a nation in an honest way. It’s not just that Australia Day is celebrated on January 26 that makes it so difficult, it is people’s insistence that you are wrong for wanting it to be changed, for merely questioning it. It’s because of this protest that we also need to ask ourselves if there can ever be a day that celebrates a nation founded in violence. Do we deserve that? Have we earnt it? Is this the country we want it to be?

Australia Day is a weird, forced event. It’s like that friend who insists you celebrate their birthday for an entire week. It’s like a fitspo blogger pushing a shallow kind of #SelfLove as they advertise skinny tea – although this time they’re advertising lamb.

In the end, for Aboriginal people, there is nowhere else to go but here. It is Australia from which we can’t escape, because we don’t have the freedom to hope and dream. It isn’t allowed because our inability to acknowledge the past means we make invisible the oppression right in front of us: we deny that it is even there.

This country is our home, but until the date is changed, we live on the margins of its celebrations. We aren’t included in its heart and centres. Aboriginal people used to literally live on the fringes of towns; we still do, at least symbolically.

As an Australian, it’s your responsibility to be asking two questions: Why do we celebrate Australia Day on a day that a whole race of people became oppressed? And is that our greatest achievement? Gradually, as Australia changes, more people will look for those answers. And the toxicity that means I couldn’t bear to stay in my own country for its national holiday might have to face its antidote.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 28, 2017 as "Fighting the myth".

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Nakkiah Lui is a playwright and actor, and the co-writer of ABC TV’s Black Comedy.

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