One Year in Australia: On Being a Non-Citizen, Racism and Sexuality

 

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Me at the University of Melbourne (where I’m doing my PhD).

Today marks one year since I arrived in Australia from New Zealand. In terms of relocating overseas, moving across the Tasman is fairly minor: Australia and New Zealand are geographical neighbours with many cultural similarities, to the point that the rest of the world finds it hard to tell us apart. For me, however, this move has been profound, particularly as a political person.

What does politics have to do with it? Well, the relocation has meant changing from being a citizen to a non-citizen, from speaking on the inside to speaking from the outside. I’m not a nationalistic or patriotic person, but by the time I left New Zealand I felt a deep connection with the country as a citizen. I had followed New Zealand politics closely since long before I could vote, worked and volunteered in political spaces (namely the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand), and deeply cared for the future of New Zealand and New Zealanders. I felt a sense of responsibility as a citizen to engage with emotionally taxing material, and would enter into difficult discussions with people of differing political views in attempt to fulfil this responsibility.

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TPPA protest in Auckland, Nov 2014.

In Australia, without citizenship and as a newcomer and an outsider, it’s harder to enter those difficult discussions. This is partly because I feel I don’t have the right. My first Australia Day was marked by a terse exchange with my then-partner. I’d referred to the anniversary of British arrival as “Dispossession Day” and she told me to be very careful about calling it that in public, particularly as a New Zealander who’d recently arrived in Australia. In retrospect, this advice was probably well intentioned (she was likely saving me from getting shouted at by a patriotic customer at work). At the time, however, I found it really upsetting. Engaging with social and political injustices is such a key part of the person I have been and want to be, and I was frustrated that my non-citizenship was precluding me from speaking out about colonialism that day.

It is not surprising that I felt most conscious of my New Zealand identity on Australia Day. Debates around racism and the treatment of indigenous peoples are particularly loaded in Australia given its awful colonial history and the ways colonial violence continues in the present day. In my first month in Australia, the relentless booing of indigenous AFL player Adam Goodes by racist spectators was headline news, with many people denying the racist nature of the booing. (Goodes was the 2014 Australian of the Year and has publicly defended Indigenous rights and anti-racist causes.) Government agencies continue to steal Indigenous children from their communities, Indigenous Australians are imprisoned at a rate 15 times higher than that of non-Indigenous people, the unemployment rate is five times higher for Indigenous Australians, and the Australian government has still not offered to negotiate a treaty.

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Front page of The Age during AFL racist booing, July 2015

As a New Zealander, commenting on Australia’s treatment of Indigenous people is particularly fraught. New Zealand is not as infamous for its colonial history or the ongoing racism (both direct and systemic) suffered by Maori people. There is therefore the assumption that criticism from a New Zealander is being levelled at Australia from the moral high ground rather than a place of familiarity. In conversations with lovely, politically progressive Australians, I’ve noticed that many seem to think that the relationship between Maori and Pakeha in New Zealand is, and has been, harmonious. They often bring up the Treaty of Waitangi but haven’t heard that key words (including “sovereignty”) were mistranslated to Maori by colonists, nor do they know about violations of the Treaty since its signing. Institutional racism against Maori is rife, but this is barely spoken about in New Zealand let alone common knowledge in Australia. Maori represent over 50% of prison population despite only making up 15% of the population, 27% fewer Maori high schoolers graduate than Pakeha high schoolers, and there are over 2 times as many Maori children living in poverty than Pakeha children. The statistics are just as revealing when it comes to health, housing and employment outcomes for Maori people.

As I arrive at the one-year mark, I’ve realised that an important part of talking about racism and colonialism in Australia as an outsider and, specifically, a New Zealand citizen is highlighting these similarities. New Zealand does not represent the gold standard of race relations, nor is Australia exceptional in its racism. We can learn more about racism and colonialism by using our similarities as a starting place for discussion, rather than the usual frame of which country wins the award for being The Least Racist.

In contrast to the external pressure I’ve experienced not to engage with Australian politics, I also find I (shamefully) use my non-citizenship as a reason to not engage. I’ve noticed myself doing this as a self-protection mechanism when it comes to LGBTQ issues – particularly the Liberal government’s attacks on the Safe Schools program. Politics is emotionally exhausting, but this is particularly the case when you identify with the people whose lives and livelihoods are in jeopardy.

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Safe Schools is a program providing material on sexuality and gender to schools Australia– wide. It is designed to increase awareness and understanding of sexuality and gender diversity, thereby decreasing bullying of LGBTQ teenagers. The Liberal government has stalled funding to the Safe Schools program pending a review (led by its most conservative MPs) on the basis that the program teaches “radical politics” and is “indoctrinating” school children. I am bisexual and have a gay older sister. My first major crush, at 14 years of age, was on my same gender best friend. At 16, I had my first romantic and sexual partner (a girlfriend). When I was 17-18, I had a gender non-conforming boyfriend who was privately (only his parents and I knew) cross-

Suit ball

Wearing a suit to my school ball in 2010.

dressing and undergoing hormone therapy. Throughout these years, I faced an environment everyday where “that’s so gay”, “faggot” and “no homo” were common utterances amongst my peers. I mysteriously lost a close friend in my senior high school years, only to find out later that it was because of my sexuality. In Year 13, it took all the bravery I could muster to wear a suit to the ball, having not attended the previous year’s due to anxiety around doing so.

High school was made survivable by two things: the Peer Sexuality Support Program (an anti-bulling initiative similar to the Safe Schools program) and the mentorship of an incredible gay teacher who went out of his way to encourage me and to make me feel safe (this wonderful individual has gone on to create a LGBTQ group at the school). The Liberal government’s attack on Safe Schools carries so much significance for me that I’m terrified to face it. I’ve been avoiding reading about it, attending protests, and writing letters to MPs… all the usual actions I would’ve undertaken had this happened in New Zealand. My heart goes out to Australian LGBTQ teenagers in this toxic, homophobic political environment, but I haven’t yet found the strength to meaningfully engage with the issue.

safe schools

 

I have at least another 3 years left until I finish my PhD, and I don’t know what I will do afterwards: go back to NZ, stay in Australia or move further afield. It will largely depend on where work or post-doctoral opportunities take me. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see if I get any better at navigating my position as an outsider, non-citizen and a very political New Zealander living in Australia.

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