The wrong day, the wrong flag

January 16th, 2013 by admin

An incident a few years ago caused me to reflect on our national day …

 

The local supermarket was busy with shoppers fetching last-minute items on one of those hot, lazy Australia Day afternoons. As I wheeled passed the checkouts on my way to locate toothpaste I overheard a bloke asking could he borrow 15c from someone in the queue. He had enough for his bread, meat and vegetables but was a bit short for his carton of milk.

Astonished I saw everyone either avoid his stare or mutter a grumpy “no”. I looked up and realised he was a Koorie. Quick check-in. He didn’t look drunk or drug-affected and showed no obvious signs of mental ill-health. He was just black.

“Are you right mate?” I sang out as I dug my hand into my pocket scrambling for change. But his face had contorted into a snarl. He was arguing with the checkout chick and grasping for his bag of meagre affordables. “Nah, it’s OK mate,” he glanced in my direction before marching off despondent and angry. His abandoned milk carton sweated on the counter. flag tattoo

So it had come to this. No one was prepared to hand an Aboriginal man a few cents towards some milk for his cuppa after dinner. On Australia Day. The irony was lost on the assortment of harried mums and single men waiting in the queue. “What a bunch of racists,” I growled under my breath at my housemate. “They wouldn’t have hesitated if he was a pensioner, a young fella or just about anyone else. Anyone who was white.” My voice rose.

My friend fell silent. Maybe I had over-reacted. Perhaps the unresponsive queuers felt awkward in the way that sometimes accompanies a request from a stranger. But the feeling persisted that these same folk would have reacted differently if that stranger hadn’t been black. We sighed and fetched the toothpaste.

Australia Day, Anzac Day, the Queen’s Birthday. I’ve often puzzled about the days we choose to celebrate and how we do it. Just the night before the guy serving at my local bottle shop offered me a flimsy plastic Australian flag. I declined, saying it would get crushed in my bag, which was true. But it was a polite excuse because I wouldn’t be seen waving a flag for Australia Day. I wouldn’t be able put out of my mind the images of drunken adolescents draped in Australian flags punching anyone with dark skin on Cronulla Beach a few summers earlier. The latest in a vast contact sheet of distasteful images of the flag being co-opted as an accessory of crude tribal jingoism.

And yet as I left the bottle shop I thanked the man for his gesture. For having the flag to hand out in the first place. And there it is. The dilemma. Yes, we live in a country blessed with opportunity; but we are not comfortable in our own skins, with our own black countrymen and women. We are compromised. I liked the gesture of the flag but I shunned its ugly connotations.

A few days later my friend Janet posted on Facebook recalling her days as a mayor in a multicultural inner-city municipality. “I am so ambivalent about Australia Day. I think it is worth having a national holiday to reflect upon the immense good fortune that most of us have in being Australian, and to reflect upon our substantial failings as well – but it’s the wrong day completely. When I was mayor in 2006 I used my Australia Day citizenship ceremony speech to say such things – and it really was seen as stirring the pot!”

I want to stir the pot too, to remind White Australia that its good fortune has been built in part at the expense of others. But I want to celebrate as well. I want to hurl balls down a weedy pitch with the cricket players in the parks, to smile at the teenagers snogging on the beach, to sit with the mums and dads holding their toddlers in their arms as they listen to the entertainment at the council-sponsored events across the country.

But it’s the wrong day. I don’t want to mix up feelings of loss and resentment and anger with those of pride and joy and thanks. Not anymore. I want to be part of an Australia Day that starts off on the right foot. Perhaps it’s the anniversary of the High Court’s Mabo ruling, or maybe a new day entirely. With a new flag.

A version of this article first appeared in 2011 in Platform, a writing journal published at Victoria University.

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