Yellow peril and the ends of mo(a)tivated thinking

Albury (NSW) skies. Photo by Tseen Khoo.
Albury (NSW) skies. Photo by Tseen Khoo.

When a PhD visiting scholarship brought me to Melbourne in the mid-1990s, I went to the cemetery to look at the Burke and Wills monument.

I was researching Australian exploration narratives. Yes, those narratives that showed everyone 105 ways of getting lost in the interior, discovering disappointments, and about which interminable accounts are written of being let down by colonial nature.

Fifteen years later, I went back to the cemetery for another look and made a completely different discovery: the main path leading up to the monument had a string of Italian Australian gravesites. During my time of being obsessed about explorers in the 1990s, I had completely missed the multicultural testimony lining the path to the monument to Anglocentric Whiteness. I begin with this story because it demonstrates the banality of our blindness as scholars, and how ingrained our ways of thinking are.

In my experience, Asian Australian Studies are about foregrounding these blindnesses and how they relate to power relations. The field has, for me, operated as a way of redefining my approach to Australian Studies and, through this, my academic and personal relationship with Australia.

I know Australia both as a ‘field’ that has driven my interests as an academic since the early 1990s and also as a place I have frequently visited since the early 1980s. When I first began travelling to Australia, I discovered (for myself) a culture that was somehow not European, but nowhere as alien to Europe as the sheer distance might suggest. Indigenous Australia, the already then (or perhaps still then?) embracing of multiculturalism, and the completely alien (in fact, un-European) make-up of the landscape and environment were the dimensions that brought the ‘otherness’ of Australia forward in my thinking. But what was Europe then? Not really Europe as much as a conglomeration of nation-states divided by an iron curtain. Multiculturalism – on the street level, if not as a political project – was common in a number of European countries and, in some cases, involved a previous colonial dimension (such as France, Portugal and the Netherlands [yes, why should we always mention the UK?]).

Skipping the ‘middle passage’ of my academic career, let me fast forward to my involvement in Asian Australian Studies and its debates in the later noughties (2000s). I had followed the first rise of Hanson and her shameless attacks on Aborigines and Asian migrants and now, twenty years on, she has has shifted to Muslims (as brilliantly pointed out by Labor senator, Sam Dastyari, in QandA).

Hanson’s recent return is evidence of the remarkable continued success of cheap political tricks (targeting select marginalised groups). But she is also the symptom of a social upheaval caused by Australia’s solid path towards an ever more unequal society. Even if her policies – to the extent they merit such a label – do nothing to alter this situation. She merely displaces the question from economics to culture. As such, she fits nicely into the club of myopic nationalists in Europe, from Boris Farrage (mistake intentional), Marine Le Pen, to Pia Kjærsgaard.

At some point around the middle 2000s, I decided I’d had enough of walking on eggshells when I came up against Australians’ racist remarks and attitudes towards Aboriginal and Asian Australians. It took a long time for me to realise the full implications of what I actually thought in terms of how I considered ‘Asian Australianism’. Not as a hard-earned privilege or the end result of a long-fought campaign for recognition, but as the premise that to be Asian Australian was a way of being Australian, and that all White Australians were as hyphenated as everybody else. Their privileged status as Whites merely enabled them to make invisible their ‘hyphenatedness’ and assume definitive rights to universalise their Whiteness.

Even well-informed people returning from a visit to Australia today speak of how surprised they were at the ‘Asian face’ of the big cities. Compared to my own early visits to Australia in the 1980s, they are certainly right about the changing demographics. Yet, they didn’t go in the 1980s, I did. My registering of this change cannot be their surprise. How can you be surprised about what you didn’t know? What continues to produce Australia as more White than it is for people who have never been? I would argue that Australian Whiteness has, for Europeans, been a reassuring feature of a country that is otherwise so exotically different and far away. Possibly, metropolitan Europeans, living the multicultural reality of their own city lives, have a disconcerting experience of multicultural similarity when they visit Australia because the multicultural reality of Australia is far more East and Southeast Asian than is the case in Europe.

And this brings me to my final point: How does Asian Australian Studies and the network inspire my current work? I have always seen the network as driven by a heady cocktail of critique and quirkiness, always with an eye to rethink what you thought were – pardon the intended pun – settled truths.

It can be criticised, of course, for tilting towards art (rather than, say, social work), privileging East and Southeast Asian backgrounds over other Asian backgrounds, yet I feel it would always accommodate and welcome the spread, just as I felt immensely welcomed as someone trying to rethink the consequences of the insights of Asian Australian Studies for White or majoritarian Australian culture.

It is this I have sought to reimport back to my current work on a crisis-ridden Europe in dire need of being reborn as a continent that accepts its continental and multicultural identity. A continent that realises the potential that is deeply ingrained in the multicultural experience rather than the myopic nationalism, xenophobia, and racism driving Vlaams Belang (Belgium), Partij voor de Vrijheid (The Netherlands), Front National (France), UKIP (Britain), Jobbik (Hungary), Lega Nord (Italy), and the Danish People’s Party, of course. These parties feel their case is boosted by Australia’s Pacific solution – and, in this way, returning to Europe also inevitably returns us to Australia. It is this to-ing and fro-ing that I find enormously productive as an academic and interventionist, and Asian Australian Studies and the network deserves (street) credit for its continued inspiration.

Lars Jensen

Author: Lars Jensen

Lars Jensen is an Associate Professor at Cultural Encounters, Roskilde University. He has published widely in the terrain of postcolonial studies and cultural studies. His publications include Beyond Britain: Stuart Hall and the Postcolonialising of Anglophone Cultural Studies (Rowman and Littlefield 2014), Whiteness and Postcolonialism in the Nordic Region and Crisis in the Nordic Countries and Beyond (both co-edited with Kristín Loftsdóttir, University of Iceland) (Ashgate 2012 and 2014). He has co-edited a JEASA issue with Anne Brewster and Katherine Russo, On Whiteness: Current Debates in Australian Studies (2011), and has written a number of articles in Australian Studies.