Writing Gender #3 considers gender-informed and politically engaged scholarly writing and pedagogical approaches, including mentoring practices and activist scholarship. It will think about how such work can transform disciplinary knowledge and research, and address the gendered politics of knowledge production both within and beyond university settings. This event will further consider alternative and potentially disruptive research and pedagogical methods that advance justice and equality in diverse ways. It will ask what gender-informed research and pedagogy look like right now, and what it means to engage in activist scholarship within this context to challenge gender inequality and other forms of systemic oppression.

Roanna Gonsalves will lead a conversation on these themes with Evelyn Araluen, Jeanine Leane, Quah Ee Ling, and Astrid Lorange on Friday 8 September. Please join us for this free online event at 11am. Register here.

I joined a Creative Writing program at a sandstone university in 2016. I walked into a building named after a eugenicist. Buildings around campus where I, along with other First Nations academics, work still carry the names of old professors who wanted Aboriginal people killed, or sterilised, or who wanted our children removed. I walked into a narrative that had long since established itself as a ‘truth’. Or a ‘fact’. A bit like the mythscape of the Australian nation itself. 

The program that I joined was established over a decade before I came by a group of settler academics. Like many other university programs in humanities, this program was founded and then grounded in the socio-cultural values that are at the heart of Australian settlerism.

Let’s take a step back before we go forward again. Many settler academics across humanities faculties will be affronted if you ask them if they know about the White Australia Policy. Most will scoff and say, ‘of course, I know about it!’. I don’t dispute this. Most will know of it. But – far fewer people, very few in fact, have actually read the various Immigration Restriction Acts that are the White Australia Policy. And many speak of it as if it were (is) one amorphous thing. Most too will argue that it is over by virtue of having been finally renounced in 1973 by the Whitlam Labor Government, who established the policy of multiculturalism. However, there is a vast chasm between a policy that was theoretically abolished and the cultural legacy – ingrained, invisible to those whose skin-colour it endorsed – that remains to this day in its aftermath.  

The point of this potted history is to fast forward to 2023 and to talk about how difficult it is to work in a program where whiteness doesn’t see itself, assumes itself universal and doesn’t know its own history of skin privilege that got us to the present moment. Government sanctioned amnesia in the teaching of Australia’s past means that generations of settler immigrants have been born here and enjoy skin privilege here without knowing this history of the racist discourse that has afforded and does afford such privilege. And that allows them to be blind to their own colour and cultural heritage, while those from First Nations heritage, those who are non-white, those who come from Islamic heritages and those who come from countries other than Europe or the United Kingdom are visible by virtue of our difference.

One of the most poignant examples of how government sanctioned amnesia works can be seen through the 2001 media campaign to commemorate the centenary of Federation. A television commercial broadcast nationally to promote the ‘celebration’ begins with a primary school-aged child asking a parent – their father – who was America’s first president. The name ‘George Washington’ rolls easily off Dad’s lips. The child then asks: ‘What was the name of Australia’s first Prime Minister?’ This time Dad draws a blank and says: ‘Go and ask your mother.’ The scene then moves away from the family home and a faceless male narrator asks: ‘What kind of country forgets the name of their first Prime Minister?’ The camera soon cuts to a sandstone university before canvassing several more faces – mainly white ones – to ask the name of Australia’s first PM. No one knows.  

The narrator then comes back to tell audiences the reason why no one knows: ‘Perhaps it’s because in 1901 Australia was created by a vote not a war in peace not in anger that we take our beginning for granted.’ (my emphasis). 

The commentary then goes on to instruct the audience that: ‘2001 is a time to celebrate those beginnings and ask what kind of country we want for the future.’ The clip concludes by cutting to two people of mature age, one on a sheep farm, the other in an orchard who do know that Edmund Barton was the first PM before concluding with the message that: ‘Although we are built on a strong foundation, the Australia of tomorrow will be what we make it.’ The scene then cuts to the only Aboriginal people who appear in the one-minute clip. Amid the beaches, orchards, sheep farms, urban streets and country towns  – a group of smiling Aboriginal children emerging from a lake in a remote setting. They are silent as the clip ends with the message: ‘Australia – it’s what we make it.’

This clip and others like it create and perpetuate a mythscape of nation that is not only happy but praised for forgetting its past – even its settler past. Using the exclusionary language that I have emphasised, the clip ignores who was and wasn’t voting at the time, appealing only to the settler ‘we’ who can take their beginnings for granted and only need to focus on the future. 

Who is represented in this mythscape? Who is left out? How does this and a whole other raft of settler nationalist propaganda represent the history of First Nations peoples of the many countries that the nation swallowed? How does it represent all those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, excluded from and discriminated against by the White Australia Policy – which was part of the Federation of the nation? A fact the glossy commemoration commercial neglects to even mention. Yet the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act was among the first pieces of legislation introduced to the newly formed federal parliament. The Act came into law on 23 December 1901. The legislation was specifically designed to limit non-British migration to Australia. 

Settler diasporas from Europe who benefited from Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell’s 1947 ‘Beautiful Balts’ policy continue to enjoy their skin privilege over other diasporas arriving from South and South-East Asia, the Middle East, the Pacific and Africa while failing to reckon with the racist discourse that underpins such privilege. In 1947, Immigration Minister Calwell subscribed to the ‘populate or perish’ theory in the aftermath of losses in the second world war and declining British immigration.  

In selling the non-British diasporas to the Australian public, Calwell warned that: ‘Our entire heritage would vanish before Asiatic power. We have 25 years at most to populate this country before the yellow races are down on us.’ Calwell coined the term New Australia and went on to describe the people he called ‘Beautiful Balts’, as anti-communist, Judaic-Christian and ‘white just like us’. 

As Calwell put it

The door will always be open within limits of our existing legislation to the people from the various dominions [those former British colonies of South Africa, Canada, and New Zealand], United States of America and from European continental countries. 

The White Australia Policy no longer needed to be legislated after 1973 because the skin-privilege, xenophobia and hysteria over otherness that it created took up the job of exclusion where the official policy left off. To see this, you need only to look at the nation’s reaction to the first arrival of refugees from the Vietnam War – a war in which Australia participated under the banner of solidarity with the USA in fighting communism and freeing the south from the dictatorship of the north. 

Before 1975 there was ‘effectively no Vietnamese presence’ in Australia due to the immigration restrictions on non-white peoples. Over the next twenty-five years the community grew to over two hundred thousand members. Before 1975 Vietnam and Australia barely knew each other – except through the prism of the American War. By the late 1990s the second generation of the Vietnamese diaspora was a significant part of Australian political, economic and cultural life. The Vietnamese communities who came as refugees from 1975 onwards were used to trigger the end of the bipartisanship on multiculturalism at the end of the 1970s. Discrimination against Vietnamese communities was implicated in the rising paranoia about unsafe cities in the 1980s; and centrally embroiled in the emergence of a politics of race and the rise of the One Nation party in the 1990s. 

Since the 1990s the same xenophobic hysteria has been levelled at Islamic communities in Australia – especially in the aftermath of the September 11 bombings. Such hysteria saw the Howard Government capitalise on Australia’s skin-politics in what became known as the Tampa affair. And more recently the same skin prejudice has been mobilised against African-Australian communities by politicians and the media

The Hawke government came under internal pressure to contain the multicultural commitments – no more so than during the vigorous arguments about the impact of Asian migration following the Geoffrey Blainey intervention of 1984. By 1988 John Howard as leader of the opposition was openly voicing social cohesion fears. In 1988 Howard developed the One Australia Policy. The policy called for an end to multiculturalism in Australia. 

In the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the amnesty PM Hawke extended to Chinese students in Australia was used by supporters of One Australia to re-fuel fears of threats to ‘social cohesion’ (sic) by non-white cultures. Shadow Deputy Prime Minister, Ian Sinclair commented: 

If there is any risk of an undue build-up of Asians against others in the community, then you need to control it. I certainly believe that at the moment we need […] to reduce the number of Asians. (cited in Markus, 2001: 85-89) 

Howard used the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of what the West called ‘the iron curtain’ as alternative solutions to addressing non-white immigration in a similar fashion to the way Calwell had a few decades earlier. This is still regular fare for talkback radio and right-wing media.

So, what does all this have to do with my creative writing classes in the 2020s? 

It means that many people – not just students – staff too and not all, but enough, do not understand ‘privilege’ beyond its narrow economic definition. At risk – yes, it is risky, but in my experience students, mostly born from the 90s onwards, are more open to having conversations about skin-privilege and exclusionary language than some of my colleagues.  

When I think of students being more willing to at least have these conversations, I think of post-90s education. Despite the Howard years, when my children were at school from the mid-90s onwards, there were discussions in public schools about other sides of and other perspectives on ‘history’. And my kids and their generation were encouraged in the main to reconsider the whole monolithic idea of ‘history’ and think more about ‘histories’. 

I can’t say the same for all of my colleagues. The situation, I think, is further compounded in humanities programs because many come to and stay in such programs with the assumption that they are liberal thinkers. Perhaps they are. Until questions of privilege and the long history in this nation that ingrains skin-privilege get too close to them. And until such conversations put them not only in the system, they often critique along other lines of prejudice and privilege, such as sexism and ageism (worthy of critique, of course). And when the conversation implicates them in a system of ongoing privilege, where they are on the whole unaware of the history of a nation built on a racist discourse, they feel entitled to be offended about alternative pedagogies and perspectives that challenge a largely unchallenged, sandstone-endorsed, mono-cultural pedagogy. A pedagogy that blindly assumes itself to be and speaks of itself as universal. 

To give a more specific example, from my own experience, staff in such programs were excited and enthusiastic about a diverse person – in this case a First Nations person – coming into the space. They were gunning for me to introduce classes that came under the banner of ‘diversity and inclusion’. Things went awry though when a pedagogy grounded in cultural values other than Australian settlerism posed questions and raised issues about practices and methods that had never before been challenged. And which they used in their own teaching grounded in settlerism and the many uncritiqued assumptions that go with writing and representation in a settler colony. 

Deconstructing what Anglo/European settlers mean when they say ‘diversity and inclusion’ is central here. What it seems to mean is teaching about other races, other cultures in such a way that we become ‘understandable’, more ‘familiar’ and less ‘othered’ (if that’s possible). It means calling out overt racism of the type practised by outspoken politicians and social commentators like Pauline Hanson. 

What doesn’t it mean for an Anglo/European settler diaspora in Australia? It does not mean teaching about things that come too close to their own settler identities, or questioning content and/or styles of teaching that have not been questioned before. 

Relationships quickly sour and enthusiasm for ‘diversity and inclusion’ wanes when teachers from culturally and linguistically diverse or First Nations backgrounds like me start asking pedagogical questions in my classes that make their way back to other teaching staff when students begin challenging long ingrained and seldom questioned assumptions about creative writing. Questions like: 

Is your imagination as free to imagine anything and anyone you like as you’ve previously been told? Or is your imagination as culturally grounded and culturally formed and in some cases limited as you are? 

Is it your right to tell other people’s stories when you are not a member of that community and have no lived experience as the character you’re constructing? 

Does your right to artistic freedom really have no limits? What is artistic freedom anyway? Is artistic freedom a cultural construct? 

What is your responsibility in creative writing around the representations of other people? 

Or statements like: 

The ‘great white social justice novel’ is nothing more than yet another excuse to overwrite someone else’s story and take the credit for it. Because, as Palyku law scholar and writer Ambelin Kwaymullina tells us – ‘any ethical advocate … make[s] themselves redundant’ (2020). 

Or, when First Nations teachers or teachers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds highlight in our classes how the White Australia Policy is alive and well in racist, culturally chauvinistic reporting. Tempers flared, skin-privilege and hypocrisy lurking just below the surface quickly rose and the backlash was swift from some of my colleagues when I shared with them non-mainstream (non-whitestream) media reports published in Aljazeera, Red Flag and Solidarity that I was using in my classes to call out Australian racism, hypocrisy, and cultural chauvinism – legacy of the White Australia Policy –  in response to the war in Europe compared to the war in Afghanistan, a conflict in which Australia actively participated. 

In the online socialist publication Solidarity, for example, an article appeared called ‘Morrison’s hypocrisy over Ukraine refugees’. The article points out that: 

Morrison’s response to the Ukrainian crisis is in stark contrast to the response to the Afghan refugees.  

Since the fall of Kabul on 15 August 2021, more than 150,000 Afghan nationals have applied for refugee and humanitarian visas in Australia. There were widespread calls for at least 20,000 visas to be granted to Afghans separate from (and in addition to) the annual humanitarian intake. Morrison’s response to the Afghan crisis was a paltry 15,000 visas over four years, all within the annual intake. The Afghan refugees in Australia on temporary protection visas are excluded from permanent residency and denied family reunion. (March 24, 2022).  

Central to my creative writing practice is a ‘means rather than ends’ focussed pedagogy facilitated through an unpacking of positionality and identity, alongside critical discourse analysis. This is not just about helping students find good transition sentences or write words to dazzle audiences, or wow publishers. It’s about asking what is at stake in what you have just written.  

It’s about offering students readings from different cultural, social, and political contexts to encourage them to re-see and re-consider their own positionality. I choose readings that not only demonstrate narrative techniques to enhance students as writers, but also provide a platform to ask questions about the ethics of and responsibilities involved in representation. It’s about focussing on process as a platform to centre social responsibility in representation. And to ask all the while what is at stake here in the representations being constructed. 

While individual academics today are not responsible for the bipartisan, racist, white-skin privileged policies of politicians like Calwell or Howard, they are, I think, responsible for taking it upon themselves to be educated about the ongoing racially chauvinistic discourse, legislated and not legislated, that allows them unspoken privilege in the nation and in the workplace. After all, students are taking responsibility for this. 

In 2003 Malaysian American scholar and poet Shirley Goek-lin Lim argued, in the context of the USA, that creative writing programs have enjoyed positions of privilege. Lim notes: 

While creative writing programs have burgeoned all over the United States, they have seldom received the scrutiny of outsiders or been required to account for themselves to the same extent as programs such as composition and American Studies. 

The same can be said of Australian creative writing programs twenty years later. 

The stakes are high. This kind of scrutiny will not only leave a legacy of future generations of more ethical writers – writers who take responsibility for the representations they write. It will also make creative writing programs safe, more productive spaces for First Nations writers and writers from culturally and linguistically diverse communities to deliver diverse and culturally rigorous pedagogies. 

Works Cited

  • Blainey, Geoffrey. All for Australia. North Ryde, NSW: Metheun Haynes, 1984. 
  • Cope, B., M. Morrissey, and Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs. The Blainey debate and the critics of multiculturalism. Annandale, N.S.W: Common Ground, 1986. 
  • Jakubowicz, Andrew. ‘Vietnamese in Australia: A Quintessential Collision’. Andrew Jakubowicz.Com, 2004. https://andrewjakubowicz.com/publications/vietnamese-in-australia-a-quintessential-collision/ 
  • Jakubowicz, Andrew. ‘Racism, multiculturalism and the immigration debate in Australia: a bibliographic essay’.  SAGE Race Relations Abstracts 10, no.3: 1-15 (1985). 
  • Kwaymullina, Ambelin. Living on Stolen Land. Broome, WA: Magabala Books, 2020. 
  • Lim, Shirley Goek-lin. ‘The Strangeness of Creative Writing: An Institutional Query’. Pedagogy 3, no.2: 151-69 (2003). 
  • Markus, Andrew. Race: John Howard and the remaking of Australia. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2001. 
  • McDonald, Peter. ‘Migration to Australia: From Asian Exclusion to Asian Predominance’. Revue européenne des migrations internationales. 35, no.1: 87-105 (2019).
  • Persian, Jayne. Beautiful Balts: From Displaced Persons to New Australians. Sydney, NSW: NewSouth, 2017.