Culture

Why Phrases Like “Go Back To Where You Came From” Are More Dangerous Than They Seem

In her comments, Fraser reminded us that not everyone is considered ‘Australian’, regardless of citizenship -- and that it’s Anglo Australia that gets to decide who is allowed to claim it.

“Go back to where you came from” is such a well-worn phrase that you may think it’s become innocuous in its ubiquity. Like half-heartedly calling someone a ‘wog’, it’s assumed the offence wears off after a time (thanks, Nick Giannopoulos). But all of these words are drenched in meaning, and neither time nor ubiquity has done anything to lessen their offence.

Dawn Fraser’s recent and very public stumble is proof of that. Earlier this week, the legendary Aussie swimmer condemned the on-court behaviour of Australian-born tennis player Nick Kyrgios, the son of a Greek father and a Malaysian mother – both immigrants. Rather than simply admitting him to the Badly-Behaved-Sports-Star Hall of Fame, Fraser expressed disgust at his reaction to his Wimbledon loss – profanities and the like – by trying to scold him out of the country. She included German-born Bernard Tomic in the verbal assault, saying they should “go back to where their parents came from. We don’t need them here in this country to act like that”.

This wasn’t just commentary on poorly-behaved sports players; it had a whiff of condescension far broader than that. Fraser’s meaning isn’t difficult to decipher: we’re allowing you to be here, so you’d better behave.

It’s not the first time Fraser has expressed this view, either. In 2007 she told broadcaster Monica Attard, “I love my country very much and I see lots of things happening. I mean, I wish I could be as outspoken, I suppose, as Pauline Hanson and say, ‘Look, I’m sick and tired of the immigrants that are coming into my country.'”

Soon after her comments this week, Kyrgios accused Fraser of being a “blatant racist” on Facebook.

Many agreed, noting that the tantrums of Anglo sports players didn’t see them exiled to another land.

Not surprisingly, Twitter blew up, as many shared their own experiences of being told to return to the homeland – and their disgust.

Fraser soon issued an apology, but by then the damage had been done. In her comments, Fraser revealed a deep rift in the Australian multi-ethnic landscape; she reminded us that, regardless of citizenship, not everyone is considered ‘Australian’ — and that it’s Anglo Australia that gets to pick-and-mix who is allowed to claim nationality, and who is not.

Identity Issues

Most second or even third generation immigrants are used to being asked where they “originally come from” — but being used to something divisive doesn’t make it innocuous. The perseverance of the question continues to fuel an unhealthy partition between “white Australia” and anyone who sits outside of it. There is a dominant white culture that everyone else must subscribe to, or is judged against.

And for anyone who has grown up with immigrant parents, the question is deeply personal. We already have names that are difficult to pronounce; we take days off for special cultural or religious events; and we unashamedly cling to traditions that do not diminish under the glare of an unforgiving Australian public. This creates our own internal confusions, but what really pains us is the rejection and judgment we encounter at school, in the workplace, and on the street.

Relentlessly, words are hurled at us: “you flew here, we grew here”; “assimilate or get out”; or, when we say no to quintessentially Aussie things like drinking alcohol, “lighten up”. They’re all part of a mean-spirited bigotry that fuels a rising wave of defensive identity politics from non-Anglos – the more our difference is emphasised, the more we embrace it. The divide expands.

We are left to question whether we belong, or even have a right to. The Cronulla riots, where the Australian flag took on a new and dark symbolism, sent up a warning flare – or perhaps it was a reminder: the beach did not belong to Australian-born people of Lebanese heritage.

That sense of displacement affects children of immigrants our whole lives. As an Arab-Australian and a Muslim, I experienced many difficulties throughout my school years. I came to class bundled with restrictions that were made even more punishing by demanding sports teachers, who baulked when I wore tracksuit pants under my netball skirt or asked for some leniency when I was fasting.

It didn’t get easier. I have spent most of my adult life dealing with cultures that forgive my ethnicity, rather than simply accepting it. No matter my achievements or goals, I have often been the subject of curiosity, like an oddity at a museum, because of my heritage.

It hit me hardest in the workplace, where I had hoped professionalism would help me avoid the same taunts that were flung at me in the street.

At one job, I was informed that my negative reaction to a change in reporting lines must have been related to my upbringing, and the men in my life – being Arab, surely I had lots of Bad Men holding me back and messing with my head? This, rather than any rationality or logic, was causing me to object to the change.

When I took off the headscarf, a manager noted my increased confidence, as though showing my hair had suddenly made me a different person. His words had an added bite, too, implying that changing my appearance had threatened how he perceived me: in a headscarf, I was a passive, less-confident and malleable employee; without it, a brazen, empowered woman who spoke up. Even my sex life – my decision to remain a virgin until marriage – was held up for ridicule, a clear dig at my religious and cultural beliefs.

As a non-Anglo Australian, simplistic assumptions like this will follow you through your whole life. You get used to them, though you will never become friends with them. You’re meant to know your place, and stay in your box. It infects your own way of thinking. You categorise yourself before others can, and cling to your identity. Depending on your identity politics, this can hinder progress – the more attached you are to your singular identity, the further you get away from your “difference” becoming normal.

My own experience, and the experiences of others I know, point to an overwhelming truth: unless you are Anglo-Australian, this isn’t really your home or your way of life. Why else are we constantly harangued to assimilate? Our ‘otherness’ is a buzz-kill. It’s not the norm. And I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised when our difference gets in the way, or when we’re asked to go back to where we came from. After all, this is ‘Straya, mate.

Amal Awad is a Sydney-based freelancer writer, journalist and author of three books. She sometimes writes at amalawad.com and tweets from @amalmawad

Feature photo taken at the Reclaim Australia rally, taken by Lisa Maree Williams for Getty