Some good old fashioned Aussie tokenism, just in time for Straya Day.
Surprise! *edit* It’s not a surprise. According to these redesigns, everyone important in Australian popular culture is white. This visual language needs to change.
In Oct 2015, Aaron Tyler created these redesigns of Australian bank notes, and all but the $50 note features white Australian pop icons. They were celebrated around various media outlets as, “Making the bank note more recognisable” or a “Glorious celebration of Aussie Culcha.” Now just over a year later, they’re being sold and promoted in conjunction with Australia Day. Which is perfect timing, because tokenism and erasing the Indigenous historical context couldn’t be more Australian while celebrating Australia Day. Let’s break down the symbolism that’s happening here by focusing on the only note that features some non-white Australians, the $50 note.
The first side features Shane Warne, and on first glance you wouldn’t think that anything else is going on here. But hiding behind Warnie’s massive floating head is Cathy Freeman. Let’s have a think about this for a moment. Shane Warne may have had a very successful career as a cricketer, but since then he has been surrounded by controversy. Our culture holds him up as the great Australian role model; the national sport being sinking beers with the blokes and making unwanted advances towards women. Hidden well behind him is Cathy Freeman running in the 2000 Olympic games, after which, in a radical political and historical act she held up the Aboriginal flag to show pride in her culture. This was at a time when the Bringing them Home report had been released just three years before, and large protests were happening around reconciliation. The first time she had held up the flag was at the Commonwealth Games in 1994, where the sports administrator Arthur Tunstall threatened to send her home for not carrying a flag representing a “unified,” Australia.
A shot of Cathy with the Aboriginal flag could have been used in this design, but that aside, what’s happening in this redesign is still troubling. In a symbolic way and with what feels like tokenism, Cathy’s been pushed to the back and her political act has been completely erased by the design. Instead she becomes the background noise, much in the way Indigenous people in Australia have always been shoved to the back of the room. It doesn’t stop there though. In the other corner is the Southern Cross Tattoo (description taken from the website). A symbol of white nationalism and racism in Australia, next to an Indigenous Australian who wants to be loud about our forgotten history. Let that sink in a little.
On the other side of the $50 note there’s more of this at play. Lara Bingle’s face is the main feature, an Australian model and socialite best known for the Tourism Australia advertisement, “Where the bloody hell are ya.” If ever there was a symbol of the ideal Australian woman it would be her; white, blonde, tanned. On closer inspection you can see Nicky Winmar, who was racially vilified at an AFL match by the cheer squad yelling, “go and sniff some petrol,” and “go walkabout where you came from.” This resulted in him lifting up his shirt to point to the colour of his skin, another radical, political and historical symbol of the Indigenous struggle. But what the real icing on the cake is, is that behind Nicky Winmar is Iggy Azaelea, someone who has been called out for being racist multiple times throughout her career. Someone who made ignorant comments about Indigenous people, which were critised for reinforcing the tired stereotypes of what an Indigenous person in this country is.
“But it’s just a joke, get over it,” I hear you say. Well, whether these notes were redesigned as a “cheeky bit of fun,” or not, we’ve been designing Indigenous people out of our history books since the birth of our country. And we’ve become really, really good at forgetting it exists. This redesign and its subsequent release to be sold on Australia Day, a day of mourning for Indigenous people, is just another extension of this. My questions are, why aren’t Cathy Freeman or Nicky Winmar the main feature of these notes? Wouldn’t it be great if we had some other role models in this country other than these tired white Australian tropes? And if symbols of racism weren’t brushed off as funny? And wouldn’t it be great if we celebrated our “culcha” on a day that doesn’t signify the erasure of Indigenous people and is inclusive for all?
Design is a powerful medium. It has the potential to provoke, create meaningful discussion and change people’s opinions. When we think about it in this context, these designs going viral are reinforcing the language of an Australian society dominated by caucasians. In a country that was founded on the backs of people who aren’t white, it’s time for us to rethink the Australian role model.
*N.B. Some text has changed in this article, as I originally made a mistake with the release date of these redesigns.