What does it mean to belong? Australia Day is certainly not an occasion of belonging for most Indigenous Australians. How could it ever legitimately be? As someone who benefits from their historical dispossession, do I dare feel like I belong — at their expense? In Australia, must a sense of belonging involve compliance with colonial narratives? With political imperatives around immigration?

I asked these questions in a column I wrote before Australia Day last year. I returned to the theme in an essay where I grappled with what it means to be a non-white citizen in a time of nationalist fervour in the west. I believe that the structures of power that centralise whiteness are not only harmful but can be fatal, as seen in places of detention such as Berrimah and Nauru. I believe that Australia Day is a colonial remnant that should be binned, but that there is more to racial justice than changing the date. (Indeed changing the date may yet become another placeholder for material, lasting justice. Read this perspective).

I feel like I need to establish these things because in the past several months, I have met antagonism and bad faith from people on my side of politics more often than those opposite, for saying things imperfectly or not agreeing completely. As a friend quipped this week, ‘The right looks for converts; the left looks for heretics.’

Following the reinstallation of Australia Day billboards featuring two young girls in hijab, there are multiple threads to try to disentangle. (For background and various perspectives: click here, here, here, here, here and here).

The problem of the interim

Many Australians, among them migrants and working class, do not have the graduate vocabulary for the culture wars we engage in. The Muslim family at the centre of the billboard controversy was neither pandering to nationalism, complicit in colonial narratives nor presenting as model minorities for use against other minorities. The kids — subjects not objects — have a place here, and the heated attention of the far-right required a response. Had they and others on the original billboard been Anglo, the (progressive) complaint would have been that the Australia Day billboard reinforced white hegemony.

The interim problem is that Australia Day is not yet removed, there is no replacement, and it is tied to cataclysm. Those better versed in history and social justice are not invested in this day. But for those who become citizens or receive an award for consequential work, it is a day that can stir a sense of belonging. It is hard to begrudge this feeling when forces are at play that would strip them of it.

I do not dispute that a national day of celebration decoupled from genocide is plainly the better and only option (perhaps a future Republic or Treaty Day). There is long work toward that and a growing consensus for change, manifest in expressions of Indigenous and Muslim solidarity from opposite sides of the billboard debate. But it also seems worthwhile — simultaneously — to interfere with ethno-nationalist readings of such touchstones. Otherwise, if diversity is only ever self-soothing complicity, progressives would have nothing to offer right now that confronts white centrism. That seems like a dangerous vacuum.

The problem of ‘white liberals’

I was told that the campaign to reinstall the billboard was poorly handled behind the scenes. I did not understand what that meant exactly until I saw the new version put up. ‘Happy Australia Day.’ Fuck. I could live with Australia Day being a barnacle, given what seems impending extraction, but that word… ‘happy’. There it is.

It is a demonstration of bad faith that compromises those who had tried sincerely to correct the initial harm against Muslim kids and respond to a deeper harm against Indigenous Australians. It is symptomatic of power relations that are unbalanced even in progressive spaces. It reinforces distrust, undermining the basis for necessary coalitions. That is not how the far-right can be defeated; that is not how governments — those with real, immense power — can be overcome. The time for making minorities undertake emotional labour again and again is also well past.

The problem of coalitions

It is not enough, however, to simply rail against ‘white liberals’. For one, it erases the mix of people outside the decision-making circle who grappled with the issue and wanted to support the kids. This is not a malignant impulse; these people are part of the base for fighting bigotries. It would be a precarious business, turning a person’s conscientisation against them for being incomplete.

The reality is that while elements of the (increasingly amorphous) left check for correct motivation, the right — far less fussy — expands at pace to accommodate racists and misogynists. That is where I was coming from when I spoke of lateral violence: generalised fear and frustration. Fear that we’re mistaking battles for the war. Frustration that the system is so rigged that it defines the ways that non-white actors disagree and others respond. (My critique was not of their perspectives but the pervasiveness of whiteness, even in opposition to it).

I was also worried about fragmentation. Change is a matter of physics after all: a calibration of mass and velocity. Critique refines and the immediacy of ideals is good, but consolidation also matters. That can’t happen unless people feel safe about being wrong; that helps them to be willing to learn.

The problem of persuasion

I have been obsessed with this problem for many years, initially over the persistent support for torturous immigration policies despite everything that has been deployed against them (facts, legal arguments, whistle-blower accounts, protests, etc). The intermingled phenomena of polarisation and post-truth politics in the US, the UK and the Philippines has only deepened my perplexity. I think everyone is in the process of working out how to operate under these circumstances.

What seems apparent is that making people feel that they are bad or dumb is an inefficient way to convince, if not counter-intuitive. I’m still struck by something an NPR journalist said: a Trump supporter told her that the way liberals feel now is how she has felt for years. Under siege. Whether she is wrong to have felt that way or measured it correctly, that is how she felt. Her vote was a defensive posture.

It makes the case that we need to be able to tell apart those who cannot ever be convinced, those who are ambivalent, and those already on our side but with a differing approach or priority. The first is a dead end. The second should be treated as an opportunity for growth — in both numbers and insight — not a threat. The third exposes internal vulnerabilities and requires finesse.

Over the course of the billboard controversy, I saw examples of such finesse but also the opposite. I trust that the heat generated by such frictions proves creative rather than destructive.