Back-packing Australia has become a rite of passage for the British middle class 18-25 year old. Every January without fail my Facebook feed is filled with photos of friends celebrating Australia day, beer in hand, kitted out in the obligatory sunglasses and Australian flag branded board shorts. But how many of them have really thought about the union jack that sits at the top right corner of their flag branded souvenirs?
Australia day celebrates the discovery of Australia, but can you really discover a country where people already live? For the aboriginal population, Australia day represents more than a day off to drink beer and fry shrimps on the barbie. For them, it is more commonly known as invasion day.
The inequality in modern day Australia was clear to me during my own “gap yah” trip. As a naïve 18 year old, I had based all my knowledge of Australian culture on too many after school viewings of Neighbours. It’s easy to forget that Australia is not a white country. This is not to say that the Aboriginal past has been completely erased. Far from it, the shelves of souvenir shops are packed high with aboriginal art plastered across fridge magnets and keyrings.
Whilst tourists go on aboriginal heritage tours and buy tacky souvenirs, the reality for an aboriginal person living in Australia is bleak. Life expectancy for a white Australian is ten years longer than that of the indigenous population.
The rate of homelessness for Indigenous Australians is fourteen times the rate for non-Indigenous Australians. As the indigenous population are forced to integrate themselves into the society created by their oppressors, they face prejudice from locals and tourists alike. One man I spoke to told me that his family had been run off their farm by white men, angry that they were making too much money. They were later branded as scroungers for claiming state benefits.
Of course, ignorance of Britain’s colonial past is not confined to Australia. In a recent You Gov poll, 44% of respondents believed that the British Empire is something to be proud of. This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has taken as much as a glance at the Britain First Facebook page. The British bemoan the “swarms” of immigrants entering the country; always able to find a scapegoat whether it’s Eastern Europeans (uniformly referred to as Polish) or Syrian refugees. Far right parties fail to see the irony in their rallying calls to “take back our country”, when only 60 years ago we were busy taking control of countries all over the world.
We condemn the human rights abuses prevalent in the developing world whilst failing to acknowledge our own part in them. For example, Kenya’s much reported homophobia is a relic of colonialism, originating from Britain’s own homophobic past. Foreign aid is criticised with no acknowledgement of our own role in the underdevelopment of countries all over the world. Charity begins at home, and some would rather it ended there too.
Whilst it’s clear that racism is alive and well in modern Britain, you have to wonder whether this particular poll is the product of hatred or ignorance. Despite studying history throughout my time at school, I did not become aware of the reality of the British Empire until well into my university course.
The general public are presented with a romanticised view of Britain’s history. Posters are proudly displayed in museums emblazoned with the phrase “the empire where the sun never sets”, and films such as Out of Africa portray colonialism as an adventure. Those of us who have studied the history in depth may know that the reality was far removed from a Meryl Streep movie, but common portrayals of colonialism hardly evoke images of oppression and genocide. Whilst schools are busy teaching us how Britain stood up to Hitler in the Second World War, they never mention that Britain once ruled over one fifth of the world’s population.
Ignorance may provide an explanation for the results of the poll, but does it excuse us? The image of the ignorant British tourist has become an in joke. We fly to Spain only to drink in an Irish pub and shout at the locals in English, as if raising our voices will close the language gap. However, with a vote to leave the EU looking more probable by the day and the refugee crisis bringing out the worst in us, the jokes not so funny anymore. If we don’t make a change, we risk our role on the world stage being reduced to the equivalent of your embarrassing racist uncle at a family gathering. You keep them around but cringe every time they open their mouth.
It’s time for us to educate ourselves. Learn a few simple phrases of the language before you head abroad. Maybe even read a little bit about the history and culture of your holiday destination. Before you raise your flag for Australia day, consider how it looks when we celebrate the crimes of our ancestors. Considering the atrocities of our past, it’s really the least we can do.