Learning about the true meaning of Australia Day

26 January 2022

Blog post

Invasion Day. Survival Day. Australia Day. January 26th represents many different things to different people.

Growing up, I would hear different views and perspectives on this national holiday. Some people saw it as a day to celebrate being ‘Aussie’ by going to BBQs and parties and wearing clothing branded with Kangaroos and Union Jack’s. Some people were completely indifferent, and some believed that it was an inappropriate day for celebration.

For many First Nations people in Australia, the 26th of January is a day of mourning. On this day in 1788, the British Flag was raised in Warrane (Sydney Cove) – signifying the start of British Colonisation in Australia. Regrettably, the day chosen to celebrate being Australian represents the beginning of the genocide of First Nations people, massacres, dispossession, Frontier Wars and even slavery in Australia. However, Australia Day was not always celebrated on the 26th of January and was only made an official national public holiday in 1994.

Today, the effects of colonisation are still widely felt, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experiencing racism, extreme inequality, and systematic oppression. The Australian Government has reported that depending on the location in Australia, an Aboriginal person’s life expectancy is between 8 and 15 years less than a non-Indigenous person. According to The Guardian, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People are 16.5 times more likely to die in police custody.

As I have grown older, I have started educating myself more and more about the true history of Australia, as well as the experiences and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In recent years, I have listened to many discussions around Australia Day and why this is not a day for celebration.

To counterargue the statement that Australia Day Celebrations are a tradition, how can something that started in 1994 be considered a tradition in comparison to the history, culture and traditions of people who have lived on this land for over 60,000 years? First Nations people have been marching and protesting Australia Day and the celebration of the 26thof January for longer than the national public holiday has been around.

I spoke to Ginny from Ginny’s Girl Gang about her life growing up in Australia as an Aboriginal Woman. The conversation we had and the stories she shared evoked so much emotion within me and taught me so much about the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People in Australia. I hope that through this blog, you too will be able to learn something and grow as an ally to the Indigenous people of Australia.

Ginny was born in Tamworth NSW and grew up in Brisbane, QLD. She is a proud Gomaroi/ Gamilaraay woman and has a strong connection to her culture and traditions. Growing up, she experienced racism at school and learnt “more about the spice trade in history classes at school than about the true history of Australia.” Ginny says she would, ‘would go home and learn something completely different than at school, a completely different point of view about the history of Australia.’

This is not completely different to my own experience, where I felt I only learnt the partial truth of the history of Australia at school and learnt more from my Mum and conversations with friends during university.

Reflecting on my discussion with Ginny, the biggest lesson I learned from our discussion came from her stories of the lead up to Australia Day.

Whilst I have never celebrated Australia Day and have never felt comfortable with how many people choose to act on the day, I have never felt unsafe. Ginny in comparison described the four to six weeks leading up to Australia Day each year as “really unsafe” both on the streets of Australia but also within online communities.

Ginny currently lives in the USA, but when she lived in Australia, she would attend marches and rallies on Australia Day. Ginny described how “there have been times where [she] has gone to rallies in Brisbane and Invasion Day Marches and [she] would wear [her] Aboriginal Flag on [her] t-shirt and felt unsafe…people throw stuff at you, [she] has been spat on. People may think that may be a one-off incident but for most Indigenous people in Australia it’s a common occurrence, people yelling stuff at you, racist comments, particularly on that day it’s really unsafe and really scary.” 

Since being in the USA, Ginny thought things may be less intense this time of year but has also experienced similar things online. Each year Ginny will post something on social media about Australia Day such as a tile with the words “Real Australians don’t celebrate genocide.”

In response, Ginny receives racist comments and DMs including ones telling her to “kill herself” or “to shut up.”

Hearing these stories, I was absolutely shocked that anyone could be so horrible to another person and was saddened by the fact that Ginny’s experiences are not uncommon and have been experienced by many of her friends and family. As put by Ginny, “this time of year there is lots of blogging and arguing and a big emotional toll on everyone.”

There is ongoing debate as to whether Australia Day should be moved to another day. When I asked Ginny about this, she explained that to her, with Australia as it currently is, there is no date that we should be celebrating Australia. As mentioned earlier, there is systemic oppression in place within Australia which means that Indigenous people are destined to die years earlier than non-indigenous people and Indigenous people are more likely to go to prison than university. There are disparities within the health, education and justice system that impact not just Indigenous people, but also refugees, asylum seekers, and many others within Australia.

Ginny says, “A lot of conversations that need to be sorted before we can come together as a country and celebrate our identity and if people are happy with all these things that are happening in our society, ignorance is bliss.”

Whilst there is so much more that I learnt from Ginny that I want to discuss, I feel it’s important to emphasise what Ginny taught me about being an ally.

Ginny described how every year, not only leading up to Australia Day, but all year, she is having conversations with people about Australia Day and Indigenous rights and oppression. She explained how the conversation around Australia Day and the weeks leading up to the day can be emotionally taxing and that her and members of other Indigenous communities are used to these conversations, and she is “sick of having these conversations”.

So last year, she asked her followers on Instagram to start having these conversations for her instead. She encouraged people to call out racist comments on social media and to talk to racist people and people choosing to celebrate Australia Day and explain why it is not appropriate. “If you are an ally you want to explore what this looks like for an Indigenous person, get online, have a convo with your family…if we all did that, maybe it would be less intense for us.”

“Do your research because ignorance is a choice at this point.”

So, what else can you do to be an ally?

I understand that the conversations, experiences, and stories which emerge around Australia Day can be confronting and that often people find it hard to know where to start in learning more and becoming a better ally. After my conversation with Ginny, I was feeling a whole variety of emotions but was comforted by something she had said about doing little things each day to learn and improve. It’s important to remember that each small step and change we make, that each conversation we start, is a step towards an Australia that everyone feels safe in.

If you would like to learn more, I suggest the following articles by Indigenous authors:

I would like to thank Ginny from Ginny’s Girl Gang for not only her time, but for sharing with myself and readers her story and experiences.

I would also like to acknowledge that this blog was written on the land of the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung people and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging.