thoughts about citizenship day


*This story reflects a personal perspective, the opinions expressed are unique to the writer*

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Sometimes in our lives, we are forced by circumstance to think about things that we don’t normally think about, framed in a way that we would not normally consider. Recently, as part of a university unit I was doing on education and diversity, I had to ponder on myself as an “other”, one of those people who will be citizens alongside you where you live, but who are not the same as you…and therefore challenging to the sense of self and identity that make you who you are.


These thoughts were relatively fresh in my mind as we approach Citizenship Day, so rather than just cranking up the barbecue (yes, it has been warm enough where we live!) and waving the Australian flag, I thought I would share some of those thoughts and findings.

First up though, while you pour a cuppa as this is what they call a “long read”, a bit about Citizenship Day. Even though we are celebrating “the day” in Australia, it is not a day of our choosing. September 17 was the day, in 1787, that the “Founding Fathers” signed the U.S. Constitution. According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (who should know about such things) the Constitution has served as the supreme law of the land ever since. So each year, on September 17, Americans celebrate Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. From September 17-23 that nation observes Constitution Week, a period during which Americans are encouraged to “reflect on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and what it means to be a U.S. citizen”. I imagine that, given the state of politics in the US right now, there may or may not be a lot of reflection going on there this week.

But back to Australia, and my academic musings on the subject of Citizenship. As someone who hasn’t always been “Australian”, and who has had to go through the process of applying for citizenship, I may have a different view on this to others who are First Australians, or a different ethnic background but who have been here for more than one generation.

The lovely thing about delving into the academic realms of any issue is that the reflection that results often results in revelations beyond the bounds of the assigned task. That was the case in this incidence: one academic essay was a cathartic exploration of our family’s entry in to Australia, and the issue of citizenship… What makes us what we are…as a nation, and as individuals? And what are the conflicts of past generations that need to be resolved before we are a united nation? 


In reflecting on my life, as an adult I can see so clearly that my early childhood as an outsider, an 'other', has had a major influence on who I am and how I view other people. In this essay, I focused on the personal experience I had as a migrant, even though I was a migrant child who should have been so easily integrated into our new home. My family did not stand out from those around it by virtue of the colour of skin or language. Our dialect and accent marked us as targets for a form of discrimination.

In 1968 I migrated to Australia with my family as British Assisted Passage migrants (Immigration Planning Council 1968). We settled in an area dominated by Irish Australians. As Presbyterian Scots with English accents, primary school was hard. We were teased, ridiculed, bullied both mentally and physically. We were mocked because of the way we talked, the way we dressed and for our lack of sporting prowess, and because we loved to read. We were subjected to behaviour that would not be tolerated today, but the teachers not only ignored the bullying, they actively engaged in it themselves in a subtle way. I must add at this point that we loved where we lived, and we still love where we lived…and we love all of those people who thought we were pretty weird in the beginning---but this is an academic analysis of an issue, remember!


I did not know it then, but the treatment we received at the time was as much a Catholic versus Protestant issue with its roots deeply buried in the history of Ireland as it was about the fact we were un-tanned children with no athletic ability. As a child I was unaware of the deeply engrained division that existed in Australian society, where in the late 1960s the divide between Catholic and Protestant Australians was just starting to become more of a blurred line rather than a razor sharp divide (McHugh 2008) and “mixed” marriages between persons of either faith were only just becoming less of a “crime” in the light of the Catholic Church, and that Protestants might regard Catholics as people just like them.

What we experienced, I believe, was a backlash from years of oppression. In her paper, “Marrying out Catholic/Protestant Unions from the 1920s to the 1970s”, McHugh states that historians such as John Hirst and Inge Clendinnen have drawn comparisons between the  “demonising” of Australian Muslims after 9/11 and “earlier perceptions of Australian -Irish Catholics as a disloyal and recalcitrant bunch that was a constant irritant to the Anglo-Protestant Establishment”. We unwittingly walked into a battleground without even realising it: with Catholic Australians desperate to maintain their identity (McHugh 2008), and us appearing in all of our apparent Englishness, pale faced, white skinned, middle-class diction. McHugh writes that her interviews revealed a recurring theme: “religion is in fact just a code, everything is framed by the old Irish versus English colonial history.” She goes on to say that when she spoke to Catholics, religion was “code for the Irish as oppressed and English as oppressor”, and when she conversed with Protestants “it came through as the Irish as bog-Irish, inferior, disloyal, not to be trusted”.

As McHugh points out, not all Irish are Catholic, the fact that the terms “Irish” and “Catholic” are often considered interchangeable is an example of the bounded entities that Verkuyten mentions when discussing the notion of “multicultural society”. In the same vein, the experience we had as children was based on the assumption that we were English…yet we were Scots. The “clear-cut wholes” are, as Verkuyten (2014, 10) points out, not so clear cut, yet the “collective programming of the mind” (Hofstede 1991, quoted by Signorini et al 2009, 257) led to the targeting of us as members of a tribe that had inflicted injustices upon a society that we now found ourselves part of, and the differences far outweighed the many similarities in our “cultures”. As argued by Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952, 181) culture consists of patterns of behaviour and symbols, with the essential core of culture comprised of historically derived and selected ideas complete with  “attached values”. The treatment we received at the hands of children indoctrinated by the ideas and values of their parents was an example of how, as Kroeber and Kluckholn observed, cultural systems may be the result of actions and as the conditioning elements of further action (1852, 181). In my case, they conditioned me to having an inherent abhorrence of unconditional hatred and bullying.

The background for the related experience was effectively preordained. The parents of the perpetrators no doubt discussed the arrival of our family, and others like ours, in terms which led the children involved in bullying us to believe that their actions were justified.  In terms of how this incident relates to socialisation processes and expectations, it would be fair to say that what happened to migrants in those days should not be happening to migrants today. As a society, we have developed support systems and networks that provide assistance to both business migrants (Government of South Australia 2019) and refugees and humanitarian entrants (Australian Government 2019). However, it is hardly surprising to me that we still have issues with the acceptance and integration of migrants when we are still having difficulties dealing with our treatment of the First Australians (Closing the Gap 2019).

Expectations in 1968 were different to those today. I have just come home from a day of work at a school in my hometown, where the National Day of Action Against Bullying and Violence was recognised. Regardless of the culture conflict that resulted in the bullying we experience, such behaviour would be frowned upon it today’s schoolyards.

The “small culture” that Holliday (1999) proposes as something of a salve for burning “culture” conflicts was probably what did eventually see our family become part of the community. The forced social grouping that occurs when you live in a small community in a remote part of Western Australia inevitably forces interactions which erode barriers and emphasise the similarities. It is hard to overlook the shared qualities of a person when you are working alongside them in a kitchen washing cups after a community event, catered for by the local Country Woman’s Association branch.

Holliday’s (1999) assertion that there is a need to “liberate” culture from notions of ethnicity and nation and associated perceptual dangers, rings so true in light of the described experience. As children, we had English accents, but our origins were Scottish. Our ancestors had probably suffered as much at the hands of the English (in the ancestors’ eyes, at least) as the Irish had. We heard about the battles of Culloden and Bannockburn, of Sassenachs, William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, yet we had lived in England without taking rocks or stones to our fellow students or villagers.

In 1968, the divisions between the Catholic and Protestant citizens in Australia may have been eroding, but the situation in our case was inflamed by differences in the education we had received prior to enrolling as students in the two-teacher primary school serving our new home. Gan (2009) speaks of Chinese students suffering culture shock when undertaking an International Baccalaureate Diploma Program in Australia: we suffered a similar experience in moving from English schools to Western Australia.


We had been taught to love to read and read at an early age. By the age of seven we had been taught to write using conjoined text or running writing. Our Scottish parents did not emphasise the importance of education: it was simply a given. Yet in our new school our running writing and enthusiasm for books added fuel to the cultural fire, and had the added impact of annoying our teachers who seemed to be offended by our academic precociousness and set about cutting us down to size, Tall Poppy Syndrome in action (Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2013).

Teachers in 1968 were concerned with the provision of education. In our experience, the lack of empathy and understanding expressed by the headmaster in charge of our school was startling. However, we were not isolated in this experience.

Of the small number of students that attended that primary school during my time there as a student, the boy who received the most canings was an Australian Italian. Born in Australia, this boy stood out because of his olive complexion, and the fact that his parents had the best garden in the district. In today’s world I like to believe that he would have fared better, however Castles and Kosack (2010, 35) argue that this situation still exists today, claiming that hostility towards immigrants everywhere is “great” and that “the Italian who moves to the neighbouring country of Switzerland is as unpopular as the Asian in Britain”, adding that hostility was based on the position of people as immigrants, not “on the colour of their skin”.

As I reflect on the incident discussed here, I realise that as a result of it my own identity was confused. It is only now, after reading Moore and Barker (2012, 556) that I realise that I was already what they describe as “confused or multicultural”. Though of British heritage, as a child of Scottish parentage who lived in England but returned to Scotland at every available opportunity and whose memories are consecrated in that place, I was already a “dual” citizen.

The move to Australia further complicated my feelings about my identity and even now I sometimes feel that I do not really “fit”. This is complicated by the fact that my parents encouraged us as children to reach into other cultures by reading and “virtual” exploration, limited in those days by technology, we spent hours lying on our living room floor reading the National Geographic.

Our minds were inquiring and our awareness of other cultures heightened and positive. Since childhood, all four of us siblings have travelled extensively and lived in other places, and, more importantly, as a family our doors have always been open to people from other places and backgrounds. Looking back on my own experience, I am mindful of Killick’s discussion (2011) of the development of global citizenship and I realise that the culture we were being integrated into lacked the contact required for the children involved to have the desire, or the capacity, to interact with us in a positive way.

The described incident left me shocked as a child. We had grown up in a household that promoted tolerance and understanding. In the United Kingdom, I had been aware of the English /Irish conflict, of the existence of the Irish Republican Army, and the Provisional Irish Republican Army and Sinn Fein, and of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, but I was totally unaware of the global reach conflict and oblivious to the impact it would have on us.

In retrospect, it is hard to imagine that a government would embark on a scheme like the Assisted Migrant Scheme without providing adequate support for the families involved. I am aware that there was an official program of support, but I saw no evidence of any efforts to make us welcome or explain to our fellow students why we were there. No efforts were made to encourage us to express or share our experiences of our “culture” as part of the education of others.

The opportunity for them to learn from us was squandered. We were literally released into an education system, complete with the Australian heat, flies, snakes and red back spiders, and left to get on with it. The impact this has had on us as individuals varies, but I have emerged from my childhood sensitised to any form of bullying. It makes me feel ill to see anything resembling the behaviour that resulted in me losing my English accent in a matter of months.

In that regard, it could be argued that my experience as an “other” was a positive one. I have emerged from an incident of bullying as a sensitive being and have been able to mould my own worldview in an effort to ensure our family is respectful and understanding of others.

We have deliberately and frequently engaged with people from different places and backgrounds in order to provide the interactions Killick says are so crucial to the development of global citizenship in an effort to ensure our own children see people for who they are, not for where they have come from.

So on this Citizenship Day, rather than hang up the Australian Flag and reflect on what it means to be Australian, I am going to focus on what it means to be a member of the global community, and what citizenship on a broader scale means to us all.


Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2013. “Tall Poppy Syndrome.” Life Matters. Radio National. Accessed 19 March 2019.

Australian Government. Department of Human Services. 2019. Help for refugees, humanitarian entrants and new arrivals. Accessed 12 March 2019.

Australian Government. 2019. Closing the Gap. Closing the Gap website.  Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Accessed 12 March 2019.

Bullying No Way. 2019. Bullying No Way. Safe and Supportive School Communities Working Group Bullying No Way website. Accessed 12 March 2019.

Castles, S., G. Kosack. 2010. “The function of labour immigration in Western European capitalism.” Selected Studies in International Migration and Immigrant Incorporation. Amsterdam; Amsterdam University Press.

Gan, A. 2009. “Chinese students’ adjustment to the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme: Experiences of an Australian high school.” Journal of Research in International Education 8 (3), 283-304.

Government of South Australia. 2019.  Business Migrant Support Services. Immigration South Australia website. Access 12 March 2019.

Holliday, A. 1999. “Small Cultures.” Applied Linguistics 20 (2), 237-264.

Immigration Planning Council. 1968. Australia’s Immigration Programme for the Period 1968 to 1973. Canberra; Commonwealth Immigration Planning Council. Accessed 1 March 2019.

Killick, D. 2011. “Seeing-ourselves-in-the-world: Developing global citizenship through international mobility and campus community.” Journal of Studies in International Education 16 (4), 372-389.

Kroeber, A.L., C. Kluckhohn. 1952. Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions. Archives Peabody Museum, Cambridge; MA. Accessed 10 March 2019.

McHugh, S. 2008. Marrying Out: Catholic Protestant Unions from the 1920s to the 1970s. NSW; University of Wollongong Online. Accessed 13 March 2019.

Moore, A.M., G.G. Barker. 2012. “Confused or multicultural: Third culture individuals’ cultural identity.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 36 (4), 553-562.

Verkuyten, M. 2014. Identity and cultural diversity: What social psychology can teach us. Hove, UK: Routledge. ISBN 978-84872-121-0.

Signorini, P., R. Wiesemes, R. Murphy. 2009. “Developing alternative frameworks for exploring intercultural learning: a critique of Hofstede’s cultural difference model.” Teaching in Higher Education 14 (3), 253-264.