Every now and then I encounter a person who I’d immediately assumed was Anglo-Australian based on appearances but who strongly self-identifies as Asian-Australian partially through an ancestral link to a single Chinese grandparent. The contentious question is whether this person has a legitimate claim to being Asian-Australian?
The Australian government definition of who qualifies as an Indigenous or Torres Strait Islander Australian (which in turn provides access to a number of targeted services) is worth examining. You are an Indigenous or Torres Strait Islander Australian if you meet ALL of the following criteria: (1) you are of ITSIA descent, (2) identify as ITSIA and (3) are recognised as such by your community. I’ll assume that the community will have to be an ITSIA community*.
If it’s good for the government and ITSIA, it should be good enough to generalise. So you are an X if and only if you: are of X descent, identify as X and are recognised as such by the community of X. Sounds nice and neat doesn’t it?
In the case of this Asian-Australian person, they would completely qualify as Asian-Australian if they can find a community of Asia-Australians who recognise them as such. Turns out there are quite a number of them, so if we quickly skirt over the tricky question of what actually constitutes an Asian-Australian identity, we have a bona-fide Asian-Australian.
That’s a relief and no shouting is required.
Now, let’s have a look at myself: I identify as Australian so do I qualify as Australian using the ITSIA based-definitions? Unfortunately, I don’t. In spite of my Australian citizenship, I don’t have any Australian descent. In other words: because I did not grow here, I can never hope to be Australian. Very disappointing! But it gets worse. Using the same ITSIA based-definitions, I am also not an Asian-Australian because I don’t self-identify as such.
So what am I?
Now traditionally, problematic people like myself would never had existed simply because criteria number 2 did not exist – your identity was always imposed on you by others as follows:
Racism: You are X because of your X descent (aka criteria 1)
Tribalism: You are X because your X community claims you as such (aka criteria 3)
The recognition that an individual should have a say in their own identity is only a recent one and not particularly popular around the world. Thing is, individual choice is not particularly compatible with the old ways as shown by the ITSIA definitions which attempts to create a new way.
Can there be a new new way?
* which raises interesting questions of how does one then define what an ITSIA community is. But that’s beyond the scope of this post.