Invisible Australians: Racially Reparative Archiving in the Digital Humanities

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Wall of faces, Invisible Australians

Debates about the scope and future of Digital Humanities continue across academic disciplines as scholars, administrators and programmers argue over how DH should be used. DH advocates such as Dorothy Kim and Moya Bailey routinely debate over the role of race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability in these digital spaces and worry that DH will falter over the same issues of representation that characterize the larger digital world. Rather than throw another stone into the pool to further muddy the debate, I would like to introduce an existing DH project as an example of how the DH field has already begun to address issues of racial representation and historical reclamation that academics have argued are key to DH’s role as an academic humanist discipline.

Invisible Australians is a site that uses historical records in order to reveal Australia’s hidden multi-ethnic past during the country’s early to mid-twentieth century exclusionary period. The site states directly on the homepage that its goal is to use bibliographical information in order to “link together” the lives of non-white Australians and to “reveal the real face of White Australia” during the White Australia Policy period. Invisible Australians argues that Australia, even after its independence from Britain, clung to the notion that it was a white British nation, even though great numbers of immigrants from all over Asia equally contributed to the country’s development and success.

Unlike many DH projects that shy away from socio-political controversy, Invisible Australians embraces politics by taking aim at the White Australia Policy, an anti-Asian immigration policy enacted by the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 and enforced well into the mid 20th century. Beginning in the 1860s, early immigration legislation was largely aimed at curbing Chinese immigration, but was later expanded to include Japanese, South Asians and Pacific Islanders. The policy was promoted by a number of motivations, including white-supremacist racism and fear of an influx of cheap and efficient Asian labor into the economy. The White Australia Policy restricted immigration by providing entrance examinations only in European languages and refusing entry for immigrants who did not have Western linguistic proficiency. Immigrants who had already established residency in Australia before the institution of the policy were essentially hidden by their own country, one that sought to deny their place in its history.

In order to address these issues of racial silencing, Invisible Australians provides pages of records of Asian Australians by following the paper trail of existing residents who had special dispensation to waive the government’s entry language examinations. The site does not simply present an archive, but uses governmental records to reorient the archive in order to give voices to the voiceless, invisible racial bodies present during the country’s period of immigration restriction and exclusion. By cleverly reusing and recycling the materials of the government they critique, Invisible Australians performs racially reparative work in order to humanize and restore the position of Asian Australians in Australia’s cultural history.

On the front page of the site, Invisible Australians draws in its audience by the startling opening statement in large font on its front page:

Invisible Australians. They celebrated Federation. They fought at Gallipoli. They struggled through the Depression. And they battled for freedom in the Pacific.

They also lived through another of their country’s define moments – the introduction of the White Australia Policy.

This dramatic introduction musters the audience to sympathize with “invisible Australians” and demonize the oppressive government before they even realize who constitutes the term invisible Australians. Only in the following paragraphs does the site define its terms and fill in the history that underlies its bold claims. Like a newspaper article, the site begins with a strong hook, and by the time visitors have scrolled down the page to read the entire introduction, the site’s mission and message has profoundly shaped their opinion.

With the audience won, the site immediately directs viewers to engage with the “faces” page by providing a picture with linked historical materials as a teaser at the top of the page. Viewers more interested in text can be lured by the list of “latest posts” with engaging titles from the blog. Together the form and content of these two elements introduces visitors to the faces and voices of Asian Australians while supporting by the project’s humanizing approach. Most importantly, the digital interface’s interactivity allows viewers to participate in the reparative work of restoring Australia’s complex racial history and begins to restore the visibility to “invisible” racial subjects by transferring the archive from dusty boxes to vast exposure through the site’s online audience.

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A snapshot of the faces page of Invisible Australians

The site’s “faces” section is the highlight of the site. By clicking on the link, the visitor is introduced to a page full of thumbnails of faces without the aid of captions. The title of the page is “The Real Face of White Australia,” which sets visitors up for a surprise, as the pictures below show a multitude of faces of Asian Australians of all ages. By clicking on a face, an image of the person’s immigration papers appears, adding photos, handwritten text or even handprints to add context to the individual. Many of these documents are titled “Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test” and are examples of documentation provided to established residents exempting them from a Western language examination if they return within three years. Other common documents include a “Certificate of Domicile,” certifying that the applicant has proven that he is an Australian resident is temporarily leaving the country.

On one hand, the site’s focus on faces without textual explanation allows the material to speak for itself. It sets up the visitor as a historian, allowing him/her to browse the archive and create his/her own questions, speculations and arguments without obvious argumentative scaffolding that could distract from the visitor’s close engagement with the archive. Although the site’s political aims are clear on its front page, by presenting the visitor with the naked archive he/she can determine the terms of his/her own engagement, although many visitors may have already been swayed by the front page’s persuasive argument.

On the other hand, some visitors may have difficulty with the page’s lack of textual support. Each face is only linked to a single document, limiting the amount of information that visitors can glean about each individual. This may be a problem growing out of the nature of the original archive itself; nevertheless, the site never takes advantage of a story or narrative’s ability to humanize its subject. By recreating the stories behind the faces through additional documentation and historical digging, the site might further its reparative agenda and strengthen the faces’ impact on the visitor.

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Invisible Australians, documentation from the National Archives of Australia, ST84/1, 1908/471-480

In contrast to the “faces” page, the blog gives the background of the nature and history of the archive through text and follows creator’s efforts to mine the archives and digitize historical materials for the site. For example, the latest post, titled “My Hunt Through SP115/1: day 1,” begins with a description of the site creator’s search through the National Archives of Sydney for historical materials to add to the project, as well as the types of documentation included, mainly CEDTs (Certificate of Exemption from Dictation Tests) and birth certificates. It also notes the vastness of the project: there are 140 boxes in the archive and the site creator only managed to sort through twenty-eight in one day.

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Map of Australia with its size compared with European countries, Invisible Australians, State Library Victoria

Another post titled “‘A map and some pins’: open data and unlimited horizons” is adopted from the site creator’s keynote address on Australia’s racist history during the 20th century. The post begins with the history of an Australian poet and writer, Edwin James Brady, whose hobby of pinning important locations on a map of Australia led to his publication of Australia Unlimited, a “huge compendium” of Australia’s “romance history, facts & figures”. Although Australia Unlimited eventually faded in national interest, the phrase “Australia Unlimited” continued to be used in popular culture for decades. The author ties the narrative to the ways digital humanities can represent “the human experience of time using existing digital tools” and the importance of making the marginalized aspects of history visible to a large audience. The author also reveals Australia Unlimited’s dark, underlying purpose, to highlight how “‘a mere handful of White people’, perched uncomfortably near Asia’s ‘teeming centres of population’, could not expect to maintain unchallenged ownership of the continent and its potential riches.” Australia Unlimited is introduced as a textual artifact of the White Australia Policy that the site hopes to counteract by providing Asian minorities with their own textual, and now digital, material history.

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May Choy Hung, six years old, Faces, Invisible Australians

Although Invisible Australians confronts many issues regarding historical representation, certain questions that arise for viewers on the “faces” page only find answers deep within the blog posts. One of the questions that commenters have posed is the archive’s underrepresentation of women. It takes some digging through the blog to find the answer to this question. The poster responds that most Asian Australians were men due to a “combination of economic, social, familial and legal factors” that the post does not detail, although it does give a bit of information about their motivations for travel and the customary exemption of white women from photographing requirements, even for those who were married to Asian Australian men. The post also gives us some facts and figures, such as the number of Chinese men and women from a 1911 Commonwealth census, 20,453 males and 322 females, suggesting that less than 1.6% of the Chinese Australian population was female. Although text might be distracting on the “faces” page, if common questions about the archive were organized and displayed somewhere prominently, the site might better engage its viewers.

In essence, Invisible Australians’s use of thought-provoking text, photos and historical materials framed by a strong political message motivates viewers to engage both intellectually and emotionally with the material the site presents. As a history-based site, Invisible Australians takes a powerful approach by concentrating on the faces and human elements of the historical record in order to create a connection between the individuals it presents and the site’s audience. For many who have difficulty with history’s traditional birds-eye view of events, Invisible Australians counteracts this disconnect by uniting viewers intimately with the faces and lives of Australia’s silent Asian population.

Invisible Australians also represents an important example for DH scholars of how questions of racial representation can be integrated into the field’s humanist aims while allowing visitors enough autonomy to develop their own connection, appreciation, and engagement with the digital archive. It is important to include adequate representation in the burgeoning field of Digital Humanities, for just like the Asian Australians who built the country into a modern nation, minority scholars also have contributed and continue to contribute greatly to the development of DH as a successful academic field.

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