It was my wife who first showed me the Southern Cross in the sky. I had mentioned that, since relocating to Australia, I had a weird feeling when I looked up at the night sky, but I could not pin it down; I had never made the connection: ‘we’re in the southern hemisphere now; the sky is different’. It was one of the first things she had noticed. She was used to looking up and seeing the Ursa Major, which was now nowhere to be found. Instead, there it was, the Southern Cross, a tangible symbol – well, as tangible as a constellation can ever be – of our relocation. Look up and you’re always reminded of where you are – and where you’re not.
Suddenly, it all made sense. Not only migration, but everything that the sky and the stars stand for. Their role in understanding the world, travelling, belonging, realising where you stand, forming an identity. I’m late to the party, I know. People have used the night sky as a navigation tool for thousands of years, as they travelled around the world. But for me, it was a way to relate. I understood what it meant for sailors and explorers, what it meant for settlers and locals, why stars become symbols, why the Southern Cross found its way in the flag. Before that, when thinking about the Southern Cross, the first thing that sprung to mind is the eponymous 1979 music album by Thanos Mikroutsikos, one of the handful or Greek music albums really worth listening to – and of course, the poetry of Nikos Kavvadias, which was the basis for these songs. Appreciating Kavvadias is a kind of rite of passage for Greek teenagers, especially those immersed in the rock’n’roll culture, but his appeal eluded me then and continued to do so for years, until now, that is. I finally got to appreciate the humanity that oozes from the stories his sailor heroes, stories of loneliness and longing and understanding the human condition, as it presents itself throughout the world.
So yes, I grew very fond of the Southern Cross, as a symbol. Which is why I was taken aback, when I found out that it is considered racist. It happened on Facebook (doesn’t everything happen there, nowadays?), where someone posted a link to a story relating to an ABC show. It was the story of a poor girl who had to cover her tattoo of the Southern Cross, because she didn’t want to be labelled racist. Recounting how she had to put on socks (Socks! An Australian!) in job interviews to hide the ink, she lamented the fact that it is hard for someone to declare patriotism through a tattoo anymore, for fear of being seen as a racist. Now sporting a hideous floral pattern where the five stars used to be, she looked relieved and a bit sad. This was part of Triple J’s ‘The Hack’ program on ABC, on which the focus was on national identity, but I couldn’t follow past the story of this girl.
The Southern Cross? Racist? I had no idea. And I couldn’t fathom it. How can something as universal as the stars in the sky become a symbol of White Australia and racism? For God’s sake, Aboriginal people have looked up at the night sky and its stars for more than 40,000 years. The first Australians’ way of being in the world has been shaped by their relationship with the skies. If anyone should claim the Crux, as a symbol of nationalism, it should be them. I soon fell into the rabbit hole, of course, did a bit of homework, tried to find out as much as I can about the Australian identity, and I read the stories of normal people who had to laser-erase (or cover) their own Southern Cross tattoos, the day after the Cronulla riots.
Being Greek, I can, of course, relate to the feeling of having a bunch of brainless nationalists ruin everything. In Greece, we have a party of Nazi thugs in the parliament hijacking the public sphere with their hatred and ignorant misuse of ancient symbols and misspelling ancient Greek quotes on their pumped-by-steroid muscled bodies. If the ancient Greek history can be reduced to a slogan scrawled on a neanderthal’s arm, then yes, I can definitely see how a component of the Australian flag can become a symbol of intolerance and racism and the complete ignorance that is Australian nationalism. But covering up a tattoo with atrocious flowers is never the answer. You cannot fight racism by hiding, you do it by confronting it. When racists claim your symbols, you reclaim them back. For every militarist imbecile worshipping the Spartans because he saw ‘300’, there should be hundreds reading Aristotle and Plato and Euripides and Sappho, and discussing the ecumenical ideals of humanity. And for every uneducated fool wearing the Australian flag as a superhero cape and tattooing the Crux on their skin, there should be thousands pointing to the sky and teaching them astronomy. Better yet, point to a situation where the Southern Cross is used to promote something completely different – such as SisterWorks, a Melbourne-based social enterprise, that supports women who are migrants, asylum seekers or refugees to gain financial independence by creating and selling hand-crafted products, thus and become happily integrated into Australian society. SisterWorks’ logo is a colourful Southern Cross.
Racism is based in ignorance and fear of other – and both can be easily cured with knowledge and education, exposure to astronomy, science, history and literature. They also say that the antidote to racism is travelling, leaving one’s microcosm and seeing the world outside, connecting to other people. Travellers have long relied on the stars for guidance and that’s why the Southern Cross can never be racist. Because it is a symbol of what the same sky that we all share. We shouldn’t let anyone claim this, in the name of any dogma. In the end, it should be the racists racing to the tattoo parlour, to cover up their Southern Cross tattoos, ashamed for displaying a symbol of tolerance and humanity, not the other way round.