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Not Quite White: Lebanese and the White Australia Policy 1880 to 1947

By Anne Monsour



Not Quite White focuses on early Lebanese immigration to Australia, a group of immigrants and their descendants, who, with a few exceptions, have been largely ignored in the recording of Australian history.

While this book considers the experience of one immigrant group within the context of a particular locality and time, it is also about Australia as a ‘new' nation seeking to privilege a white, Christian majority. The Lebanese Australian story contributes a new understanding of the implementation of the White Australia Policy because although Lebanese do not feature predominately in historical studies of the White Australia Policy, in fact, when it came to its administration, they presented a significant challenge.

The structure of the book is outlined below:

Chapter one considers basic questions such as: who were the immigrants; where did they come from; how many came; when and why did they come to Australia and, in particular,to Queensland?

Chapters two, three and four are primarily based on archival research and consider the impact of exclusionary legislation such as the Queensland Aliens Act, and the Immigration Restriction Act.

In chapter five, the generally accepted portrayal of Lebanese immigrants throughout the world as indefatigable traders is scrutinised in the Australian context; and chapter six examines the mainstream response to the involvement of the early Lebanese immigrants in commercial enterprises such as hawking and shopkeeping.

The final two chapters focus on the settlement experience of Lebanese using Queensland as a case study. Through the use of interviews and questionnaires, these chapters give ‘voice' is to the immigrants and their descendants.

Table of Contents

Early Lebanese Migration to Australia
Asiatic Aliens in Colonial Australia
Lebanese in a Federated Australia: Straddling the Colour Line
Lebanese in a White Australia
Lebanese Occupational Pathways: Making the Best of Limited Options
Operating on the Periphery: Lebanese Traders in Australia
Geographic Settlement of Lebanese in Australia
Becoming Australian?



Mashriq & Mahjar: Volume 2, 2013, pp. 125-129.

Anne Monsour, Not Quite White: Lebanese and the White Australia Policy, 1880 to 1947 (Brisbane, QLD: Post Pressed, 2010). pp. 216. $45.65 paper

Reviewed by Catriona Elder, Department of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Sydney, email:

After receiving Anne Monsour's book Not Quite White to review, I put it on my bookshelf at work to read a little further down the track. Taking it home one day a few weeks later, I discovered I mistakenly had picked up the wrong book. I also had on the shelf a copy of a book by Matt Wray with the same main title, but the sub-title 'white trash and the boundaries of whiteness.' [1] Since I was not going to get to read Monsour's book that evening, I flicked through Wray's monograph instead. Though exploring a different topic - the emergence of the pejorative term 'white trash' to describe a segment of the American population - there were sections of this book, that I discovered later, resonated with Monsour's work. In setting out the theoretical framework for his argument Wary returns to the eugenics and scientific material of the late nineteenth century, where the 'classifying impulse' was on show. [2]

Included in his book are illustrations of two popular racial classification schemes of the time. In both of the schema, from the 1895 Funk and Wagnall Standard Dictionary of the English Language, Syrians appear classified - both in a table and through images - as 'EurAfrican (Caucasian).' Wray uses these illustrations to establish his argument about boundaries and notes '[the] unstable and inconstant quality of boundaries directs our attention to the social interactions among those on either side of the boundary and to the social interactions across the boundary.' [3]

Anne Monsour's book is a detailed study of the shifting and sometime porous boundary that separated Lebanese Australians from other groups within the country. Monsour explores the complex relationship of this small but significant group of migrants with the state, their local community and each other. The book covers the late colonial period, when as Monsour notes the laws around immigration were less consistent and less rigid, through the period of federation when laws were explicitly racially exclusionary, until the end of the 1940s when there were considerable changes in the number of migrants arriving and the law also changed significantly with the introduction of the Citizenship Act (1948).

Monsour has written what is today understood as transnational history. It is an exploration of the local experiences of Lebanese settlers in (mostly) Queensland through their social, economic, and political lives. This local approach is embedded in the national history of Australia and the messy, racially inflected development of immigration policy and narratives of national identity. The third element of the history is the relationship of the Lebanese settlers with their country or region of origin. The reader develops a good sense of this community in relation to global phenomena and political changes across the early twentieth century - including World War I, neo and decolonization processes. Monsour makes the point early on that Lebanese settlers thought of themselves in relation to their village of birth and their religion. In this sense Monsour's history lays out the process by which the settlers themselves, the local police, colonial and then later federal governments and other Australians negotiated the re-identification of this group of settlers. Over time and space, these Lebanese settlers in Australia imagined themselves in terms of their families, their home villages, their new towns or regions, as British subjects, naturalized Australians and citizens.

As Monsour's sub-title suggests, the white Australia policy was a racialized discourse that shaped individual and community lives alike. At the most basic level, this policy changed the speed of immigration - creating a 'gap' in arrivals between the start of the twentieth century until the 1920s. The Immigration Restriction Act was refined and amended over the first half of the twentieth century and this had an impact on the ways in which the longer term and new Lebanese settlers interacted with the state. For example, as Monsour explains, the Australian state's classification of Lebanese people as 'Aboriginal natives of Asia' was grounds for exclusion from naturalization; yet their 'racial' classification as European, or the everyday understandings of them as sometimes fair skinned destabilized this categorizing. As a result, there was room for manoeuvre. Monsour's thorough and close examination of archival records enables her to show the ways in which the 'rules' were manipulated or understandings of who the Lebanese were changed. Drawing on sources such as letters, police records, and parliamentary correspondence, she maps the various arguments put forward by migrants, their legal counsel and supporters for their acceptance as 'white' and so their eligibility for naturalization; as well as the counter arguments that were raised.

The archival evidence that Monsour presents brings to mind dictionary illustrations that Wray uses in his book to show how racial classification worked. In their correspondence with Minister's who were considering reviewing or their cases, the Lebanese settlers draw on the Social Darwinist logic that was so popular at the time. For example, one merchant, who was active in challenging the state - Wadih Abourizk - explained to the Prime Minister: 'Syrians are Caucasians, and they are a white race as much as the English. Their looks, habits, customs, religions, blood, are those of Europeans, but they are more intelligent' (43). Similar forensic analyses took place in the Department of External Affairs, with public servants providing responses and legal opinions: 'They hold that they belong to Caucasian stock and that therefore the fact that they are born on Asiatic soil should not stamp them as 'Asiatics' in the general acceptance to that term as understood in connection with the administration of the Act' (44). What Monsour makes clear is the liminal space occupied by Lebanese settlers in Australia. They were, as she demonstrates, not clearly excludable, but not obviously includable in the nation. They were 'not quite white.' The author's analysis brings to mind Ghassan Hage's argument of the restricted or partial way in which non-white immigrants are 'invited' into the nation. They may be welcomed as 'Australian' - offered naturalization or citizenship status - but they are never considered to be members of the category of 'white.' This is the racialized-national category kept only for Australian-Britons. [4]

One of the strengths of Monsour's book is her demonstration of the resistance and responses of the Lebanese settlers to this half-hearted acceptance. She demonstrates that the settlers always understood how they were positioned in the Australian national imaginary and illustrates the series of techniques and arguments they drew on in order to try to contest their classification and to fit in. Wadih Abourizk's formal advocacy is one such technique. Community leaders, wealthy members of society, and later members of parliament used their influence and cultural capital to petition on behalf of the community for formal or legal changes to exclusionary legislation. Other individuals drew on their knowledge of the racialized system that was being used to classify them and rewrote their racial identity. Monsour gives examples of settlers claiming their place of birth as Constantinople knowing it was understood as a part of Europe and so changing the legal perception of who they were.

The struggle of Lebanese settlers in Australia is not one that is undertaken on the docks. The myth, still circulating today through the story of the influx of refugee boats, is that non-white migrants illegally appear in Australian ports. As with so many other migrants, Lebanese settlers arrived in a formal and legal manner. What Monsour does note is that different from many other groups of migrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Lebanese arrived as families. This had an impact on how they were viewed by Anglo-Australians, but it also meant that even though increased post-1901 immigration restriction might have slowed down the entry of non-white migrants, there was a natural growth of the Lebanese community in Australia. Monsour thus spends much of the second half of her book exploring community life in the period of the white Australia policy. Issues of employment, language, education and religion are analyzed through another archive - a series of in-depth interviews with first, second and third generation Lebanese Australians. Here the reader gets an even richer sense of the lives of this group of migrants - the ongoing exclusion and racism, as well as the rich family and community life, that included both this diaspora and the relatives who remained in the villages of Lebanon.

Monsour explores the economic lives of Lebanese settlers through case studies of families who arrived in New South Wales and Queensland in the 1890s and then 1920s. Through these detailed cases, she maps out the logic for the geographic spread of settlement in country towns across the two states, as well as the propensity to take up work in the retail trade and to maintain independent businesses. In these chapters the reader builds a clear picture of the ties that link what seem like isolated families so far from their birth village and from other Lebanese settlers in Australia. The place of hawking in the employment history of these settlers is thoroughly surveyed. This enables Monsour to link the everyday experience of individuals, couples, and families to state policy. What becomes clear is that the role of the local police was key to the surveillance and classification of Lebanese settlers, as white or otherwise, as productive or idle. Across the book, Monsour draws on the myriad (though still incomplete) police records that capture the lives of the settlers. There are reports where the local constabulary kept tabs on a family or a single man, or a couple moving through a town. There are reports where they supported Lebanese settlers they know well and who they see as important to the town in their quest for naturalization or the renewal of a license; or where they were instrumental in surveillance that lead to the rejection of applications for work or recognition.

One of the most poignant sections of the book is the one that explores language. Here again Monsour links local history to the national and global, explaining the different sets of knowledge different groups of migrants brought with them as a result of the changing colonial landscape in Lebanon. As scholars of immigration well know, language is an important cultural marker for communities and its everyday use or loss shapes the life of a diaspora. The stories of learning English, but also losing Arabic produce a powerful picture of the migrant experience. There are the stories in Monsour's book of being embarrassed when parents spoke Arabic in public, alongside the stories of racist mutterings to 'talk Australian' or go home. Monsour ends her book with the question of identity - Lebanese? Lebanese- Australian or Australian? The variety of answers from Monsour's participants demonstrate that for many Lebanese people today some of the same issues that shaped the lives of their great-great grandparents still affect them today.


 1 Matt Wray, Not Quite White: White trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).

 2 Ibid, 9-13.

 3 Ibid, 14.

 4 Ghassan Hage, White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society (Sydney, NSW: Pluto Press, 1998).

Catriona Elder

Department of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Sydney


Australian Journal of Politics and History: Volume 57, Number 1, 2011, pp. 126-127.

Not Quite White: Lebanese and the White Australia Policy 1880 to 1947

By Anne Monsour (Brisbane: Post Pressed, 2010, pp. 216, A$49.50 pb

Anne Monsour's Not Quite White is an excellent example of 'history from below'. Through oral history, contemporary newspapers and official records, she has skilfully highlighted the place of the Lebanese community within Australian history. The book is essentially a history of early Lebanese immigrants in Queensland, set within a national and international context.

For most of the period covered, what is now Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire's vast province of Syria; Lebanese people were commonly called Syrians in Australia until 1939. The major concern of the book is to explore the Lebanese community's fight to gain acceptance and build a life for themselves in Australia. The major obstacle was the White Australia Policy, which officially deemed Syrian/Lebanese people to be 'Asians' rather than 'Europeans'.

With judicious use of primary sources, Monsour highlights the cruel inconsistencies of administering the White Australia Policy between 1901 and 1920. While officials were inclined to reject Lebanese applications for naturalisation based on geography and skin colour (hence the 'not quite white' of the book's title), at times community/political lobbying and use of alleged technicalities (such as a European birth place) helped Lebanese people to gain certificates of naturalisation.

Monsour is an effective writer who has carefully balanced her use of archival sources with the insights that can be gained through interviews with relatives of the original settlers. There are, however, a number of structural and stylistic problems with the text. For example, a number of chapters cover similar terrain, resulting in some repetition of main points. Further, while the author's thematic approach works reasonably well, sometimes greater attention to historical milestones would have been useful, especially in relation to changes in immigration policy. Finally, there is an occasional tendency to over-acknowledge the work of other scholars. Unnecessary references to international studies of the Lebanese diaspora detract from the narrative flow and the book's central themes.

Despite these reservations, there is much to admire in this book. The author gives many insights into the daily existence of Lebanese families across Queensland, including the struggle to 'fit in' with mainstream Australia. Furthermore, Monsour's oral history interviews with second and third generation Lebanese Australians are very moving. They powerfully show the impact of assimilationist policies on the cultural life of Lebanese Queenslanders.

Through this publication, Monsour's research and writing on the history of the Lebanese in Australia will deservedly reach a wider audience. Historians and other social scientists will especially benefit from the nuanced understanding of the White Australia Policy gained by the author's archival studies. In reading this history, descendants of early Lebanese settlers may also find a greater sense of identity and place within twenty-first century Australia.

Lyndon Megarrity, Brisbane


Dr Monsour's study - by investigating the often difficult to locate government archives - has revealed the bureaucratic maze which peaceful and industrious people had to negotiate in order to gain citizenship, because they were different. The story of the eventual acceptance of Syrian/Lebanese individuals by an Anglo-Celtic host society, which was in many cases a harrowing one, had so far been kept silent. In recounting this struggle, Anne Monsour has rendered a signal service to our understanding of how the original exclusivist and racist provisions of the ‘White Australia Policy' were gradually dismantled. This case study is undoubtedly a major statement concerning Australia's development into becoming an enlightened colour-blind parliamentary democracy.

Reverend Dr John A. Moses
Professorial Associate
St Mark's National Theological Centre, Canberra



Not Quite White provides a fascinating case study of the immigration to, and subsequent experiences within, Australia by people from Lebanon during the years of the White Australia Policy. In this book, Monsour utilises archival records, anecdotes, and interviews to provide an interesting perspective of this time in Australia’s history, from the point of view of one group of people who suffered as a result of the restrictions placed on immigration to the country. In doing so, Monsour also provides a broader study of the effects of this policy on colonial Australia and the way in which immigration shaped Australia despite efforts to keep Australia ‘white’ and therefore essentially British.

In the first two chapters of the text, Monsour details the context of Lebanese migration to Australia, including the effects of immigration policy on Lebanese migrants in Australia at the time and their ability or inability to gain citizenship or become naturalised. As such, in addition to documenting the struggles of this particular migrant group in Australia, these chapters also provide a useful reference point for the various policies in existence in relation to immigration and citizenship during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and the effects of these policies on non-white immigrants during this period of Australia’s history.

Chapters 3 and 4 both extend this background to immigration policies, with a focus particularly on the Immigration Restriction Act (1901), or the White Australia Policy. Of particular interest in these chapters, especially to scholars of race and whiteness studies, are the conflicts documented by Monsour surrounding the classification of Lebanese migrants as being from Asia—a classification which Monsour points out many Lebanese migrants objected to adamantly, claiming instead that they were white and therefore unfairly classified under the Act. These chapters further document the ongoing struggles faced by Lebanese migrants to gain citizenship or naturalisation in Australia given their classification as Asians under this Act. As such, Monsour outlines the restrictions Lebanese migrants faced in Australia as a result of their classification as not European or ‘white’. The history summarised in these two chapters highlights the flexibility of the category of ‘white’ and the power this category has to exclude  those seen as outside it. For example, these chapters document restrictions for those classed as ‘not-white’ on employment, citizenship and the right to vote, amongst other issues. In Chapter 4 in particular, Monsour focuses  on the importance of being seen to be ‘white’ during this time in Australia’s history, providing examples of people from Syria being classified as either ‘white’ or ‘coloured’—a classification in many cases based apparently on phenotypical appearance and therefore skin colour. Furthermore, Monsour points out that such classification seemed to be, in many cases, arbitrary, and Monsour utilises police descriptions of various Lebanese immigrants to demonstrate the confusion that the application of such racial categories often caused. Again providing examples, Monsour further demonstrates the importance of a classification as ‘white’, or fair skinned in relation to subsequent status in Australia. In this chapter, Monsour also discusses the improving position of Lebanese  immigrants in Australia during this time, concluding however that such improvements were predicted only on complete assimilation into mainstream, ‘white’ Australia.

Indeed, this is one critique I would make regarding this book in that whilst it is clearly a book about an historical period (and the history within it is of considerable interest), I do feel that Monsour could have extended these  discussions about the difficulties Lebanese immigrants experienced in Australia due to not being classed as ‘white’ and from here considered the ongoing tensions between Lebanese and ‘white’ Australians today. Monsour does very briefly nod to these ongoing tensions—such as the ‘Cronulla riots’ in December 2005 and media coverage of ‘Lebanese crime’ in Sydney around the same time (13)—however there is no attempt to explicitly link ongoing difficulties in being seen as ‘white’ and therefore as ‘belonging’ in Australia outlined in this book with these continuing difficulties facing the Lebanese-Australian population today.

In the next section of the book, Monsour shifts her focus from the immigration and citizenship policies that affected Lebanese immigrants during this time to examine the perception of Lebanese people as traders, and the occupations that Lebanese people actually engaged in once they arrived in Australia. Monsour argues that whilst the perception at the time (and the argument put forward in subsequent literature), was that Lebanese people were ‘natural traders’, in fact hawking and storekeeping were some of the few occupations that Lebanese immigrants could take up in Australia in light of entrenched discrimination in legislation relating to restrictions on the type of employment ‘aliens’ could partake in.

Interestingly in light of more contemporary immigration and population debates in Australia, Monsour uses records from the time to illustrate the common perception that Lebanese migrants were taking jobs from white Australians, or undercutting their labour and employment by providing cheap goods. Thus Monsour highlights commonly held and negative stereotypes regarding the work of Lebanese immigrants and the ways in which the policies stemming from these stereotypes worked to disadvantage Lebanese workers and their families.

Next, in chapter 7 Monsour utilises fascinating case studies from historical records in order to outline the decisions made by Lebanese immigrants in deciding where to settle in Australia and start work. This chapter highlights the importance of family to Lebanese immigrants in patterns of settlement around Australia, and discusses the unique difficulties of settling in Australia with its vast land-mass. Additionally, this chapter outlines the importance of supporting family back in Lebanon to these early immigrants. This is another section of the book that is of interest in light of current research into patterns of migration that suggests that remittances sent ‘back home’ to a migrant’s country of origin in the present day “represent a large proportion of world financial flows and amount to substantially more than global official development assistance or aid” (Koser & Van Hear 2003). Thus again this book provides historical evidence of relevance today in relation to immigration debates and policies.

In chapter 8, Monsour shifts her focus from an examination of archival historical records to interviews and questionnaires provided to second and third generation Lebanese-Australians. In this chapter, Monsour examines the impact of settlement in Australia on new immigrants and subsequent generations. This chapter provides a very interesting examination of the factors that affected the settlement experience for these new families, and their children and grandchildren. Monsour discusses the impact of the need to assimilate into Australia, particularly in light of the hostilities and difficulties outlined in the earlier chapters of the book. In outlining this need,  Monsour examines the requirement to quickly learn English in order to be able to survive economically, and the associated loss of the Arabic language—a loss Monsour states is often regretted amongst later generations. Monsour also examines the impact of religion and the importance of being perceived as Christian and not  ‘foreign’, and interestingly, discusses the apparent reluctance to discuss the ‘past’ amongst these new immigrants—as seen in the lack of knowledge in later generations about their parents’ or grandparents’ life in Australia or in Lebanon.

In summary, Monsour’s book represents an interesting overview of Lebanese immigration to Australia that provides important information about the ways in which this specific group of migrants shaped Australia’s history. More broadly, Not Quite White is a fascinating portrayal of migration to Australia in the face of racist and restrictive immigration policies, and serves to remind us of the many challenges facing current immigrants and refugees in a country that, arguably, is still striving to be seen as ‘white’.

Dr Clemence Due is a researcher in the School of Psychology at the University of Adelaide. She has published widely in the area of critical race and whiteness studies, particularly in relation to popular representations of marginalised groups in Australia. Clemence can be contacted at:



Not Quite White: Lebanese and the White Australia Policy 1880 to 1947

Published: 2010
Pages: 216
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