Time for ALL to think about race in Australia

Do Black lives matter in Australia? Race is surely this nation’s primal wound. But the actions of those with most power to lead or inspire this nation are not reassuring.

In response to the cries of despair and injustice so powerfully articulated by the Black Lives Matter movement, the pushback in the United States has become increasingly vicious. In Australia, the tone of most politicians’ response has been different yet barely more comprehending of what this suffering means.

Barely a week ago, the Council of Attorneys-General turned down a chance to “Raise the Age”. That would have changed laws allowing children as young as ten to be arrested by police, charged with an offence, brought before a court and, if found “guilty”, to be imprisoned. Seventy per cent of the 600 or so children under 14 locked in youth jails each year are Indigenous. Evidence is strong this experience is far more likely to criminalise than to protect or rehabilitate them. According to the Human Rights Law Centre, “The most recent available data shows that in one year, approximately 8,900 children aged 10 to 13 were either charged or dealt with by alternative action including cautions or diversion, and approximately 2,800 children aged 10 to 13 had charges finalised in the Children’s Court.”

Our top law makers have failed to respond adequately to the stark truths of class and especially race inequality in contemporary Australia. The brutal, sometimes fatal consequences of imprisonment are known. Yet, in that same week, when protestors in Sydney called for at least minimal action on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody, the response of the NSW and Federal governments was to respond with contempt, decrying the protest as a threat to health and strenuously ignoring the far greater threats to dignity, health and survival continuously endured by First Nations people.

Even at this potent moment, Federal and most State governments apparently wish to ignore the intolerable violence that is racism. The voices of ignorance and bigotry are widely amplified in this nation. Many people are still trivialising or even rebuking those who’ve suffered most, especially any who dare to raise what a fellow school child once described to Wiradjuri man and esteemed commentator, Stan Grant, as, “that Abo shit”.

And isn’t it true that wherever we sit on issues of race in Australia, it takes no effort to assume this is a “minority” problem, of little concern to the white majority? Denial of humiliation and disregard, of powerlessness and its fatal effects, is securely established in contemporary Australia. It’s structural. It’s institutionalised. It’s highly defended. It’s also viscerally personal. It took George Floyd’s grotesque public execution, and the unstoppable Black Lives Matter movement re-arising in response, for some in our own media to look around, blinking as though emerging into daylight, noting faint traces of what’s been happening under their noses, their predecessors’ noses and the public’s noses since the idea of “Australia” began.

Race is surely this nation’s primal wound. And while that unassuaged and often unacknowledged reality doesn’t affect us all equally, it certainly affects the nation this has become. It determines who feels safe and who doesn’t; who’s likely to live their full life span and who will not; who will feel entitled to opinions, self-determination and a voice – and who’s routinely told to back off, shut up and be grateful for whatever’s offered.

It’s a power grab, race is. But not just a grab for some of the power. No, it’s an insatiable grab for all of it, with crumbs of patronage and paternalism given or withdrawn at the whim of people spell-bound by their own myths of entitlement.

None of this is new. As people rose up in their many thousands to grieve and protest that Black lives must matter, we could never have expected much from Scott Morrison. But what about Malcolm Turnbull, Morrison’s predecessor, a man who spoke of bringing emotional intelligence into our public debates? Yet Turnbull’s quick-smart response to the dignified, brilliant document we know as the Uluru Statement from the Heart was to dismiss it. A VOICE? A willingness to listen to what stealing land, culture and spirituality has cost First Nations – even “unto the generations”? Nah. In October 2017, Malcolm Turnbull and George Brandis told Australia that the government Turnbull then led, “…does not believe such a radical change to our constitution’s representative institutions has any realistic prospect of being supported by a majority of Australians in a majority of states.”

No persuasive leadership there. No gratitude for the generosity of what was on offer. No eagerness, either, to lead the way (finally) towards the treaty with First Nations that Australia alone in the colonised world has denied Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Turnbull might even have spoken of healing, of restitution of stolen rights as well as lands. He might have spoken of the need to listen deeply right across the nation if Australia is to make any claim to maturity. Nah.

Assumptions about race privilege drive the couldn’t-care-less attitudes so commonplace across Australia you may well be accused of making a fuss for mentioning it. Racial stereotyping has driven the most blatant of this country’s social and political injustices. That extends to successive governments’ treatment of refugees and asylum seekers; the most disdained are invariably not white. And, in 2020, barely-veiled bigotry can still create and enhance media and political careers for those whose precarious sense of their own dignity rests on trashing the dignity of others.

Is that a surprise? Or is casual or coded racism so familiar that many people may not know when that “joke”, assumption or belittling choice of words assumes that some lives intrinsically have greater value than others? Yet the truth is, human beings cannot dehumanise other people, rob them of respect and opportunity, disdain their experiences, treat them as “less than”, “undeserving” or “other”, without radically diminishing themselves. Ethics 101 tells us that. So does basic common sense.

Australia’s First Nations are the longest surviving culture(s) on earth. Whoever we are, we should be awestruck by that and honoured by all we can learn from it. Yet blind, self-benefitting race prejudice and greed drove the obscene notion that here was terra nullius – a land that belonged to no one and was there for the taking. That willed ignorance resonates still.

Race prejudice and stereotyping reduce human beings to categories. Perhaps the saddest or most pathetic truth is that there’s nothing natural about this. In fact, it is so unnatural it’s a perspective that has to be inculcated repeatedly and learned by example. Race prejudice couldn’t be more literally superficial. Assessing someone’s worth by the colour of their skin, rather than responding to their character – as Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr dreamed of – represents the worst of human consciousness. It will only be overcome by the best of human consciousness.

People of colour should never have to beg for a voice, dignity and opportunity in a so-called civilised society. Nor should any in our vast human family have to face these struggles alone. Each of us is far more than skin deep. Writer Toni Morrison put it brilliantly: “Race is the least reliable information you can have about someone.” And on another occasion, “There is no such thing as ‘race’. None. There’s just the human race. Scientifically. Anthropologically. Racism is a construct. A social construct.”

If we are waking up, we need to do more than care; we need to act. That depends, unsurprisingly, on not just a change of mind but a shift in conscious engagement. Why should First Nations people have to persuade non-Indigenous people that they “deserve” special consideration? Or that their cultures have something vital to offer as we together face into the consequences of a plundered and warming world? Understanding that should be an act of reparation and healing. It cannot be offered as an act of condescension. Condescension is itself racist.

Once we comprehend that, any of us who are not Indigenous could perhaps shift our response from one of vague guilt or helplessness to one of excitement and curiosity about this continent’s extraordinary history and the people who know it best. At a personal level, this means committing not just to the absolute truth that Black Lives Matter but also to living that through meaningful action.

This means, I believe, not leaving protest against race injustice to those most affected. It means naming and defying racism wherever it’s displayed or defended. It means not waiting until there’s “one more death” to stir change. (How many are needed?) It means changing all laws that worsen disadvantage at any age but most especially for children. It means promoting views that challenge bigotry, and questioning why brilliant Indigenous journalists like Stan Grant or some of our younger media giants are always “guests” or “fill in” but never permanent hosts on Australian commercial or public television beyond NITV. It means asking – repeatedly – why so few Indigenous people are in positions of real power and influence – and why critical decisions on their fate are still being made “for them”.

It means asking why there’s half a billion taxpayer dollars to extend the lavish Australian War Memorial, but no world-class Museum of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Culture(s) remotely equivalent to Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand. It means getting personally informed, participating wholeheartedly in calling out and not walking past flagrant injustices. It certainly means knowing where individual politicians stand on issues of culture as well as race, and who can be relied upon to take this nation forward, rather than shamelessly holding it back.

The three women who founded the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States offered a vision of “leading with love”. They also spoke of moving with “the speed of trust”. This means engaging with, not abandoning; it means collective action, never attitude or action that further divides.

I’ve been privileged to be involved in race politics my entire adult life, perhaps most effectively as the founder of The Women’s Press in London where ignorance about the value of writing from women of colour meant that writers as ground-breaking and brilliant as Alice Walker (“The Color Purple”), and so many others, came to us, a small welcoming radical publishing house, rather than to the major publishers of the day where they were deemed to be of “insufficient interest” to majority white readers.

“Silence is violence,” is one of the statements that’s resonated most strongly in the weeks since George Floyd’s death. Speaking up against race prejudice also demands looking inside our own minds to discover where our own well-meaning assumptions are dated, lazy or plain untrue. That would have to include the way we might see colour before individuality or character, or even talk benignly about “our” Indigenous people, rather than Australia’s First Nations.

Right now, pride – supported, structured, educated pride – in living alongside First Nations would benefit every Australian. It would also benefit this fragile physical environment through an enhanced spiritual understanding of the inter-relatedness of species and country. This is where individual shifts in awareness and action add up to something that benefits all. It’s stellar musician and stolen-generations survivor Archie Roach who’s said, “For real change we need to all get together and work out a way that we can live together that’s fair for everybody.” Challenging barriers to “seeing” far more honestly and inclusively is surely an essential start.

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Rev Dr Stephanie Dowrick is a New Zealand-born writer, social activist and interfaith minister. She has written many influential books, was co-founder and first MD of The Women's Press, London; has been a contributor to Australian media in many forms, including as "Inner Life" columnist for Good Weekend; she has led "Interfaith in Sydney", a global spiritually inclusive congregation, since 2006; she teaches widely both on writing and spiritual/ethical living; she is a mother and grandmother.

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