Social and political debates about racism rarely include the voices of the oppressed and are instead a prescription or stricture within the narrowest discourse. Australia’s major institutions and think tanks are not just in a hostile public denial of this nation’s knee deep racism despite the racism being self-evident, but are ruthlessly hostile to any legitimate discourse because it is their exclusive intention to protect White privilege and power. The racism is institutional, it is structural, it is about privilege and power, about the interests of the oppressor and therefore any authentic discourse about racism is a threat to the oppressor. The oppressor concedes only a level of perceived equality that is not threatening to their hold on power; corralled within one stop shop assimilation.
Social and political debates about ‘conciliation’ with the descendants of the First Peoples of this continent – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – and with multiculturalism and immigration and with asylum seekers are undermined by the vicious stricture of the discussions. Our parliaments and media do not reflect the demography of this nation, they continue to reflect the past two centuries. The majority of politicians are White, with few Brown and Black in their midst. As long as our parliaments and other institutions continue to fail to reflect the demography of this continent then they will continue to fail the demography, peoples. We will remain a socially fractured, divisive society.
The generation of racists I grew up with are now in our parliaments. This generation of racists I grew up with are the ones who became the generation who delivered the Northern Territory Intervention, who destroyed the hopes that Mabo’s Native Title win offered, who failed to establish the long overdue conversation in this country that we needed on racism and the ways forward and instead we had to soak up the Cronulla Riots, Islamophobia, every imaginable xenophobia, the turning back of the boats of asylum seekers, and the degeneration of immigration detention centres into dungeons where children, mothers and fathers are cruelly punished because they sought out a better tomorrow.
Governments provide leadership but leadership does not guarantee the common good, does not always carry peoples universally. Many public statements by politicians are racist expressions, victim-blaming and reinforce origins-of-thinking one and two centuries old which led to a separation of peoples, reinforcing and establishing biases. These assertions lead to the racism of superiority and inferiority, to the scapegoating of past wrongs by perpetrators onto the victims of today instead of addressing the social inequities. The diabolical theories of race that emerged nearly a century ago continue in one form or another contemporarily, perniciously endemic. The science of eugenics justified colonial imperialism, misusing the notion of science as an “arbiter of truth” (Hannaford, 1997). This arbiter of truth pervades today in the policy making of Governments and institutions and in the public statements of high profile individuals who need to justify the rights of the oppressor over the oppressed. Today still continues to be about White terms of reference and one stop assimilation. Racism is not ageing and fading.
Racism is not subtle, it is always overt, and these days it is argued as passive, casual, lateral but in the end it is racism no different to the racism of yesteryear that led to segregation, apartheid, the Stolen Generation, obscene inequalities. Racism may no longer lead to many of the cruel wrongs of the past but it continues in other forms as the tool of the oppressor.
The contemporary reductionist and often skewed discourses on racism are evidence that racism is a tool for the oppressor and often not just for control over the lives of the ‘othered’, to desperately hold on to power but predominately so to exploit, to cheat people of their dues. To cheat them out of economic equalities, to cheat them of their resources of the land they live on. Greed undermines the pursuit of equality and harmony.
Mainstream media refers to Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders as ‘aborigines’ and ‘indigenous’ – lower case! This is a diminution of the identities of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders, of their ethnicity. Any description of ethnicity – Greek, Chinese, Indian – is personal noun, it is about identity. Many refer to blacks or blackfella but it should be Black, not black. They are not a colour but a people. There is a reason for this diminution of people as ‘aborigines’, ‘blacks’ instead of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples or Black; it is to signify inferior status, to dismiss their rights.
This racism of diminishing the identity of peoples leverages the oppressor’s campaign to damn the claims of the oppressed to authentic self-determination and to continue the authority of the oppressor to continue controlling the lives of the oppressed. Though there has been some progress in media coverage, we continue to read media that complies with the significations of the oppressor. They label peoples as inferior, dysfunctional, incapable of managing their lives. These stories pervade into the Australian consciousness.
“When tourists see drunken Aboriginal people in the streets and in the Todd River they never stop to ask themselves why?” – Lorraine Liddle, 1993.
We cannot move beyond racism until we understand racism, this is imperative to the ways forward. Racism is intended as a set of impenetrable assumptions that can systematically pervade audiences of the oppressor, turning them into armies of violent thinking towards those who are intended as the oppressed. Racism relies on portraying the oppressed as inferior and in whatever way possible ‘evidencing’ the oppressed as inferior. If people are assumed as inferior then they can be easily treated differently, less favourably and exploited. The Australian Constitution, which was penned by the same authors of the White Australia Policy, is a profound example of prescribed racism empowering the systematic differentiation and potential exploitation of peoples; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Racism is not disguisable; it is about what can be got away with.
Australia to this day, denouncing the White Australia Policy, continues to reject other cultures and minorities and continues to discriminate in multiple ways. In a racist society the other’s point of view is not only rejected, it is often not allowed a say. Voice is vital to us moving beyond racism; without listening to each other there is no hope for many. If listening only to stereotypes and to one side then the majority of people, including generations unborn, will continue divided, with prejudices, stereotypes shoved down people’s throats. Without the honest story there can be no common humanity.
I am writing this article from an east Kimberley town. I have travelled to more homeland Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities than most have and in the majority of these towns and communities I see the same narrative – of racialised inequalities, of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander poverty becoming more acute. Today, I have visited six remote communities, but which are reminiscent of apartheid South African townships and camps. It should be unimaginable that in the world’s 12th largest economy that such third-world-akin poverty languishes. This intersection of disadvantage and acute poverty does not only translate toxically as racism for the local peoples, it is racism.
Institutional racism dishes out the deflection that there has been much progress, that many more Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders are benefiting from the one stop assimilation, from integrating, that more are going to school, graduating, building well remunerated careers. There are 204 doctors who identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders, with more than 300 on the way and there are more than 600 lawyers who identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders, with most of them working in the corporate sector or large established firms. But the majority of those who have always lived marginalised, who have always lived under the thumb of the oppressor continue to live marginalised and oppressed. Institutional racism tries to push the good news stories to deflect from the ongoing oppression and to victim-blame the marginalised. The good news stories are great but the bad news stories are more important and what we need to read and hear and respond to.
The issues that have led to the mass incarceration of the descendants of First Nations peoples are multifactorial and insidiously entrenched trans-generationally by the oppressor. The insidious management by one Government after another of the multifactorial issues and of eugenic policies, as arbiters of truth, as tyrannies of experts, has smashed the living conditions and stolen the hope that many once clung on to. Today, Australia is the mother of all jailers of the descendants of its First Peoples. Trust has been lost between the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the criminal justice system. The institutional racism to control the oppressed continues marred by racial profiling, multiple forms of discrimination including mandatory policies and regulations and sentencing. Identity, historically and contemporarily, has been made a liability. Alcohol and Aboriginality will finish you up before the criminal justice system. Prior to 1967 the movement of Aboriginal peoples from ‘reserves’ or the breaching of ‘curfews’ in White precincts saw them hauled before the criminal justice system.
The relationship between police and the majority of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples was damaged when police played their role in the removal of children from their families, which translated as the institutions of the State discriminating toxically against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The pervasive mistrust of authority is a tool of the oppressor as it keeps people divided, fractured and weakened. The institutions of the State continue to do what they have always done and that is to act as if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who do not make their way into the one stop shop assimilation are inferior, are to be victim-blamed and scapegoated.
Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples, including the Aboriginal Legal Services, continue to see the majority of the police and of the criminal justice system as the enemy.
“I have lived for over 70 years under a regime and a system that destroys,” Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, 2014.
White terms of reference has articulated one justification after another; their courts enabled law after law, to justify racism, to turn human beings into chattel. To this very day and long into the future, we feel the effects. Generations to come will still not be free of racism. Australia remains an oppressively White dominated society – White dominated economy, White dominated parliaments, White dominated media. For anyone Black, Brown, Yellow to score a good gig in White dominated Australia you have to do a lot of quickstepping, kowtowing, backslapping and arse licking – you have to dance to the White man’s song and you have to buy into their racism.
Certain emotional experiences, certain situational traumas drown the psyche, crippling psychosocially the self. Please do not speak to me about racism though you claim to be an expert on racism if you have never endured racism, because when you do, you reduce racism to something that was never brutal, never oppressive. When you have not lived racism and you speak to racism as if you know it then you reduce racism to something that was surmountable. Racism is insurmountable. You cannot beat racism, you can only survive it. Many of us become resilient but we do not become free of it.
More than a quarter of Australia’s population was born overseas. More than an eighth of Australians were born in Asia. More than half of Australia has a parent who was born overseas. Australia does not reflect any of this in its Federal Parliaments. Therefore our parliaments do not reflect Australia but instead a particular stronghold of Australia – and this stronghold remains exclusive within the Anglosphere. Till Australia’s political parties and our Governments remedy this predicament our parliaments will continue to discriminate and reject peoples.
The bloodshed of colonialism continues in other forms – in narratives of human misery and suffering, in a climate of death; in the suicides and in the premature and unnatural deaths. The descendants of the invaders are now established as the governments of this continent, ruthlessly gripping power. Modalities such as institutional racism continue the one-sided deliverance. Marginalisation appears entrenched. It is impossible to be without marginalisation when there is oppression unless it is eliminated by genocide. Genocide is not defined by the bloody slaughter of peoples; genocide is a systematic destruction of cultures, of a peoples, by discrimination and prohibitions, by psychological and emotional abuses, of either/or settings. The soldiers and advocates of the neoliberal colonialist regimes argue we are perpetuating trauma – that we maintain the oppressed as the victim. They argue that we need to move on. But move on from what to where? How?
Racism in general is a convenient excuse – manufactured consent – for the economic exploitation and deprivation of peoples.
The problem is never the oppressed despite what racists think and argue, and despite what some of the media writes, despite what some historians declare, despite the prejudices and origins-of-thinking of the majority of our parliamentarians, despite the industry of researchers and so-called experts, of whom many are shameless profiteers. The problem is always the oppressor. The problem cannot be and should never be the victim. In order to unveil institutional racism, in order to expose the oppressor the research has to shift from the oppressed to the oppressor. Institutional and structural racism needs to shift and stay the research on the oppressed.
Institutional and structural racism is intended as practices to not only produce inequity but to sustain inequity. The othering of people is vital in sustaining the dichotomy of power verse powerlessness. In general the Whites of this generation have no intention of letting go. The idea that Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander representation on a board is breaking down institutional racism is hogwash. It does not matter even if there is some cultural safety with two Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders – male and female – to support each other. In general they are handpicked deemed compliant or they are made ‘benign’. They are only there to be seemingly consulted. They have little actual agency to determine the interests of their peoples. A step in the right direction to undermine institutional racism is to delegate decisions affecting Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples to a committee or representative body of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples. Consultation needs to be replaced by delegation and the directives from that delegation must be enabled – this is the beginning of self-determination. The membership of these committees must be removed from boards and government instruments and instead ‘delegated’ to authentic Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander organisations.
May 4 to 6, in Alice Springs there will be the inaugural national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Conference. For several years I campaigned relentlessly for our Governments to respond to the escalating suicides crises. I published more than 200 articles on the extensiveness of the crises and on suicide prevention. I was able to score some responses from Governments and which included sparking the crafting of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project. But I stood solid to my convictions and stepped into the background and ensured the project leads are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders of stature and expertise. However I found it difficult to find enough Black researchers and the predominant reliance on White researchers continued. The Conference is an opportunity to inspire Black researchers and leaders and experts, to couple the lived experiences and the local knowledge and the stalwart community work with further knowledge and with networks. The Conference will be comprised of only Black keynote speakers, facilitators and every presentation must have a Black lead. Whites can present too but in tandem with a Black presenter.
Yalmay Yunupingu once said to me, “We are not brainless and dumb,” as the victim-blamers dish out. “We can manage our own communities, our schools, teach in our languages in which our children are literate within and leave it to us to teach them English” and navigate both cultural settings but without the imposts.
Professor Graceyln Smallwood once said to me, “Some Whites do not know when to let go but most Whites do not want to let go.” Well, they have to, for their sake too, so what they pass down to their children are assumptions vastly different to the assumptions passed down to them from the origins-of-thinking that have led to the horrific racialised inequities and diminution of cultural connections and identities that have left the undisguised toll we see daily; the constant narrative of human misery and suffering.
Oppression is the historical signature piece of the Australia we have known since the late 18th century, since the arrival of the tall ships. However oppression remains contemporaneous. For more than a century there has been an increasing examination of the oppressed but very little examination of the oppressor. The often exploitative preoccupation to study and examine the oppressed while refusing to examine and bring to account the oppressor ensures oppression continues.
I have never wanted to hold the oppressors hostage to all their faults, of their oppressive and exploitative behaviours, of their racism, but in the name of humanity, in the name of everyone, to free them from their oppressive behaviours, from their ignorance and from their despatching of racism. But those tortured in all this are the oppressed. There is a hostile denial by the majority of White Australia of this nation’s diabolical racism – of a racism that stoutly continues to stain the national conscience by dumbing down consciousness. Racism has many veils and layers and unless we move away from the obsession to only examine the oppressed we will continue to go nowhere fast and to generations yet unborn where society will be dangerously fractured, divided, impaired, hateful, angrier.