The Brave and Multiracial Marc Fennell (a fellow Eurasian) hosted a program recently on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) called ‘The School that Tried to End Racism’. It was an interesting foray opening up discussions on racial discrimination in Australia with school kids. I really liked the premise of this show and I do think (evident from posts on this blog) that it is a discussion Australia needs to have. The stiff upper British Lip has surely evolved beyond colonial times to open up for conversational engagement on ‘icky’ matters. Perhaps Australia still isn’t ready for it.
The show starts with introducing topics of race, bias/prejudice, privilege and stereotypes, all worthy topics when discussing racism. A classroom of Year 6 students from a primary school in South West Sydney participated in the program and specific attention is given to certain students in the group. It was interesting to see the different personalities, the maturity and ability to articulate some fairly complex thoughts to the camera and home audience. If anything, the program demonstrated how insightful and articulate school kids can be.
Marc Fenell’s social media predictably indicated many in Australia viewed the program for it’s true intent and premise with reviews being mainly positive. However, as to be expected from right wing media outlets like Sky and The Australian the criticisms came thick and fast. Especially scathing was an article written by Janet Albrechtsen in The Australian accusing the show of priming critical race theory in schools, creating that old trope ‘victims’ and therefore causing division amongst Australians. Out of my own curiosity as to why this woman was privileged with a mouth piece, further research into Ms Albrechtsen’s background revealed she’s a lawyer and was working in the Law Faculty of Sydney University. Around John Howard’s prime ministership, she was parachuted by the Liberal party onto the ABC board. Ms Albrechtsen described the ABC workplace as a ‘soviet style workers collective’. I began to think that Ms Albrechtsen was indeed shackled up in a Soviet Union collective in her younger days and that perhaps she’s had personal experience to enable her such conclusions? I’ll go one step further on account of her article about the program; does Ms Albrechtsen have any experience whatsoever of what it means to be discriminated against according to race? Why is it in Australia the loudest fog horns against a particular issue often do not have first-hand personal experience of the issue? What gives these people the right to voice any opinion about any matter when they can’t give a credible account of experiencing the topic first hand?
One thing I will say in defence of Ms Albrechtsen is that I can understand how the show would put a few high bridged western noses out of joint. There was a moment in the show when the kids were asked to split into their affiliation groups and I noticed the conveners were careful not to add racial labels, but nevertheless, low and behold the kids split into roughly the white group and the ‘others’ group. I was I had to say a little uncomfortable about the finger pointing ‘shaming and blaming’ the white kids for their privilege. I did feel completely uneasy when they were made to almost take the blame for being the skin colour that is automatically assigned privilege and the racial aggressors here in Australia. Trying to highlight racial stereotypes in the program and then doing exactly that to white kids made this a problematic exercise in my mind. As an allied health therapist, I’ve seen white underprivileged children who will never, despite the inherent bias that works in their favour here in Australia, will never catch up to their privileged white counterparts. The years of abuse and trauma would ensure that.
Why should a young white girl be forced to admit that she benefits from a system she had little say in manufacturing? And yes, I understand that this awareness may spark some empathy to want to change systems for all involved but that’s the rub of this show- will it actually make any systemic changes here in Australia? I’m not sure putting off white people with a finger pointing shaming activity is going to do that.
I guess this is why everyone leaves this ‘icky’ issue of addressing racism alone. When actions, behaviours and microaggressions are interpreted mostly as racism then we start to see the world as a very binary platform that plays into the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality and we’re trapped into the mindset of the perpetrators. This mindset holds dear homogeneity, that ‘youse all are like that’, creating stereotypes that label the innocent. In addition, racial discrimination occurs between non white migrant groups in Australia. I’ve been privy to many conversations when racist stereotypes of an ‘ethnic’ group have been expressed by an ‘ethnic’. Being a perpetrator and aggressor of racism is not purely the domain of the white colonists. When examining racism, we need to do and be better than that. I’m by no way diminishing the experience of lived racism (having experienced this myself) and I am of course talking about the nebulous variety of perceived racism certainly not the systemic ones where numbers and facts like incarceration rates, deaths in custody, poverty rates, infant mortality, early death etc are well documented.
Which comes to my next point. I thought the activities in the show that actually did create communication, empathy and perhaps the realisation of privilege and discrimination was best done when the kids actually spoke to each other. The cut out cardboard friends created communication, dialogue and ultimately new friendships. The ability to talk about being bullied and called all different types of racial names and learning to process those experiences as a group was again a productive activity that helped everyone better understand how someone feels when being at the receiving end of racial abuse. Going out into the community and interviewing community members of different backgrounds again broadened the experience beyond the school gates and made the kids realise the real-life problems some adults deal with in terms of race. I could see that these activities took the heat off one particular group for being ‘perpetrators’ but also allowed the ‘recipients’ (yes Ms Albrechtsen I’m careful not to use ‘victims’) to express themselves to the point of showing raw emotion. The outpouring of how someone feels is surely enough to elicit empathy, with the inability to empathise based in my opinion in an underlying neurological/psychological issue.
Marc Fennell took on this project perhaps as a personal journey with first hand experiences of racism growing up here in Australia and I completely understand his feelings, his experiences and his perspective. This was a hugely brave topic to address due to the complex and sometimes nebulous nature of racism. I take my hat off to him for living up to the Aussie value of least ‘having a go’ at tackling that icky issue of racism here in Australia which is more than any public figure, politician or celebrity has bothered to successfully do.
Ella Archibald Binge is a Kamilaroi woman who wrote about the truth of slavery in Australia. Let’s be clear that indentured work occurred and was offered prolifically in the 19th Century as a means for getting cheap labour. It was taken up usually by the very poor and destitute from the UK- orphans, single mothers, poor people. The point here is that these people once they found their feet in Australia went on to enjoy social mobility and better themselves where as the Indigenous and South Pacific Islanders were discriminated against to the point that the government felt it needed to introduce the “White Australian Policy” to restrict non white privilege and economic success en masse. I have cut and pasted this article here in it’s entirety because it’s an important read but the link to the article can also be found here: https://www.smh.com.au/national/they-ruled-our-lives-what-impact-has-slavery-had-in-australia-20200630-p557ht.htm
‘They ruled our lives’: What impact has slavery had in Australia?
Many Australians might think that slavery never reached our shores but the history books tell a different story. So what did slavery look like in Australia?
Waskam Emelda Davis was sitting in her favourite orange armchair in her loungeroom on a cool winter’s day when her phone rang.
“Did you just hear this?” came her friend’s voice down the line.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison had just been on radio, her friend informed her, claiming there was no history of slavery in Australia.
“I was enraged,” says Davis.
The comments in June 2020, which the Prime Minister later apologised for and clarified, prompted a fresh examination of Australia’s colonial history at the height of a reinvigorated global Black Lives Matter movement.
The debate over the history of slavery in Australia is one that resurfaces on a regular basis, much to the chagrin of the tens of thousands of Indigenous workers who have been fighting for decades to reclaim wages that were withheld from them under discriminatory laws until the 1970s.
Each time, Davis dredges up the painful stories from her family’s past in a bid to set the record straight about a struggle stretching back more than a century.
The 58-year-old has spent her life advocating for the rights of Australian South Sea Islander people – the descendants of men, women and children known as “sugar slaves” who were taken from the Pacific islands and forced into hard labour in Australia. She chairs the Australian South Sea Islanders Port Jackson organisation in Sydney.
“Slavery is slavery. You can’t dress it up or dress it down,” Davis says. “The kidnapping, the coercing, the stealing and the serious abuses that happened to our people … this is something that’s handed down through generations.”
So how did slavery operate in Australia? How long did the practices continue? And how has it made a lasting impact on the nation?
A warning to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers: this article includes images of deceased people.
What forms of slavery were in Australia?
Article 1 of the United Nations Slavery Convention defines slavery as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised”.
Around the time of colonisation in Australia – the First Fleet arrived in 1788 – an anti-slavery movement was growing in Britain. The British Parliament abolished the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 and passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.
As such, there was to be no slave trade in Australia. However numerous historians, legal experts and government officials have found that the controls imposed on Pacific Islander and First Nations peoples essentially amounted to slavery.
“It is true that Australia was not a ‘slave state’ in the manner of the American South,” writes Stephen Gray in the Australian Indigenous Law Review.
“Nevertheless, employers exercised a high degree of control over ‘their’ Aboriginal workers who were, in some cases, bought and sold as chattels … Employers exercised a form of ‘legal coercion’ over their workers in a manner consistent with the legal interpretation of slavery.”
What was blackbirding?
Emelda Davis says her grandfather was 12 when he went for a swim at the beach near his home on the island of Tanauta (formerly Tanna) in Vanuatu and never returned.Advertisement
He was kidnapped in the late 1800s, she says, and taken to Bundaberg, in north Queensland, where he was put to work in the cane fields.
At least 50,000 people, mostly men, from 80 Melanesian islands were brought by boat to work in Australia’s agriculture, maritime and sugar industries. Some went voluntarily but many were coerced or kidnapped. Their wages were less than a third of other workers.
The practice, known as blackbirding, was sanctioned by various Queensland laws from the mid-1860s to 1904. Several members of parliament grew wealthy through this system.
Those who chose to leave the islands signed three-year indenture agreements, explains University of Queensland historian Professor Clive Moore, but few knew what awaited them in Australia.
He says the indenture system has often been called “a new form of slavery”.
“Just think, you’re a capitalist in the 1830s and 1840s and they’ve just abolished slavery and you want cheap labour, so you scratch your head and you say, ‘Well, how can I get cheap labour?’.
“[Islanders] were legally indentured, but then you’ve got to ask, did they understand the indenture system? Often no, they wouldn’t have had a clue what it really was … therefore you might say the contract’s invalid,” he says.
Moore estimates 15,000 South Sea Islander people – around a third of the workforce – died from common diseases during their first year in Australia due to low immunity levels.
“The mortality figures are horrific,” he says. “The government must have known and yet it did absolutely nothing to try to stop it.”
When the White Australia policy was enacted in 1901, the government ordered the mass deportation of all South Sea Islander people, sparking outrage among those who had built lives on the mainland and wished to stay.
Ultimately, around 5000 workers were forcibly deported. In a cruel twist of fate, their deportations were funded by the wages of deceased South Sea Islanders, whose estates were controlled by the government.
Those who remained were subject to racial discrimination and embarked on a long journey to carve out their own place in Australian society.
How did ‘protection’ usher in a new form of slavery?
It could be argued that what happened to South Sea Islander workers was a precursor to the systematic wage controls imposed on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups from around the 1890s, notably in the pearling and cattle industries.
In the late 19th century, every mainland state and the Northern Territory enacted laws, known as the protection acts, to control the lives of Indigenous people. Prior to this, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers were routinely exploited.
Historian Dr Ros Kidd says there is evidence that women were used as sex slaves, children were kidnapped and Aboriginal stockmen were encouraged to form opium addictions to make them reliant on their employers, who supplied the drug.
Kidd says the protection acts were largely introduced to ensure industries remained profitable rather than to protect the welfare of Indigenous people.
“Part of the problem, as the authorities saw it, was the rise of inter-racial children and the fact that we, as the whites, needed to assert some authority and regulation over all of this,” she says.
Under the protection acts, most Aboriginal people were removed from their homelands and forced to live on missions or reserves run by the church or government, respectively. Some South Sea Islander people were subjected to the same controls.
Aboriginal people were forbidden from speaking their native languages or practising their cultures, and children were separated from their families and placed in dormitories.
Employment laws varied from state to state but, for the most part, the wages of Aboriginal people were diverted to government-managed trust funds, while local protectors managed the residue as legal trustees. Official documents reveal protectors habitually defrauded Aboriginal workers for much of the 20th century.
For most Queensland workers, the minimum monthly wage was set at five shillings (around $24), less than one-eighth of the non-Indigenous wage.
Sometimes, the worker would receive a small portion of that amount as pocket money but, in many cases, they received nothing. Workers could, in theory, withdraw from their trust account for necessities but only with permission from the local protector. Requests were often refused, or workers were falsely told they had no money.
Roy Savo is a former stockman who spent a decade working on Queensland cattle stations from the age of 13. He says he didn’t see physical money until he was almost 20.
“When we wanted to go to the shop, they’d just write us a note and say, ‘Take that to the shop’,” he says. “That’s how we got through life.”
The 80-year-old says the bosses would not call the Aboriginal workers by their names, referring to them only as “boy”.
“They made you feel so low. When I think back, we were just no one, nothing. We had no chance against the white people, they just ruled our lives. We were one step from being an animal. In some places you were told to sit out and eat with the animals anyway, out in the wood heap.”
When he was about 19, Savo ran away from his “job”. Dodging authorities, he continued to work at various cattle stations and railways across far north Queensland and the Torres Strait, before meeting his wife and starting a family in Silkwood, south of Cairns.
In Western Australia, most employers weren’t legally required to pay Aboriginal workers at all until the 1940s, so long as they provided rations, clothing and blankets.
Many workers in the Northern Territory died from starvation in the 1920s and ’30s due to poor rations, records show. One anthropologist reported that on one station, only 10 children survived from 51 births during a five-year period. The government declined to intervene. The chief protector in the Northern Territory said in 1927 that Aboriginal pastoral workers were “kept in a servitude that is nothing short of slavery”.
Those who absconded from a work contract could be whipped, jailed or arrested and brought back in chains.
Aboriginal children were routinely indentured to work, with boys sent to farms and pastoral stations and girls to domestic service for non-Indigenous families.
Their wages were supposed to be administered similarly to the adults’ but there was little to no regulation to ensure employers complied with the law.
Protectors themselves described Queensland’s Aboriginal wage system as a “farce” in the 1940s, says Kidd, with workers “entirely at the mercy of employers who simply doctored the books”.
She notes the broad lack of oversight prompted one protector in the Northern Territory to remark: “I think it is about time that slavery is put a stop to among the natives of Australia.”
When did this kind of slavery end?
The protection acts were gradually amended and replaced throughout the second half of the 20th century but some controls endured until at least 1972 – the year Gough Whitlam was elected prime minister.
And yet when the laws were repealed, the money held in trust was never returned to Aboriginal workers. The unpaid funds have become known as the stolen wages.
In Queensland, Aboriginal trust funds were used to cover government revenue shortfalls. Millions were spent on regional hospitals. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were used to facilitate the forcible removal of Aboriginal families from their traditional lands.
In today’s money, Kidd conservatively estimates the missing or misappropriated funds to total $500 million in Queensland alone.
“The government made a lot of money exploiting the savings accounts for its own profit,” she says. “This is while people were starving and dying in need of these payments.”
For decades, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been fighting to get that money back.
In Queensland, thousands joined a class action to sue the government. In 2019, the state government agreed to a landmark $190 million settlement. It was the largest settlement for Indigenous people outside native title and the fifth-largest class action settlement in Australian history.
But it was less than half what the workers were owed and by the time the settlement was reached, more than half of the claimants had died.
Similar class actions are being investigated in NSW and the NT while one has been launched in WA. Australian South Sea Islanders are also fighting for reparations for an estimated $38 million in misspent wages of deceased workers.
A year after Queensland’s class action was settled, Roy Savo still doesn’t know when, or how much, he will be paid for a decade’s hard labour. He fears it will be much less than he had hoped.
“I wanted to buy a home,” he says. “But looking at what I’m going to get now, I’m thinking it would be better putting it into some trust or something for my funeral. I come in with nothing, go out with nothing, I suppose.”
What is the legacy of slavery in Australia?
As fate would have it, Emelda Davis’ housing unit in the inner-Sydney suburb of Pyrmont looks out to the refinery where the raw sugar harvested by South Sea Islanders was once processed.
It’s widely acknowledged much of Australia’s wealth across the sugar, pastoral and maritime industries was built on the backs of Indigenous and South Sea Islander labour.
“The contribution of the 60-odd thousand [South Sea Islanders], coupled with our First Nations families, is quite significant in establishing what we call today the lucky country,” Davis says. “Our legacy is what people are thriving off today.”
At the Redcliffe Hospital, north of Brisbane, there is a plaque to acknowledge that it was built, in part, with a $1.7 million loan from Aboriginal trust funds in the 1960s.
Similar plaques have been installed across Queensland, at the recommendation of a 2016 taskforce, to recognise the labour and financial contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Yet many within these communities still live in poverty. Disparities in health, education and employment between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are well documented.
Ros Kidd says this disadvantage is “inextricably linked” with historical practices.
She says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were excluded from the capitalist society.
“They trapped people in what I would call engineered disadvantage – because it didn’t happen by coincidence, it didn’t happen through an unfortunate set of circumstances. All of these conditions and this poverty was specific government policy and practice.”
Australian South Sea Islanders, too, have inherited generations of trauma and disadvantage. The community was officially recognised as a distinct cultural group in 1994, but without targeted policies Davis says they often “fall through the cracks”, missing out on support programs tailored for Indigenous Australians.
“We’re at a point where it’s completely desperate. There’s no hope in looking to our government for anything. It’s just constant hoop-jumping and lining up against everybody else in the queues for rations,” she says.
The legacy of trauma is also felt in the Pacific Islands.
On a beach in Vanuatu, there’s a spot called Howling Rock, where mothers would mourn their husbands and children who disappeared. There are songs, passed through the generations, warning not to go to certain beaches for risk of being taken.
But new generations in Australia have inherited something else from their ancestors, too: strength.
Queensland artist Dylan Mooney, 24, has Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islander heritage. His paternal great-great-grandparents were blackbirded from Vanuatu. His great-great-grandfather worked on sugar plantations in northern NSW while his great-great-grandmother, Fanny Togo, was sold as a house servant in Sydney.
Mooney says knowing what his ancestors went through has only strengthened his sense of identity and pride.
“I carry that with me every day – that strength, that resilience, that story of survival.”
My Answer: Anyone Albino. Wait. I’m following it with the Larrikin Caveat: Just Joking.
Last Saturday a lovely Nepalese man came to my door to pick up a couple of things. We got chatting. Half way through the conversation he bluntly tells me and asks ‘You’re not Australian, where do you come from?’ I asked him to guess and of course, as usual, he was way off the mark. You see an Australian is someone white, preferably the striking image of a displaced Pom (English person). To be a person of any other colour, especially olive, is to be ‘from elsewhere’. Not so long ago and in some media portrayals today, this excluded indigenous people too.
I went to school with an Australian Chinese girl who was 3rd generation Australian but looked Chinese because her father who was born in Australia of Chinese parents, married a Hong Kong Chinese immigrant. She struggled all her life with identity as she looked Chinese but spoke English only and with a broad Aussie accent. The Chinese didn’t know what to quite make of her and she didn’t hold any Chinese values in how she saw the world but she has NEVER in her life been mistaken for an Australian- the country where she was born, holds the same values, pays taxes in, and is a law-abiding citizen. As she tells me constantly, ‘I feel invisible’. Well done to those past PMs of Australia- your social engineering to make this a white country to the exclusion of the indigenous and others has worked.
Meanwhile, we have the likes of 10 pound Poms settling into Australia in the 1950s. Their offspring would be up to 3rd , some 4th generation Australians but no-one, absolutely no-one would ever mistaken them for being from elsewhere, even though their families would have spent an equal amount of generational time in Australia just like post war Greeks, Italians and everyone else of a non-white hue. In fact, we even managed to elect a PM from a 10 pound Pom family.
At what point in time do non-white migrants become part of the National Australian Identity?
SHE COULD BE AUSTRALIAN, CANADIAN, AMERICAN, NEW ZEALAND.
HE COULD BE AUSTRALIAN, CANADIAN, AMERICAN, NEW ZEALAND.
BUT WHY DO WE QUESTION THE IDENTITY AND NATIONALITIES OF THE FOLLOWING PEOPLE DESPITE BEING BORN IN ANY ONE OF THE FOLLOWING COUNTRIES:
AUSTRALIA, AMERICA, NEW ZEALAND, CANADA?
Check out this article on this topic a former Human Rights Commissioner :
In addition, SBS released in 2021 an excellent documentary on the first Africans that were transported to Australia in the late 1780s. Little was known about these folk and yet they contributed significantly to early settlement in Sydney and Melbourne.
Here is an article about the documentary by Kate Meyers:
Santilla Chingaipe shares the stories of the trailblazing men and women who made big contributions to our history.
John Randall, Billy Blue, John Martin, Fanny Finch, John Joseph. It’s a list that should read as a roll call of some of the most influential figures in Australia’s history, but if their names are unfamiliar to you, chances are you’re not alone. While they should be as central to the post-colonial narrative as the Ned Kellys or Mary Bryants that have secured their place within our national mythology, these figures have instead been largely ignored.
For journalist, filmmaker and author Santilla Chingaipe, the absence of the African-Australian story within prevailing historical accounts is a reality she is determined to change as she investigates the circumstances that saw them fall out of national consciousness in her new documentary, Our African Roots. Inspired by the evidence collected as research for her upcoming book of the same title, Chingaipe uncovers the contributions that individuals of African descent have made to our continent from the time of the British invasion. The rhetoric around African-Australians in contemporary society, and the consequences of this, particularly on younger members of the community, inspired her to approach the issue from a completely different angle.
‘Our African Roots’ host and co-producer Santilla Chingaipe. Source: Warsan Mohammed
“What drove me to the archive was the so called ‘African crime wave’ and the fact that a lot of commentators and people in the media were talking about this as some sort of Australian rite of passage,” she says.
“It was as if every other migrant group had copped some sort of negative opinion and chatter, and it was now time for the spotlight to be on the African community. I knew that wasn’t right.”
It was a need to challenge this attitude that saw Chingaipe begin her investigation into the very first African migrants to land on these shores.
“If I can find evidence of these people as early as the First Fleet, then surely the discussion can’t be about the fact that they are newly arrived groups experiencing this discrimination. There must be more to it,” she explains.
It turns out that when colonists first arrived on Australian shores in 1788, there were indeed ten convicts of African descent among them. It’s a fact that remains largely undocumented in most school history books. It also fails to capture the important role of these convicts, and their ongoing significance to Australia’s cultural landscape. There’s a personal frustration with the limited reference to these early settlers for Chingaipe; when her family migrated from Zambia when she was just a child, she struggled to connect with the historical narrative she was taught and recognises the impact this can have.
“A lot of young African-Australians talk not just about the overt racism they experience, but also how it impacts their sense of belonging and identity,” she explains. “It’s already hard enough being a young person trying to find your place in the world without having the added burden of discrimination and racism thrown into that.”
“(The absence of this history) ultimately reinforces this idea that one group might be inherently predisposed to doing these amazing things and everyone else isn’t. A lot of people don’t know these stories, they’ve been erased.”
One such story is that of Billy Blue, a well-known figure within early colonial Australia who, despite having a great many contemporary Sydney landmarks named after him, has largely had his African heritage erased from popular imagination. Entrusted with the responsibility of transporting people to the sparsely inhabited northern side of Sydney by Governor Macquarie, Billy was arguably the first person to connect the two sides of the harbour. His legacy is not only the communities that came to be established on the lower north shore, but also the ingenuity and determination he displayed in the face of an Anglo-dominated society.
North Sydney Council historian Ian Hoskins and Santilla Chingaipe on the trail of convict Billy Blue, who became Sydney harbour’s first licensed ferryman. Source: Tony Jackson
Though parts of Billy’s tale are dispersed throughout historical commentary, others like Fanny Finch have, until recently, been almost entirely omitted from the conversation. As Chingaipe discovers in her conversations with Fanny’s descendants in Castlemaine, she was a pioneer of Victoria’s gold rush era, a single mother and business owner who campaigned for the right of women to vote. Why then has our society, which applauds Australian achievement and success, not embraced these stories?
“It’s one thing to outlaw and abolish racist legislation, it’s another to do the same with cultural attitudes,” Chingaipe says. “How do you begin to get people to unlearn something that they’ve been wired to think for a good seventy years?”
“Part of it is who gets to tell the stories. Even early on, I was very reluctant to publish the research because I kept thinking, I am a young, black woman; people like me don’t tell history, people like me don’t write history.”
It’s lucky then that Chingaipe overcame this uncertainty as it is her curiosity, expertise and obvious passion for sharing these stories that engage audiences, as she brings to life more than 200 years of African-Australian history. Though it’s clear that the existing accounts lack depth, the documentary is not an attack on the legends around which Australian identity has been formed, but rather an attempt to showcase components of that identity that are too often neglected.
“I do hope that when we do think about the stories that we tell ourselves that reinforce a certain form of Australian-ness, that we recognise that Australian-ness does not mean whiteness or relationship to the Anglo empire,” she says.
“I also hope that people embrace these histories and I hope it leads us to a place, as a country, where we start telling the truth in many ways about the foundation of colonised Australia. Australia’s foundational story is way more interesting and diverse than we were told.”
I love it when a privileged white man tells the rest of us that our experiences can’t be true because they have never experienced it. It’s the best form of gaslighting. Jacqueline Maley, one of my favourite Australian journalists, dares to shine the light on Mr Ian MacDonald’s absurdity. Mr MacDonald, I invite you to engage with anyone of colour and ask ‘Has racism impacted on your daily activities of living in Australia? ‘ then I’d like you to sit and LISTEN. Yes, LISTEN.
If you think Australia has a racism problem, you’re the racist
Senator Ian Macdonald is the Father of the Parliament, which is a nice way of saying he has been there longer than anyone else.
Not since Bob Katter asserted there were no homosexuals in his electorate has such a bold claim been made by a Queenslander.
But, lest you think such a general assertion might be spurious, or at least open to conjecture, consider the evidence Macdonald offered to back it up: two senior ministers in the government are not “white Australian males”, and also, the Aboriginal rugby league player Jonathan Thurston is extremely popular in North Queensland.
Thurston is like a “king”, said Macdonald, and everyone would like to recruit him to their political parties. That’s how un-racist we are: we venerate black sportsmen.
“I might live in a bubble perhaps, but I find it very difficult to find any but rare cases of racism in Australia,” Macdonald told the Senate committee hearing.
And then: “There are obviously isolated aspects of racism in Australia but I would think across the board they’re very isolated.”
Macdonald was arguing that there is no need to appoint a new race discrimination commissioner, and, although unkind observers might say that Macdonald’s best political days are behind him, on this subject he is right on the zeitgeist.
The current commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, will step down in August after a five-year stint and Attorney-General Christian Porter will soon assess applicants to appoint as his replacement. He has dismissed calls not to appoint a successor to Soutphommasane.
Soutphommasane’s tenure was marked by some controversy. He campaigned strongly (and ultimately successfully) against proposed changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” on the basis of race.
In doing so, Soutphommasane lined himself up against then prime minister Tony Abbott, many Liberal MPs, the Murdoch press and conservative think-tank the Institute of Public Affairs, which took out full-page newspaper advertisements to lobby for the anti-18C cause.
The Murdoch press was particularly opposed to the section because its star columnist, Andrew Bolt, famously fell foul of it.
Later, so did its star cartoonist, Bill Leak. In 2016, Leak drew a cartoon for The Australian depicting a drunken Aboriginal father who had forgotten his child’s name. A complaint of race discrimination was made, and later withdrawn, with one of the complainants saying she felt bullied by The Australian’s coverage of her.
When Leak died of a heart attack in 2017, some of his supporters reportedly blamed the stress of the complaint as a contributing factor.
Soutphommasane’s critics say he tweeted “soliciting” complaints following the cartoon’s publication, and that he promoted more division than harmony.
Porter seemed to nod to these criticisms when he gave an interview saying the next commissioner would need to have “an understanding and empathy not merely for minority groups but for middle Australian values”.
Macdonald is surely capable of forming his own views, but it was an interesting coincidence that his declaration of Australia as racism-free and not requiring a race discrimination commissioner came in the same week the Institute of Public Affairs circulated a “research brief” to parliamentarians arguing “Australia must not appoint a commissioner for racial division”. (Macdonald’s office said the senator had not read the brief when he made his comments, “however [he had] read some Spectatorarticles that had been raised with him by constituents, enriched by his own experiences”.)
The IPA believes the entire Human Rights Commission should be abolished, and asserts that it has abused more human rights than it has redressed.
But until that happens, it argues the government should leave the race discrimination commissioner role empty.
The IPA paper asserts that “refusing to appoint a new race discrimination commissioner would be an acknowledgement that race has no place in Australia’s national institutions”.
This point of view is an interesting one and an increasingly prevalent one among hard conservatives (it’s worth remembering that the IPA is a feeder for Liberal politics: MPs James Paterson, Scott Ryan, Tim Wilson and Tony Smith were all associated with the institute pre-politics).
People who mention race at all, or note racism, or racist incidents, are told that they are the racist ones.
To name race as a factor in social conflict is to stoke social division. To call out the problem is to be the problem.
It is a tricky rhetorical move, because it forces us to go back to first principles, as though we were drafting the “affirmative” case in a year 7 debate entitled: “Does racism exist in Australia?”
That opens the way for people like Macdonald – who has served in the Senate since the early ’90s yet doesn’t concede he lives in a “bubble” – to claim that there is no racism because he has never seen it.
By that logic you could declare me a bacteria-sceptic, or a gravity denier.
Some people have a hard time accepting the concept of subjective experience, particularly when that subjective experience is very different from their own, as subjective experience so often is. It shouldn’t have to be said, but the best witnesses to racism are probably not going to be Anglo-Saxon “lifer” senators who live in largely white communities.
Macdonald might ask himself why, if racism was no problem, there was such a strong electoral backlash from ethnic communities over the 18C issue, so strong it turned toxic for the government, which was forced to dump its pledge to amend the section.
Macdonald’s comments were made the same day The Daily Telegraph published comments from NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley that an influx of refugees into western Sydney, notably Fairfield, has lead to a “white flight” of “many Anglo families” from those suburbs.
The Labor movement, and the ALP, have a long, ignoble tradition of xenophobia and racism but these days it’s rare to see it so openly expressed.
Foley later apologised, claiming he had no idea the term “white flight” might be offensive to some. He says he was only arguing that those regions need proper resources to cope with the surge of new arrivals.
Why, then, would he single out “Anglo families” as being the ones so adversely affected they “have” to leave?
Premier Gladys Berejiklian, the proud daughter of immigrants, savaged him in NSW Parliament on Thursday, saying his comments were “divisive, dangerous and nasty”.
For a country that has no racism, racism seems to make the news a lot.
Royal wedding: Meghan Markle’s race is not a question worth debating
By Matter of Fact host Stan Grant
What race is Meghan Markle? The world has seemed obsessed with the question.
The Royal wedding commentary returned to it time and again, as the bride was referred to as “mixed race” or “biracial”.
One British commentator part of ABC’s coverage, even wondered ridiculously about the future children of Meghan and Harry who, in her words, could be “all sorts of colours”.
Race does not exist
Race is a strange subject. It is an utterly discredited notion; scientists know it is nonsense to even speak of race.
We belong to one human family, and advances in the study of DNA show we all draw our heritage from different parts of the globe.
In this way, we are all “mixed” race.
As geneticist David Reich says in his recent book Who We Are and How We Got Here, “the genome revolution — turbo charged by ancient DNA — has revealed that human populations are related to each other in ways that no one expected”.
Reich says “if we trace back our lineages far enough into the past, we reach a point where everyone descends from the same ancestor …” The evidence of human remains tells us that ancestral “Eve” was from Africa.
Yes, the Queen is an African and Harry and Meghan — like the rest of us — are distant cousins. Meghan Markle was no more “mixed race” than anyone else at her wedding.
Race has us trapped
Scientifically, race is rubbish: yet, it matters. It matters because as a society we have made it matter.
Ideas of “race” have brought out the worst of humanity.
They have inspired — and continue to inspire — genocide, holocaust, war, dispossession, colonisation, imperialism, slavery, lynchings, segregation, mass incarceration.
Personally and individually it ties us in knots.
Meghan Markle’s mother is considered black and her father white.
The American census now allows people to self-identify in ever-more convoluted and exotic abstractions and hyphens.
The golfer Tiger Woods has gone to ludicrous lengths to describe himself, inventing his own category “Cablinasian” to reflect his Caucasian, Black, Indian, Asian roots.
Meghan herself, in an op-ed for Elle magazine, wrote of how she has embraced “the grey area surrounding my self-identification, keeping me with a foot on both sides of the fence”.
Race has us trapped. It is all but impossible for us to think about ourselves or articulate a sense of identity without referring to race.
More than a check-box
I identify as an Indigenous Australian — there is deep indigenous heritage in my mother’s and father’s families.
Historically, we have been categorised as “Aboriginal” or “Indigenous”, or more colloquially or disparagingly as “blacks”.
That has meant at various times being subject to government policy that has restricted our liberty; has told us where we could live and who we could marry.
Families have been divided on arbitrary rulings of colour.
The Australian Law Reform Commission lists historically more than 60 different definitions of who was considered as Indigenous.
Today, I am asked to tick a box on the census form identifying whether I am Aboriginal. It is an entirely invented category that erases the complexity of my heritage.
I am descended from Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi people but I also have an Irish convict ancestor and my maternal grandmother was European. How can that census box possibly contain all of me?
See how quickly we become bogged in the swamp of scientifically meaningless racial categorisation: was my grandmother “white”? My grandfather black? Are both of my parents “biracial”?
Genetically, none of us are “pure”. “Whiteness” is often normalised and “blackness” seen as something “other”. These are relationships of power not science.
Can we be truly post-racial?
This was the tantalising possibility raised by the election in 2008 of Barack Obama as America’s president, a man with a white mother and a black Kenyan father.
His election was hailed as the fulfilment of the Martin Luther King Jnr promise of being judged not by colour but character.
The writer Toure challenged the whole idea of “blackness” in his book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?
He said “the point of fighting for freedom is for black folk to define blackness as we see fit”.
As he made clear, there are forty million blacks in America and forty million ways to be black.
Historian and social scientist David Hollinger has called for Americans to “push yet harder against the authority that shape and colour have historically been allowed by society to exert over our culture”.
Hollinger, in his book Post-ethnic America, dismisses the idea of “fixed” identities, he favours making room for new communities that promotes solidarity between people beyond definitions of race or ethnicity.
As he says we “live in an age not of identities but affiliations”.
It is a worthy idea that remains a work in progress.
Obama spoke of a “nation where all things are possible”, yet, as historian Garry Gerstle points out:
“If Obama’s election produced spasms of racial vertigo, the reality for millions of African-Americans who cheered his victory, continued to be contoured by the very forces of racial segregation, police brutality, poverty, unemployment that in some quarters, Obama’s election had suddenly made irrelevant”.
Race matters, even if the evidence tells us it should not.
Shifting our language is not some kumbuya, all-hold-hands fantasy — it is urgent: race exacts a terrible human toll.
Race the new witchcraft
Historian, Barbara Fields and her sister, sociologist Karen Fields, remind us that “race is the principle unit and core concept of racism”.
Racism, they write, is a social practice that “always takes for granted the objective reality of race”.
Race is voodoo; it is no different, they argue, than witchcraft. In their book Racecraft, they point out that:
“Neither witch nor pure race has a material existence. Both are products of thought and of language.”
Witchcraft they say only exists when people “act on the reality of the imagined thing”. It is the action that creates the evidence.
There is nothing in the hue of a person’s skin that creates segregation and suffering; it happens when people act on ideas about that skin colour.
The Fields sisters say we have moved beyond fears of witchcraft, but “racecraft” persists.
They reject the language of race, even terms like “mixed-race” or “post-racialism”, which draw from the same well as racism.
A better way to approach Markle
That’s what all the discussion about Meghan Markle’s “race” was really doing — perpetuating voodoo science and fuelling the same old fears of difference, as if that has not done enough damage to our world already.
How much better to celebrate that wonderful cosmopolitan meeting of cultures, sharing the joy of Harry and Meghan, and reflecting on Bishop Michael Curry’s message of the transforming power of love than the discredited notions of race ands colour.
In case you’re feeling like this is a rather negative rant on Australian society, let me put your mind at ease- it is. This well written article by a white American journalist might just let you know how unbelievably OK it is in Australia to be discriminatory towards those who are ‘different’. This comes from another person, not me so I hope it goes to validate my feelings and experiences here in Australia. Another person of note to add to my list of white people making the some observations as me is John Oliver, a British comedian who has made it ‘big’ in the US. He often comments about casual racism in Australia which I’ve added to the end of this post.
She was the first neighbour we had in Australia. She left us place settings for two, two tea towels, and a kettle on our doorstep after she learned that our things wouldn’t arrive from America for another month and a half.
It was the holiday season. A tough time to make cross continental moves.
On New Year’s Day, she had us over for “a cup of tea”. I can’t remember if she was born here or an immigrant from Scotland, but she was certainly proud of her Scottish heritage. She explained that we were her first guests on New Year’s Day, a detail of significance in her culture. Something called First-Footing.
A custom of Hogmanay: the first guest over the threshold on New Year’s Day, it was hoped, would bring an assortment of humble, symbolic items of food and drink in order to procure good luck for the host in the coming year.
Since we had none of these items, our neighbour had them ready for us to give to her: salt, coal, whiskey, shortbread, and a fruit cake of some kind sat upon a plate on the entry table near her front door. She let us choose the items from the plate that we wished to give her, and then we handed them back to her as we stepped inside.
While we sat in the foyer of her terrace house and enjoyed her homemade shortbread cookies, she proceeded to tell us about “The Neighbourhood”. The neighbours on the other side were an “eyesore”, she said. Italians. “Always talking loudly in Italian on their phones, leaning out the windows. I have to ask them to be quiet five times a day or keep my windows shut. And they hang their laundry across that upstairs balcony. The council really should do something about it. I’ve reported it more than once,” she said.
The loud-talking Italian neighbours were one thing, but the Chinese who fed the pigeons in the small park behind her house seemed to be an even greater source of agony. According to our neighbour, the Chinese dirtied up the park. They left litter and food around for the pigeons to pick at, and eventually the seagulls would come and really make a mess of things. “Those birds, they just spread garbage and disease. It was discussed at the last council meeting. Something will be done about it.”
She gave us the lay of the land. The Woolworths on the corner was where the Aborigines gathered. “But they’re relatively harmless. Just drunk. Don’t give them money.” There was a butcher a street over who sold turkeys for the Americans at the holidays, and if I ever needed any jewellery or watches repaired, she knew a good repairman: “He’s Greek but trustworthy.”
My husband and I listened and smiled politely and tried to get out of there as quickly as possible. Our neighbour was kind in her intentions, but her blind unawareness of her basis of judgment of other human beings was disturbing, and in large quantities, a potentially dangerous thing.
Since then I’ve realised that our neighbour introduced us to more than the neighbourhood; she introduced us to normalised racism in Australia. And over the years, I’ve seen it worsen. As it has globally, the anti-Muslim sentiment has grown stronger here. Worrisome generalisations like, “There’s no such thing as a peaceful Muslim,” are becoming more common.
Most people reading this would dismiss that statement for what it is: an uninformed prejudice. That said, there are a lot of people who believe mainstream fearmongers and think that Muslims are dangerous aggressors determined to infiltrate a country and convert its inhabitants to Islam.
These people can’t differentiate between a general belief system and the extremists of that ideology.
Because it’s the extremists of any religion or movement that are the true threat to peace. And we create those extremists ourselves. They are the manifested response to our divisive rhetoric, our mob mentality, and the unopposed false statements and prejudices that are allowed to circulate within our cultures.
A UN special rapporteur on racism, Mutuma Ruteere, in his recent visit to Australia, fingered Australian politicians as a whole as being influential contributors to the xenophobic hate speech that fuels the rise of racism and anti-Muslim sentiment here. Ruteere warned that those who refuse to denounce such speech serve to normalise it within the culture.
Like Peter Dutton, who recently said that “of the last 33 people who have been charged with terrorist-related offences in this country, 22 are from second- and third-generation Lebanese Muslim backgrounds”.
Head of counter-terrorism policy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Jacinta Carroll replied: “Fortunately in Australia to date the numbers of supporters of Islamist extremism and terrorism are very low; so low, in fact, they’re categorised as cases and clusters rather than being statistically useful,” she said.
But Dutton doesn’t explain that. Truths like that would contradict his xenophobic agenda, but it’s truths like that that should be shared loudly.
It’s the holiday season again. I’m digging out family decorations and going through customs and traditions that are foreign here but age-old in my family. Australia-wide there are people like me, like that first neighbour, enjoying the customs of our diverse backgrounds, and I find myself wondering about the word “assimilation”, how it stands in such stark contradiction to the multicultural society Australia touts itself as being. How can we be multicultural if we’re all the same?
Muslims are regularly criticised for “not assimilating” into Australian culture, and I wonder what that means. Why are Muslims expected to trade-in their customs and traditions for Australian ones yet my neighbour feels she can freely cultivate and share her Scottish traditions and racist judgments of others, with strangers? Surely, that kind of bigoted, hypocritical thinking is far more dangerous to society than a headscarf.