Political commentator Andrew Bolt said recently that Australia is fundamentally not a racist country.
He’s wrong. Ok, that’s hardly a phrase that’s in uncommon usage when talking of Andrew Bolt’s views, but in this case he’s really wrong.
The Anglo-Australian nation and culture was founded in racism, and racism is wound into the fabric of many of the artifacts that still hold Australia together today. Racism is arguably so embedded in the Anglo-Australian culture, that many don’t see it.
This was never made more clear than in the arguments recently around whether or not ‘booing’ Adam Goodes was racist or not. Here’s Charlie Pickering’s commentary on this from The Weekly:
Australia has a problem with racism
There. I’ve said it. And so, according to a study done by the University of Western Sydney, have 85% of other Australians. We, as a country, have a problem with racism.
Here’s what Aboriginal Australian Stan Grant had to say about this recently in regards to Adam Goodes:
“I may be overly sensitive. I may see insult where none is intended. Maybe my position of relative success and privilege today should have healed deep scars of racism and the pain of growing up Indigenous in Australia. The same could be said of Adam. And perhaps that is right.
But this is how Australia makes us feel. Estranged in the land of our ancestors, marooned by the tides of history on the fringes of one of the richest and demonstrably most peaceful, secure and cohesive nations on earth.” (Stan Grant, 30 July 2015)
‘Estranged in the land of our ancestors’ – that’s the environment that the Anglo-Australian culture has created for Aboriginal Australians. And while most Aussies of non-aboriginal descent would undoubtedly consider themselves to be more enlightened than our forefathers, we still allow our blatantly racist infrastructure to stay in place.
And while we may be blind to the impact of this racist infrastructure, outsiders aren’t – maybe because it’s often easier to see faults in others than in yourself. In the words of British-American comedian and political satirist John Oliver:
Australia is “one of the most comfortably racist places I’ve ever been”
Comfortably racist. That’s a fairly accurate description. And the reason it’s so ‘comfortable’, is that it’s embedded in the Anglo-Australian culture to such an extent that it’s seen as normal or harmless. Like the chips in the paintwork of your home, you walk past them every day and after a while you stop noticing them.
Racism was embedded in the Anglo-Australian culture right from the get-go
The Anglo-Australian nation was founded in racism
The core principle behind the ‘colonisation’ of Australia in 1788 was a belief in the absolute superiority of the British race. England didn’t declare war on the Aboriginal people when they sent the First Fleet here – they might have undertaken plenty of war-like behaviour after the First Fleet’s arrival – but there was no official war declared. Australia was not taken by ‘conquest’. Furthermore, there was no treaty signed with the Aboriginal people – no exchange of goods to buy the land.
Instead, the English declared that Australia was uninhabited (or ‘terra nullius’) – and therefore up for grabs – ignoring the land rights of the people who had inhabited this country for more than 60,000 years. As historian Bob Reece once wrote about the British attitude at that time:
“The British culture was one with an unquestioning faith in its superiority and in its civilizing role. The whites expected the aboriginal to recognise their superiority and adopt an appropriately subordinate and imitative role.”
And this legal fiction, that Australia was uninhabited at the time the Brits arrived, was maintained for over 200 years. It was only in 1992, that the Mabo case in the High Court overturned this, and that our legal system finally recognised that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples owned the land prior to the Brits arriving. Two. Hundred. Years. That’s how long it took to overturn a racist lie from the 18th century. Are you beginning to get an idea of just how entrenched racism is in our nation’s make-up?
Racism in our national artifacts
There’s no doubt that over the last fifty years, there have been significant efforts to unwind the worst of the infrastructure that has held racism in place since 1788. These include that:
- Aboriginals were finally given the right to vote (in 1962)
- The ‘Great Australian Silence’ around Australia’s history was finally challenged by W.E.H. Stenner, which brought the frontier-wars and other aspects of history to the fore (1968)
- Gough Whitlam adopted the first ‘self-determination’ policy for Aboriginals (1972)
- Racism was finally outlawed & Aboriginals were finally free to undertake traditional practices on the land again (1975)
- Aboriginal ‘Protectionism’ which took Aboriginal children away from their families, finally ceased (1970s)
- Aboriginal right to Land Title in 1788 is finally recognised at law – Mabo (1992)
- Paul Keating acknowledges past wrongs against Aboriginal Australians (1992)
- Kevin Rudd, on behalf of all Australians, finally says sorry (2008)
These actions have gone at least some of the way to redress legal issues with equality, but only within the last fifty years, which in history is no time at all. But racism is still embedded in many of our national artifacts. In many ways we’re like an ex-Klu-Klux-Klan member, who after quitting the Klan, keeps all their Klu-Klux Klan posters, books, gear and other mementos and then wonders why people think he hasn’t really left the Klan. Here’s some examples of the racist mementos we’ve kept around:
A constitution is arguably the most powerful legal document in any democracy. It may seem like a boring document – and having studied constitutional law, I can tell you that it reads like a boring document. But in terms of its power, it sits above the Prime Minister, the parliament and the courts – making it very important indeed.
When the framers of the Australian constitution sat down at the end of the 19th century with the goal of bringing together the various states at the time of Federation in 1901, Aboriginals were not considered by them to have – and I quote – “the intelligence, interest, or capacity to stand on the same platform with the rest of the people of Australia” in order to have the vote. Nor were Aboriginals to be counted in the census. They were literally considered not to count.
Today, while issues with the vote and the census have since been resolved, the Constitution – the legal framework for this country – still fails to acknowledge Aboriginal Australians’ traditional sovereignty.
It’s a small thing. But it’s a big thing. It’s what Australians flash around the place to indicate that they are Australian. And we are one of only two ‘colonies’ – New Zealand’s is the other one – that still retains the British stamp on our flag. New Zealand is about to change their flag. It’s time that we did too.
Our National Anthem – Advance Australia ‘Fair’
Really Australia – ‘Fair’? ‘Young’? Why don’t we just sing the old “White Australia song” from the early 1900s and be done with it. (Yes – there really was a song.)
By way of comparison, the second verses of both the South African and New Zealand anthems are in Zulu and Maori respectively. It’s about time we found an anthem which recognised that our history didn’t start in 1788 and acknowledges and respects the traditional owners of this land.
OK – how many non-Aboriginal readers of this article know how to say ‘Hallo’ in any of the estimated 700 Aboriginal languages that existed here in 1788. I’m guessing it’s the tiniest of tiny percentages. By way of contrast, in New Zealand, the Maori language is taught in over 1000 schools, and there have been discussions about making it compulsory.
It’s great to have a day where we celebrate the good things about being Australian. But it’s ridiculously insensitive and – you guessed it – racist when we do it on a day which is considered a day of loss by the Aboriginal people:
(From Creative Spirits)
There are 364 other days we could pick – we should move it.
Aboriginal Artwork and Traditional Sites
What would Paris be without the Mona Lisa and the Louvre? What would Egypt be without the Pyramids? England without Stonehenge? Florence without the Statue of David? Pisa without the leaning tower? I could go on – but I suspect you get the general idea.
Around the world great antiquities and ancient sites are valued, protected and appreciated. People queue up to see them. Museums and galleries around the world go to great lengths to identify antiquities and obtain items significant to their culture.
We, on the other hand, have a continent FULL of ancient works of art and sacred sites. But not only aren’t many of them protected, most of us don’t even know where they are. The Western Australian government just deregistered what is arguably the world’s oldest rock art collection so that the Mining companies can get their hands on the site. The site is dated at more than 30,000 years old – THE WORLD’S OLDEST ROCK ART – and there was barely a whimper about it in the news.
What do you think would happen in Egypt if they discovered coal under the pyramids? Do you think they would allow them to be destroyed? NOT IN A MILLION YEARS. Well – unless Abbott was their Prime Minister of course – then the Pyramids would be gone in a matter of weeks.
The above are just examples of the many ways that we disregard and devalue Aboriginal culture due to the historically racist perspective that it is unimportant. With the exception of discussions around the Constitution – which have been in the news quite a bit recently – most non-Aboriginal Australians wouldn’t even notice that the issues above are problems, so embedded are they in the Anglo-Australian culture. And if you think these things aren’t important – think again. They set the tone, they set the framework within which values and behaviours are fostered and learnt – and make it hard for us to root out the racist attitudes that have been a part of the Anglo-Australian culture for so long.
More reasons why racism can be so hard to spot
Another key reason we may not immediatelly recognise behaviour as racist is that we often assume that racist behaviour is associated with overtly ‘bad’ actions like violence or abuse. But this isn’t always the case. Racism is an attitude rather than an action – which means it can also be expressed through actions and speech which might otherwise seem to be ‘good’ – like kindness or patriotism.
And the thing is, even when racism is expressed through kindness or patriotism, it can be just as venomous. Here’s some examples of different ways that racism has been expressed towards Aboriginal Australians over the past 225 odd years.
Racism expressed through violence
It wasn’t long after the British arrival in 1788 that the first massacres of local Aboriginal tribes took place. This violence – recently renamed ‘frontier wars’ – was seen as ‘unavoidable’ by the British, and continued to flourish in the 19th century. The exact number of Aboriginal deaths is unknown, but it was certainly in the tens of thousands, and possibly more than 100,000.
The attitude that allowed this to happen was the unwavering belief in the superiority of those from the British race. Here’s an example of a statement published in the Bulletin in the late 19th century which reflects the beliefs about the superiority of the British bloodline at that time:
“civilization marches over the bodies of inferior races….they are compelled to make room for the superior race” (Bulletin – 9 June 1883 pg. 6)
Racism expressed as ‘kindness’ or ‘protection’
Racism expressed as violence took Aboriginal life and land. Racism expressed as kindness, protection and good works aimed to take away what was left – their culture, their way of life, their families, their language, their history, their spiritual beliefs and their pride in who they were. Here’s how.
The British clearly did not see themselves as violent invaders – they saw themselves as as “enlightened and christian” benefactors of the indigenous inhabitants of the countries they ‘settled’. They looked upon the indigenous inhabitants of the lands they colonised – not just Australia, but other lands – with a degree of pity, and settlers were instructed to use ‘humane means’ to defend themselves when taking control of the land that they saw as rightfully theirs.
Of course, had the Brits been serious in their concern for the well being of the indigenous inhabitants, then they would have stopped their wanton ‘colonising’ – but the racist attitude behind their concern meant that this wasn’t going to happen. Instead, they set up ‘Protectionist’ boards and installed people with the title of ‘Protector of Natives’ to ‘look after’ and ‘civilise’ the ‘indigenous folk’. They also sent out truckloads of missionaries, which they saw as their greatest gift – primarily to educate and ‘improve’ the children.
This theme of ‘protection’ – in various forms – continued in Australia right through the 19th century and into the 20th century, when in 1915 the NSW Aborigines Protection Board was empowered to remove Aboriginal children from their families at will. They had been able to do that prior to 1915, but only with a court order. Similar practices were implemented in other states which continued up until the 1970s. Once in ‘care’, children were instructed to no longer speak the language of their parents and taught to forget Aboriginal culture and practices.
Racism expressed as patriotism
Just as being kind to or protecting someone is normally a positive thing – so is patriotism. But it too can be incredibly destructive when it is driven by racism.
Take the policy of ‘assimilation’ – so admired by the Reclaim Australia folk – which was implemented by the Australian Government in the middle of the 20th century, as a tool of patriotism to ‘unite the nation’. The policy was designed to suppress and kill off the aboriginal culture, language and heritage – again, in the misguided belief in the superiority of the Anglo-Australian way of life. Aboriginals were offered limited citizenship at this time on the condition that they ceased practicing Aboriginal customs, did not speak their native language and did not mix with any friends or families who hadn’t also agreed to the same terms.
Looking at these three examples of different expressions of racism, it’s clear that while the outcome of racism is normally pretty bad for the recipient, the perpetrators of non-violent racist behaviour (such as kindness or patriotism), often believe – albeit misguidedly – that they are doing a good thing. Their racism blinds them to the true impact of what they are doing. And this is another reason why it is so difficult for Anglo-Australians to see this in themselves – because racism can be well-meaning, or at least not intended maliciously – like the booing of Adam Goodes recently.
The opposite of Racism is Respect
Ok non-Aboriginal Aussies – we don’t have a good track record when it comes to racism. In fact we arguably have a bit of a blind spot – often not from any malicious motive, but purely because of how embedded it is in our culture and a misunderstanding of what it is. But that doesn’t make it any less racist in the way it is experienced by those on the receiving end.
But it’s time now to do something about this. It’s time, as Adam Goodes says, to bite the bullet and have a conversation about racism so that we can:
Fix the remnants of racism in our National Artifacts
This includes the examples I’ve noted above, but there are others as well. It’s not hard – it just takes the will to do this. Don’t believe the politicians who want to stall this for their own political motives. It may take some time to get consensus, but if we want to do this we can do it. It’s that simple.
Delaying the rectification of these issues is just more racism, as it undervalues the importance of these issues to Aboriginal Australians.
Stop. Think. Respect.
This was a campaign designed by Beyond Blue to counter discrimination in our community – against a whole host of problems. And it is a key antidote to racism. The way to eliminate racism from our national culture, our national values is first to take the time to notice when it’s there and then to turn a racist attitude into respect.
Last week, after Adam Goodes had called out racism from the AFL crowds, we all stopped, thought, and then – it took a little while – but then we showed respect.
We need to do that across the board.
Stop. Think. Respect.
This article was first published on Progressive Conversation.