Navigating Australian Racism

By November 6, 2019 No Comments

Ava Kalinauskas


“Kaya” [1] is the Noongar word for “hello,” making it part of one of the more than 100 languages indigenous[2] to Australia that you will never read about in a travel guide. 

“Where are you from?”

Among Sciences Po’s mosaic of international voices, the Australian accent sticks out like a sore thumb. Yet, for many, the colourful mix of peculiar vowel sounds and upward inflections (often dubbed the Australian Question Intonation) remains difficult to place.

What follows is the typical “Oh, Australian?” as the Sciences Piste, caught off guard, digs through their brain for what they know about the faraway island where I spent my childhood. Some cast their minds to idyllic images of Sydneysiders in the summer, basking in vitamin D at the famed Bondi beach, or to the vast open spaces of the country’s centre – home to exotic flora and fauna and the venomous spiders that so many fear.

However, with each interaction a repetition of the last, I find myself becoming more and more unsure about exactly what it means to be “Australian,” the cultural identity embroiled in this ethnic prescription. With an entirely European heritage myself, my affinity to Australia is blurry at best – and for good reason.

Australia’s bloody colonial history, much like that of Canada and the United States, is marked by centuries of atrocities in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were systematically displaced, dispossessed and, at the very least, disrespected. The European invasion in 1788 marked the beginning of a clear period of brutality that stretched until 1926, in which countless massacres and systematic killings reduced the population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by 90% [3]. This dismantling of First Nation peoples’ cultural, social, spiritual and political roots would continue through the Assimilation[4] policy that forcibly removed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. Peddling a white superiority narrative, cultural cleansing through church missions and Australian government agencies would continue until the 1980s, after an estimated 10 to 33% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children had been stolen from their families. [5]

Later named the Stolen Generations, these decades of institutionalised racism had colossal, ongoing repercussions for the communities of Australia’s First People, ultimately threatening their intricate cultural systems that were founded on oral tradition, storytelling, ceremonies and rituals. The cultural grief and intergenerational trauma of such suffering lives on.

In 1967, the symbolic referendum on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights saw the “Vote Yes” campaign succeed in achieving an overwhelming mandate to repeal constitutional discrimination as a preliminary, yet vital, step. Despite this, it is important to acknowledge that structural racism still remains in Australia today, evident in the alarming number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody (at least 424 since the royal commission)[6], the closure of remote communities and the fact that suicide is the leading cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

This indicates a clear situation of a national emergency. Australia is failing its First People.

Aside from systemic issues, a jarring national dialogue of ignorance, bigotry and contempt is distressingly manifest in Australia’s political, media and social spheres, largely diluting movements for change. This is not limited to particular social circles, but rather has slipped into a more general discourse, privileging dangerous voices and beliefs.

Just this year, Australia’s Prime Minister announced plans for a multi-million-dollar Captain Cook memorial, to “help Australians better understand…its legacy for exploration, science, and reconciliation.” [7]

Australia Day, the anniversary of the country’s British invasion, remains celebrated by many despite being continuously illuminated as a “day of mourning” for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. And while the “Change the Date”[8] campaign gains traction, other voices routinely set it back, such as senator Pauline Hanson, who describes the movement as the exhibition of a “powerful strain of white guilt that has been fostered by a cynical and self-loathing left.” [9]

Another example of Australia’s deplorable racism lies in the treatment of the Australian Football League (AFL) champion and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leader, Adam Goodes. In his final years playing in the public eye, the AFL community turned on him and wide-spread commentary was inflamed with racist slurs and insistence of his “cheating.” Although the incidents forced Goodes into early retirement, the industry was reluctant to label it what it was: racism, a microcosm of Australia’s broader normalization of emboldened prejudice. What was most telling, however, was the way this situation was wrapped in a blanket of Australia’s “passion for sport,” “competition,” and “love for the game” instead of acknowledging racism. This pervasive cultural narrative enabled the pernicious discourse to fester and go essentially unconstrained. 

Evidently, Australia’s colonial legacy has been immortalized across all arenas, bolstering national myths that ensure that society continues to benefit those in power while systematically disadvantaging the First People of Australia.

Perhaps the most promising glimmer of progress thus far comes from the Uluru Statement from the Heart [10], reflecting the unity of over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates as they urge for the sovereignty and empowerment of Australia’s First People. 

The “invitation to the Australian people” is directed to the public and calls for Voice, Treaty and Truth. As countless efforts, such as Closing the Gap,[11] have proven ineffective, it is hoped that the Uluru Statement from the Heart offers a new path forward for reconciliation as “the largest ever consensus of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on a proposal for substantive recognition” [12]. With a focus on truth-telling, there is a key opportunity to legitimise First People experiences and dismember the Australian colonial narrative that is still erroneously preserved and exploited. 

When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities demonstrate leadership and solutions, it is our job to listen and act accordingly. 

Thus, in the Sciences Po environment, conversations surrounding origin have raised more questions than answers for me. Clearly, white Australia’s black history cannot be ignored, and during discussions of home, I have undoubtedly carried with me feelings of national guilt and shame.

As a pioneering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activist, artist, author and playwright Kevin Gilbert postulated in 1978:  

“The real horror story of Aboriginal Australia today is locked in police files and child welfare reports. It is a story of private misery and degradation, caused by a complex chain of historical circumstance, that continues into the present.” [13] 

We need First Peoples’ voices to be elevated and validated, but moreover, we need a broader Australian community with their ears pricked, ready to listen. Not from a place of defence, but rather a genuine desire to learn, grow, and most importantly, act in solidarity.

2020 will mark 250 years since Captain Cook’s voyage, and the genocide of Australia’s First People. It is scary to think, as I sit at my desk mulling over the Australia I know, how little has changed. We must do better.

Further reading:

Tiddas4Tiddas Podcast

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Koori Mail

Other articles

Pictured: People marching on Australia day in a protest of solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples

 Source: https://ruwimgt.pw/indigenous-rights-in-australia.html

 [1] “Home.” Language | Kaartdijin Noongar, https://www.noongarculture.org.au/language/.

 [2] “Indigenous Australian Languages.” Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 14 Mar. 2019, https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/indigenous-australian-languages.

[3] Harris, John. “Hiding the Bodies: the Myth of the Humane Colonisation of Aboriginal Australia.” Aboriginal History Journal, vol. 27, 2011, pp. 79–104., doi:10.22459/ah.27.2011.07.

[4] “A White Australia.” Australians Together, https://australianstogether.org.au/discover/australian-history/a-white-australia/.

[5] National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families (Australia), Ronald Darling Wilson, and Australia Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry Into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children From Their Families. Sydney: Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997.

[6] Allam, Lorena, et al. “Indigenous Deaths in Custody Worsen in Year of Tracking by Deaths Inside Project.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 22 Aug. 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/aug/23/indigenous-deaths-in-custody-worsen-over-year-of-tracking-by-deaths-inside-project.

[7] “Honouring Captain James Cook’s Voyage.” Honouring Captain James Cook’s Voyage, 22 Jan. 2019, https://www.pm.gov.au/media/honouring-captain-james-cooks-voyage.

[8] “Articles about Changing the Date of Australia Day.” Change the Date, http://changethedate.org/.

[9] Alex.jones. “Why Australia Day Must Stay – Pauline Hanson.” Onenation.org.au, Alex.jones Https://Www.onenation.org.au/Wp-Content/Uploads/2017/12/ON-Logo-03-03.Png, 22 Nov. 2018, https://www.onenation.org.au/why-australia-day-needs-to-stay-pauline-hanson

[10] “The Uluru Statement from the Heart.” Uluru Statement from the Heart, https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement.

[11] “CLOSING THE GAP PROGRAM.” Closing The Gap Day, 23 Jan. 2019, https://closingthegapday.net/closing-the-gap-program/. 

[12] Source: Explainer: Uluru Statement from the Heart – Creative Spirits, retrieved from https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/selfdetermination/uluru-statement-from-the-heart

[13] Gilbert, Kevin. Living Black. Allen Lane, 1977.

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