Whitefellas (are) dreaming

It’s been a while since I posted, so perhaps this is a bit strong a way to start things up again, but here we go.

I’ve watched things play out over the past few weeks, thinking that I won’t comment because no one can speak with authority on something that they haven’t experienced. Yet it seems everyone else is an armchair critic so I have decided to step up to bat…

Today’s topic is the sweet, fluffy bunny that is: racism.

Firstly, to those who are insisting that there is no racism in Australia, that they’ve not seen any, it’s not such a big deal, or that it’s not as bad as people say it is, I have one thing to say. Look in the mirror. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that you’re white.

When the only racism that you see is extreme examples on the news of people going nuclear at complete strangers on public transport, it’s probably quite easy to say it’s an isolated problem. Because we don’t see THAT every day. When you’re never on the receiving end of it yourself, it’s even easier to dismiss.

In my career I’ve worked with Indigenous colleagues and groups in two States. I met some inspiring people, and some sadly broken ones. I heard some incredible stories – incredibly good and incredibly sad. Despite all of this, not for a second do I think that I’m an expert nor that I understand what it is to be an Indigenous person living in Australia. Because a quick look in the mirror screams ‘very fair, blonde Anglo approaching!’ I might be a little better schooled now in why particular actions are hurtful, insensitive or downright offensive. But I’ll never truly understand the hurt an Indigenous person feels at these same actions.

Like many Australians I’ve not been on the receiving end of racism (sexism however…), but I know damn well that it exists and I know that it’s far more of an issue than a few crazies threatening violence to Asians or Muslims or the French (a bit of a random one) on a city bus.

I’ll begin with the thing that escalated discussions this past fortnight. For those genuinely unable to grasp why comparing an Indigenous person to an animal might be offensive. Firstly, you’re calling a person an animal, so there’s that.  Secondly, up until 1967 (which to Gen Y or Z might seem ancient history, but it’s really not that long ago) Indigenous Australians were not citizens, but rather administered under the Flora and Fauna Act. That’s right – plants and animals! When a human being is classed as an animal – under law – it must make it a hell of a lot easier for folks to treat them like one, non? I can’t begin to imagine how it feels to know that under law you are viewed little different from a cow, sheep or dog – things that are commonly ‘owned’ and treated as property, belongings, chattle. So, with that in mind, using the term ‘ape’ seems far less like a clever joke for the Darwinists dinner circuit* and much more something of great offence. [*Seriously, I actually heard that! “Ah well, we’re all apes when it comes down to it right?”]

Granted, some people’s prejudice comes from sheer ignorance. History is usually taught from the ‘winner’s’ perspective – which, for those playing at home would be the white man’s. Australians are probably more likely to be able to name a native American tribe than an Aboriginal one. Which is a fact that I find appalling.

This basic ignorance is no better displayed than in the other interwebz outrage this past week. A rather vocal general public expressed reactions ranging from confusion to anger following the sad passing of Yunupingu – but not about his passing itself. Their outrage – quite unbelievably – was directed (in ascending order) at the grieving Yunupingu family, Indigenous culture in general, and those media outlets that corrected their error* out of respect for the family’s beliefs and their grief (an act in itself seen by some as another example of pandering to Aboriginal Australians). One rant that particularly caught my attention was along the lines of  ‘he should be treated like any other dead celebrity’. I honestly couldn’t decide what was the worst thing here – the irony of calling for equal treatment, the lack of cultural understanding and respect for the family wishes, or that this guy seemed of the view that the macabre media circus that follows celebrity deaths is ok, or something – I dunno – that we’re owed or entitled to? Creep.

I’ll lay money that few of these people took the obvious step of asking why it might be disrespectful, let alone actively educating themselves on the fact. It’s not something that fits within their narrow vision of Australian culture and society, so they either  don’t care why or just presume it to be wrong. It should have been an opportunity for people to gain the tiniest understanding of a culture that is an integral part of OUR history. And yet, no. To them, it was another example of ‘special treatment’ for Aboriginal people.

But all of that is the more overt bigotry, which let’s face it, we’re never going to be able to compete at world level on. Best to leave the really insane stuff to the white supremacists in the US and Europe. We don’t need to be World Number One here.

It’s actually the ‘polite’, covert stuff we really have to watch out for. It is the kind of prejudice widely experienced, and is exactly the kind that most Australians don’t ‘see’.  Stuff like:

  • Cabs slowing down to collect a fare and then pulling away once they see the colour of the passenger’s skin
  • Racial profiling and the use of racial stereotypes – usually as ‘a joke, mate’
  • The wide acceptance that our cities are divided into racial and cultural areas, and the acceptance of the socio-economic inequality that can result
  • Thinking that racism and inequality ceases to be an issue if you just ignore it. Employing a one size fits all approach like providing key services without a thought to differences brought about by race or gender. It would be like thinking because the great majority of the population lives in the city, then the way we approach transport infrastructure for cities will work in rural areas. If it works for most, it works for all. Except it doesn’t.
  • Studies like the one at ANU, which found you’re far less likely to get offered a job interview if you have a non-European name. Researchers sent fake CVs in response to job ads, changing only the name of the applicant. The result? If you’re surname is Chinese, you have to apply for 68% more jobs to get the same number of interviews as a Anglo-Australian. If you’re Middle Eastern = 64%. If you’re Indigenous = 35%.

This sort of racism is so subtle that it’s almost invisible to most of us. It’s also so subtle that any one of us could be guilty of it at some point or another. It hasn’t got the shock factor of the crazy rants people film and upload to YouTube. But it should have. Just as it’s seemingly acceptable for someone to excuse their behaviour with ‘no offence intended’ or ‘that’s not what I meant when I said that’ or the most loathsome ‘ it was just a joke’. It’s never about what you intended by the comment – it’s about the fact that you didn’t possess the basic awareness or understanding of others to anticipate that offence WOULD be taken. The behaviour  is so ingrained that it manifests automatically and involuntarily. And some people might be genuinely ashamed when called out on a comment they’ve made, but in all honesty, most will simply fail to recognise there’s a problem at all. Which is why we hear things like ‘ it’s not that big a deal’.

I know that I’ve focused almost solely on racism affecting Indigenous Australians. This is not for one second to ignore or dismiss the experiences of racism by Australians of Asian, Middle Eastern or Southern European heritage. I know that they have been – and sadly too often still are – on the receiving end of ignorant, prejudiced and hurtful attitudes. They are certainly on the receiving end of ‘polite’ racism. It’s just that where our first peoples are concerned, the bigotry seems more ingrained, more sinister, more strident and, sadly, more accepted. It no doubt owes a lot to the fact that the prejudice we’re talking about wasn’t just coming from fear and ignorance as is so often the case – for a long time that prejudice was the law.

And all the great majority of Australians have to say about it is: it’s not that bad? For the better part of 200 years we, as colonies and then as a nation, systematically (and legally) dismantled a people, their culture, their traditions, their health, their families, their homes, and for so so many – their lives.

And apparently that’s no big deal.


*For those living under a rock – or just outside Australia – some media outlets (who perhaps should know better) were called out by Yunupingu’s family for using his name and image when reporting his death. If you’re unsure why that might be an issue, click here or here for starters.

2 thoughts on “Whitefellas (are) dreaming

  1. Thanks for this one Billeigh! I will be forwarding it to various people when needed as an educational piece.

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