Some time ago, I had an argument with a guy who was complaining about Aboriginal people being given free cars by the government. I’m not joking – he was adamant that this was happening, despite me telling him in no uncertain terms that this was utter nonsense. Indigenous folks, it must be really tough, hey? All these free cars that you get? Do they just pile up, or do you get to sell them, or trade them in for newer models? The frustrating thing is that this is certainly not the only argument that I’ve had about the ‘special treatment’ given to Indigenous people. This perception is just part of the general, subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) racism which Indigenous people face on a daily basis.
First of all, let’s just make this clear right from the start. There is no special treatment. Indigenous people who receive welfare benefits receive exactly the same amount as their non-Indigenous counterparts. No cars, just in case you’re wondering. Jobs, occasionally, are earmarked for Indigenous people – and always for good reason, because it’s a job that requires an Indigenous person, or when a company is trying to increase their Indigenous workforce. When the Indigenous unemployment rate is more than three times higher than the non-Indigenous rate, it infuriates me that people begrudge Indigenous people these few jobs. It’s the same as when people bitch about extra money that is put towards increasing Indigenous education or health outcomes, or improving conditions in remote communities. The huge disparity in living conditions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is a direct result of the effects of colonisation on Indigenous people, and to complain about the efforts being made to fix things is shocking racism.
I have a history degree – which means I’m a really great waitress. (Also, I have a Masters Degree in Islamic Studies, which means I really like waitressing.) Total lack of relevant job opportunities aside, there was a reason I studied History. And not just because it involved a lot of reading and I could get away with submitting all of my assignments late. History is important. The oft repeated quote states, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it . Despite my interest in international history, I used to believe that Australian history was really boring. Just a bunch of white guys wandering around in the desert until they inevitably died. That’s what I learnt in high school, anyway. And let’s face it, history has always been taught from the perspective of the dominant (white) culture. Look at history from a different perspective, though, and suddenly it becomes salient, resonant, heartrending, and vitally important.
Here are some things that I wish I learned in High School:
Australian Indigenous culture is one of the oldest living cultures in the world. Before the European colonisers arrived, there were over 250 distinct Indigenous languages and more than 500 different people groups (check out this map). Indigenous people had a complex system of government and law, they had ways of working with the land in order to harvest food while preserving the environment, they had a rich spirituality. Colonisation was based on the theory of Australia being Terra Nullius, or no man’s land, which, of course, it was not.
An estimated 90% of Australia’s First People did not survive colonisation, due to introduced diseases, loss of hunting grounds, and violence. Of course, High School history glossed over the violence, the massacres and the Resistance Wars. If you haven’t already seen it, please go and check out this map, which shows the location of the documented massacres which happened in the Eastern colonies of Australia. So far, this map lists 184 massacres. A massacre is defined (in the context of this map) as when 6 or more unarmed people were killed. It’s difficult to get exact numbers because of course, even back then, people were fairly reluctant to document genocide. But an estimated 3598 Aboriginal people were killed in massacres-that’s the ones that we know about, and only includes those on the east coast of Australia. For some contrast, this map lists 39 colonists who were killed in these same massacres (and you can be damn sure they recorded every single one of them). Historian Henry Reynolds estimates that 30,000 Aboriginal people were killed in the conflicts with the European settlers. Massacres continued to happen up until 1928. The death, violence, and dislocation of entire family groups during this time period fractured families, wiped out whole people and language groups, and caused untold suffering.
The Stolen Generation was not just one generation. The government started to forcibly remove Aboriginal children from their parents at the end of the 19th Century, and continued to do so until well into the 1970s. I’ve heard people argue that these children were removed for their own good. This is bullshit. The government’s explicit policy was to ‘breed out’ Aboriginal people, and assimilate ‘half-caste’ children into white culture. As with many shameful things that our government has done over the years, they did not keep proper records, and many records have been lost or destroyed, so it’s pretty difficult to work out how many children were removed from their families. It was a lot though- an estimated 6200 in NSW alone. One government survey, carried out in 1994, found that 1 in 10 Aboriginal people aged over the age of 25 had been removed from their families in childhood. Children were even removed from their families while their fathers were overseas, serving as soldiers in World War 1. The children of the Stolen Generation experienced trauma and abuse, were given only a rudimentary education, and were usually made to work without proper pay. The effects on the Stolen Generation have been documented, and are devastating.
Up until the 1960s, Indigenous workers were being paid a fraction of what white people were being paid. Most workers on stations were paid little or no money. This wage disparity, over many decades, hugely impacted the ability of Indigenous people to get ahead, pull themselves out of poverty, and provide a prosperous future for their children. Aboriginal people were denied maternity allowance and the aged pension, and their family benefits were paid directly to the ‘protectorate’, which meant in many cases, they never received the money.
Australia’s First Nations people did not ‘meekly submit’ to all of the atrocities and indignities inflicted upon them. From the very beginning, there were resistance heroes, who fought for their very survival. From Peumulwuy to Yagan and Jandamarra, these fighters lead the resistance against the violence inflicted by the first settlers. The frontier wars waged for many years, particularly in northern NSW, and around the Swan River settlement near Perth. There is so much to write about these resistance fighters, but it’s a project for another time, otherwise this blog post will take me months to finish. Aboriginal activism included protests as early as the ‘Day of Mourning’ in 1938, and strikes such as the Pilbura strike and the Wave Hill walk off which eventually lead to Aboriginal people receiving equal pay. The Freedom Ride of 1965 protesting segregation in northern NSW towns, as well as the Bark Petition, Eddie Mabo and the fight for land rights, and the Tent Embassy – these are just the tip of the iceberg.
So why does all of this matter? Well, the way things stand right now, the life expectancy for Indigenous Australians is ten years less than that of non-Indigenous Australians. The Indigenous suicide rate in Australia is double that of the non-Indigenous suicide rate. Only 62% of Indigenous students finish year 12 or equivalent, compared with 86% of non-Indigenous people. Indigenous prisioners represent 27% of the prision population – while Indigenous people only make up 3% of our overall population. Indigenous children are 26 times more likely to be in youth detention. (All these stats are sourced from here and here). All of these statistics are tragic, and are a direct result of the violence, disenfranchisement, abuse, and unfair treatment which Indigenous people have suffered over the years since colonisation, as well as the racism that still exists in our society today. The past is is no way an ‘excuse’ for the way things are today. Instead, the ‘black history’ of our country is an undeniable call to action – we need real, concrete action to address the systemic problems facing Aboriginal communities across Australia, in a way which will help to lift Aboriginal people out of poverty and disenfranchisement, rather than further disempowering them.
We all bear the weight of history. This can affect us in different ways. For me, it meant growing up with two schoolteachers for parents, it meant having my parents there to go as guarantors when my partner and I wanted to buy a house, and having them bail me out of a bad business. It also meant that my first job out of high school was in my Grandparents’ shop, and it has meant having the white skin and confident air that has got me nearly every job since then that I’ve ever applied for. Of course, I’m incredibly grateful for all of these stepping stones on my path. And please hear what I’m saying -I’m not trying to say that white people get everything handed to them on a silver platter, that we don’t work hard, or that we should be ashamed of our white privilege. I’m also sure that’s not what Indigenous leaders, commentator and writers are saying, as much as you might try to misunderstand them. No, this is the message – we need to understand the weight of history that our First Nations people bear and that we all need to be a part of the solution.
Not too long ago, I spent some time training a group of Indigenous participants who were working towards a Certificate IV in Mental Health Studies. At one point, we were talking about stereotypes, and how they can affect people with mental health issues. As part of this discussion, I asked ‘what stereotypes have you guys experienced in your own lives?’ One of the participants, a fiercely proud, articulate and intelligent woman, said “When we go into shops, they think we’re there to steal things, and they follow us around. Happens all of the time.” Every single person in the class nodded agreement. As a white person, I’ll never know how awful, how incredibly shitty that must feel. I’ll never know how infuriating and hurtful it must be to suffer the everyday racism that Indigenous people experience all the time. But I do know that I want us as a nation to be better, that I want to learn how to be a good ally to Indigenous people, that I want to work towards fixing the wrongs of the past. Let’s learn from the past, and do better.
Just a couple of notes:
- So what can we do to contribute to righting the wrongs of the past? Well, I’m white, so I’m not the best person to be answering that question. But I do know that it starts with listening to Indigenous people. That might be the Aboriginal mum at your school P & C meeting, or it might be Indigenous writers, commentators, musicians, board members, politicians, and (hopefully) friends. Of course, Indigenous opinions are diverse and varied. You might find them confronting. But we’ve spent years looking at our society through the lense of our dominant white culture. Let’s start listening to a few other voices, and see where that gets us, hey?
- The title of this blog post comes from a line in a song by AB Original, Indigenous hiphop duo of Briggs and Trials. If you haven’t heard their music already, I’m sure you’ve been living under a rock. Give it a shot, it’s amazing.
- The picture at the top is by an Esperance artist called Jacinta Maher. I own this one, but if you’re interested in buying some of her art, shoot me a message and I’ll put you in touch with her.