Bill Leak, and ‘difficult conversations’ we need to have

Author: Luke Pearson

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Bill Leak likes to make racist cartoons. He thinks they’re funny. He thinks they aren’t actually racist because they are ‘true’. He believes that he is trying to help Australia have a ‘difficult conversation’. Judging from the cartoon and from his lame defence of it, I guess that difficult conversation is about how Aboriginal fathers are all drunks and the myriad of reasons why that’s funny.

Thanks Bill.

So, now that we have got that difficult conversation out of the way, should we talk about kids being tortured in detention? Or is that not funny enough to merit discussion?

Should we talk about intergenerational trauma? Or about how issues of alcoholism and family breakdown aren’t really helped by national ridicule and hatred? Or by governments cutting funds to frontline services that exist to work with these families? Nope? Okay then.

Apparently, all the reader needs to know is that when it comes to alcoholism and family breakdown in Aboriginal communities, ‘it’s funny and it’s true’. Problem solved. We don’t need to examine the role of government, or of media. White Australia doesn’t need to acknowledge those Aboriginal people who actually work to address these issues or their job is made infinitely harder by government funding cuts and policy changes – it can all just sit back and laugh and absolve itself of any role in creating these problems and more importantly, of being a part of the solution. That is the take home of simplifying these issues to ‘parents are drunks, and they are responsible for all of this’, and adding the caveat of ‘and it’s funny’ not only absolves Australia of any agency or culpability in the conversation, it actively encourages the ridicule and hatred of the people being laughed at.

I am an Aboriginal father. I know my children’s names and I am not an alcoholic. I don’t want to have to teach my boys and my little girl to expect people to laugh at them and assume they don’t know me; that I am off drunk somewhere. I don’t want their teachers to have low expectations of them, or their friend’s parents to be wary of letting their children play with mine. I don’t want their future employers to imagine some horrific baggage and levels of irresponsibility that come with employing Aboriginal people. I don’t want my kids to grow up worried about turning on the television or opening a newspaper for fear of what racist garbage might leap out and slap them in the face. I don’t want them to face social pressure to join in the ‘joke’, to have to confront the idea that it is okay to laugh at Aboriginal people and that if they don’t then somehow the fault lies with them and not the racists who perpetuate these stereotypes or the society that endorses it.

I wasn’t actually planning to write anything about the cartoon published on Thursday, the article I wrote last time everyone got angry over a racist cartoon he published had already summed it up. It even predicted this happening, and I don’t usually like having to repeat myself but when I saw his latest cartoon defending himself, making out that he is the victim of angry ‘sanctimonious’ white people, as though there aren’t countless Aboriginal people furious over this cartoon, and even more ludicrous, claiming that he is having a positive contribution on these conversations tipped me over the line.

He is right when he says that Australia needs to have difficult conversations but he is blatantly wrong in feeling that is helping this to happen, at least not on the topic he claimed to want us to talk about. Just as whenever someone is killed in a pub fight leads us to talk about violence in our country, Bill Leak has done this for conversations about racism in our media. He has embodied it; he has perpetrated the act; and in doing so should provoke a conversation about the roles and responsibilities of those in media, particularly for a media outlet like The Australian who often lauds itself as a leader in dialogue about Indigenous issues. Maybe they need to have a difficult conversation about how damaging this has been to their self-asserted status as a leader on Indigenous affairs reporting?

As for the conversations he thought he was contributing to though, he has made those conversations more difficult to have as there are now even more people convinced that the answers lie solely in blaming, demonising and ridiculing Aboriginal people and not in empowering Aboriginal communities and advocating for those people and organisations working on creating opportunities to address the very real issues of substance abuse or family breakdown. Bill Leak didn’t encourage a difficult conversation, he gave people a scapegoat; an easy way out from having to consider it in depth. And with his follow up cartoon he has proved what I wrote last time, that it is more about ‘which white people are the good ones and which are the ‘real racists’?’. Aboriginal people are pushed further into the background of this conversation, denied our agency, and once again turned into cannon fodder for supposedly well-meaning white people to expend in their never ending quest to prove that the other side of the politics spectrum are the ‘real racists’.

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