Bronwyn Carlson

Bronwyn Carlson: Let’s take giant steps to end racism and injustice towards Indigenous peoples

Bronwyn Carlson

Bronwyn Carlson: ‘Many of my students hold the belief that the 1967 referendum was about giving Aboriginal people the vote. They have very little knowledge about the Australian constitution.’ Photograph: Mark Newsham

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Bronwyn Carlson is an Associate Professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Wollongong. Her book The Politics of Identity: Who Counts as Aboriginal Today? is published by Aboriginal Studies Press.

As a lecturer in Indigenous studies I reminded my classes about the significance of this week.

“Sorry Day” on 26 May is a day to remember those whose lives are forever affected by the government’s policies and practices of forcibly removing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families.

After that is national reconciliation week, which begins on 27 May and ends on 3 June. These dates also flag significant events: 27 May marks the anniversary of the 1967 referendum and 3 June the historic Mabo decision.

I asked students to reflect on this week’s national reconciliation week theme, “Let’s take the next steps”, especially given we are remembering the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum which was very much about challenging discrimination and taking the next steps.

Many of the students hold the belief that the 1967 referendum was about giving Aboriginal people the vote. They have very little knowledge about the Australian constitution. As most Indigenous educators will know, after 13 weeks of content, students begin to feel overwhelmed hearing about Australian history that includes Indigenous people.

Some find it difficult to shift their thinking from pitying Indigenous people to realising that we are self-determining agents capable of challenging and resisting the structures of domination. I want students to understand Indigenous people as having agency, as creative, political subjects, even if their agency is restricted by social structures. The 1967 referendum reminds us of this. The 10-year campaign followed on from a long history of activism that challenged discrimination and injustice.

The results of the 1967 referendum often bring about feelings of appeasement for students. They seem to think that if so many people voted “yes” it somehow meant an end to racism and inequality. I tell them that the 1967 referendum was about making changes to the Australian constitution. This included voting “yes” to allow the federal government to have the ability to make laws for all Australians without specifically excluding Aboriginal people as the original constitution did (s. 51).

The second change was about counting Aboriginal people as part of the Australian human population (s. 127). From 1967, Aboriginal people were then counted as part of the population which meant an increase in commonwealth funding for states and territories that had significant numbers of Aboriginal people.

One of the outcomes of the 1967 referendum was that governments introduced programs and funding to make some amends for their policies and practices that resulted in Indigenous people suffering appalling social conditions. An ongoing issue of course, is that the “yes” vote was not an overwhelming vote for equality for Indigenous Australians. Nor was it a call to end racism and discrimination. On the contrary, racism remains a significant issue for Indigenous people and as the latest Closing the Gap, prime minister’s report demonstrates, equality is far from being reached.

An enduring myth that Indigenous studies educators need to constantly address is the widely held belief that Indigenous people receive benefits that other Australians do not.

These ideas are somewhat loosely informed by the existence of specific programs and funding to address disadvantage. What fuels these myths is racism. Racism is often expressed by comparison – “They get this” and “We don’t” – so the underlying argument is that resources are unfairly distributed to Indigenous people and that Indigenous people get some sort of advantages they don’t deserve. I am constantly told that Indigenous Australians are afforded financial compensation for being Indigenous and that we are able to access a range of privileges that other Australians are not. So much so that I wrote an article about the truth of the “free ride”.

After the article was published, I received several emails from the public asserting the belief that Indigenous Australians do get a range of privileges and financial benefits. The latest one claimed:

Sorry but there is preference to Aboriginals. Extra study payments, Abstudy, no reporting requirements to Centrelink, backdated rent assistance – no questions asked. Extra help with housing, their own legal service, etc etc.

The person went on to state that they know this to be true as they used to work for Centrelink and claimed: “These are facts and I am not racist, it is you that promote the inequality. I should put more time and energy into this.”

Arguments like this are commonplace and often express anger. They are the well-worn arguments used by “shock jocks” and political parties such as One Nation to justify claims that “we are all the same”. All Indigenous people know we are not and that the idea of a “level playing field” is simply a myth.

I return to my students’ contemplation of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum and the 2017 national reconciliation week theme of “Let’s take the next steps”. They were heartened to learn about the history of Indigenous activism since 1788 and the great achievements of Indigenous people considering the oppressive conditions that controlled their lives.

They were also troubled that they learnt little about this until they reached university and chose an Indigenous studies subject. Many commented about how Indigenous studies had opened their minds to how little they knew about Australian history. They could recite information about the civil rights movement in the US but knew nothing of the civil rights movement led by Indigenous people in Australia.

This is still the sad reality of Australian history: most Australians know very little about it.

This article was first published on 26 May in Guardian Australia as part of their collaboration with IndigenousX

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