Changing Things I Cannot Accept
There is a countless stream of racist ideas that anybody who so much as mentions anything to do with Aboriginal people hears on a very regular basis.
They are so common and so mundane they I barely even bother to reply to them these days but, despite their frequency, it still seems as though many white Australians have either never even heard of them or simply haven’t thought much about them. So I thought I’d list a few of the more common ones and try to help shed some light on why they never seem to go away.
‘The benefits of invasion, genocide, and colonization’
This view takes many forms, such as:
“We said sorry, when are you going to say ‘thank you’?” As though invasion was a act of kindness for which Aboriginal people need to somehow show gratitude for.
“If Europeans hadn’t invaded you might have been invaded by the [insert group], and that would have been way worse!” As though any other group were as adept at brutality and attempted genocide.
“You’re a hypocrite for saying you oppose invasion yet you still use a computer!” – because all science and technology apparently stems exclusively from white people, and there is no other way that Aboriginal people could have been introduced to these technologies if not for the brutality of invasion and dispossession. Even though Aboriginal nations had been successfully trading with other nations from across the seas for centuries.
Even though white people don’t see their own identity belittled whenever the use a technology developed overseas, somehow the belief is that Aboriginal people become less Aboriginal every time we put on a t-shirt or use a pen.
These ideas are tied to very outdated and misunderstood ideas of Social Darwinism. The idea that invasion and genocide are justified as not just ‘human nature’, but nature itself. So on the one hand Western civilization can be held up for rising itself above the ‘state of nature’ and building concepts of justice, democracy, and ‘civilisation’, while on the other it’s more heinous crimes can be excused as ‘natural’.
Since I’ve mentioned ‘white people’ several times so far in this article I bet some white people reading this have asked themselves:
“Isn’t it racist to call white people ‘white’?”
White people have long enjoyed having an invisible racial identity. White people often do not identify themselves as white, just as ‘people’. In this way, white people are perceived as the norm that everyone else needs to identify themselves as ‘different from’. Everyone else becomes a subcategory of humanity; Aboriginal people, Asian people, black people, brown people, etc. So even though it feels normal to refer to Aboriginal people as Aboriginal, the very idea that white people should even be named, bringing their identity into light feels as though it is somehow racist. It also lead the idea that racism wouldn’t be a problem if we just stopped talking about it, which is of course ludicrous at even the most cursory glance. The systems and institutions built on racism have developed complex systems to maintain the status quo and navigating terminology provides no challenge whatsoever.
This desire to remain racially neutral is also seen in the classic:
“I don’t see race!” – because these people subconsciously understand the benefits of having an invisible racial identity they feel the solution to racism is to make everyone elses racial identity invisible as well. Australia is one of the last places where the idea of being ‘colour blind’ is somehow still held up as a popular ideal without coming under much scrutiny, despite how blatantly nonsensical it is. To say you don’t see race doesn’t erase racism, it erases the identity and experiences of non-white people and ignores the realities of racism. It validates the privileged status of whiteness while denying that it even exists.
Much of what I am talking about exists outside of Australia as well, as colonisation and invasion happened in many other places as well, and still does, but the Australian manifestation of these views is perhaps best encapsulated within the idea that ‘Aboriginal people didn’t even invent the wheel!’.
There is another, lesser known, add on to this statement, which is that ‘if white people had never come to Australia then Aboriginal people would right about now be inventing the wheel.’
The idea here is one of a unilinear view of human evolution and technological development. That it is somehow inevitable that, given enough time, every human group would eventually invent the wheel, the atom bomb, and Season 6 of The Walking Dead.
This obviously ignores the fact that Aboriginal civilisations are tens of thousands of years older than European ones, and that most technological advances are responses to the adage ‘Necessity is the mother of all invention’. We didn’t need the wheel. We didn’t need to cure diseases we didn’t facilitate the growth of. We didn’t need to invent increasingly horrific methods of warfare and human devastation.
Australia’s love of Social Darwinism can be seen in the naming of the capital city of the Northern Territory, Darwin. Darwin himself however seems to have at least recognised the potential for misuse of his theories of evolution when he said “If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”
And, to save the best for last:
“It was 200 years ago, why don’t you just get over the past?!”
As though the only thing that ever happened in Australia’s history that Aboriginal people could possibly have any gripe against was the planting of the flag and not the consequent dispossession, massacres, slavery, incarceration, regulation, ongoing attempts to destroy Aboriginal languages and cultures, and so much more.
This idea still thrives in the face of the hypocrisy that our ANZAC slogan is “Lest we forget”. The last openly acknowledged massacre of Aboriginal people took place in between WWI and WWII, so the time frames around what we should get over and what we should never forget seem a bit iffy here. HWestern history is celebrated and respected with great libraries, museums, and endless research, documentation and discussion, yet somehow Indigenous history should just be forgotten and moved on from. This is tied to the idea that Aboriginal people are singularly responsible for the devastating realities that affect so many of our people and our communities, and that it couldn’t possibly have anything to do with all of the above mentioned atrocities because ‘it happened so long ago!’. “why should I be ‘made to feel guilty’ about what my ancestors did?!”
And this is what brings us full circle, and ties all of the above together.
These issues are not simply a matter of history. Dispossession of Aboriginal lands can still be seen from Redfern in The Block right across the country to the threatened remote communities in Western Australia. The deregistering of sacred sites. The opposition to Aboriginal perspectives across the curriculum and providing education in the first language of Aboriginal peoples. The racist practices of the NT Intervention to the refusal to punish police officers who murder Aboriginal people. The ongoing racism and animosity that not only contributes to but actively dictates Indigenous oppression and disenfranchisement in policies and practices.
The attitudes mentioned above are actually to do with white Australia’s ability to ‘get over the past’, as their very validity within this country is tied to these realities for Indigenous peoples and they conflict directly with the preferred ideals of ‘A fair go for all’, ‘The lucky country’ and the idea that Australia was ‘settled through peace and not war’. They contradict the validity of ‘modern Australian society’ and their own role within it, as many like to perceive it.
It is this reason that ‘white feels’ are the most dangerous and damaging obstacle that Indigenous peoples face. It is this cognitive dissonance in refusing to acknowledge the ongoing impacts of racism and colonization that prevents Australia from entering into a treaty with Indigenous peoples. It prevents us from intelligent and just responses ‘Closing the Gap’ and moving beyond punitive responses to the manifestations of intergenerational trauma and the ongoing battle for Indigenous rights and recognition.
Indigenous people do not need to ‘get over the past’ so much as White Australia needs to come to terms with the fact that the past has led us to the present, and the inability to acknowledge the reality that racism is anything but ‘in the past’ prevents us from ever creating a future where Australia can become the land of a ‘fair go for all’.
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