Australia: just call it for what it is

24 Jan 2017

The judicial system in Australia targets Indigenous people more than any other group. Indigenous people are racially profiled, are killed in custody and are more likely to receive custodial sentences than their non-Indigenous counterparts. In fact, Indigenous people in Australia have higher incarceration rates than during apartheid South Africa. We continue to gaol Indigenous people for non-payment of parking fines as a result of mandatory sentencing that was instituted to target this very group of people within society.

Bald man with racist icons tattooed on his head

Image: Clashes between racist and anti-racist groups have been on the rise in recent years. Picture: SlackBastard

Australia is a racist country. It is not in clusters, it is not confined to the rural areas of the nation, and it is not a way of thinking reserved for the older generations. Racism affects the old and the young. It thrives in the ignorant, it is contagious among the weak-willed who would rather go with the flow of community sentiment than go against the flow and seek to be educated on the issues.

Despite denials that come thick and fast every time racism is called out, United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, Mutuma Ruteere, spoke candidly at the conclusion of his recent tour about Australia’s problem with racism, stating that Australia and its political leaders need to condemn the racism of their peers.

Mr Ruteere visited Alice Springs, Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra meeting with not only politicians and members of international and United Nations entities, but with community groups and Indigenous organisations to understand what issues remain in Australia.

Mr Ruteere was briefed on the current worsening rates of child removal, detention of children and incarceration of adults and educational outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

In a press release at Canberra, he said:

“I have also been made aware of the challenges of continuing racial discrimination faced by indigenous people as well as other groups in Australia. I am aware that indigenous people continue to be incarcerated at a disproportionate rate. I am particularly concerned about the incarceration of juveniles from the indigenous communities and their treatment by the criminal justice system.”

Mutuma Ruteere, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism at a press conference of the 32nd session of the Human Right Council. 28 June 2016. UN Photo / Jean-Marc FerrŽ

Image: Mutuma Ruteere, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism. Picture: UN Photo / Jean-Marc FerrŽ

Indigenous community groups that were engaged in discussion in Sydney, including National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, informed Mr Ruteere about the unique racism directed at Indigenous Australians and how disjointed government policies have lead to a worsening of outcomes for Indigenous Australians in health, education and justice.

Mr Ruteere was made aware of the Royal Commission into the detention of youths in the Northern Territory following the harrowing abuse visited upon Dylan Voller and other Indigenous youths at Don Dale Detention Centre, first reported in Koori Mail in September 2015.

Mr Ruteere was supportive of the Royal Commission into Indigenous youth detention given the concerning events, particularly in the Northern Territory, and interested in the “Closing the Gap” program as it does set targets however, he expressed concern that the trend was actually worsening in key areas and there were no justice targets set which is a critical element of Indigenous disadvantage. Mr Ruteere considered the policing to be a critical element in overhauling the justice system and how it is administered upon Indigenous people, he says “The current policing of Indigenous communities is too punitive and need an urgent change as its consequences can only lead to even further devastation of these communities.”

Mr Ruteere criticised the lack of policy aimed at addressing economic progress in remote communities, “I have been informed that Indigenous Australians are three times more likely to be unemployed than non-indigenous. Although I have been made aware of numerous initiatives, both at the federal, State and Territorial levels to reverse the situation, such as Indigenous Engagement Networks, Indigenous Business Australia and Indigenous procurement from Government agencies, to name a few, the fact remains that in remote areas employment is rare and Indigenous communities remain peripheral to the economic life and with limited benefits from economic progress and prosperity.”

Extremely racist poster

Image: A racist poster plastered around University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus in early December 2016

Why would a visiting United Nations Special Rapporteur conclude that Australia has a problem with racism? Because Australia is racist.

We have athletes who celebrate on-field success with a celebratory dance. The dance was an Aboriginal dance and the game was during the Indigenous round so, you know, the time for showcasing your culture would be then right? Wrong.

What was an appropriate cultural celebration of success on the field for a proud Indigenous man became offensive for those who like people to express their culture in a manner deemed appropriate by the dominant white discourse. (read: never)

But this is one moment of many experienced by a man who is both proud and free-thinking; who is strong and responsible; who continues to speak the truth despite the numerous barbs he receives week in and week out.

The fact is, when black people come out of the box that white people so love to place them in, it creates cultural dissonance.

Why? Australia is racist.

In truth – it goes beyond racism and is, more accurately, white hegemony. Think about it. Australia is a ‘democratic’ society that makes laws on behalf of its people. The dominant people are white and thus the decisions made by the executive and laws made by the legislature are made to benefit the dominant presence in society (read: white).

Indigenous people make up 3 percent of the population and, accordingly, are subject to laws made for and on behalf of them but they are not afforded the benefit of consultation or any representative positions in which to represent their minority presence in Australian society.

The judiciary? Where to start…..

The judicial system in Australia targets Indigenous people more than any other group. Indigenous people are racially profiled, are killed in custody and are more likely to receive custodial sentences than their non-Indigenous counterparts. In fact, Indigenous people in Australia have higher incarceration rates than during apartheid South Africa. We continue to gaol Indigenous people for non-payment of parking fines as a result of mandatory sentencing that was instituted to target this very group of people within society.

Indigenous people are urged by the media, by government, by all who are outraged by our displays of culture to shut up, sit down and stay in our boxes. I am not immune to this, I have received many emails, tweets and messages that question my identity and then use my identity to silence me, calling me expletives prefaced with “black.”

The common theme is the expectation that Indigenous people who do speak out should do so in a way that does not induce guilt, highlight privilege or assign responsibility. I am not responsible for how my anger and facts are received, I am responsible for speaking the truth and standing up for my family and broader Indigenous community.

The racism is evident in the founding document of this nation where the Indigenous people were sub-human and classified as flora and fauna, in the actions of invaders, in the genocidal policies of the early governments and in all social and economic policy implemented since. When it became difficult to kill the Indigenous inhabitants, the strategy changed to that of breeding out and stealing the children to assimilate to the dominant discourse of “white is right.”

I have experienced racism my whole life and despite my rich cultural heritage of which I am abundantly proud, each and every time I experience racism it hurts. It hurts not only because my identity is being attacked or belittled, but also because my ancestors are being attacked and belittled.

I have heard varying remarks of the same theme “but you look white,” “you wrote this? I thought you said you’re Aboriginal,” “don’t worry, nobody will be able to tell” and the list goes on. I have been introduced at parties as “this is Nat, she’s Abo” and been told I am “one of the good ones” and asked “what percentage of Aboriginal are you?” The trouble is, the people asking the questions and making the comments were so ignorant that my hurt was not apparent to them, and on the occasions I could get over the hurt and say something, I was not met with apologies and understanding, I was met with “you’re too sensitive” and “it wasn’t directed at you personally, so what’s your problem?”

When Indigenous people speak up against the atrocities of the past they are told “get over it, it’s in the past” and when Indigenous people speak out against contemporary issues affecting Indigenous people, they are told to “help themselves.” Ask any Indigenous person and they will have plenty of stories that demonstrate that Australia is racist, always has been and continues to be. Read mainstream media and the narrative differs greatly with images blasted of itinerant Aboriginal people amidst images of discarded alcohol bottles and petrol stations.

The purpose? To maintain the status quo: oppression of Indigenous people and denial of wrongdoing by the white saviours.

Australia is very comfortable in its racism. We elect and celebrate politicians who spout dangerously divisive rhetoric that directly benefits the big corporates that are financially backing their run for office, and the media propagates the vitriol on behalf of the politicians they are supposed to keep honest with objective reporting. In Australia, this is called democracy.

Australia is a racist country that is very uncomfortable with the fact that this is a country borne of blood and murder; the theft of land and the attempted genocide of the sovereign people of this land and all of the descendants of the invaders shield their eyes and ears with chants of “not my fault, I didn’t hurt anyone, I was born here.”

The fact remains – all non-indigenous people who are here now – benefit from the theft of the land of over 200 nations of sovereign people and the 228 years of massacres, murders, slavery, rape, genocidal and oppressive policies. The failure to call out not just overt racist comments, but oppressive institutions, white privilege or prejudicial application of supposedly impartial measures is racism. To call it anything else is just playing politics.

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