The aftermath of Bill Leak’s cartoon demonising Indigenous fathers as drunks who don’t know their children’s names has seen numerous articles condemning or supporting his message. Most significantly, it inspired a significant number of Indigenous people to use their social media presence to promote positive images of Indigenous fathers via the hashtag #IndigenousDads, which trended nationally over the weekend on Twitter.
This show of strength and solidarity was heart-warming and inspiring, and served to help counter the stereotypical images that have plagued Indigenous peoples since long before Bill Leak entered (and re-entered) the fray.
It was the sort of campaign that many PR firms would have loved to have created, would have charged an arm and a leg to coordinate, and probably still would not have been as successful.
It was an important demonstration aimed at countering racist depictions and stereotypes, an essential reminder in any ‘national conversation’ that is going to take place. It sets that conversation tone and reminds us and reinforces importance of our collective strength and humanity. Most importantly, it was a conversation created and led by Indigenous people, on our terms, our images, and our time. And Australian Twitter responded, loving our faces, our love, and our collective show of humanity.
Putting face to the many loving and intact Aboriginal families and engaged and active #IndigenousDads is necessary to reject Leak’s caricature of us, equally we need to find a way to talk about some sad realities beyond the reach of the Bill Leaks of the world and beyond the reach of those who fight with or against him over the top of us.
A sad reality is that there are woefully insignificant efforts made to work with families who need support. That kids taken from families and placed in juvenile justice centres or in DOCS’ care, are often not placed in the ‘safe spaces’ that we as a society would like to imagine when we are told ‘neglect’ necessitated their removal. That these children are all too often not given opportunities for education or rehabilitation, and instead are placed on a fast track to further dysfunction that becomes almost inevitable criminalisation.
Beyond Bill Leak and all those who preceded him, efforts to humanise Indigenous people are essential to ensuring we are afforded basic human rights. Let’s pause here. Making Indigenous people appear less than human or at least not as human as others requires pretty solid legal, cultural, and language-based manoeuvring – or in other words, some pretty fancy and constant footwork. See, we need to be framed as outside of normal, we need to be understood as undeserving, needy, irresponsible, and irreparable recalcitrants who lay about, contributing nothing, and as people who don’t subscribe to everyday rhythms of humanity – loving, sharing, caring, responsible rhythms. Rhythms that are easily understood in notions of good parenting. Condemning parenting is a handy shortcut to dehumanisation and demonisation – and it’s a shortcut easily summed up in a handful of brushstrokes and a few choice words. Aboriginal parents are infantilised and made to look stupidly child-like while Aboriginal children are made to look like miniature adults and therefore not requiring love and care ‘real’ children demand.
We saw similar shortcuts in political speech (not to mention legal manoeuvring) around government refusal of immediate landing in August, 2010 for Norwegian freighter Tampa that had 433 rescued asylum seekers onboard. Depending on your point of view the so-called Tampa incident set up astounding electoral victory for John Howard’s government in November 2010. A victory fuelled in the months between August and November with claims that asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard. These claims, later proven incorrect, categorically demonisined asylum seekers as not right, not normal, not people the Australian voter should need to expend empathy on.
Persistent framing of both Indigenous people and refugees as people who not only do not care about their own children but are an active danger to them, appears to reap traffic for elements of the media and votes for sections of the government. Demonising and dehumanising are essential grist to this mill. Indigenous and refugee children are framed as victims of delinquent parents, delinquent parents who are only given agency over their own actions when it involves damaging their children. In the public imagination, these parents become sole reason for inevitable further cross-generational delinquency. In this narrative, systemic issues of widespread poverty resulting from land theft, policies of legal discrimination and social exclusion, and social discrimination all get a free pass.
It took graphic images of a child being tortured in juvenile detention to rehumanise Aboriginal children and the image put forward by Bill Leak, whether intentional or unintentional, contributed to dehumanising them again. The pendulum struck back.
Every denial of Indigenous peoples’ rights, from invasion to massacres to the Stolen Generations to the NT Intervention, has been accompanied by imagery and rhetoric that has made us out to be a threat. A threat to white people, a threat to ourselves and each other, a threat to our own children; for this to dominate public imagination the public also needs to buy the underpinning idea that we are fundamentally flawed, that our very humanity is both in question and at stake, and that we need to be protected from ourselves.
This is what I feared when I spoke in my previous articles of the inevitable removing of Indigenous people from the dialogue in favour of another round of ‘Who are the real racists?’. By removing us as having an active role in the dialogue it acts to make us both object and subject of other people’s discussion, and not active initiators or participants within the discussion. When this happens it doesn’t really matter which side of the political spectrum people are arguing from, whether those people are arguing that the demonisation is fair comment or that we need to be saved, or both, the damage is done. We are not equals asserting ourselves and engaging in a dialogue, we are a problem that white people need to solve ‘by any means necessary’ with, or more typically without, us.
As I work in the media, I initially encouraged a discussion about the role of media in either promoting or countering racism. I believe that this is an important conversation as it speaks to what we as a society are willing to accept, and I believe that increased racism within the media serves to justify increasingly punitive and short-sighted responses in Indigenous Affairs policies for the reasons I have just mentioned above.
But that conversation by default infers another that is always taking place, the conversation that moves from ideology to action: ‘What are we going to do about it?’. A common catchcry from politicians in recent years has been ‘but something had to be done! – those on the other side of the debate would rather that we simply do nothing…’ and so on in a neverending circularity that many of us simply want to stop.
If the problem solely lies with Indigenous people, as Bill Leak’s cartoon would suggest to the casual observer, then the responses it justifies are punitive ones that further disenfranchises and disempowers Aboriginal people. If the side who argue against these punitive responses similarly don’t regard Indigenous people as having our own agency then they will usually call for this not to happen but will fall short of offering an alternative response, or at least not a response consistent with the calls being made from Indigenous people. When the conversation is one that is had by the whiter sides of the left and the right then regardless of which side wins we do not see positive outcomes for Indigenous people because that is not the goal of either group. Their focus lies not in our empowerment but in being morally superior over the other side of politics.
If, however, we understand that this is a multifaceted issue compounded by ineffective institutions, racist stereotyping, superficially responsive media reporting, and by governments who consistently refuse to listen to evidence, best practice, and the voices of Indigenous people; if we understand that and also recognise the dehumanising effects of the exclusion or removal of Indigenous people as appropriate framers and participants in the conversation, then we can also encourage multifaceted conversations in all of these areas simultaneously. We can realise that this is not a zero sum game, and that all of these issues are interwoven. And most importantly we can ensure that Indigenous voices remain central to the conversation. It is our lives under the microscope, our children placed at risk, and our futures that hang in the balance.
That doesn’t mean that every Indigenous person will offer realistic solutions to the problem, but neither will every white person so that is nothing to fear. What it does mean though is that we not be able to be turned into dehumanised caricatures. People will not be able to deny us our humanity and in turn, further deny us our human rights. At least, they won’t be able to do so without looking in the very human faces of those who they would attack.
If we can do this, then we can open up the conversation beyond the scope of white people calling each other racist, and we can explore nuanced considerations of complicated issues. And don’t worry, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel for this to happen. There have always been Indigenous people more than willing and more than capable of having these conversations and providing this nuance. What has been lacking is ample opportunities for them to engage in the national dialogue.
We can have conversations about what happens when children are removed from their families and communities, and strive to ensure that every effort has been made to ensure this only ever happens as a last resort. A little like the RCIADIC recommended sentencing as a last resort. We can understand that the responses to this are not only related to parental responsibility, but to the quality of education, employment opportunities, housing services, healthcare, and government policy. We can strive to ensure that these responses are consistent with national standards and expectations and with our obligations under domestic and international law. Most importantly we can understand that any institutional response that achieves woefully poor outcomes in achieving the goal of rehabilitation is one that is in serious need of restructuring.
We can also have conversations about home conditions of children and families and explore ways in which we can support families to ensure that, wherever possible, children are able to remain at home with their families. In far too many instances it would achieve much better outcomes, and would be infinitely more cost effective, to provide basic family support services than removing children would. In those instances where this is not possible it would lead us back to the previous conversation about basic assurances that children were removed as a last resort, and that the places they will be sent will be safer places that will provide for their basic needs and respect their basic human rights.
These conversations would inevitably lead us to question why governments place far greater resources into child removal than they do into family support. It would inspire us to listen to those people who work within these systems, and those families who are affected by them, in an effort to improve the conditions experienced by children, by families, and by staff who very often do not endorse the government policies that they are forced to enact.
Demonising Indigenous people and ridiculing them within the media does not encourage these conversations. It never has and it never will. What that does instead is set a tone for superficial and punitive responses that are based on the assumption that Aboriginal parents are an inherent danger to Aboriginal children. Once that is asserted as the starting point for the conversation, any number of horrific and inhumane responses become justified and reinforced by feelings that at least ‘something is being done’ because clearly they can’t do anything themselves. This is what has led us to the current situations we now face.
If, instead, the conversation is one that acknowledges that this is not a zero sum game. If we are mature enough to understand that the conversation is much more complicated than ‘Who do we blame?’, then we can discuss the correlation between history and present. We can recognise that the research and reports that are consistently ignored by governments further compound the issues faced by Indigenous people and communities. We can respect the efforts being made by Indigenous people, organisations, and any number of professionals and public servants to achieve the best possible outcomes in the face of flawed government policies and inadequate funding. AND we can also recognise that there are children and families in need of support. We can appreciate that there will be times when there is simply no other option but to remove children from their families, and we can demand assurances that when this is done there was every effort made to support these families. We can demand assurances that the places these children are taken to will not end up doing just as much, or worse, damage to them than the reasons why they were removed in the first place.
If we can get to that point, then perhaps we can also recognise the very real impacts of intergenerational trauma. We can understand that the government, and our society at large has no small amount of culpability in the conditions that too many Indigenous people face every day, and not just because of ‘what happened 200 years ago’. The NT Intervention wasn’t 200 years ago, and neither were the abuses at Don Dale. The last Royal Commission that the government ignored wasn’t 200 years ago, and neither was the last time government pulled funding from frontline services. The racist attempts to demonise and dehumanise Aboriginal lives didn’t stop 200 years ago. The efforts made by Aboriginal people to assert our humanity and our rights didn’t stop 200 years ago either.
These are all very real issues that all have a very real impact on the likelihood that we will ever find satisfactory responses to these difficult conversations and realities.
If we want humane responses in Indigenous Affairs then we need to view Indigenous people with humanity. We also need to understand that is not an outcome in and of itself, it merely creates the necessary conditions for us to identify exactly what those responses should be and ensure that they are not only consistent with basic human rights but are also targeted to achieve meaningful outcomes. If we fail to do this then all the reports, Royal Commissions, and rallies in the world won’t get us any closer to actually implementing their recommendations. It won’t get us any closer to understanding humanising Indigenous people cannot be done without centring Indigenous voices within the conversation.
This will not only help us to ‘close the gap’ (or whatever tag line is your personal favourite), it will help the rest of Australia finally come to terms with its own history and allow them to finally play a positive role of finding solutions for problems they have long sought to ‘fix’ while simultaneously denying any responsibility for helping to create.
‘If you have come to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together’.
Recognise our humanity. Do not seek to remove us from this conversation.
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