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6 in 10 white Australians claim they have never met an Indigenous person… But so what?

‘White people shouldn’t need to have an Indigenous friend to know that we have rights too,’ says Luke Pearson.

Reconciliation Australia has found that six out of 10 Australians have had little or no contact with Aboriginal people. It is often held up as a sign of how far we still have to go on our national ‘Reconciliation journey’, and in some ways I can see the relevance but I also think it’s wrong to place too much stock on this statistic.

I have met plenty of white people and plenty of them are still racist. I have also met plenty who attempt to justify their racist attitudes but claiming that they have ‘lots of Aboriginal friends’, and in my experience, there is little to no correlation between amount of racist stereotypes believed and number of Aboriginal people met. It is not as though every time you meet an Aboriginal person a stereotypical assumption magically melts away in some sort of ‘every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings’ scenario.

That said, if you want to have a deep and rich understanding of collective Indigenous experiences, cultures, philosophies, and sensibilities then it is impossible to do so without meaningful engagement and interactions with Indigenous peoples directly. You can only learn so much from theory, but I like to think that you should be able to learn enough to not have horribly inaccurate, illogical, and often contradictory assumptions and beliefs about Indigenous people whether you have ever met one of us or not.

I’d be interested in how we could even set up such a massive undertaking anyway; ensuring that every non-Indigenous Australian was able to meet an Aboriginal person. As fun and economical as it sounds, I’m not sure making meeting Aboriginal people the new Pokemon Go would achieve the desired result, or give Indigenous peoples the level of respect that should be afforded. Perhaps we could split up into teams where every Aboriginal person has to meet 20-odd white people each, as though new kids have arrived at our segregated school and we’ve been picked to show them around and help them make friends? As a mere 3 per cent of the population, trying to meet the 60 per cent of people who have never met an Aboriginal person seems like more effort than it is worth – after all, I do have a job that I need to go to, and a family I like to spend time with. I, much like Indigenous culture itself, am not on this earth purely to provide an educational and emotionally rewarding experience for others.

Also, how long does this meeting need to be for it to confidently eradicate racism? What’s the minimum time limit – 30 seconds, 5 minutes, an hour – to give a person a “meaningful interaction”? I live next door to two white people and I did the courtesy of speaking to them when I moved in. But I’m not sure if it came up in that 30 second conversation that I am Aboriginal, I’m not sure if it’s ‘cheating’ to cross them off my list and to say I met my quota for that week. In such instances, maybe little printed up cards would be helpful? “Congratulations! You just met an Aboriginal person” – that would be a real timesaver. We could even have little cookies that go with the card for people with ignorant views who don’t say something racist within the first 15 seconds.

In this game, maybe white people from the East Coast get bonus points for meeting an Aboriginal person from the Northern Territory? Or do they have them deducted for failing to meet First Nation’s people who own the lands they occupy? The rules are yet to be outlined. Are there topics of conversation that must be breached; a checklist that people can work through, or a score card by which we can judge them? Talk to someone as an individual rather than as a member of an imaginary collective (+1 point). Asking any question that starts with “So, why do you people …” (-1 point).

While the game may or may not be fun to play – depending on which side of the colonisation coin you are looking from – I’m just not entirely sure why this statistic gets so much traction? Of all the conversations I have had, reports I have read, community meetings I have attended, I have never once heard it brought up that someone would like to meet more white people because they feel that this would be a great way to achieve justice for Indigenous peoples. So, I can only conclude that this is more of a ‘white people thing’ than it is an ‘Indigenous people thing’?

But that’s not necessarily bad. Everyone in Australia lives on the lands of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples, and if you have any appreciation for that fact, it must be very weird to realise that you haven’t ever actually met an Indigenous person. So fundamentally, it’s a valid concern for white Australia, but thinking about it more broadly – what does white Australia expect that meeting to be like? What do they think they’ll get from it, and more importantly, what do they expect that the Indigenous person they meet will get from it? A favourite quote of mine is “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time, but if you are here because your liberation is bound up with mine then let us work together’. If that doesn’t resonate with you, then I’m probably not the sort of person that you will enjoy meeting. Same goes if you are not open to hearing some harsh truths spoken in direct terms.

And don’t get me wrong, I like to meet people (well, not really, but I’m not quite comfortable enough with my own anti-social tendencies to openly admit that), but I think the conversation needs to be taken outside of that statistic. The stats around Indigenous incarceration may be much harder to address than simply finding an Indigenous person to meet, but I think it is still something we should all try to address, and meeting an Indigenous person isn’t a prerequisite for helping to apply pressure to governments to put more funding into areas that can help reduce incarceration rates – improved education, housing, employment opportunities, preventative and diversionary programs, family support services – or for supporting other tangible solutions. Just as men shouldn’t need to have a daughter to finally understand that women have rights, white people shouldn’t need to have an Indigenous friend to know that we have rights too.

In short – if you haven’t met an Indigenous person before then that’s your business, but eradicating racism, and creating a just and equitable society that respects and protects the rights of Indigenous peoples, that’s everyone’s business.

This article was first published on NITV on 30 November 2016 .

 

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