Silencing victims compounds the violence of racism

11 Feb 2021

Tony Birch offers us a personal reflection on the violence of racism and how this is compounded through a culture of erasure and silencing.

Many years ago, while working at a university in Melbourne, I became close friends with a woman who had recently migrated to Australia from South Africa. She was a black woman who had grown up under the violence of apartheid. She had experienced racism in forms, from the physical to the deeply psychological. One day, over lunch, she confided in me that she had been experiencing racism from her colleagues at the university. She asked my advice and subsequently reported the incidents to her immediate manager.

My friend’s complaints were dismissed out of hand. It was explained to her that she must have misread what had been said to her, and that she was perhaps being overemotional. My friend persisted, taking the complaint to a higher authority within the university. Not only did she receive no support about the complaint. It was additionally suggested that she was quite possibly suffering from a mental illness. When this claim was put to her at an open staff meeting, my friend became frustrated and angry. By her own account, she screamed her disgust at her colleagues. Afterwards, she said to me, ‘I wasn’t mad at all, until they sent me mad.’ She wasn’t mad at all. She was rightfully expressing her anger at racist abuse and the repeated attempts to silence her.

My dear friend, Heritier Lumumba, had a similar experience when he reported repeated incidents of racism at the Collingwood Football Club during his playing career. Not only were his complaints dismissed, similarly to my friend’s experience, Heritier was ‘diagnosed’ as suffering from a mental illness from some within the club. When racism is reported by people of colour, it is often ridiculed by the weaponising of additional negative stereotypes that seek to not only deny the accusations, but to also silence the victim.

Over many months – some of them in lockdown – while sitting at home in Melbourne and speaking with Heritier in Los Angeles, and another good friend, Aamer Rahman in Istanbul, and Professor Gary Foley, also in Melbourne, I have been repeatedly struck by Heritier’s sense of dignity, calmness and sharp intellect. At times I have also felt concern for him, knowing that what he experienced during his playing career in the AFL has taken a toll on him. I would have not been surprised if the refusal to address the injustices he has suffered sent him mad, even momentarily.

But this has not occurred. He has remained quietly determined, in order to ensure that the truth-telling journey he embarked on some years ago continues until justice is realised and that truth defeats lies and denial. It is a journey he has taken in order to legitimate the stories and life histories of his family, and of his ancestors to whom he feels both indebted to, and responsible for. It is a journey that for Heritier, requires him to stand with other players of colour, mostly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players, who have also experienced racism on and off the sporting field in Australia. It is a journey he has taken as a partner, father and loyal friend.

At some stage in the future change will come to the Collingwood Football Club. It may be in the form of committees and advisory groups, and the creation of ‘culturally safe spaces’ but it must be more than the ‘resignation’ of the figure head. Sure, systemic issues often come from the top but they are also something embedded and one resignation does not mean that the work is complete. We hope that it will be change of real substance. But for Heritier and others who live with the trauma of racism, the damage done to their bodies, their hearts and minds, will remain. In fact, it is the bodies of the victims of racism that become the repositories of violence. While the organisations and individuals that perpetrate racism ‘look to the future’ and ‘move on’, the traumatised are perversely left to hold and re-remember the crimes of others.

This is particularly so when the crimes of others get to be re-framed as we have seen this week upon McGuire’s resignation. During the press conference and mainstream media ‘dissection’ of the issue, once again, the perpetrator gets to present themselves as a victim of circumstance instead of someone that is living the consequences of their own behaviour.

Heritier Lumumba will survive the violence he had been subject to. He is a strong-willed person. His true friends will walk beside him always, and his family will nurture his heart and spirit. And yet, at some time in the future, when the rest of us are enjoying a football match at the MCG, in 2021 and beyond, he will remain the conscience of a deeply flawed society. Please imagine the injustice, the burden of this legacy. And please let us consider a future where it is the perpetrators of racism, who should not only be held accountable for racism, but be forced to own their own stories of injustice, stories of their making.

The Aboriginal filmmaker, Ivan Sen, has dealt with the burden of colonial memory and violence in two of his films, Dust (1999) and Beneath Clouds (2002). In both films, an Aboriginal Elder, a woman, is required to remember the violent crimes of the coloniser in the face of silence and selective amnesia. The anguish on the faces of the women represents the weight of the responsibility they carry, for both Aboriginal people and the wider white nation that would prefer to forget and instead enjoy a game of sport.

Heritier Lumumba suffered racism on Aboriginal land, on Aboriginal country. Acts of racism desecrate country, harming our connection to land and our role as protectors. It is not surprising, therefore, that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have expressed support for Heritier. Our people can testify to countless experiences of racism, often of a similar nature to his experience. Indigenous people across Australia have gratefully accepted the responsibility of fighting for justice for our brother, Heritier.

The struggle with, and support for this man is also an act of sovereign power and responsibility. Sovereignty cannot be granted by the colonial state. Nor is it legislated (or not) in the courts or the parliament. Sovereignty is an expression of authority in the face of colonial occupation. Sovereignty predates Invasion. It exists and is expressed with no need to seek a Voice. Sovereignty is an act of compassion, justice and solidarity. And on this occasion it is a call to arms – We Stand With Heritier Lumumba.

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