CONTENT WARNING: Racism, Police Brutality, COVID-19, The Stolen Generations
All 50 American states have taken part in nation-wide protests expressing their outrage over the murder of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by the police. His last words as he was choked to death by a police officer, ‘I can’t breathe’, reverberated among protests across the nation and formed the basis of their movement against anti-blackness. Although many American cities are still under lockdown, the sheer scale of the demonstrations highlights the urgency of the issue. It suggests that the antiracist movement is different.
As the long-standing struggle for racial equality in the United States is laid bare for the world to witness, it also seems like the right time to look at racial inequality and discrimination here in Australia, too. While I’ve seen posts on social media expressing outrage against racism in the United States, many people are still unaware of its existence here. Racism is an endemic problem in Australia. Frustrations surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have been expressed through attacks directed towards Asian-Australians. The end of May marks the beginning of National Reconciliation Week, which recognises the Indigenous Australians who have inhabited Australia for thousands of years. It also serves as a movement to build a fairer and more just society for a historically marginalised community where its people are underrepresented in our parliament and overrepresented in our prisons, have significantly lower levels of access to education and healthcare, and lead a substantially lower standard of living than the rest of the Australian population.
Indigenous Australians have inhabited this land for more than 40,000 years, long before Western settlers colonised the land that we live on today. Since the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay in 1788, Indigenous Australians have been treated as second-class citizens. From 1910 to 1970, government agencies forcibly removed traditional custodians from their lands and Indigenous children from their families. This is what became known as the Stolen Generations. It is one of many examples of mistreatment Indigenous people have endured, and something that they continue to face today. Yet, many Australians are unaware of the challenges faced by Indigenous Australians who are treated as outcasts in their own land.
Despite the difficulties of being an Indigenous person in Australia, numerous individuals deserve our attention and acknowledgement for their work in their respective disciplines. Among them are Eddie Mabo, a Torres Strait Islander man who campaigned for Indigenous land rights in the landmark Mabo case, and Evonne Goolagong Cawley, a multiple Grand-Slam tennis champion. This is a small list, but it highlights their value to Australian society and necessitates the provision of greater opportunities for these communities.
What can we do here?
It’s easy to feel helpless when we face a seemingly monumental problem like this. But we can all do our part. If there is one thing that we can take comfort in, it’s that racism is not an innate quality intertwined with human nature. It is learnt. Among the numerous posts expressing the anger and outrage over the murder of George Floyd, there are posts depicting children of different races embracing each other as friends as well as white and black protestors walking together in defiance. This means racism can be unlearnt. We can stamp it out. But it requires all of us to act.
It also requires us to remember that racism will probably linger even as the protests in the United States subside, the pandemic eventually comes to an end and National Reconciliation Week passes. Because even if racism is a result of socialisation, it is still deeply ingrained in society. So, it isn’t enough to simply express outrage or share posts on social media while everyone is doing it too. If we return to how things were, these movements simply become acts of virtue signalling where no real progress is being made. To truly instigate change requires us to muster the courage to call out racism wherever we see or hear it – whether it’s overt or seemingly innocent, at home, at work, with friends or anywhere else. It requires us to actively educate ourselves about the plight that Indigenous Australians have faced in the past and continue to face every day, and provide support in any way we can, such as through donations, signing petitions and learning about Indigenous history and culture. It requires us to hold governments accountable when they are interested in advancing the economy at the expense of preserving the cultures of ethnic groups. It requires us to act, even when racism is no longer at the forefront of the national psyche.
To any people of colour who may be reading this, I encourage you not to feel compelled to change to fit in. While many people of colour face racism from other communities, internalised racism is still a significant, yet underreported, issue where ideal stereotypes that are perpetuated by people of colour lead to non-white cultural standards being viewed as inferior. But there is nothing inferior about being a person of colour. We all have unique experiences which deserve to be celebrated, not hidden from obscurity. I encourage you not to be afraid to be different. Don’t be scared to speak your native language, eat food from your cuisine or celebrate your festivals. I, for instance, shouldn’t need to accommodate other’s inability to pronounce my name just because it isn’t normal by Western standards. Embrace your unique identity and tell your story.
We all have a collective responsibility, no matter what race we belong to, to do our part in tackling injustice everywhere. Even though we have made progress through programs like the National Reconciliation Week and National Sorry Day, it won’t be enough until we achieve a society built on equity and mutual respect for all people. Life for all of us is difficult as it is and we shouldn’t need to tolerate bigotry and discrimination, no matter how innocent it may seem, on top of everything else that is going on.
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