In writing this article I first have to acknowledge my own whiteness. Like every other migrant or descendent of migrants in Australia, I am the beneficiary of disposition and genocide. Whilst I think my activism against racism is a good thing, it doesn’t change the fact that I am a beneficiary of it, and equal in that way to someone who just migrated from South Sudan, or the most bigoted One Nation Voter. We are equal in our citizenship of a Country built on theft. Every migrant is a whitefella in this conversation.
We should also never allow the excuse that “others are worse” to stand. The founders of the Apartheid regime in South Africa credited Australia with the idea. When the United States was in the grip of the Civil Rights movement, Australia still did not recognise our Frist Nations people as people. Martin Luthor King Jnr said, “I have a dream” three years before the 1966 referendum that recognised the humanity of our First Nations people. The US Constitution of 1788 recognised African American slaves as three fifths of a person. As late as 1966, the Australian Constitution treated First Nations Australians as zero. It would be fair to say that in 1966, Australia was 178 years and three fifths more racist than America.
We need to be honest with ourselves and admit that we are still a very long way behind. Australia’s First Nations people remain the most incarcerated race on earth. Hundreds and hundreds of deaths in custody continue, seemingly without end or consequence. We keep taking children from their families at a rate that will probably be remembered as the second stolen generation. The COVID-19 advice was that healthy people over 70 should self-isolate, people with a comorbidity over 60 should self-isolate, and Aboriginal people over 50. That statement says that being Black in Australia is worse for your health than having cancer. It is not racist because it was said (and nobody seemed to notice), it is racist because it is true.
So what should we do? First, do what we are asked. The Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for a voice to Parliament. Let’s do it. Let’s also do everything else we’re asked. That’s the first and most important step.
But if we stop there, we are doing ourselves a disservice. There is an attitude that says whitefellas should only do what we are asked, and demands the victim do all the work figuring out how to achieve reconciliation. Reconciliation isn’t the responsibility of blackfellas, it is the responsibility of whitefellas. We are the ones who did the wrong, we are the ones who continue to do the wrong and we are the ones who continue to benefit from the wrong. Aboriginal Australians owe us nothing. If they are so generous as to provide us their advice, we should be thankful and embrace it. Not demand more. An approach that says whitefellas should only seek reconciliation in ways that have been perfectly consulted among the hundreds of First Nations, and that we will only act if they have a unanimous position is not supporting autonomy, it is wilfully delaying action. In effect, it protects and defends existing structural racism as effectively as all-white juries defended racism in the Jim Crow era of the American South.
So, let’s do more. Let’s keep doing more until we can’t think of any more ideas, then let’s think of more ideas and do them as well. Accidentally reducing racism by too much or overcompensating the First Nations people for disposition and genocide is something we should be comfortable with.
So here are some extra ideas:
- We should recognise that the idea of “Australian Wilderness” as genocidal. As Bruce Pascoe and Bill Gammage have taught us, Australia was not only occupied when white settlers arrived, but the land was actively managed. That which is uninhabited wilderness today is uninhabited because our settler society murdered and dislocated everyone who lived there. It is not Terra Nullius, but an abandoned and overgrown farm.
- All land transaction, titles and leases should recognise First Nations owners. It is not as good as paying the rent, but ensuring all those receiving stolen property have to acknowledge that they are doing so would serve the truth. Reconciliation is impossible without truth.
- Recognise the Frontier Wars. Australia’s War memorials are at their best when they are not monuments that celebrate nationalism, but places of mourning for the stupidity of war, and the suffering of those on both sides. That a memorial to the Turks at Gallipoli stands beside the Australian War Memorial in Canberra is right and proper. That the warriors the Frontier Wars is missing is a disgrace. Every war memorial should include the first war. It’s not changing history, it’s removing a racist blank.
- Return the National Parks and Forests to Sovereign First Nations. As the most recent bushfires have shown, White Australia have no idea how to manage them. We do not tend the garden, and it periodically catches fire and tries to kill us. And in returning it, we should return it, not symbolically, but with full Sovereignty. Returning lands, but then saying they can only be used in the way Whitefellas say is a mockery. Sovereignty means they can decide to build, mine, explore, close, open, or use that land however they wish, and we don’t get a say. Even if they make choices that we disagree with, or are wrong. In the case that we also wish to use that land, maybe for tourism, maybe for a water catchment, we should have to pay the price they set.
- Tear down our own statues. White Australia memorialises many genocidal maniacs as heros. Whilst we continue to do so, we are communicating by our actions that we are not genuine about seeking reconciliation. Macquarie Place Sydney and Batman Avenue Melbourne and the Suburb of Downer in Canberra are just three good examples. The streets of Warsaw and Tel Aviv are not named after concentration camp guards. In some instances a case may be made that a certain statue, place or thing should retain its name and have interpretative materials added, but that should be the exception, not the rule.
Daniel Gerrard is Secretary of ACT Fabians, and is a Labor Strategist who has previous worked across Victoria, Western Australia, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory.