Late last century the Australian Prime Minister said, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body”. I thought that that was a very confident statement for a person to make, especially one slightly older than I and brought up and schooled in Australia. For me, something that I think Dorothy McRae-McMahon said made much more sense. She said that, as a person brought up during the 1930s and 1940s, it was inevitable that her attitudes and reactions would be affected by her upbringing in what was a very racist community. She would be trying very hard to not be racist but, given her background and culture, that had its difficulties.
I felt similarly. Having read much about racism from UN studies in the late 1950s and 1960s I had an intellectual revulsion to racism, but the time and nature of my upbringing made responding always in a non-racist way problematic. The empathy required to walk in the shoes of those who suffer racist taunts and responses is very challenging. It is easy to react vigorously to the blatant racism of a Sam Newman, but much more difficult to realise the inherent racism built into much of society’s norms. In the end result it’s not for any of us to say we are not racist; it’s those who suffer racism to say whether we are or not.
Over the past few months, as the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement has grown and impacted our lives, this problem has become more evident. A friend responded to the movement saying, “Black lives matter – all lives matter”. That comment reminded me of George Orwell’s statement – “All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others”. Australia’s Indigenous people could well paraphrase Orwell’s statement in this context – “All lives are equal, but some lives are more equal than others”. As we look at the figures of imprisonment of Indigenous people, at the death rates in custody”, etc, etc, their experience of life in Australia is racist. Some lives are more equal than others and it’s their lives that clearly are not equal. Australian society is inherently racist.
Stan Grant wrote earlier this year, “Indigenous rights challenge the Australian identity as egalitarian, multicultural, and tolerant: the fair go does not mean a better go”. In social justice terms we need to find ways to recognise and remove that racism and, for our Indigenous brothers and sisters, help our society to recognise the proper place of the First Peoples of this land, entitled to a special place in the Australian community. As Stan Grant wrote – “we may first have to lift some of the blindfolds of our liberalism” and see our past for what it is, in order to build a truly non-racial society for the future.
Bill – with assistance and advice from Glen
- Howard, John, Interview with Ray Martin (PM Transcripts – 15/08/1998, Transcript ID 10666).
- Grant, Stan, “Three years on from Uluru, we must lift the blindfolds of liberalism to make progress, Conversation, May 25, 2020.