Racism: the disease we dare not mention

We are dealing with two pathogens in 2020. Coronavirus is the easy part.

There are no Aboriginal people in Tasmania, I was told as a child; the last of them, Truganini, died long ago. For years the Tasmanian Museum displayed her skeleton before putting it into storage.

Children were not encouraged to debate this. We were led to see it as a simple law of nature. The strong had overcome the weak, and in the order of things the weak were forgotten. That is more or less how indigenous Tasmanians were regarded by those who displaced them.

I lapped up the narrative fed to all Tasmanian schoolchildren, that we lived in a pristine southern island blessed with the arrival of British civilisation, which had superseded whatever was there before. Simple, neat, progressive – and false.

As I grew up, the narrative steadily unravelled. Niggling stories kept surfacing about “half-castes” – Cape Barren Islanders and others sprinkled through the Tasmanian community. People who weren’t quite like the rest of us. Who were these people? Where did they come from?

All the history I learned at school began with the first European contact, never mentioning those who were here already. If Europeans had a history, why didn’t those first peoples? What happened in this country before those soldiers and convicts landed at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788?

These are big questions. They ought to have informed the Bicentenary of 1988, when huge amounts of public money were spent to mark 200 years since that fateful landing, but they didn’t. Such questions might have spoiled the party, “the celebration of a nation”, as the publicity blurb put it.

As a public servant in the lead-up to that anniversary, I was called on to write a film script explaining why the Sydney Cove landing was significant to Australians. I could think of nothing better than “this invasion that transformed a continent”.

The dispute over our national day remains unresolved, as do so many aspects of relations with indigenous people: high imprisonment rates; mistreatment by police, custody officers and other officials; and more subtle forms of discrimination like racial taunts and refusal of service.

When George Floyd died under a policeman’s knee two months ago, indigenous people and ethnic minorities around the world turned out in their thousands to turn the Black Lives Matter movement into their own personal response to endemic racism.

It is no accident that the response was especially strong in Australia. Racism here springs from the same colonial source. In both our histories, invading Europeans killed indigenous people and treated any survivors as if they did not exist.

Australia even had its own form of slavery. European settlers used Aboriginal communities whose land they had commandeered as a labour resource, jailing those who resisted. In Queensland they kidnapped Pacific islanders to bring them to work in their plantations.

First Nations people had effectively occupied and managed this land more than ten times longer than the age of Egypt’s pyramids when the British came to claim it. Over that time, historical and archaeological records show, they had built a depth of skill and knowledge about their country which would have served us well then and now, as the landscape turns against us.

To the newcomers, enjoying overwhelming physical superiority, this prior occupation was of no consequence. There was killing, but far more insidious and enduring was the passive racism – the turning away, the denial of resources, the refusal to acknowledge or to take responsibility. It endures still, and it costs this nation dearly.

“A fire that we hope burns bright for Australia” was how Aboriginal leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu characterised the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, by which indigenous Australians sought a constitutional guarantee that their voices would be heard by our nation’s decision-makers.

The Law Society of Australia wants the Uluru Statement incorporated into the Constitution. Its president, Pauline Wright, sees it as the culmination of “one of the most comprehensive consultations ever conducted with Indigenous Australians”.

Yet five months after the statement was adopted the federal government declared that it undermines parliament’s authority. Citing no legal authority, it continues to reject it out of hand.

Our collective sins are sins of omission: not what we have done, but what we have failed to do, and they are no less damaging than overt racism. Chronic mistreatment and discrimination are driving smouldering resentment. In ignoring it, our nation is diminished.

In 2020 we are dealing with two pathogens. In time the coronavirus will be quelled and we will be over it. Recovery from the disease of racism, fed by prejudice and ignorance, is not so certain.

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