Burning anger

The lie is that this country has a mature discourse, that the national conversation could be scandalised by an excess of rhetoric.

It’s a lie of condescension, a lie that lets Jeff Kennett tell a young Indigenous activist to “buy a one-way plane ticket”. It’s a lie that lets him say “those who use inappropriate language against the country they choose to live in, use language like that because they don’t have the intellectual capacity to argue their case”.

It’s the discourse that lets a News Corp columnist look at a hashtag such as #IStandWithTarneen and headline their corresponding piece “#InTheQueueAtMcDonald’s”. It’s the discourse that captions the photograph in another piece, “Tarneen wants Australia to burn, but probably not all the pie shops”.

Tarneen Onus-Williams was speaking at an Invasion Day rally when she found the words that offended Jeff Kennett. Those words have nothing to do with intellectual capacity: they are about anger.

“Fuck Australia. Hope it burns to the ground,” Onus-Williams said.

“If you celebrate Australia Day, fucker, you’re celebrating the death of my ancestors. All you fellas with the Australian flag should be so embarrassed with yourself. It’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing that you celebrate people’s deaths, the people of this land’s death. You make me sick to my stomach.”

Onus-Williams is a Yigar Gunditjmara and Bindal woman. She is a member of the Koorie Youth Council and an early participant in Victorian treaty talks. Predictably, there has been a call for her to be sacked. She has been mocked and belittled.

Her anger has been used to discredit her. As the academic Chelsea Bond wrote this week: “Black women are not allowed to be angry, yet at the same time, we can never be cast as anything but the ‘angry black woman’.”

The response to Onus-Williams pretends that her critique of structural oppression would have been more effective if she hadn’t said “fuck”. It pretends that Australia would be in the process of calmly remaking itself if she hadn’t first suggested it be burnt to the ground.

This is another lie, a useful one. It’s a lie the conservative press have spent all week telling, instead of dealing with the truth of Onus-Williams’s anger. It’s a lie that keeps people quiet.

“It’s been an emotional day and it was a strong statement, but I am not going to apologise for it,” Onus-Williams said after making her speech.

“It was a metaphor, not actually a statement to be taken literally. I just want everything, all the governments, to fall apart, because our people are dying and nobody cares and the whole system needs to change. The leaders of this country continue to ignore and oppress us. I am sick of our people getting locked up and dying in custody, of our young people suiciding.

“I don’t have all the answers of what is going to liberate us. I just know the current system isn’t working. Since colonisation nothing has worked for blackfellas on this land.”

All of that is true. Regrettably, we have a brittle and self-important discourse in this country, intent on keeping it that way.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 3, 2018 as "Burning anger".

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