Maxine Beneba Clarke
Our unnamed racism holds us back

Last month, after images of Aboriginal children in Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory being verbally abused, shackled, stripped naked, tear-gassed and held in extended isolation were broadcast across Australia, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a royal commission. Facing the media, Turnbull used words such as “shocked” and “appalled”. The deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, insisted: “This is not Australia. It’s not how it works.”

All the while, the very monster that created the historical and immediate circumstances permitting the Don Dale atrocities – and the years of wilful ignorance around them – remained unmentioned. Australia has a serious problem with casual, overt and institutionalised racism. Australia’s racism problem is a wound so deep, so festering and septic in our national psyche that it has infected our laws, our media, our educational institutions, our sports clubs, our football fields, our playgrounds, our justice systems, our cultural life and our political leadership.

Australia has had a racism problem since 1770, when Captain James Cook set foot on the land of the Eora people, declared that it belonged to no one, and claimed it for the British Crown. Australia had a racism problem in 1861 when Anglo-Australian miners rallied in goldfields across New South Wales under a “NO CHINESE” flag, brutally beating Chinese miners and looting their possessions. Australia had a racism problem in 1901, when the Immigration Restriction Act put in place the White Australia Policy. Australia had a racism problem in 1948, when Queensland’s Aboriginal Protection ... Act (1897) provided the blueprint for South Africa’s racial segregation laws. Australia’s racism problem is so severe that we effectively exported apartheid to South Africa.

This problem is not just historical. We had a racism problem in 1996, when newly elected MP Pauline Hanson proclaimed we were in danger of being swamped by Asians. We had a racism problem in 2005, when hundreds of Anglo-Australian youths draped themselves in Australian flags and commenced a race riot in Cronulla. It was there in 2009, when a succession of Indian students were brutally attacked across Melbourne; in 2007, when our federal government suspended the Racial Discrimination Act to send army troops into the Northern Territory to regulate the lives of Aboriginal people.

Racism is what allowed grown men to believe they could torture, gas, manhandle and humiliate Aboriginal children in Don Dale deliberately and without consequence. Racism is the reason action wasn’t taken to investigate and remedy the situation when these issues were brought to light, in the numerous reports we now know about. Racism, no doubt, played a part in landing these children in detention in the first place. Racism has always facilitated the murder and premature deaths of Aboriginal people, and the removal of Aboriginal children from their homes. Racism still facilitates these things today.

There will be no watershed moment in Australian race relations until we can bear to turn inward; until we come together to name the darkness that lurks deep within. Upon white arrival, Australia chose racism. And every day, through our country’s deafening collective silence – our sidestepping, avoidance, denial, whitesplaining and victim-blaming – we choose it again. Racism is our national disgrace. As a nation, we have come to accept the general silence of the political class on this issue.

The disturbing mirror-maze of Australia’s mainstream media, public personalities, elected representatives and figureheads is a hall of horrors of our own making. Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, founding chairman of the mental health organisation beyondblue, which has in recent years been running a campaign to raise awareness of the mental health impact of racial discrimination against Aboriginal people, is the proud owner of more than 50 golliwog dolls. Though golliwogs have been universally condemned by people of colour as offensive, distressing black-face relics from minstrel times past, Kennett continues to publicly champion them in the national press: laughing, posing with them, declaring them harmless.

In the days after the serious abuse at the Don Dale detention centre came to national attention, The Australian’s Bill Leak published yet another cartoon that perpetuated a racist stereotype. This time Leak denigrated Aboriginal men, and attempted to put the blame for the incarceration and mistreatment of Aboriginal children onto their parents and communities. Leak defended his cartoon against criticism, speaking indignantly of accusations of racism, as if his glaring prejudice wasn’t objectively ascertainable.

When morning television host Sonia Kruger recently suggested that Australia halt Muslim immigration, she explained: “It’s vital … to discuss these issues without automatically being labelled racist.” Essentially, with this shockingly entitled justification, Kruger sought a mandate to make unqualified comments about a group of people based on their ethno-religious origin without scrutiny or criticism.

In politics, Pauline Hanson denied being racist as she called for a royal commission into whether Islam was a religion. Hanson denied being racist while she lamented “Asians” forming “ghettos” and refusing to “assimilate”. She denied being racist while insisting that Aboriginal Australians enjoyed privileges over other Australians, and called for multiculturalism to be abolished.

 The stadium crowds who persistently booed and bullied Aboriginal footballer Adam Goodes off the field claimed they were doing so because they simply didn’t like him. It had nothing to do with race – Goodes was, apparently, a “sook”. During the coverage of this appalling chapter in Australian sporting history, “massive painkillers” were blamed for AFL personality Eddie McGuire accidentally comparing Goodes to monster-gorilla King Kong.

Even those spouting racist rhetoric across the country don’t want to be identified as racists. Somewhere, deep down, they are aware how patently demeaning, illogical and unjustifiable their behaviour is. Denial is crucial in maintaining the status quo. When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

It would be remiss of me not to point to progress. In 2016, at least, there are enough of the self-aware and enlightened among us to call overt and deliberate racism to account: to publicly demand explanation. We are they who find ourselves rallying yet again against changes sought to federal racial discrimination laws that would further sanction hate speech and erode protections for the most powerless in our land. We are they, the “sanctimonious”; we are they, the “outrage merchants”. We are they who The Australian’s editor-in-chief accuses of “skirting around the root causes and tough issues”. Last week, we counted among our number the major corporation that pulled its advertising from The Australian in disgust over Leak’s racist cartoon and diatribe.

There is a reason people such as Leak fear and resist the word racism. It is powerful. It is definitive. It is belittling. It carries the inescapable burn of hard truth. I remember, very clearly, the first time I heard the word spoken: sitting in the lounge room of my childhood home in Sydney, watching on television Nelson Mandela’s release from jail.

I remember how powerful it felt, to finally have a word that articulated what I was experiencing – to know that the way that I was being treated in my 1980s Australian schoolyard had a broader social context; a name, a shame, a history. Suddenly there was a word that encapsulated how backward-thinking, unsophisticated, unintelligent and unequivocally wrong discrimination and inequality based on racial origin were.

The next time the year five bully threw spitballs, hissing Blackie! Hey Blackie! between his curled lips, I made my way to the teacher’s desk, and announced that he was being racist. There was an excruciating silence. My beloved teacher’s eyes boggled with palpable Bill-Leakish anger. “How dare you?” she asked in disbelief. “How dare you accuse another student of something like that? How dare you say that word? Go away. Go back to your seat.”

In her eyes I saw – fleetingly – fear.

As a progressive country, we must not resort to qui tacet consentire videtur – to allow silence to mean consent. Racism must not remain the shame we dare not name. We must face the fear that lives within, and interrogate the cause of it. As a nation, we must ask ourselves both what kind of a people we are, and what kind of a people we want to be. I believe we are better than this.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 13, 2016 as "The monster we will not name".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Maxine Beneba Clarke is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil. She is a winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on June 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.