Racial discrimination against Indigenous Australians is as alive and well in Australia today as it ever was. In fact, under the lost years of opportunity known to history as the ‘Howard Years’, Australia on many, many levels wound the clock back to a more racist and intolerant past.
An example of this is a story which appeared in the National Indigenous Times (NIT) in 2009.
A man struck a woman with his car while she was lying on the ground in a parking lot. He was told by bystanders that she was drunk and would be okay.
The man proceeded on his journey with the woman left on the pavement where she later died.
In the Magistrate’s Court the man received a $400 fine and was allowed to keep his driver’s license.
In sentencing, the magistrate said:
“It’s clearly the case that an Aboriginal person in the dark on the bitumen or other places is extremely hard to see… It’s easy to imagine how such an accident could happen.”
(‘Cutting through in a town like Alice’, NIT 6/8/2009 p.25 )
Imagine what the outcome would have been if the situation was reversed and the driver was an Indigenous Australian and the victim a ‘white’ Australian. One can only speculate on the punishment that would have been meted out to the driver in those circumstances, but precedent would indicate that the penalty would have been significantly harsher than a measly $400 fine for the taking of a ‘white’ life by a black driver, no matter how innocent the actions of the parties at the time may have been.
During the recent Sydney Writers Festival (SWF) I was fortunate enough to hear Izzeldin Abuelaish speak , author of I Shall not Hate. One of the messages Mr Abuelaish was trying to deliver during his talk was that ‘racist language needs to be erased from everyday speech’. The rationale for this is obvious; racist language leads to racial stereotyping, which in turn results in entrenching these stereotypes into the minds of the ‘average person’ within a community. As the article from the NIT cited above demonstrates, even members of Australia’s judiciary are not immune from racial stereotyping.
Racist language in popular Australian culture
In 1957 Rolf Harris, then 27, wrote the song ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport’ which became a number one hit in Australia. The song originally had seven verses and the chorus. The sixth verse went as follows:
Let me Abos go loose, Lou,
Let me Abos go loose.
They’re of no further use, Lou,
So let me Abos go loose.
‘Abo’ is a derogatory term for Aboriginal people. In the context of the song the verse above becomes even more racist, because almost all other verses are about animals which are to be let lose after the drover’s death the subject of the song.
Because of the implied and actual racism within the song it was banned in Singapore. In some versions ‘Abo’ got replaced with ’emu’ ‘Rolf says sorry for ‘Abo’ lyric’.
Harris’ lyrics, as innocently as they might have been conceived, offer us an insight into the horrific practices of bush men in the 1920s. Xavier Herbert who was born in 1901, author of Poor Fellow My Country, the longest novel ever published in any European language, reveals some of these practices in an interview he gave in 1984 ‘Weasel words won’t hide monstrous shame’.
We used to go up to Broome for our holidays and I knew, all through Western Australia, black velvet was the thing. It’s changed a lot in recent years but the perfect mate for the bushman was the black girl…
The pearling industry was established in Broome and the pearlers used to go up into the Kimberley country and steal the young [Aboriginal] gins to work as pearl divers. Of course, they used to rape them, too, and when they got too pregnant they’d chuck them overboard.
Stockmen used to go out for a ‘gin spree’, too. They’d run the blacks down and take the young girls [who’d] sit down and fill their fannies with sand.
The Stolen Generation(s)
Christopher Bevan started his legal career in Kempsey and wrote A Kinchela Boy about one man’s life in the home and the aftermath of being taken. Cecil Bowden, a Kinchela Boys’ Home survivor and the protagonist in A Kinchela Boy, the novel by barrister and author Christopher Bevan, which deals with life at the Kinchela Boys’ Home, spoke recently on his experiences in the Kinchela Boys’ Home and about his frustration with Australian police focus on aboriginal men.
“The police are racist. I’m 71, spent 30 years of that in jail and the police still want to put me back. They racist no question. “
Indigenous Australians die on average 20 years earlier than their fellow Australians from diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, while 26 per cent of Australia’s prison population is Indigenous, yet aboriginal people make up just 2.5 per cent of the entire Australian population.
From 1924 until 1970, between 400 and 600 aboriginal boys were taken from their families and placed in the Kinchela Boy’s Home, one of the many institutions around Australia which housed indigenous children in brutal conditions. Children that were taken from their communities during an era of assimilation, who were to became part of the Stolen Generations and an indelible stain on ‘white’ Australia.
Lester Maher another Aboriginal boy stolen from his family when he was four years old and in prisoned at Kinchela Boys’ Home gave the following interview to the ABC’s PM Programme in 2009:
“We never knew who we were. I never knew my mother. I didn’t know my father. Our language was taken from us. If we tried to use any other Aboriginal language at Kinchela we were bashed,” he said.
“For me personally, being in that place was a very dreadful time for all of us and even now it brings back very sad memories.”
Mr Maher ran away when he was nine. He was severely punished when he was taken back.
“Hendricks the manager, he was a drunk too. Anyway he took me up to the office and he said, ‘Put your hand out,’ and I say, ‘No. Put your hand out? I’m not putting my hand out for you, you white so-and-so,'” he said.
“And with that he ******** my clothes off and give me the biggest flogging of my life. I’ll never forget. I laid in bed for a week.”
Cecil Bowden was taken away from his family in Cowra when he was 16 months old. His mother had died and his father was away fighting in World War II.
He says the Kinchela Boys’ Home was a brutal place.
“When anyone ever got into strife they’d send them down the line, about 60 or 70 boys,” he said.
“They’d ***** them off first. They’d have to walk the line and 60 or 70 boys would have to punch them, punch that person as hard as they, just to satisfy those people who were running the home.
“And we were threatened, if you didn’t punch hard enough you’d have to join them down the line. So by the end of the line you were bleeding and black and blue all over.”
The humiliation did not end there, according to radio broadcaster Paulette Whitton.
“I don’t know how many of you people know this but upon entering KBH, the boys were also ripped of their identity,” he said.
“They had no name once they entered the gates of KBH. They were known as a number. My dad’s number was 31.”
The men had gathered to mark the launch of what they have called a healing plan for themselves and other members of the Stolen Generations.
Pastor Ray Minniecon from World Vision Australia was in charge of the Kinchela project.
“It’s about reconstructing a whole identity. It’s about reconnecting to all that has been taken in terms of family, land, culture, language, all of those kind of things, community,” he said.
“One of the tragedies, other tragedies of the forced removal policies is that it’s just not what was taken from them in terms of their own personal identities.
“But it’s a theft of our future because those young men would have been the leaders. They would have been the carriers of our culture. You take that out of the community, you’ve stolen the future as well.
“So what this plan is trying to do is say, ‘OK, let’s just try and reconstruct that future as well. I mean we can’t go back to what we were but we can try to develop the programs and things that we know are important to us.'”
The plan will also see the men’s stories recorded and counselling services and family reunions offered but for Lester Maher there can be no progress without compensation.
“Most of the boys are looking for compensation and rightfully so. I think we deserve it. All the things we went through,” he said.
“Rudd said sorry but it’s not good enough, you know. Anyone can say sorry. But then in the same breath he said you’re not getting compensation so we’re going to go for that.”
It is not easy to define Aboriginal identity. People who identify themselves as ‘Aboriginal’ range from dark-skinned, broad-nosed to blonde-haired, blue-eyed people, very much to the surprise of non-Indigenous people.
Aboriginal people define Aboriginality not by skin colour but by relationships.
Ironically light-skinned Aboriginal people are being challenged on their Aboriginal identity, even though the official definition accepts anyone who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such in their community.
The ugly side of the so called ‘easy going Aussie’
UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay, an anti-apartheid campaigner and international criminal court judge rebuked Prime Minister Julia Gillard over Australia’s perceived and actual racism when dealing with Indigenous Australians and refugees.
Pillay expressed deep concern about Australia’s indigenous affairs and the Gillard government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Malaysia for refugee processing (see Racism, a matter of political expediency in Australia)
“…There is a racial discriminatory element here which I see as rather inhumane treatment of people, judged by their differences: racial, colour or religions…”
Reconciliation Week begins on Monday and ends with the anniversary of the High Court of Australia’s judgment in the Mabo case on June 3, 1992. The landmark decision which recognized, albeit in limited circumstances, the Native Title rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and overturned the myth of terra nullius, that the continent was empty of people and the land un-owned before European settlement in 1788.
I leave you with the words from the Statutory Declaration sworn by Mr Phillip Hart to reflect on as Reconciliation Week begins:
21) After coffee was served Mr and Mrs King and I were discussing Mrs King dog Sooty and all of his aliments when a dark haired man with an olive complexion and green eyes standing about 5ft 9ins approached our table. He saw Mr King and audibly said “you fucking bumb boong[i] cunt, I told you we would get you, we don’t like fucking boongs in [ACT] Treasury and I will not work for a fucking boong cunt, Quinlan [then ACT Treasurer and Police Minister], Pham [ACT Auditor-General] and Harris [then Chief Executive ACT Chief Minister’s Department] are on my side, Pham came up with the University of London stunt, you’re fucked. Don’t forget who is Police Minister” I asked this person to leave at which time he saw Mrs King and said to her, “So you’re the big tittered dumb slut who fucks boongs”: this person then leant across the table and slapped Mrs King across the face while shouting that she was a “whore who fucked boongs”. I then stood-up in an effort to protect Mrs King from any further assaults as I did, the man assaulting us grabbed the front of Mrs King dress and ripped it, exposing her bra, he then touched her Breast and said “[sic] Looking, the bumb cunt isn’t man enough to protect you, he knows if he touches me, I will go to Quinlan and he will be thrown into jail, that’s where all boongs belong” As this was occurring another person who had been walking by came to see what was going on.
22) As this other person arrived I took out my mobile phone and began to phone the police, as I did this Mrs King assailant turned and said to me “you’re nothing but a boong loving cunt” and turned to the other person who had arrived on the scene “look, another bumb boong cunt come to join the losers”.
23) As Mrs King assailant was leaving he turned and said to Mr King “I’ve got Quinlan, Pham and Harris on my side, we are going to get you, I bet that you were surprised to find that Tanya Taylor [then, recruitment consultant Ernst & Young, Canberra] had changed your application [to Ernst & Young]. Nobody likes boongs.”
28) After this incident I attended Civic Police station with Mr and Mrs King when the officer behind the desk found out that the assailant was Mr (name removed for legal reasons) and that it was Mr and Mrs King and Phillip lodging the complaint he refused to take our statements, and advised Mr King that if he entered the police station again he would be arrested and charged with attempting to interfere with a police witness.
(Statutory Declaration of Phillip Hart sworn 18th April 2008 before Victorian Police Officer Di Symes CL 36006)
So much for the Australian government being serious about reconciliation. If Australia was anything other than an English speaking ally of the United States it would have had sanctions imposed on it long ago by the international community for this type of racism, which is really a subtle form of genocide as it is aimed at discouraging Indigenous Australians from identifying with their culture.
[i] Boong is a racist and derogatory word used to describe Aboriginal Australian people.