Black Lives Matter: America, George Floyd, and the Aboriginal Australian experience.

Black Lives Matter
Black Lives Matter: Illustration by John T. Patten

Australia like the rest of the world, is currently looking on in horror, as the United States of America tears itself apart. Peaceful protests in relation to the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, by a Minneapolis police officer, have given way to opportunist hooligans, nation-wide riots, looting and wholesale anarchy. Cities across the US are burning, and this is all happening whilst America continues to reel from the ongoing onslaught of covid-19, and the over one hundred thousand lives which have been needlessly lost through a lack of leadership, and inertia.

How did the “home of the brave” ever come to this? How did a society which Australia looks to as an inspiration, a friend and our greatest ally now find itself on fire, and in such incredible turmoil?

Despite the chest beating, self-aggrandising visions painted by the American media, the United States, whilst an amazing place, filled with fantastic people, has always been a highly divided nation. It is a nation defined by its diversity, uncompromising differences, and socially engineered divides – red states and blue states, north and south, black and white, men and women, gay and straight, popular and unpopular, people with and without disabilities, rich and poor. Meanwhile, left out of the equation almost entirely are those whose struggles for equality and representation are, or have historically been buried beneath the more visible struggles of others – First Nations, women who aren’t white, Asians, Muslims and those of diverse sex and gender. These are social divides which in many cases, despite our great discomfort with the notion, find parallels, right here in Australia.

Australia has experienced, or is experiencing many of the social traumas found in the US, inclusive of slavery, stolen children, stolen wages, forced displacement, genocide, religious persecution, and gender inequality. Where we differ however is in the number of minority groups we have in Australia who are voiceless and underrepresented. Where police violence against African Americans has been a somewhat regular although ineffective point of conversation and debate in the US, black deaths in custody in Australia are a blip on the mainstream radar. Today, Australians know the name George Floyd, and they can look back almost 30 years and tell you who Rodney King was, but how many among us know the names David Dungay Jnr, Ms Dhu, or Tanya Day?

When David Dungay, a Dunghutti man, died in a Long Bay prison cell in 2015, he yelled “I can’t breath!”, only for the five police officers on top of him to ignore his plea, before continuing to suffocate him through restraint. The reason he was so forcefully restrained? He was eating biscuits in his prison cell, when he had been told not to.

A 1987 inquiry into black deaths in custody has effected very little change. Over 150 of this continent’s First Peoples have died in police custody in just the past 12 years. Aboriginal people still represent 30 percent of the Australian prison population, despite being 3 percent of the overall Australian community.

As a nation, Australia doesn’t speak about black deaths in custody with any sense of familiarity, because more often than not these stories are buried before they can reach us and begin to influence our thinking. Black people serving as anything other than semi-exotic background noise makes many people in Australia highly uncomfortable.

Whilst the media in this country has the ability to effect positive change, and help foster a new, accurate and inclusive national narrative, it’s seen as too much hard work, and not productive in relation to viewers, readers, listeners or sales. It’s why we see newspapers, podcasts and breakfast television filled with European Australian talking heads, explaining with zero credibility, or insight, the complexities of Aboriginal culture, and telling us that it’s Aboriginal people’s fault for being behind the 8-ball. Where is our opportunity to not only tell our story, but to hold mainstream media and our education system accountable for 230 plus years of misinformation?

The reason that Australia finds itself so decidedly uncomfortable when Aboriginal people speak is because of a lack of familiarity with us. There are very few points of reference, other than those found in an array of tremendously out of date, inaccurate history books, written by casual observers. We are the unknown. Before Warwick Thornton’s films, Debra Mailman, Ernie Dingo and Aaron Pedersen, Aboriginal people simply weren’t seen on TV, unless being shown in a negative light, or were starring in the NRL and AFL. Despite Australia’s First Peoples representing just over 3 percent of the Australian population, when a black face appears on television, in locally made content, it is likely to belong to a person from a much smaller minority than that of Aboriginal Australia – the African diaspora. This is because for white Australia, there is a reference point for African Australians. It’s based in what has come to be called the Huxtable effect.

In the 1980’s, both in Australia and the United States, Bill Cosby introduced audiences to the Huxtables, an upper middle class black family. They were a set of characters who weren’t presented to audiences as the stereotype of their predecessors, or as constructs based primarily in their being “the other”. They were a successful family, who just happened to be black. They were presented through a lens where white audiences could empathise with their journey, knowing that these were people who shared many of the experiences they felt in their own lives. In Australia, the Huxtables transformed how African Americans were seen. The racism of Love Thy Neighbour had fallen by the wayside, and the Black & White Minstrel Show was erased from our cultural memory. Suddenly, Australia had an appreciation for black people in a diverse world – just a very particular, comforting and narrow understanding of black.

Most Australians, regardless of their ethnicity, do not have Aboriginal friends or regular acquaintances. We sit outside of the knowledge base, and what people do believe they know, is almost entirely wrong. The country’s media and education systems are shaped by willful, sponsored ignorance, and the ongoing promotion of a national narrative which is heavily draped in white fairytales. Ours is a nation whose inheritance is a lack of interest in change, or the truth.

Whether Seventh generation Anglo-Celt, third generation Greek or Chinese, or first generation African or Indian Australian, like every other Australian, very few know much about Aboriginal people, history or culture. This vacuum of knowledge is why every ethnic group in Australia has fallen prey to delivering cruelty to Aboriginal people, despite sometimes being on the receiving end of endemic racism themselves. Fear of the unknown is a tremendous motivator towards harm.

Our television screens are filled almost entirely with mono-cultural, white European Australian content. Our history books tell the story of white Australia, where the land’s First Peoples serve as little more than set dressing in the mythology of the grand white adventure story. Where diversity does exist in the media landscape it’s only in those ghettos designed to keep diversity in the background. SBS and NITV across all media forms offer fantastic programming, but they act as the Australian media’s “get out of gaol” free pass. We are captive to a misrepresentation of who we are as a nation, and because most of us don’t know any better, we’re OK with that. We’re the frog in the pot, comfortably boiling away, blissful in what we don’t know.

When an Aboriginal child turns the television on they will see Aboriginal culture represented through stereotypes, both negative and neutral, and rarely ever positive. They see white people whitesplaining, very poorly, who we are. The Aboriginal child will see dot paintings and didgeridoos presented as their cultural icons, despite being as alien to traditional cultures outside of the red centre and far northern Australia as African music and the Fourth of July are to European Australians. We are not all the same.

Today, academics and tourists alike go to the Northern Territory to experience “Aboriginal culture”, and to see the “real” blacks. This is despite the fact that more Aboriginal people live in New South Wales and Queensland than the Northern Territory, Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania combined. Australia was home to a multicultural landscape long before Europeans and everyone else arrived, and we are still here – not surviving, but thriving, just as we have for over 65,000 years.

It’s human nature to lash out in fear at the things we don’t understand. The Huxtable effect served to partially calm the fears of white Australia in relating to Africans. It allowed for the dehumanised, to be seen as people. We’ve not yet seen that in Australia in relation to Aboriginal people. We’re still a Country that denies with great vigor the truth of where we have come from as a nation. We pretend that Aboriginal people were nomadic and didn’t hold a concept of legal land title. We scoff at the fact that this land’s First Peoples invented bread, that Gabarnmung is the world’s oldest building, and that Aboriginal people farmed the lands and the waterways, or that Aboriginal stockmen played a vital and now utterly invisible role in creating the livestock industries modern Australia was built on.

In the United States, black people have a voice. They are sometimes heard, even if many other Americans don’t want to hear. Their voice is heard because of the size of their community, and the familiarity engendered in the media by the Huxtables and all manner of celebrity since. It’s this familiarity which populates the minds of middle America, providing them with a pathway to begin a conversation, affording the next generation the know-how for effecting further changes, which present generations are not equipped to understand.

This occasional cut through for African Americans is absent for Australia’s First Peoples. In Australia we can perhaps piggy-back on “Black Lives Matter”, and learn some small lessons from the current crisis. But for the US, this has been a very long time coming. How many black deaths did it take to get to a point where enough finally was enough? Where was the outcry during the many other deaths, and open murders? Where was the global outcry for the ongoing tragedy of First Nations women being murdered, across both the United States and Canada?

First Nations people in the United States and Canada and their cultures are celebrated in Australia, for the familiar iconography and gross stereotypes of cowboy movies, dream catchers and a people in tune with nature. Whilst at home, they are denigrated, disadvantaged and forgotten. Conversely, Aboriginal Australian cultures are valued in the United States, for the romance of Crocodile Dundee and what survivalists can strip from us on the Discovery Channel, all whilst we are seen as a burden in our own home. This shows us how far the United States has to go, as they pick and fight one battle at a time. Sometimes we’re so utterly blinded by our passions for helping one community, that we don’t look at the overall picture. Throughout the history of the women’s rights movement, it was primarily white women’s voices, and white women’s rights that were being fought for. When we talk about human rights abuses in far flung countries, we often neglect those happening to our immediate north, and right here at home. We are blinkered. We need to see the big picture, and not leave anyone behind.

We are at a point in history where our education system in Australia is failing our history teachers. Should an Australian child be asked whether they know who Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr, Rosa Parks, or Nelson Mandela are, they are likely to know the answer. Yet, if we were to ask them if they know the names Jack Patten, Geraldine Briggs, or Fred Maynard, they will have no idea. We don’t tell our own stories. We don’t celebrate our wins, nor do we acknowledge our failures. Because of this, we have no means to grow as a nation.

The United States is in flames because it is a victim of an education system and a media industry which have both failed to represent and propagate an accurate reflection and understanding of American history, society, and culture. In essence, this is the same path Australia is taking.

By John T. Patten
John is a Bundjalung and Yorta Yorta person, educator, historian, artist and film maker

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