Reckonings with racism: is the tide turning in Australia?

When the awful images of black American George Floyd being murdered by a police officer first appeared, they triggered the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement across the US. It was soon replicated in many other parts of the world, including here in Australia, where it struck a chord.

Australia has a long history of racism. As documented by Professor Larissa Behrendt in her book Indigenous Australia for dummies, it even pre-dates the establishment of the first British colony. Some of the early European explorers who visited the continent and met some of its inhabitants, made very derogatory – read, ignorant and arrogant – remarks in their log books.

Professor Behrendt goes on to detail the sorry history of how Australia’s First Nations people were treated as the British colonised the continent, took control of traditional lands, carried out massacres, spread disease and established state governments that practised coercive interventions into the lives of Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders. The consequences of this history have been devastating and multiple and continue to this day throughout the country and across generations.

Racist policies and behaviours have been directed at persons of many other racial or ethnic backgrounds here, including the infamous ‘White Australia’ policy, but that is a topic for another time. In this post, I want to share my feelings and observations about two recent events that have brought the issue of racism into sharp focus and caused an outpouring of powerful emotions, words and actions.

The two events I have in mind are: the decision by Hancock Mining to cancel – yes, ‘cancel’ – their $15M sponsorship of Netball Australia; and the alleged murder of Cassius Turvey, a much-loved Noongar-Yamatji teenage boy, as he walked home from school in suburban Perth.

I’m not going to describe these events in any detail – interested Australians are already familiar with them. However, if you would like to get a sense of how they have impacted on Indigenous Australians, I recommend you read this powerful piece by journalist and Gamilaroi woman Brooke Boney. I’ve read it three times and it still rocks me. Amongst other feelings it provokes in me, is great pity for its author. One paragraph, in particular, is heartbreaking to read:

“There’s nothing that can come from this that feels like justice. There’s no relief or lesson that can be taught after something so horrific. … Fighting or resisting a system that allows this to happen is like swimming against the tide. As someone who is eternally hopeful, it hurts to say this, but it feels futile.”

I’m a white male in his late 60s, so I can’t know what it has been like for Brooke Boney and countless thousands of other First Nations persons to process what happened to Cassius Turvey. However, I do want to believe that what has transpired since the fatal attack gives them some modest cause for hope.

The totality of what happened in that suburban street on weekday afternoon has shocked a great many non-indigenous Australians. I am confident that most of them would have no doubt that vile racism was involved. There is no shying away from that; no wriggle room is available. The Prime Minister has said as much.

Meanwhile, the numerous vigils held across Australia have drawn large attendances and have been conducted with dignity and heart. The quality of the vigils has taken its lead from Mechelle Turvey, the mother of Cassius.

“I don’t want any more violence,” she said in a statement that was read out at vigils across the country. “I’m the only person who can get justice for my son … I need to call out for calm. I am angry, Cassius’ friends and family are angry, but I don’t want any form of violence at any of these rallies in the name of my child. Violence breeds more violence.”

Media coverage of all this has not only been extensive but has also been amplified by the fact that nearly all large media entities now employ at least one First Nations journalist. Their reporting and commentary has provided audiences with information and insights only they can provide. It has been quite a body of work.

Look, this might sound like I’m clutching at straws but I do believe that Australia has shifted slightly since Cassius was attacked. Firstly, we can’t undo our knowledge of the key features of this horrific event. The collective voice of all those Indigenous journalists will be heard more often. And we might forget his surname, but we will long remember Cassius and the fact that he was loved and respected.

As for the netball sponsorship matter, it too will have a lasting impact, albeit on a smaller stage. Compared to just a couple of months ago, many more Australians now know that Lang Hancock advocated for the drinking water of First Nations communities to be adulterated with a chemical that would result in widespread sterility. He espoused this repugnant proposal in a media interview in 1984, in the lifetime of half of Australia’s population! And we also know that his daughter, Australia’s wealthiest woman Gina Rinehart, is unwilling to dissociate herself from what her father advocated.

On the plus side, we also know that the majority of the netball community accepts that the Diamonds squad was justified in taking a stand in support of its Indigenous member, Donnell Wallam; that her presence on the court for her debut Test match was met with great warmth; that criticism levelled at the players by conservative commentators was widely rejected; and, most significantly, that moves to clean out racism in sport can no longer be resisted.

Is ‘Yes’ the answer to my question? I dearly hope so.

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

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About rmgtravelsandfood

Maggie and I are both in our late 60s and live in Melbourne, Australia. This blog is devoted to our shared passions for travel and fine dining at home. Recently, I added Australian politics to the scope of the blog, inspired by the election of a Labor Government at a national level. Rick Grounds
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