Era[c]ing Pasts :: Reinscribing Presence

Posted on February 1, 2009

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The biggest silence in Australia is about  Indigenous history and people.  We have forgotten our bloody heritage and the injustices that have become part of every day life for indigenous people here.

We have just had our national day of celebrating colonialism —Australia Day.   But  despite our Prime Minister’s apology to Indigenous people last year, we still behave like colonialists with a shameful past we’re not prepared to tackle.

The essay below is the latest in a series of essays about race by Dr. Paula Abood.  It is a searing indictment of Australia’s national  identity and the prejudices which inform it.  It is a timely and forensic must read on the construction of race  and nation.

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http://raceandthecity.com/

If you come as softly

as wind within the trees

you may hear what I hear

see what sorrow sees.

-Audre Lorde

On the occasion of the 221st anniversary of the colonising project in Australia, Aboriginal human rights advocate and community leader, Professor Mick Dodson, was named Australian of the Year.* In responding to a media-initiated question after the announcement, Dodson made the salient point that the day ‘celebrated’ as Australia Day is hardly inclusive considering what the day represents. This day edifies the raising of the Union Jack at Sydney Cove – or Warrang, its first name – in 1788 and augurs the beginning of the disenfranchisement of Indigenous Australia. In bringing Aboriginal sensibilities to the fore, vis-à-vis how this day is both viscerally and psychically felt, Dodson reminds non-Aboriginal Australians what this day means to the First Peoples.

Rather than waving the flag like a two-dollar shop patriot, is it possible that we might waive the right to be benignly forgetful, wilfully indifferent and artfully antagonistic for a moment and afford those whose ‘world came crashing down’** on that day some respect? To do otherwise is to dance on the graves of all who have been massacred, raped, forcibly removed from their families, corralled into slavery and imprisoned into the abjection that is dispossession. The idea of changing the date is a first step towards unfinished business. For those who reject the idea outright (as both national leaders of the major political paries in Australia have), what would their response be to the suggestion that we have a national knees-up – that is, balloons, bikinis and booze – on Anzac Day or Remembrance Day, on All Soul’s Day or Good Friday if you are Christian in faith? Oh so you think it inappropriate to celebrate wildly on a day when people seek solemnity to remember the dead?

If you come as lightly

as the threading dew

I shall take you gladly

nor ask more of you

Australia Day in its current formation does precisely that. It is a day of nationalistic flag-waving and triumphalist posturing privileging an exclusivist white version of history. This day was born of violence and to violence it inevitably returns. And post–Cronulla 2005, we have to endure the annual spectacle of white supremacy running riot under the auspices of Australia Day celebrations. This year, racist thugs terrorised people of non-white appearance in the centre of Manly – Kunná – a popular beach and tourist locale in the northern suburbs of Sydney. A crowd of mostly young white men chanted racist epithets as they ran through the town centre wrapped in their comfort blanket, the Australian flag. The usual institutional disavowal of white racism followed. First came the mayor preferring the term ‘moron’ to that rather harsh word ‘racist’. Then came local police Commander Dave Darcy proclaiming that they ‘were no worse than a rowdy “old cricket crowd”’ (Robinson 2009), except of course if you were one of their brown targets. Darcy goes on: ‘I personally gave them a good looking over, just assessing them. There was an intensity there that no doubt would be confronting to some but at that stage they hadn’t crossed the threshold of criminality’ (Robinson 2009). What is racial terror if not criminality? Aren’t these individuals classifiably white terrorists? Where’s the anti-terrorism legislation when you need it?

Now let’s imagine what the Commander’s response would have been had this rampaging horde of young men numbering well over 100 not been white, but instead a group of Aboriginal or Middle Eastern or Pacific Islander men. Imagine. The racial double standards are not hard to figure if you pay enough attention or happen to be a man of Aboriginal or Middle Eastern appearance for that matter.

The disavowal and the minimisation of racism when perpetrated by whites is the normalised response in the white nation. Remember former Prime Minister John Howard after the Cronulla riots insisting: ‘I do not accept that there is any underlying racism in this country’. A little further back, I remember being one of the interviewees on Radio National after the fire-bombing of a mosque in Brisbane (an Australian response to September 11) and the then Police Commander put this act of race-hatred down to the actions of a larrikin. The minimisation of racism is what race scholar Eduardo Bonilla-Silva sees as a central frame of colour-blind racism. This new formation is deployed precisely because ‘in the postmodern world few claim to be “racist” except for Nazis and Neonazis and members of white supremacist groups’ (2001: 140). Bonilla-Silva argues that the thinking behind this -‘There are racists out there but they are few and hard to find’ (2001: 141) – is a denial of the structural character of racism (2001: 142). Measuring Bonilla-Silva’s theory against the responses to Manly would verily suggest that a culture of colour-blind racism pervades the institutional centre.

  1. Commander Darcy from Manly Local Area Command: ‘To suggest that there were racial overtones is … I think, way over the top’ (Robinson 2009).
  2. The Manly Daily’s headline: ‘Ratbags: YES Racists: NO’ (Phillips 2009).
  3. The Federal politician Tony Abbott: ‘Some people seem to be suggesting there was a racist element to it. My instinct, as someone who has just read the reports, is that I think alcohol was to blame, not racism’ (Phillips 2009).

The Daily Telegraph, not especially known for its race-sensitivities, called it for what it was: ‘Groups of men jump[ing] up on cars chanting race hate to the terrified passengers within … What started as chants of “Aussie Aussie Aussie” at 1pm had in an hour developed an ugly overtone’ (Vallejo 2009). The state Premier, Nathan Rees, for his part went straight to the heart of it: ‘To use an Australian symbol or the Australian flag to promote racism is to fail to understand what those symbols mean. This kind of bigoted behaviour has no place in NSW’ (Robinson 2009). While refreshing to hear a Premier of NSW actually utter the ‘r’ word, an insistence on defending the props so steeped in colonial baggage ignores their agency as instruments of white power. Those who use the flag to promote racism clearly understand this history and that is precisely what makes the flag theirs. The Union Jack in the upper left corner is the same Union Jack raised at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1778. In short, the very livery of Australian-ness as played out in this spectacle are the institutional props that have systematically and psychically been deployed to exclude, to control, to marginalise, first and foremost Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives and communities, and then to a much lesser extent, consecutive waves of non-white migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the following years.

You may sit beside me

Silent as a breath

And only those who stay dead

Shall remember death

Manly, and indeed Cronulla, can be thus read as theatrical representations that belong in this continuum of violence. The white bodies on the beach and the street chasing down ‘ethnics’ are simply recreating real time race drama; by reasserting their dominance, dressed shirtless like Tarzans atop some terrified victim’s Toyota, they embody the very ethos of Australia Day as it is, White Australia Day. Though we endeavour hard to be a forgetful nation, the patriots with their sunburnt chests are an annual reminder as to why we need to critically appraise the day, and indeed, to change the date.

Professor Dodson’s response to this question of change should therefore not be reduced to some abstraction of the culture wars. He speaks for many, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, who emphatically refuse to celebrate Australia Day for the reasons of history, because of contemporary realities. He speaks for those who conscientiously object to e[rac]ing the past, for those who reject the idea of celebrating dispossession.

If you come I will be silent

Nor speak harsh words to you-

I will not ask why, now,

Nor how, nor what you knew.

I am reminded of erasure as I searched for the presence of Native Americans in the memorialising of nation at the moment of Obama. Known for his erudition and attention to history, Obama failed to correct an oversight that continues to escape the notice of the forgetful nation. During a speech remembering an event in another place some two hundred and twenty one years ago, the then hopeful Senator was forced to speak back to the criticism of his long-standing association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the pastor branded anti-American and anti-white for his speaking-truth-to-power sermons. Obama invoked a biblical line that deserves critique. Here is the text of what he said:

‘Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787 … The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery…’ (March 18, 2008)

The spectre of slavery in the United States is a traumatic and harrowing narrative, but if we are to be critical about the past, then the term ‘original sin’ surely belongs to the dispossession and destruction of the Native American peoples. It is well documented that Native Americans have endured a systematic process of extermination that enabled the making of the American nation. In modern times, we use the term genocide to describe what transpired in the Americas. Like Australia, the Americas (both North and South) are soaked in the blood of Indigenous people. To erase this originary violence renders the genocide complete; that is, the victims are at once invisible and forgotten. At the inauguration celebrations, a token appearance and a token mention were all Native Americans were afforded. In the euphoria of history making, forgetfulness continues to shape the rebooting of nation.

‘Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pokanoket, and many other once powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and the oppression of the White Man, as snow before a summer sun.

Will we let ourselves be destroyed in our turn without a struggle, give up our homes, our country bequesthed to us by the Great Spirit, the graves of our dead and everything that is dear and sacred to us? I know you will cry with me, “Never! Never!”‘

– Tecumseh of the Shawnees (1990:1)

Acclaimed people’s historian Howard Zinn writes: ‘There is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States’ (2003: 23). In tracking the history of the American people from the point of view of those who have been exploited politically and those who have been omitted, Zinn provides us with a window to understanding modern America. In the case of Australia, we might ask where today are the people of Warrang and Kunná, the people of Mararwong, Arrowanelly, and Wallumatta?

But we shall sit here softly

Beneath two different years

And the rich earth between us

Shall drink our tears.

Ali Behdad argues in his book Forgetful Nation that the United States ‘is an amnesiac nation that disremembers its violent beginnings’ (2005: 23). At present, Australia Day is a national day of disremembering. For others, it is Invasion Day, Survival Day, a public holiday. Migrants and refugees of all backgrounds for their part are emphatically encouraged to join the party in disremembering. In this way, demonstrating your ‘Australian-ness’ is as easy as painting a flag on your brown face. The SBSTV news report on the night of 26 January proudly trumpeted diversity, focussing on a Vietnamese woman on multicultural parade in Melbourne. She had made her ao dai from an Australian flag, and as subversive as this is in another context, given the racialised reception Vietnamese communities have had to cop over the last 30 years, it also is a picture-perfect representation of the superficiality of official multiculturalism. Then, as always, we watch the staged shots of the benevolent state bestowing citizenship upon its most recent arrivals in ceremonies around the country. Whilst this is indeed an important and euphoric occasion for many, most especially for refugees who have escaped the traumas and violence of conflict and displacement, ironically, this day is painfully heightened by those very realities in Aboriginal communities around the country.

This is an opportune moment for migrant and refugee communities (notably those from non-English speaking backgrounds) to intervene as active participants in the national conversation that Professor Dodson has begun, lest it be dominated by white (migrant) voices. At once sporadic, solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders could be expressed via support for a change of date. It is in the interests of those who are committed to a critical multicultural democracy to ensure that a plurality of voices are heard in the new century. The first step is easy: we recognise that the raising of the Union Jack at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788 represents the beginning of the disenfranchisement of the First Peoples that continues to this day. So instead of mouthing the platitudes of the anthem and inscribing an abaya into the flag, perhaps we could offer a heartfelt cantata to the dispossessed as a gesture to narrative remembrance. Each and every community could find the words to express sorrow and respect via the lexicons of the multilingual nation. It’s time now for a brand new day. It’s time to change the date.

Notes:

*This symbolic gesture provides Professor Dodson with a public platform that has been denied to him over the past decade. Dodson was unashamedly marginalised by the former neo-conservative government in its oppositional zeal to the politics and discourses of self-determination. De-facto assimilation, or new century paternalism was their preferred poison. Dodson was co-author of the landmark Bringing them Home: National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children form Their Families (1997), undertaken by the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (now the Australian Human Rights Commission).

**Mick Dodson referred to 26 January 1788, the day when Governor Arthur Phillip formally annexed the land as ‘the day on which our world came crashing down’. Quoted in a Sydney Morning Herald editorial titled, ‘Stirring the possum on Australia Day’, 27 January 2009, p 10.

References:

Behdad, A (2005) Forgetful Nation: On Immigration and Cultural Identity in the United States, Duke University Press Durham & London

Bonilla-Silva, E (2001) White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era, Lynne Rienner Publishers Boulder London

Lorde, A (1987) ‘Memorial I’ in Ain’t I a Woman: Poems by Black and White Women, (ed.) Illona Linthwaite Virago London.

Obama, B (2008) ‘A More Perfect Union’ <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/03/18/obama-race-speech-read-th_n_92077.html> Accessed 30 December 2008.

Phillips, J (29 January 2009) ‘Ratbags:YES Racists:No’ The Manly Daily <http://manly-daily.whereilive.com.au/news/story/ratbags-yes-no/. Accessed 29 January.

Robinson, G (27 January 2009) ‘Manly ‘morons’ rampage were racist: academic’ The Sydney Morning Herald

http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/manly-morons-racist/2009/01/27/1232818417563.html Acessed 27 January 2009.

Vallejo, J ‘Manly erupts in Violence on Australia Day’ The Daily Telegraph (26 January 2009) <http://www.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/story/0,22049,24965973-5006009,00.html> Accessed 27 January 2009.

Tecumseh of the Shawnees in Dee Brown Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, (1990) Vintage London.

Zinn, H (2003) A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present, HarperCollins New York

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