Kaiya Aboagye possesses an articulate intelligence that led to her roles as Policy Advisor for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and, more recently, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research Officer within the Research Collaboration and Development Team at the University of Sydney and Research Fellow at the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health.
She is the daughter of a Ghanaian man who crossed the Sahara Desert at the age of 17, journeying through Jerusalem, Israel, and Germany before settling in Australia. Kaiya is also the daughter of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman from Erub Island and the Kukuyalanji people in Far North Queensland. She pays homage to her South Sea Islander ancestors who were kidnapped and traded in Australia's blackbirding slave history - a woman who also carries the bloodlines of freed Jamaican slave Douglas Pitt within her veins. Kaiya carries the histories and complexities of four cultural groups within her, and so her experience is painted in shades of black.
I remember the first time being called a n****r by a random old white man in the street standing by a bus stop. I was probably about 12 or 13 at the time, standing by myself and with a younger cousin. And it’s something my son is dealing with at the moment at school. It’s just a part of growing up in a country like this.
It’s an awful experience, and one that no one should have to go through. And yet, Kaiya shrugs it off and instead talks to the rich vibrancy that paints her childhood.
“My home and personal family life was so rich and steeped in culture and community. My parents were always involved in community-building and the sort of people who brought everyone together. I have memories of Ghana Association meetings happening at our place and at the same time, my mum was the president of National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) Dance College and we met a lot of extended family and friends through her position in that organisation.
"A lot of singing and dancing happened at our place because growing up we lived next door to the Glebe town hall and so my parents used that space a lot for family and community events. There was always this intermeshing of Ghanaian people, Island mob and Blackfullas converging in our family home so weekends were Ghanaian parties that always included dancing and sitting in the NAISDA dance theatres, watching students learn contemporary and traditional dance. NAISDA brings cultural dancers from all over Australia as well, in particular I was exposed to a lot of Yolngu culture through NAISDA and I learnt a lot of different Island songs and dances. At the same time, I saw all the cultural festivities of the emerging Ghanaian Australian community in Sydney.”
Kaiya’s is a story that speaks to the interconnected, invisible stories of Blackness that exist in this country. Rarely heard in mainstream discourse, the experiences of the global African diaspora in Australia are often relegated to the margins of history’s pages. These stories are what Kaiya aims to uncover in her thesis “Finding Aboriginal Australia in the Global African Diaspora: Race, identity and Aboriginal Australian connections to Africa”.
Sometimes, racialised ethnic minorities get placed within a singular story, which is so vividly contrasted to the lived realities of my family's personal story. It wasn't until I got to university and started building up that critical consciousness that I started thinking, ‘That’s not true. That’s not the reality I’ve experienced. That’s not an accurate representation, our communities are really different from the stereotype that’s portrayed about us.
“I wanted to retell that narrative in a way that was more uplifting and empowering and spoke more deeply to the lived reality of people whose lives are enriched with meaning, fulfilment and empowerment.
"It’s not to say that the stark realities of all the disadvantaged aren’t there. However, I believe that to make that the single story or central narrative displaces all the other more interesting and uplifting elements of our communities.”
Telling these stories is Kaiya’s way of contributing in a country where race relations seem to be progressively getting worse. A country where 100% of a state’s juvenile prison population is Aboriginal. Where one in ten people believe that some races are inferior or superior to others. A country whose government tried to pass a bill that would have made it no longer illegal to "offend, insult or humiliate" people based on their race. Where the ongoing media coverage of Sudanese “gangs” in Melbourne depicts a city overrun with Black criminals. And yet, according to data from the Victorian research body the Crime Statistics Agency (CSA), only 1.1% of crimes in Victoria are committed by those born in Sudan. In fact, Australians and New Zealanders make up 75.5% of the offending population.
Is racism in Australia becoming more of an issue? Kaiya believes it is.
"I don’t recall how it has been better in the past. I think it’s an ongoing continuation of what has been the historical status quo. The statistics speak for themselves and when you look at the empirical data, there’s no starting point for where it was ever good.
“It’s part of the legacy and foundational narrative of this nation. When you look at the way the nation was formed and the nature of dispossession and colonisation in Australia, it relied (and still relies) on the need to exclude the Indigenous existence.
Australia was founded on a legal fiction called “terra nullius” which means “land belonging to no one”. It is this legal myth that marks the start, trajectory and approach taken to race relations in this country.
“I believe that Australia is one of the most racist countries in the world, particularly if you’re coming out of the basis of the Aboriginal or migrant/refugee standpoint. How is okay it that in some places Aboriginal people still live in extreme poverty that is equivalent to 'fourth world' conditions worse off than places in Africa? Australia is often reported as this great country and we’ve got all these things and opportunities and ‘It’s so beautiful’. But you have to question your own standpoint in that statement. It’s a great country for who?”
Questioning long-held values and assumptions is something that will be uncomfortable for many. However, it is crucial if we are to move forward as a truly multicultural society.
“The plight of colonisation, dispossession and slavery are all these big historical processes which have been deep and intergenerational. They’ve left wounds on the souls of the people who have been subjugated by them.
"I think it starts with an honest conversation and creating a space where the process of healing trauma and recognition can happen truthfully. Where there isn’t a denial that this is the current state of play. That this is how severe and dire the situation is at this moment. We say we support values of freedom, liberty, democracy and a fair go and all these big concepts but when you see how disproportionate the statistics are in terms of Indigenous issues and cruel, punitive refugee policy you should be alarmed. And if you’re not alarmed, then you’re not informed well enough.
"If you don’t understand the severity of these matters and why it’s an issue of human rights, then that needs to be your personal starting point. I think people need to question where they will position themselves within that continuum of contributing to making society more equitable and just and fair.”
Kaiya Aboagye will appear as a panellist in the University of Sydney’s Outside the Square series, sharing her thoughts on racism in Australia.
She is currently undertaking her PhD at the University of Sydney, which you can read about here.
Stories and Racism in Australia: What if you're not white? will be held on 22 November 2018 at The Old Rum Store, Chippendale.
Article by Theodora Chan (BA, MECO 2010; BA, HONS 2012), Co-Founder and Content Director at Pen and Pixel.
Disclaimer: The author of this article recognises the great diversity among different Indigenous communities and societies of Australia. The use of the term “Aboriginal” is not intended to obscure these complexities, but rather the stress the humanity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as there is currently no Aboriginal word that refers to all First Nations peoples in Australia.