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What does racism look like in Australia?

9 June 2020
As Reconciliation Week comes to an end and as we celebrate the life and work of Eddie Koiki Mabo's overturning terra nullius in 1992, we are witnessing a global movement challenging racism and the institutional practices that support it.
Business as usual amounts to racism.
Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services)

Many Indigenous Australians continue to live with the legacy of centuries of racism that has produced gross inequalities in health and education, the disproportionate number of young First Nations peoples incarcerated, the unethical destruction of significant sites and cultural practices. 

“It is sad that we have to look overseas to recognise that we have a serious problem in our own yard,” says Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services).

“It is time that we had the difficult ground zero conversation – the conversation that many don’t want to have – the inconvenient talk about who we are as a nation, as we continue to count the costs of ignorance, of injustice, of racism and of despair on yet another generation of children.“ 

“It is time that we had the difficult ground zero conversation – the conversation that many don’t want to have – the inconvenient talk about who we are as a nation, as we continue to count the costs of ignorance, of injustice, of racism and of despair on yet another generation of children.“ 

Professor Jennifer Barrett, Incoming Director National Centre for Cultural Competence, reflects on the valuable insights provided by the example of Mabo and the persistence needed to challenge unjust laws, institutions and governments controlling Mer Island in Queensland, where inequality was embedded in policies and practices.

“Racism is personal and institutional. We need to become better informed about what it is, how to recognise it, and call it out.  We need to remain vigilant, as Mabo’s legacy attests. To stand by, to look and listen but not hear or act, is not reconciliation, “ she says.

As a nation we need to address not only individuals and communities but also big business. Currently there is little accountability as highlighted by the destruction of sacred sites like Juukan Gorge in Western Australia.

“Just before the National Sorry Day and the start of National Reconciliation Week, a major mining company knowingly destroyed an Aboriginal heritage site of world significance. An incident like this makes an engineer wonder – what is wrong with our profession? How did no one in charge think that’s a bad idea?” questions Dr Petr Matous, Associate Dean Indigenous Strategy and Services in the Faculty of Engineering.

This week a police officer was filmed kicking the legs out from underneath a young Aboriginal teenager, who was then slammed to the ground and arrested. Such incidents register on another plane and echo the great divide that still exists for Indigenous people.

Dean of the Law School, Professor Simon Bronitt, explains that policing and criminal justice rest on the exercise of discretion, which often sadly fails to alleviate the effects of harsh laws upon some of our most vulnerable communities. He says:

“While some groups in society benefit from access to a police caution rather than arrest, and diversionary programs rather than custodial options, other groups seem destined to receive more punitive responses.

“A history of disempowerment and poor community relations is likely to provoke only further resistance and disrespect with police and the law generally. Such defiance in turn leads to more punitiveness and repression on the part of the system.”

Associate Professor Megan Williams from the National Centre for Cultural Competence explains:

“The focus must now be on Aboriginal people’s solutions in the law and justice field. There are many examples of successful Aboriginal-led programs. We must ask ourselves why these are not invested in? Why are they not supported to grow as a matter of urgency? We must understand what holds us back.”

Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Geosciences, Dr Amanda Tattersall, says, “Our responsibility as white people is so much greater. Flickers of solidarity on our phone are not enough. Our responsibility is to help Australia’s First People be at the centre of Australian political life on their own terms.”

“If we are to truly believe in the practice of reconciliation, we need to acknowledge that the context we’ve inherited, of institutional racism and individual ignorance, must be challenged if we are to truly make amends and reconcile,” says Professor Jennifer Barrett.

“People must be prepared to have a conversation about race and power that may prove uncomfortable.” Said Professor Tim Soutphommasane, Director of the Culture Strategy.

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