In Solidarity, Let Us All Be Outraged

There is a shared history between Australia’s First Nations people and black Americans. From the black dockers in Sydney who shared their knowledge with our early political organisations; to the African-American sailors who joined our struggles at La Perouse; to our Black Panther comrades who inspired and collobarated with our mobs in the Black Power movement in West End and Redfern; to our own Deaths in Custody battles – we always have and we always will stand in solidarity. America’s civil rights struggles have informed our own, and it is apt that Martin Luther King looks out atop our red, black and yellow flag in Newtown, one of the very first crime scenes in this country.

In solidarity at The Block, Redfern  Photo by Barbara McGrady, 13th September 2014

In solidarity at The Block, Redfern
Photo by Barbara McGrady, 13th September 2014

We also have a shared present reality in that our young black people are being murdered by the system at epidemic rates. According to Operation Ghetto Storm, this is at the rate of one every 28 hours in the USA. Here, police custodial deaths for First Peoples, and for all Australians, have gone up instead of down since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADC). First Peoples are less than 3 per cent of Australia’s total population, yet we comprised 29 per cent of the total Australian prison population. Broken down by gender, First Nations women account for more than 33 per cent of all incarcerated women in Australia, while First Nations men account for 28 per cent of all incarcerated men. From 2008-11, 33 of the 159 deaths in prison custody were Indigenous prisoners. The reality here is that it is much more likely that a black person will die in custody than a non-Indigenous person because we are grossly overrepresented by our disproportion inside, in proportion to our small population outside.

Since 1788, with the importation of the English injustice system, our people have been locked up inside white cages. We have been condemned as criminal by an alien legal framework, not judged by our own culturally appropriate frameworks. We never caged our animals, let alone our criminals, and being caged is not in our genetic or cultural memories.  Our people do not belong in cages, and we certainly do not belong in cages because of unpaid fines. Gerry Georgatos states that “Hundreds of Australians endure the ordeal of jail because of unpaid fines, their poverty a burden. Disproportionately First Nations people are incarcerated ‘to pay off’ their fines.” The only people who belong in cages are those who are a real, not perceived, threat to society.

Being caged is traumatic enough; add on the distress of not being believed when you are sick, being humiliated because of stereotypes, being excessively punished, and the crippling impacts of isolation and guilt on a person’s spiritual health. Consider also that many of our people come out of the system in a worse state than they went in. It is indeed true that a significant proportion of our suicides are by people who have been incarcerated, and this does not even count those who have previously been interred by the welfare system.

Yet for every black person who has broken a white law, where is the equality of the converse? How many whitefellas have broken our laws against rape, murder, massacre, child theft, the permanent destruction of our underground water, the theft of land and of resources? Why are they not only not sentenced in our law, but not even in their own? The answer to this lies within the historical and ongoing structures of institutional racism, summarily: Break black law and prosper. Break white law and die.

What message does this institutional racism send to young black people, who are trying to transcend their historical legacies and live lives worthy of the fight our ancestors bled for? To stay down in the gutter where they were born? To become potential target practise if it’s cold outside and they choose to reach for their hoodie? To believe that if they see cops they have to run in fear for their lives? To see unpaid parking fines as a choice between continuing poverty or death in a cage? To see a criminal every time they look in the mirror? To feel guilty for their skin?

For the victims of the state, this is not just a case of wrong place and wrong time, or even wrong skin, wrong side of the system, or wrong luck. It’s too easy to make this circumstantial. It is not a passive act to shoot a child, or leave a young woman dying, so let’s not victim-blame. These are killings. This is active death-dealing. It is not circumstantial that these people are black and it is not circumstantial that the killers are part of a racist system. There is a pattern here, evidence; a tapestry woven of white chains choking frail black threads, winding so tight that it becomes stained red. The system does not just passively not care; more than this, it actively does not care. It actively neglects and brutalises.

It is not enough that grieving families be given an impartial coronial inquest. It is not enough that the murderers in uniform go to trial. It is not enough that Deaths in Custody receive a Royal Commission, or that disempowered communities riot to be heard. None of this, in the statistically improbable chance that they are followed through in a total, unbiased and satisfactory manner, will bring back our dead. No sentence or coronial finding will take away the hurt and anger their system has brought about. The problem cannot be the solution.

These outcomes have never brought about satisfactory justice. What needs to happen is a complete overhaul, not just of the judicial system, but of all systems that feed into it; ergo, an overhaul of social attitudes and policy. The police in the USA are doing a great job, upholding their motto to protect and serve – of protecting the system and serving the state, of continuing the deep-rooted racism from a shameful history by bringing it into modernity. If you have kids, who will one day grow up to be cops, judges, nurses or screws, you must show them that the life of Ms Julieka Dhu is worth just as much as the life of a white girl. You must teach them that their duty is to protect and serve us, the people, not their own skin and system.

The reality is that black deaths, here and there, are not seen as worthy. Black deaths are seen as different, lesser. When a white person is killed by a white person, it is a tragedy. When a black person is killed by a black person, it is expected. When a white person is killed by a black person, it is usually reported as a gang-related crime. And so, when blackfellas are killed by a white system, it must also be understood as gang-related and oppressive, not simply dismissed as all in the line of duty. The organised crime gangs, the boys in blue, are the real thugs. Their hierarchy is as tight as sin, their violence is internally encouraged and their self-interest is preserved.

Another reality is that black deaths here are worth even less than black deaths over there. Where were the twitter storms for Julieka Dhu? Where were the pickets at police stations for Mr Phillips in Kalgoorlie? Where is the nation-wide outrage for Maureen Mandijarra? Where was the global solidarity for Mr Ward in Warburton? What is the difference between a boy being shot point blank by cops in the USA, and a boy in Redfern being chased by gunjis, fearing for his life and left bleeding, based on what the narratives in his history have told him? For these killings to be counted, to be seen as important and worthy of the same coverage and outrage as our American counterparts, we also need to be seen as human, worthy and respected. The evidence shows that we are not.

This is not about left or right wing politics, or about skin-deep, socially constructed differences. This is about humanity, and until every mother and father, sister and brother stops to imagine what it would feel like to lose one of their own to violent police brutality, or inhumane murderous neglect, until everybody is just as outraged that this is happening to somebody else’s young people, not much will change. Even more, everybody needs to stop and ask themselves, “How would I feel if this happened to mine, and nobody cared?” Because not caring is very much part of the problem.

Strip this all away and what we have is that a young boy was shot, and a sick woman was left for dead. If you have the privilege of walking around at night with your hoodie up, if you have the privilege of remaining uncaged and alive despite pissy parking fines, if you have the privilege of telling a cop to not shoot you and having them listen, if you have the privilege of riding your bike through your suburb and not being chased by the gunjis, fearing for and losing your life based on narratives in racist histories, this does not mean you should not care.

If you aren’t outraged, chances are you have that privilege. And if that sounds harsh, consider that we envy your privilege, that we do not have the luxury of not caring, that if we could, we would dedicate our lives to the pursuit of pleasure, not fighting for our basic human rights to be respected by a system that is killing our warriors and leaders of tomorrow.

It is not enough to simply be saddened or discomfited by these deaths, dismissing them as fatalistic, dismissing them as something that happened to other people, to people you have no connection to. It is not enough to feel helpless, you must be outraged. You must find the death of Mulrindji just as tragic as the death of Mike Brown. You must be just as outraged at the death of Julieka Dhu as the death of Trayvon Martin. You must find the police killing of Eddie Murray in Wee Waa just as abhorrent as the police killing of Mark Duggan in Tottenham. No human life is worth more than another. No black death in Roeburn is worth less than a black death in Ferguson.

Because this is the heart of the problem with Black Deaths in Custody. It is seen as our problem, not touching wider Australia, let alone the world. Our deaths are not widely known about and are not widely protested. Let us take a cue from the people of Ferguson, from the people from Tottenham, UK. When these killings take place, we need to hold those responsible accountable, all of us, not just the families and communities who have lost.

And so, if you’ve only ever protested things that affect your own demographic – those of your nationality, skin colour, sexuality or gender – then you are part of the problem. The false divides of race, religion, geography and politics are entrenched in historical construction and perpetuated by our politicians and their media mouthpieces. The real divide is class, and the truth is that we are disproportionately overrepresented in the lowest rungs. It is not enough that we stand in solidarity with other black communities. It s not enough that a smattering of staunch and dedicated whitefellas stand as allies. This solidarity is very important, but it is not enough.

We have never had anything handed to us; no human rights legislation, no social justice victory. Every little thing we have ever gained inside of this system has been the result of hard work, constant campaigning with solid, loud and outraged voices. Yet twenty years on, they have still not implemented most of the recommendations from the RCADIC. And twenty years on, the rate of active, neglectful killings are higher and growing.

Doctor Luther King’s dream has turned into a nightmare: his vision for resilient leaders has been shot full of bullet holes; his hope for our daughters has been left for dead in a cage, ridiculed and forgotten; his hope for our sons has been crushed under the weight of police feet and knees, bleeding and broken. In solidarity with the communities who are grieving wrongful losses, and in alliance with those still protesting their injustices, then and now, let us all be outraged.

– Defender Of The Faith, 15th September 2014, Cadigal country

But You Don’t Look Aboriginal

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you are denying that I am Aboriginal. To deny that I am Aboriginal is to deny that my grandmother was taken by welfare because she was Aboriginal, by the dictates of past government policies. To deny that she was taken because she was Aboriginal is to deny that past policies attempted genocide of Aboriginal people. To deny that the government’s objective was genocide is to deny that the government is responsible for the widespread decimation of Aboriginal language, traditions, land rights and intact family trees today. To deny that there is no widespread crises of identity within Aboriginal individuals, families, communities – and indeed our entire country – is to deny our lived reality. And when you deny our reality, you deny us our humanity. And so when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, it goes much further than just skin-deep.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, it says much to me about your level of misunderstanding and your adherence to the tenets of the obsolete pseudo-science that is biological race theory. Your individual ignorance is however, symptomatic of a widespread pandemic, where these beliefs are not systematically dismantled in the education system from a young age, thereby perpetuating the dominant white-male-heterosexual-Christian-dual binary values that are normalised and exude from the hidden curriculum. And so when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you’re not entirely to blame; the weight of such culpability is much too much for an individual to bear.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you are nevertheless still guilty of perpetuating violence control through your embodiment of racist values. You are acting as a vehicle for oppression, an agent of history and part of the framework that continues the legacies of past assimilation policies. Does this come as a shock to you? Are you in denial? This is where the recognition of your privilege must come into play on your part. You must locate your beliefs in the historical and spacial continuum of oppression, and only then will you realise how you are an agent, acting out this culture. Conversely, you will then be responsible to be an agent of change. With knowledge comes responsibility, because education without action does nothing. So when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you’re not getting off that easily with a seemingly innocuous comment; ignorance does not equal innocence, and I’m going to take this as an opportunity to do my responsibility.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you are implicitly perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Prevalent misperceptions and misconceptions of Aboriginal people include that we are lazy, drunk, dole-bludging, violent, sneaky and uneducated [sorry, I couldn’t think of any good ones that I’ve encountered in my whole life; not my fault]. When you compliment me for not embodying any of these negative stereotypes, and upholding me as the paragon of black virtues because of my perceived whiteness, you are reinforcing these stereotypes of what all “real”, “authentic” Aboriginal people are like. By telling me I’m the exception to the rule you are reinforcing the rules. You are promulgating a colonial hangover of media-created deficiencies. You are telling me that I’m inauthentic and you are telling yourself everything that centuries of racist politicians, scientists, missionaries and journalists have told you is the truth. So when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you are deluding yourself with the very tools they created to oppress us.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, and you grill me about the whyfores and how-sos I have the gall to identify as such, you are being invasive and rude. By believing you are entitled to know the minutiae of my family tree, you are presuming that your sense of entitlement takes precedence over my personal boundaries. But not so. When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, and you drill me with your intrusive eyes and prod me with your blunt questions, you are telling me that you do not respect me.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, and add that I ‘mustn’t have much’ in me, or enquiring after my caste and blood percentage, you are attempting to reduce over 40 000 years of deep and vibrant culture to a quantifiable measure; over two hundred years of survival and resilience against colonialism, attempted genocide and ongoing assimilation to a drop of blood; my own nearly thirty years of lived culture in family and community to a miniscule section of mammoth lengths of DNA. You are reducing who I am in flux and flow to an immutable, graspable number for ease of understanding, to further reduce and divide the entirety of me and mine. By continuing to ask how much I have in me, after not getting the hint to drop this line of eugenic economic interrogation, ‘what part?’, ‘what caste?’, you continue to ignore the fact that it just doesn’t work that way. That despite centuries of imposed definitions that sought to variously segregate and assimilate us, to provide a solution as though we were a problem to be solved, that tried to cut us down enough so that we would fit into their constricting frameworks, you do not hear the truth that I just am. Not half of me, nor a quarter, or one seventy-eighth; not my head or my heart or my left arm or right pinkie toe; not my eyes or hair, not tooth or nail. I just am. All of me, all the time. Always was and always will be. So when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’ you are attempting to reduce the entirety of my identity and relationships and activism to one single moment, now, where you want the answer that I will never give you the satisfaction of giving you. You will never cut me down to size.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, and add that I am too pretty, my features too fine, my height too wonderful, my feminised body too elegant, you are telling me that you believe all other Aboriginal women to be ugly. You are saying that my Mum and my grandmother, my Aunties, my cousins, friends, nieces and my unborn daughter are all ugly. Not just different by the narrow standards of the male gaze of the white beauty industry, but actually unattractive, fullstop, done. How then could you explain all of our non-Indigenous fathers? Lovers? One-night stands? Here I will acknowledge the fact that rape has been a reality for us the last couple of centuries. However, this does not explain the many healthy mixed race relationships, or even the unhealthy fetishisation of black women. You are ignoring the reality that black women have always been desirable to non-Indigenous men and women. So when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you are not only saying that desirable black women are not authentic black women, you are also saying that only non-Indigenous women are allowed to be beautiful.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, that I look more Lebanese, or Italian, or Spanish, or Croatian, or whatever, you are reducing what it means to be Aboriginal in all its gorgeous complexity to an essential list of clinical physical features, to a cold and simple checklist for cookie-cutter authenticity. Not only is this sheerly stupid because of the evidence that Aboriginal people today come in all shapes and sizes, with an astonishing diversity of facial features and skin colours; to discount certain items off the checklist in favour of other items is to racialise our bodies, to racialise our very beings. By subscribing to the Dulux colour-card myth of Aboriginality, you are continuing the work of past welfare and government institutions who held colour swatches up to the skin of black babies before they ripped them from their mothers’ arms. They grouped these babies according to tone, often separating siblings by this completely arbitrary division that could change seasonally with the strength of the sun. Further to this unpredictability, it was an actual division in many cases where sister and brother were physically separated not only from their mother, but also from each other. This was the case with my grandmother, who was taken from her Aboriginal mother at the age of four, along with her seven-month-old brother, never for any of them to see each other ever again. Yes, they took their heartbreak to their graves. So for me and mine, colour is not just an objective judgement of a visual hue, it has a crushing historical weight that has crippled all of my family members, each in their own way. So when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, this shameful historical legacy reaches to me from the past to haunt me to this very day.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, my deep-running empathy and over-active imagination come into play. I imagine and feel what this would have meant to me if I had been born one hundred, eighty, sixty, or even forty years ago. And I consider myself lucky that I was born in the year of Orwell’s hell, although my Mum still did instil in us her very deep fear of the welfare, so that we knew how to perform for society and never draw attention to ourselves. Because growing up as we did, with a single Aboriginal mother, if we had not performed well and hidden ourselves, if we had been born ten years earlier, there is a statistical probability that we would have been taken too. Do not misunderstand me; we were very much loved and always supported. We weren’t abused and we were never in danger, however we never had any money and poverty is criminal in the eyes of the welfare. Furthermore, traumatic events necessitated that we move far away from our extended family – my Mum’s only support network – and begin to integrate into a completely disconnected community who thankfully very soon took us in. So when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’ you are telling me how lucky I am to have been born when I was.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, I imagine that you are the welfare with the authority of government policies behind your words, and that you have the power to take me from my mother and my brothers. And in a way, you have, because I step back in time to the known story of my grandmother’s life. My grandmother, who never knew me, walks beside me every day in the only form I’ve ever known her. I look very much like her, and it’s not just her beautiful features that have left their mark on me. Her entire life-story haunts mine, and I continue to try to make sense of myself in the context of her struggles. She walks inside me every day and I have an ongoing relationship with her. I have an obligation to ensure that what she suffered through is known, and also that it stops. So when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you have taken me away from my family and into her life.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, I feel, viscerally, my grandmother’s pain; I panic in the knowledge that I will never see my mother again, that every letter I write to her will not receive an answer. That instead of the girl’s home guardians telling me the truth that they are not passing her replies on to me, they instead tell me that she has forgotten about me and that she doesn’t love me. I am paralysed by the knowledge that my mother will not be there when I am sick, when I need her to love me. I will never hear her voice again, nor smell her skin, or have her kiss me goodnight. Ever, ever again, forever, never. Never. She will never pass on parenting practises to me, and the adults I have as parent figures are inturn abusive, cold and transient; all unloving. These early role models imprint on me and my first escape from them is straight into the arms and wedlock of a man with an uncanny resemblance to my early caregivers. My mother will not be there when I get married, when I am in labour, when I am sick, and when I die too young. She will not be there for my children, when I need her to love them. So when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you have taken my mother from me. You have taken my world from me.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, my breath catches, knowing that if not for the grace of my being born when I was, that I would never see my brothers again. As we five, joined to each other through our Mum, and glued to each other through our close upbringing, some of us have different Dads, creating a beautiful diversity within our obvious similarities. But that because we have different skin colours, body types, nose shapes and eye colours, we would not be deemed similar enough in the eyes of the law to remain together as would support our basic human dignity. That some of us would grow up in cold hard institutions, trained for domestic or menial labour according to gender, yet regardless of gender as befits our darker skin. That the others would be adopted into a white family to become their chattel, neglecting to nourish our connection to our true culture; denying us our rightful inheritance, severing who we are from who they want us to be, and therefore butchering our very being. Placed far apart, names changed and changed and changed again, we would never even know where to start looking for each other, and so we would all live out the rest of our lives as only, lonely children. So when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you are tearing me from my big and little, but all strong brothers. You are dictating that we have different worth and different levels of usefulness according to your cold and convenient colour-coordinated doctrine.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you are alerting me to the fact that if left unchecked and uncorrected, you will repeat this comment to others, maybe others who are less resilient or strong in their identity than I am. Perhaps young children, maybe of my blood or maybe not. Perhaps one day my own daughter. Probably, you will impress upon your own children that this comment is okay, maybe they will continue this legacy. I do hope you might leave that in the past where it belongs. I also hope you might get with the times. When you comment, I wonder who you are and what power you wield in the world, and what influence you have on Aboriginal people. Are you a social worker, a teacher, a doctor, a cop? A football coach, a journalist? A shop assistant, an employer? A real estate agent, a model scout? An anthropologist, an art dealer, a miner, a farmer? A magistrate, a screw? Or are you just the average busybody, keeping the hard-to-kill-but-not-yet-obsolete White Australia policy alive and well? Whoever you are, do you have the power to invoke feelings of shyness, shame and inadequacy in our young black kids? Or even our Elders? So, when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’ you make me wonder whether you can change your position, change your course, catalyse reconciliation and continue on as an embodiment of alliance, acceptance, validation, respect and healing that our cultures have so sorely missed from you.

– Defender Of The Faith, 24th March, 2014

I highlight this because I’ve heard it said that recognition and identity is only a “small issue” compared with the health, housing, education, employment, and criminal justice statistics that describe our situation today. I first point this out to demonstrate how imposed definitions blatantly attempted our genocide in the past, and I further point this out because this attempted genocide is absolutely, unequivocally responsible for our fourth-world socio-economic status that we live through today. Finally, I point this out because our current low life expectancy, high infant mortality rate, incarceration and deaths in custody ratio, and child removal rates – that far surpass Stolen Generations rates – tell the tale. These facts and figures speak to a government who still do not care. Although they have changed the terminology and phrasing of their policies, the effects of their actions and interference is ongoing, yet with even worse outcomes than at the times the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths and Custody, and the Bringing Them Home report, were published.

I wrote this for the people who still come up against this, in the hopes that they can more deeply understand why it’s not appropriate, and maybe get some new angles on their reactions. I especially wrote this for the parents of black kids: the Indigenous parents who may also know what it’s like, and the non-Indigenous parents who might not know on a personal level. I wrote it for all the parents who want to defend our black babies, so that they know what to say, but more importantly, so that they can instil the pride in their kids that my Mum instilled in me – pride so that they can be resilient and not buy into out-dated myths.

However, I addressed this to non-Indigenous people who do this, who might be setting a bad example for their own kids to follow in their footsteps. I addressed this to those people who might be making our kids feel angry and hurt and defensive, for all those who have made me and mine feel this way, and for those who still attempt to. So whether you intend to belittle us or not, you can recognise where you are located in the continuum of oppression, and hopefully make the decision that racism stops with you, to become our allies instead of remaining as obstacles in allowing our babies, and even ourselves, to feel as valued and strong as we should. As we must.

This post was published by The Stringer on 1st of April, 2014