I have just returned from Jamaica, where I gave a keynote address on Black Consciousness as part of the country’s Heritage Week Celebrations. I spent a week feeling “black, loud and proud”, embraced for my Aboriginality and acknowledged by my international peers as an authority in my field.
But I returned home to discover yet another storm of racial vilification brewing. This time it was targeted against actress Miranda Tapsell, whose only crime was to be honest and heartfelt when interviewed about racism in Australia.
And, once again, anger was being aimed at retired footballer Adam Goodes – now due to his role as a David Jones ambassador.
And, last week, a video showing a group of black African students being asked to leave an Apple store in Melbourne went viral. It clearly showed an Apple staff member telling the boys that they had to leave the store because staff were concerned they were going to shoplift. Apple later apologised.
The reality of white privilege
It doesn’t take long as an Indigenous Australian returning from overseas to be reminded that we are a nation of white privilege. Examples of such privilege include people being able to experience the following:
- assume that most of the people you or your children study in history classes and textbooks will be of the same race, gender or sexual orientation as you are;
- assume that your failures will not be attributed to your race or gender; and
- not have to think about your race, gender, sexual orientation or disabilities on a daily basis.
For me, it starts before the flight home. My daughter is the youngest-ever graduate in the Australian Public Service traineeship program, black or white. She also celebrated her 18th birthday in Paris after negotiating a dollar-for-dollar deal with her mother and I.
But rather than reaffirm her identity, Maiala’s success denies her Aboriginality, with people often shocked when they hear how well she is doing.
If she was beaten, abandoned and on substance abuse she would fit her racial profile. This is white privilege in action: assume that your failures will not be attributed to your race or your gender. If Maiala fit her racial profile her failures would be attributed to her being Aboriginal – but no-one assumes this of her success.
Our failure is a consequence of being Aboriginal. But any success is clearly only due to our having white blood.
Being black in white Australia
Everywhere we travel overseas as a family we are asked our ethnicity. Whether in Europe, the US or elsewhere, people are generally shocked to find out we are Indigenous Australians. Why? Because they had no idea black people, let alone Indigenous black people, come from Australia.
Just ask Patty Mills.
Australia is known exclusively as a country of white people. Could you imagine thinking of New Zealand without any idea that Māori people existed, or the US without black people or Native Americans?
My wife and children are very Aboriginal in their appearance. The welcoming faces they receive from other Australians when overseas quickly turn to shock, and replaced by a look we Aboriginal people see all our lives. People look down as we pass them, or slide across in public seats so we can’t sit next to them. Yes, this happens. And we see it, we feel it – and yes it hurts.
The situation almost becomes surreal on the plane. Generally every staff member is white on every major Australian airline. So here we are as black people, jumping on an aircraft of white people being served by white people, immersed back into a world of whiteness.
Just look at these in-flight air safety videos from Australia, the US and New Zealand. If ever there was a demonstration of Australian white privilege this is it. The US and New Zealand videos clearly show black and Indigenous people not only existing, but as being essential to the culture, the company and the identity of the institution. The Australian video is a world of whiteness.
History repeats itself
Australia just isn’t progressive and our people continue to suffer. There’s no better example of this than the fact that we are losing more of our children today than during the Stolen Generation. Not having been reared by my own Aboriginal mother, it is a situation that raises feelings of anxiety within me every time I return home from overseas.
The greatest demonstration of white privilege is that Australia consistently ranks near the top in the annual United Nations Human Development Index – which measures health, economic well-being and life expectancy.
But if Australia’s Indigenous population were to be ranked separately, it would come 100th out of nearly 200 nations. In other words, Australia is one of the richest Western countries in the world built on an industry of mining from the lands of Aboriginal people who remain living in third-world poverty.
As with Tapsell, my daughter Maiala, Goodes, black kids denied access to Apple stores and many others, the atmosphere is toxic. It affects us all and we have to call it for what it is: white privilege.