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Real people affected by racist taunts (2010)

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice


The following opinion pieces have been published by the President and Commissioners. Reproduction of the opinion pieces must include reference to where the opinion piece was originally published.

Real people affected by racist taunts

Author: By Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Publication: The National Times, Friday 18 June 2010

Imagine reading your daily paper and constantly seeing comments that demonise your family or your friends.

Imagine being the subject of disparaging comments dressed up as jokes.

Sadly, in 2010, that is still the reality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. Sadly too, it is the reality for all Australians who are subject to this type of behaviour.

As a community, we need to start encouraging a culture where we tackle racism head-on.

Research has shown that when a person publicly stands up against a racist incident, the likelihood of it happening again is lessened.
I don't know Andrew Johns or Mal Brown personally, so I don't know if they are racist. But I believe that the comments they have reportedly made are racist.

As an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, I can say that the overwhelming sentiment from Indigenous Australians about these events is sadness. Why? These comments are quite simply offensive and hurtful.

Excusing comments that put anyone down on the basis of their race is not ok. It is irrelevant whether the joker or the immediate recipients are not offended.

What matters in this case, is that the Australian Indigenous population is largely offended.

The general public needs to know that, however unintentional, however seemingly inoffensive their defenders say they are, jokes and offensive descriptions that perpetuate stereotypes actually hurt Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Real people are affected by these incidents each time they happen. Like invisible tentacles, the jibes, the put downs and the stereotypes extend to other levels, ensnaring participants along the way – in the schoolyard, in the workplace, in shopping centres and in neighbourhoods around Australia.

Despite the significant headway we've made in recent times towards reconciliation in this country, most notably with the 2008 National Apology and the 2009 formal support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the events of the past week tell me we still have a long way to go in dealing with racism towards Indigenous Australians.

On one level, I'm glad these outrageous comments have put the light on systemic and entrenched pockets of racism that still exist. We have to be brave and admit that there is a problem here. And as scary as it may be, it is not just a problem in the football community.

Historically, in Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have endured generations of systemic discrimination. It is a history that has seen policies, programs and laws that have treated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples less equally than other Australians. We need to look no further than the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people obtained the full right to enrol and vote in federal elections only as recently as 1962. Or the fact that policies which forcibly removed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, continued up until the 1970's.

As a community, we have a responsibility to not be silent bystanders to episodes of racism. We need to call it for what it is.

But governments too, have a responsibility. They need to show leadership and to ensure that society's structures, laws and frameworks don't allow for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be treated less equally than other Australians.

However, I worry about the message Australians receive from government when the only times the application of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) have been significantly limited in relation to specific laws, has been on issues that affect the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders: the Northern Territory Emergency Response laws and the Native Title Act.

Any institutional structure – be it our houses of Parliament, our sporting codes or our educational systems – and any place of public discourse, be it our workplaces or even our own conversations over dinner...they all play a role in perpetuating a public psyche that allows these pockets of racism to spill over from time to time. At the end of the line in all of these instances are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are expected to just get up, dust themselves off and get over it.
It is time we as a community – each and every one of us – did our bit and called these things for what they are.

Remaining silent only perpetuates it.