Last month on January 26th, Australians gathered to celebrate Australia Day, or, as it’s affectionately dubbed, ‘Straya Day. Across the land we fired up our barbecues, drank our beer, oohed and ahhed at the firework displays and had a good old yarn what it means to be a True-Blue Aussie.
Australia Day commemorates the day that the First Fleet arrived on our shores, and subsequently proceeded to steal, murder and rape their way to colonization. They stuck in a flag wherever they found a willing piece of soil, and just like that, the land – and its people – was THEIRS. Australia. The Lucky Country. No discussion, no pleases, no thank yous. Soon after, a war began that would only end in 1939 after 151 years of bloodshed. Although the war has ended, we’re still not at peace with the traditional owners of the land, more than 200 years down the track.
Australia Day has a completely different meaning for most Indigenous Australians. They call it Invasion Day, or sometimes, Survival Day. When I found this out (only a couple of years ago), I couldn’t help a surging sorrow that rose up from deep inside, for a people who have struggled vainly to claw back some of what was stolen from them, to cling on desperately to their ‘dreaming’, and to uphold their culture in the face of our country’s wide-spread ignorance, scorn, hate, shame, abuse, RACISM.
How on earth did I live my whole life never knowing what Australia Day meant to Indigenous Australians? When I look back to what we learned in history class, we were taught about the illustrious Captain Cook and the First Fleet, about the hard-working Early Settlers, about those poor convicts who were often sentenced to a life of toil in the colonies for stealing a loaf of bread. Sure, ‘that awful thing that happened with the aborigines’ was brushed upon, but when it came to the 26th of January, we kids donned our flags, painted our none-the-wiser faces, and, well, celebrated.
WTF? Is anybody else getting this?
The truth is, our governments didn’t want us to dwell on the plight of the aboriginals (they might be forced to answer a couple of sticky questions – god forbid!), so it wasn’t taught in school. Full voting rights were only achieved in 1965. Right up until the ‘70s, children were being literally stolen from their homes to be rehomed with white families. In the ‘80s (when I was at school), a Royal Commission was launched to investigate the disproportionate number of aboriginal deaths in custody. Even now, indigenous kids under five are dying at a rate comparable to some of the world’s poorest countries. Government schools can’t teach about things governments are trying to hide.
We’re not talking centuries ago, we’re talking recent history. You’d think the mass populous of Australia might feel some compassion. Instead, we sit back and judge them as a bunch of drunks, filling up our prisons, and living off taxpayers’ money. I don’t know about you, but if my son or daughter was physically removed from my care because I wasn’t seen to be a fit mother based on nothing but my cultural heritage, that may just drive me to the bottle too. I might become depressed, and unable to hold down a job. How do you recover from that? Perhaps, with the right support, or with an inner strength built on a stable foundation of love, acceptance, good health, education and welfare you can. Perhaps. And I’m not even touching upon what the impact of generations of segregation and marginalisation must have on a person.
Now, let me freely admit I that I’ve travelled to a lot of different countries, and I think I’m lucky to be Australian. I’ve always received adequate healthcare, even surgery, and I’ve never had to pay for it. LUCKY. I’ve never felt threatened by a madman with a gun. LUCKY. Fresh water is not a problem. LUCKY. Although there are gaping holes in our welfare system, I know if I suddenly lose my job, I’ll be ok. Plus, we have platypuses. LUCKY! But Australia is a racist nation, and I hate that.
I hate that some of my friends are racist. I hate that ever since I was old enough to get jokes, I’ve heard them told about Indigenous people – coon jokes. I hate that in the past I’ve laughed at them, to fit in and avoid awkward situations. Just the other day, a joke was sent to my inbox about an aboriginal family. I love the person who sent it to me and would not want them to feel condemned, because I know there is no malice in his heart. But it shows what state a country is in, when even kind-hearted people pass on racist jokes because the accepted belief is, really, everyone likes to have a cheeky laugh at the abos. It’s just…what we do.
When I spoke out about this recently on my personal Facebook page, there was a backlash. “Oh God, Lisa, you’re being too PC’ (I’ve realized that’s what people say when they don’t want to care about injustices), ‘you’re annoying people’. It’s as if people wish to remain ignorant, because it’s less confronting. They might be forced to <*wince*> feel something. Compassion? No thanks! I prefer my bubble of ignorance.
Now that some time has passed, and a public apology by our ex-PM been made, I wonder whether more of the truth is being taught in schools. I hope so! But between what’s taught (*not taught*) in schools, and one man controlling 70% of our news publications, you can see why I’m a little concerned. We have come a long way but we must be fearless in our quest for the truth; fearless in seeking it and, when we find it, fearless in expressing it. So that when we do celebrate being Australian and living in this Lucky Country on Australia Day, we can do so with the awareness of the significance of this day, and pay our respects to the traditional owners of this land that suffered then, and still suffer now. We must instil in our children the confidence to ask questions and demand answers. If I was kept in the dark as a school kid, what truths are being kept from us now? Awareness leads to understanding, understanding to compassion, compassion to equality; but for the most part we haven’t even got the awareness part right yet, so we’re about as far from equality as Hobart is from Darwin! (And that’s a long way).
Is there a similar Day celebrated in the States, where white people celebrate and First Nations grieve? What are your impressions of Australia and our Indigenous population? Does our racist reputation precede us?
(Thank you Wes Mountain for the cartoon – http://thisisaustraliatoday.wordpress.com/)