Ignorance is no longer an excuse for racism

Ignorance is no longer an excuse for racism

Nathan Tyson is an Aboriginal man, of Anaiwon and Gomeroi heritage. He is the Relationships and Service Manager with the Uniting Church in Australia (Synod of NSW and ACT)

I always find the lead up to Australia Day exhausting.

If I had been writing this a few weeks before Australia Day I’d have probably been in a better headspace, however the closer it gets to 26 January the more difficult it is to be optimistic. Most of the year I can see that many non-Aboriginal people are good people who are making an effort to understand the perspectives of First Peoples. I can see that there are many good people who want to see justice for First Peoples. However, in the lead up to Australia Day we see the worst racism and bigotry.

Racism is moved from hushed conversations to bold statements, and even if I tell myself that most Australians are good and decent people, this still doesn’t seem to create a social norm where people are embarrassed or ashamed to express their clearly racist and malicious views about Aboriginal people.

If the majority of Australians are good and decent people, who understand the injustices that have been done to Aboriginal peoples, and who want to see a fair and just resolution of past wrongs, why isn’t this country taking stronger action to prevent racism and hate speech towards Aboriginal people? Instead, we continually see people excusing such conduct in the name of “free speech”. Yet, in Germany and other European countries if you try denying the holocaust it can be a criminal offence.

I am an Aboriginal man, of Anaiwon and Gomeroi heritage in North Western NSW. A descendant of “Queen” Mary Ann Sullivan, Susan Munro, and Tina Brown. My grandmother “Molly” (Mary) Moss (Dec.) was Tina’s granddaughter. I have lived most of my life in Sydney, having attended University and then raised a family here.

I have spent most of my adult life advocating for the rights of Aboriginal peoples. I have worked in a variety of roles with organisations such as the NSW Ombudsman’s Office, the Independent Commission Against Corruption, the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board, and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. Over the last 30 odd years, I have had the privilege of meeting and working with Aboriginal people and communities from all over Australia.

Next year – as a practice of self-care – I really should ignore social media altogether in the lead up to the 26 January. The racist remarks and uniformed commentary by many non-Aboriginal people that appear every year at this time are frustrating, upsetting and anger-inspiring. Sadly, it is the same ignorant and malicious commentary, conveniently cloaked in the excuse of patriotism, and perpetuated primarily via social media, that arises every year.

I know I am not the only Aboriginal person who feels this way. I see many Aboriginal people trying to have rational discourse with non-Aboriginal people who appear driven by prejudice and racism, and also many Aboriginal people who just give up trying to be polite in the face of streams of overt and offensive commentary. Importantly, I know there are also many non-Aboriginal people who are also frustrated, and perhaps even embarrassed, by the racist discourse on social media by some of their fellow Australians.

While it is comforting to know that many non-Aboriginal Australians understand and respect cultural difference, it is still concerning that thousands of Australians continue to perpetuate racial hatred and vilification via social media. They usually do it from fake or unidentifiable Facebook accounts, often accounts that have been deliberately set up for the purpose of “trolling” so that they can hide behind their keyboards while spewing forth nasty and offensive commentary, memes and misinformation.

“In 2021, ignorance about Australian history, colonisation, and the impacts this process had, and continues to have, on Australia’s First Peoples is no longer an excuse for racist commentary or behavior.”

Then there are the people who are just ignorant and like to add their little two bob’s worth of comment: ”I know it might sound racist but…”. These people know enough to know that what they are going to say is racist, but yet feel comfortable to say it anyway. For me, this is indicative of the society these people feel they live in… they feel confident that they will be supported (or “liked”) for saying something they know “might sound racist”.

I used to think ignorance was better than intentional racism, however it is now 2021 and every Australian has access to the internet in some way, shape or form… and every Australian has access to Google. In 2021, ignorance about Australian history, colonisation, and the impacts this process had, and continues to have, on Australia’s First Peoples is no longer an excuse for racist commentary or behavior.

Of course, I’ve tried to report several racist/offensive comments via Facebook, only to be repeatedly told the comments do not violate Facebook’s “community standards”. I’ve sought a review of these decisions by a “specialist”, only to have the original decision reiterated. I’m left frustrated, annoyed, and sometimes quite angry, wondering what “community” has “standards” where such racism and hate speech is considered acceptable? I also wonder whether Facebook has any Aboriginal people employed to help them understand the Australian community context, the history of racism and discrimination that Aboriginal peoples have had to endure, and the current meaning and impact of particular words and commentary? I guess they don’t.

Despite the annual frustration and annoyance I feel in the lead up to Australia Day, and the sadness I feel on the 26 January, I am usually given some hope by hearing from non-Aboriginal people who understand how I (and other Aboriginal people) feel, and understand why the 26 January, as an anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, represents something I struggle to feel good about.

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t celebrate this wonderful country in terms of its beauty, richness, diversity and climate. In this sense I think Australia is the best country in the world. I think Australia should be celebrated for the richness and diversity of its people, including its First Peoples, who are recognised as having the oldest continuing cultures in the world.

If we could have an Australia Day that included a sincere and respectful acknowledgement of, and celebration of, Australia’s First Peoples, then I’d be a part of this celebration… but I can’t celebrate on a date that represents the start of a forceful invasion where thousands of Aboriginal people were massacred, imprisoned, tortured and treated as slaves. We don’t have a party on the date of the Port Arthur Massacre, or of the Granville train disaster, or similar tragic events that impact non-Aboriginal Australians – and nor should we. For the same reason, we shouldn’t have a party on the 26 January… there are dozens of other suitable dates, including dates that Australia Day has already been held on in the past – so let’s just pick a different date so we can all enjoy celebrating this great country.

Nathan Tyson


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