Opinion: 26 January is a catalyst for racism

Opinion: 26 January is a catalyst for racism

Let me say at the outset that I love this country. I have been privileged in my life to see much of it – from Tasmania in the south, to Duan and Saibai Islands of the Torres Strait, Kakadu in the top end, and the Pilbara in WA. I’ve been to Kalgoorlie-Boulder, Lightning Ridge, Cairns, Dareton, Broken Hill, and many more places.

I grew up on both the North Coast of NSW and the South Coast of NSW where my parents lived. On the North Coast I went to high school in Lismore, and lived on a farm at Brooklet, while down south I enjoyed the crystal waters of Bawley Point and surrounds.  I’ve also been able to travel to several other countries around the world – for example: Thailand, Singapore, Spain, Italy, France, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Amsterdam, Canada, and Hawaii… and while these countries have been wonderful to visit, I will always call Australia “home”.

I have also never heard an Aboriginal person say they don’t like this continent that we now call Australia. Aboriginal peoples have lived on this continent for over 60,000 years… if we didn’t like it, we would have left at some point. Celebrating country is not new for Aboriginal peoples. We have story and ceremony that celebrates country that have been passed down through thousands of generations.

The issue of contention in the celebration of this country is the date. 26 January is simply not the right date to choose to celebrate what is great about this country, because sadly it represents what is not great about this country. It represents the commencement of a brutal period of colonisation, and all of the associated negative events and actions. It represents dispossession, rapes, murders, massacres, and attempted genocide. It represents events that today most Australians wish had never occurred. Unfortunately, they did. We cannot go back in time and change these awful events, but we can easily change the date on which we choose to celebrate this country.

For me, the worst part of 26 January (and the weeks before) is the significant rise in instances of racism, racial vilification and hate speech on social media. “Australia Day”, because of the contention of the date it is celebrated, results in Aboriginal people identifying the day as “Survival Day” or “Invasion Day”. Many non-Aboriginal people respond to posts advertising “Survival Day” and “Invasion Day” events with hate speech and racial vilification. It is just awful.

Every year, in the lead up to 26 January, I see racist vitriol from non-Aboriginal people, spouting racist myths and stereotypes, based on ignorance. I see comments telling Aboriginal people we should be grateful the British invaded this continent. We are told we should be grateful we have white man’s technology. We are told we should be grateful we weren’t all killed. We are told we should be grateful we weren’t invaded by the Dutch. We are told to stop whinging because we aren’t grateful for all the money we get. We are told Aboriginal people were stupid and couldn’t even invent the wheel. There are comments that are even more offensive that I won’t repeat here.

I must say I find it a little funny in that Aboriginal peoples were trading with peoples from Indonesia, Timor, and other countries long before the British arrived… and given much of our technology comes from Asia these days I am sure Aboriginal people would have had access to technology and scientific developments etc if the British didn’t turn up. But I digress…

It is clear that keyboard racists, who feel free to racially vilify Aboriginal people through hate speech and derogatory comments while hiding behind their screens, have little if any knowledge of the colonial past of this country. They know nothing of the Doctrine of Terra Nullius. They know nothing of the hundreds of massacres of Aboriginal men, women, and children – often historically described as “sport” by members of the white community.

They know nothing of the forced removal of Aboriginal people from their ancestral homelands, and the detention of Aboriginal people on missions and reserves. They’ve never heard of an “Exemption Certificate”. They don’t understand what the Stolen Generations is about, or the profound grief and trauma it caused to thousands of Aboriginal children and their families. They don’t understand what is like living in a country where deep seated racism is at play every day, and where institutional and systemic racism remains a constant impediment to “Closing the Gap”.

They don’t understand what it is like to lose a loved one who dies in gaol because the staff at the time didn’t believe the pleas for medical assistance and/or couldn’t be bothered calling an ambulance or health professional… and they don’t understand the legitimate distress when nobody is held criminally liable for such fatal negligence. This level of ignorance unfortunately results in zero capacity for empathy.

What is even sadder, in many ways, is that these keyboard racists refuse to educate themselves. They refuse to access the wealth of information online about these topics. They stubbornly insist on remaining ignorant, all the while making racist statements about Aboriginal peoples and communities which are untrue, misleading, or just blatant lies.

Of course, if I dare to challenge this online racism I am called “a woke lefty”, and told I don’t know what I’m talking about. I am told that because I live in Sydney I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m told I’m not a real Aborigine because I live in a city. I’m told that if I don’t like it I should go and live in the bush without white man’s technology. I’m called an idiot, a moron, and worse. This doesn’t just happen to me of course, it happens to anyone who dares to challenge such online racism and hate speech, including non-Aboriginal people.

All because of a date.

All because Aboriginal people highlight that we don’t see 26 January as an appropriate date of celebration. How dare we. Apparently, some people don’t like hearing about the truth of this country’s colonial past, and won’t have a bar of changing the date because… because… umm… well they can’t think of an actual legitimate reason, so they return to racist taunts and insults.

Yes, 26 January is an awful date to try to celebrate this wonderful country. It is a catalyst for a surge in racism and hate speech towards Aboriginal people. The date can and should be changed.

I am aware of course aware that there are some Aboriginal people who say they don’t care about the date and that we should be focused on other issues that are more important. I am always confused by this.

Just because I think the date of “Australia Day” should be changed does not at all mean I am not concerned about the safety of women and children, the scourge of domestic violence, land rights, overcrowded housing, a lack of infrastructure in remote communities, deaths in custody, the over-representation of Aboriginal people in custody, getting our kids educated, and of course the establishment of a Treaty.  These are of course very important issues that must be addressed. Perhaps those who claim we should focus on more important things can’t multitask? However, I work on the assumption that most of the population can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Let’s change the date to one we can all celebrate.

Nathan Tyson is Director of First Peoples Strategy and Engagement, NSW and ACT Synod

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