Within Australia, as is true around the world, successive colonial governments since their invasion have sought to dictate the terms in which Indigenous bodies exist and perform, the ways in which we are identified, classified, raise our children, engage in education, and how and when (never) we may protest. This colonising legacy continues today, reflected within political agendas, various forms of media reporting, and the language used to reference, when not neglecting completely, Indigenous people, communities, and activism.
While there exists much declared goodwill among Australian politicians, policies, and agendas, Indigenous bodies and lives remain misrepresented, over policed, and over incarcerated. Australia is, albeit reluctantly, a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and although still a small minority, there are visibly an increasing number of Indigenous leaders, politicians, journalists, academics, and activists gaining platform to contribute to the broader conversation of Australian society and culture. Yet, our ancestor’s lives, the Frontier Wars, and the atrocities committed by colonists such as Captain Cook, and Governor Lachlan Macquarie, are overlooked within Australia’s whitewashed, white-saviour historical narrative.
Despite this reluctance to embrace truth telling by the government in terms of monuments, history books, and national celebrations, broader Australian society appears to be increasingly aware and intolerant of how white washed Australian history, and policies presently are. Eurocentric views are being challenged, racist and assimilative practices questioned, and formal and informal protests are swelling, with growing numbers of not only Indigenous voices, but also allies pushing for change. As more voices join, and momentum builds seeking to uplift Indigenous rights, there comes increased political commentary and media reporting on this activism, and to a lesser extent, the issues at the heart of the protests.
As Indigenous lives and voices become more frequently discussed and visible within traditional and social media, a trend emerges whereby any differences of Indigenous opinion is utilised to attempt to cast Indigenous activism and voice as disharmonious and untenable in terms of achieving change. This commentary, made by Politicians, and various media outlets, centres around the positioning of Indigenous Australians as being not only ungrateful for all that invasion has brought, but also disharmonious, and seeking to disrupt national unity. Key to presenting Indigenous voices as being disruptive to this fictional existing unity, is the positioning of any discussion around activism as being focused on having emerged with little unity even among Indigenous people. If an Indigenous voice can be found among those with platforms, which does not agree with the direction of the activism being reported on, then the story swiftly evolves to being about the disunity among Indigenous people. It rarely matters who the individual is, what representative status (if any) they can claim, or to which nation they identify, as what matters is that the focus shifts away from the core issue and on to an idea of Indigenous people existing in conflict – even with each other. Once a chosen representative has been latched on to by truth-denying conservatives, the opportunity arises for this chosen voice to gain ‘shock jock’ fame, whereby they will be lauded by the conservative right, and can then be used on their platform to attempt to dismiss and diminish the work of Indigenous Elders, leaders, and activists around the country. This diminishing may come via challenging identity, or representation, or merely claiming to know more and be more than any other. Either way it focuses the conversation away from the core issues, and instead pushes us to channel our anger and energy against one another.
This can be observed in action every January, where broader Australian society becomes increasingly active in discussing and debating January 26th and its current status as ‘Australia Day’. In 2018 Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull commented that he is ‘disappointed by those who want to change the date of Australia Day, seeking to take a day that unites Australia and Australians and turn it into one that would divide us’. Within this narrative, it is told that unity presently exists, that the core issue of the debate centres on the date of the celebration, and that any action and activism around this would seek to ‘disrupt’ an existing national unity.
If only there was unity…
If only the protest and conversation were more palatable…
Indigenous people do not even agree on this, so why should ‘we’ get involved…
And so, the trope of the ‘angry black’ continues.
Consider the handling of how the act of spray painting ‘no pride in genocide’ on a captain cook statue in 2018, (later removed easily by local council) drew scathing personal condemnation from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull who went to the extent of calling it akin to Stalinism. Stalinism, referring to the dictator Joseph Stalin, who led a brutal regime where millions of his own citizens were killed. Such violent and extreme language, chosen and expressed by a key political leader, about a painted slogan used to challenge the dominant, white washed historical narrative, says a lot about the ways in which protest and dissent is framed in this country. Especially when you compare the media response around the Prime Minister’s statement, to the metaphoric comment made by young, Indigenous activist Tarneen Onus-Williams in the same period.
In truth, Indigenous activism which evolves from demonstrable unity does not result in the attention or consideration from politicians or media which we are promised. Consider the way in which the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a work developed by more than 300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community leaders and legal experts in 2017, was swiftly rejected by the Prime Minister. All of that work, energy, and heart, dismissed by those in a position to enact the change being sought. Even though it was sought from a platform of unity.
By focusing public conversation away from the core issues of colonialism, structural violence, and oppression, and instead on what is perceived as a lack of unity among Indigenous community, politicians and media are able to continue framing Indigenous lives and existence as being deficient. This perpetuates the idea that Indigenous people are unable to achieve or manage self-determination, and argues that if within our broad and diverse communities there exists any difference of position or opinion, then it is a sign that the protests and action should be dismissed.
But such an idea that difference must be divisive is wrong, it is a narrative which not only seeks to manipulate, and diminish the Indigenous people who are speaking up on these issues, but is also used to perpetuate the coloniser’s vision of a pan-Indigenous identity. This dismisses the deeply rich and unique cultures, languages, heritage and histories which belong to our many Nations – portraying Indigenous Australia instead through a homogenous and Eurocentric view. In this framing, we are not permitted to be individuals, nor to be separate communities and Nations, instead we are a singular collective, to be held up comparatively against the white man as our superior who we should seek to emanate, while reducing our experiences and aims to minimised representations which do not seek to serve or support us. All in the aim of supporting a false narrative of pre-existing national unity.
And where is this demand for harmony and unity among non-Indigenous politicians, people, and leaders? Divisions within Australian Politics, businesses, organisations, media, and even within the leading political parties themselves are immense, and yet this is accepted. Divisions and differences within major political parties have reached farcical levels in recent decades, with parties unable to unite enough to even maintain a leader for an elected term. As a society, and as a nation we allow politicians to hold views which vary from the bigger party to which they belong, because it is expected that at times their constituents to which they are there to represent, may seek things which are divergent from the broader party. We also acknowledge that politicians have their own individual beliefs, and consciousness. Diversity of opinion rarely, if ever, discredits non-Indigenous people, academics, or political groups.
This position of ‘unity’ is a myth, and it is one which is being utilised with intention. As Indigenous voice and activism increases, and gains more significant platforms, I anticipate that those who seek to diminish this progress will look to manipulate us against one another. However, where Indigenous leaders, activists, and individuals do not share a position, this cannot justifiably be used to delay our progress, empowerment, and self-determination as Indigenous people. It should not be used to fuel lateral violence (though at times, call-outs, or healthy discussions and responses may be needed), or to work against us within media and politics. The diversity, and rich variations of culture, histories, and opinions amongst Indigenous communities, leaders, and activists are an opportunity to remind broader Australian society and politicians that we are many Nations who can have individual opinions, as well as come together for collective action.
Differences of opinion, does not need to be divisive.