“ The Black Lives Matters protests, here in Australia and across the world, are sounding cries of anguish and anger about the unrelenting impact of racism on our lives.
Reflecting on this, I was struck by an important comment from leading Aboriginal psychologist and academic Professor Pat Dudgeon.
There are very few Aboriginal people who wouldn’t have suffered racism, going on to talk about a growing body of evidence showing that racism is detrimental to the mental health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”
Statement by Pat Anderson AO, Chairperson, Lowitja Institute : See Part 1 below
” Given that this is an international gathering I wanted to just briefly set the Australian context and then talk about similarities. In Australia, Indigenous people make up just three per cent of the Australian population.
In my opinion we have only begun to publicly name and discuss racism in the 2010’s as a national issue. Concepts of critical race theory such as power, fragility, privilege, dominant culture and systemic racism are off the table and these sorts of discussions are met with resistance and cognitive dissonance.
But we have experienced the brunt of police brutality, coroners’ reports and overincarceration – in fact, our Aboriginal children make up 100 percent of those in juvenile justice in the Northern Territory.
And we experience the brunt of deaths in custody – since colonisation began, just over 200 years ago. And it’s not just been about police brutality.
It’s also about failure of police to act, including when our children have gone missing, as we saw with the deaths of three Aboriginal children in the small town of Bowraville in the 1990s, for their families who waited decades for justice.
We know this is the experience of many Indigenous peoples and People of Colour worldwide ”
Narrunga Kaurna woman, Dr Janine Mohamed, Chief Executive Officer at the Lowitja Institute, who urged civil society, including powerful sectors like the health and medical fields, to engage with historical and contemporary truth telling and the work of anti-racism.
Part 1 : Racism is killing us: Statement by Pat Anderson AO, Chairperson :
Pat Dudgeon’s words echo strongly in the work of the Lowitja Institute, the national institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research.
Our work shows us that racism is widespread and it makes us suffer. It makes us sick.
We saw its scope and impact in key research that we funded many years ago, which documented very high levels of racism experienced by Aboriginal Victorians, and high levels of distress because of it.
Almost every person (97 per cent) of the 755 surveyed in 2011 in four Victorian communities had experienced at least one racist incident in the previous 12 months, with more than 70 per cent experiencing eight or more incidents a year.
Some of it included being called racist names, teased or stereotyped (92 per cent), being sworn at, verbally abused or subjected to offensive gestures because of their race (84 per cent), or being spat at, hit or threatened because of their race (67 per cent). More than half (54 per cent) reported having their property vandalised because of race.
This is not just abhorrent and an infringement of our rights. This causes life-long harm.
Studies here and from around the world tell us that racism is associated with causing psychological distress, depression, poor quality of life, and substance misuse. Prolonged, it can have significant physical health effects, such as on the immune, endocrine and cardiovascular systems.
Worryingly, our study showed that 40 per cent of participants indicated that they had experienced racism within the justice system and 30 per cent within health care systems.
We know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will not seek out health care and will not work in health services if we do not feel culturally safe.
And we know from the families who took their heartbreak to the streets the last two weekends that racism in the justice system can be brutal and fatal.
Have things changed since the Lowitja Institute commissioned that landmark research?
Not according to new ANU research which showed that three out of four Australians who tested for unconscious bias hold a “negative implicit or unconscious bias against Indigenous Australians”.
And not according to the everyday experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people.
Yet instead of taking urgent action, our government criticises us for our protests. Instead of working to address historic injustice, our Prime Minister diminished it, declaring we should not be “importing the things that are happening overseas to Australia” and that “there was no slavery in Australia”. How can the leader of our country not know our history?
So, as the cries of #BlackLivesMatter continue to ring out across the globe, where do we go from here in Australia?
We need to acknowledge that racism is deeply entrenched in Australia and is a public health emergency for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
That terrible reality is there to be read clearly in the current National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan, which identifies racism as a key driver of ill-health.
It is there to be read in the Uluru Statement to the Heart. In the critiques of the Closing the Gap strategy.
It is in the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody which has at their heart, as Professor Megan Davis said last week, the need to address “the structural powerlessness that renders Indigenous voices silent” in our nation.
It is time to end that silence. And it is time for governments to hear us.
Part 2 : Marching for truth and justice
Last weekend, we acknowledged that shared pain, and once more we as Indigenous Peoples led the call for justice in Australia.
When we saw the treatment of George – we connected with those images and trauma on many levels and wanted to show solidarity and shared lived experience.
I am proud that tens of thousands of Australians joined #BlackLivesMatter marches around the country. Despite the Prime Minister and public health officials warning people not to attend. Despite the threat of fines and arrests. Despite an effort to ban the Sydney protest.
My husband, and my family joined the marches as did many other Indigenous Peoples and community members.
As we marched, I thought of the legacy of our patient ancestors, and of the 437 Indigenous people who have died in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was held in the early 1990s. No one has ever been charged.
I thought of the good police officers and wondered if our stance would privilege their voices?
I thought of the many different peoples of colour who come to our shores and are surprised by the ‘casual ‘racism they experience.
I thought also of the nexus between punitive health and justice systems, and the stories of Ms Dhu, Ms Naomi Williams, Ms Tanya Day and David Dungay Junior who died painful and /or violent and preventable deaths.
So many of our people have been hurt and harmed by traumatising systems. Yet it took the death of an African American man in the US to bring so many non-Indigenous Australians out on to the streets.
And even when we called out our heartbreak on the weekend, walking past big department stores in Melbourne, we heard them advising customers over their Public Announcement systems – “they had locked the front doors – for our safety”.
I wondered if this was a common occurrence for marches in Victoria or just black justice marches?
They were reinforcing the racist profiling and stereotypes that we are violent. Placing the problem with us – rather than calling for action on police and state violence.
It was the same from much of the mainstream media – reflecting the systemic racism within all mainstream systems.
Journalists were putting the hard questions to Indigenous people (asking individuals to speak on behalf of our whole community) about why we were marching. Not putting the hard questions to governments about their failures.
And the day after the march, a prominent TV program held a panel of all-white journalists discussing Black Lives Matter! We have so many Indigenous journalists who are challenging the mainstream narratives.
But the media of course reflects the broader system.
By and large our governments have not responded to #BlackLivesMatter as they should have.
They have denied it’s an Australian issue, trivialised, undermined, vilified, and made #BlackLivesMatter the problem. Even one of our leading health officials told us – weaponised – #AllLivesMatter.
Of course, all lives would matter if Black lives did.
Truth telling matters
Our Prime Minister today said Black Lives Matter protesters should be charged if they attend further marches. He also said, “there was no slavery in Australia”.
As some of our leading academics politely put it, this statement is “at odds with the historical record!”
Our children were removed from families and put to service as domestic labour. Aboriginal pastoral workers were bought and sold in chains. Thousands of Aboriginal families were unable to benefit from economic equity with their wages being withheld well into the 70s and still to this day have not been compensated for their loss.
In some communities people were paid via rations of the worst nutritional kind – feeding Aboriginal people white flour, tobacco, refined sugar and alcohol. This resulted in third world health status in a first world county – disability, chronic illness and physical distress.
Tens of thousands of Pacific Islanders brought to Australia and enslaved to work in sugar plantations – what we call “blackbirding”.
In conclusion, international solidarity is key. And we must always start with self-examination and opportunities to be anti-racists, then we can focus on the structures we work within and influence.
I would like to see the Atlantic Fellowship issue a strong statement about historical and contemporary truth telling, and long term planned action with specific calls to governments, media, powerful sectors like the health and medical sector, businesses, universities and wider civil society.
Thank you for your bravery and solidarity brothers and sisters.
- Dr Janine Mohamed is CEO of the Lowitja Institute and Chair of Croakey Health Media
PostScript: Prime Minister Scott Morrison today apologised for his incorrect comments on slavery.