White supremacy, two words that when used together inspire a very uncomfortable conversation. But if you are brave enough to have the discourse you'll also find it confronting, heartbreaking and fascinating, writes Catherine Liddle.
Catherine Liddle

9 Jun 2015 - 10:00 AM  UPDATED 24 Jun 2015 - 3:41 PM

If you're a keen student of Indigenous Affairs then the chances are it's a conversation you'll find damn right frustrating. I've been sitting in the camp of frustration for a long time. We bombard the public with the statistics, the experts, and the analysis to understand the disparity and disadvantage faced by First Nations people.

Each time we do this, we also exercise caution because we know that for all the people who 'get it' there is a still a significant proportion of the population that doesn't , a few more who don't care and then there's the proportion who get venomous, angry and hateful. It's an old story and I'm tired of it. Then yesterday I met Dr Cornel West.

Considered one of the most influential commentators in the United States, Dr West is a man with an impressive resume. Amongst his many accolades he was the first African American to earn a PhD in Philosophy from Princeton University, he's also lectured at Harvard and Union and authored a number of books that are common reading in Universities around the world. It came as no surprise to me that he would talk about the history and legacy of White Supremacy; after all he follows the teachings of Dr Martin Luther-King, a man whose campaign for equality is now a tale of legend. However, that he would use the words and apply them to Australia caught me completely off guard.

It's not that I didn't know the theory, I'm pretty well read. It's not that I didn't know the story, I've heard it from the mouths of my Grandmothers and Grandfathers and it's not like I don't know the pain, I carry it with me in remembrance to my ancestors. It's just that I was used to hearing different descriptors, words that have now become common or tied to the years of their practice, years that become a buffer to the horror of the policies they convey.

Here's a few to think about, colonisation, dispossession, the White Australia Policy, assimilation, segregation, the Stolen Generation, the protector, massacre - terms that all speak directly to what they represent, a legacy of white supremacy.

Feeling uncomfortable? I was. But then he began to talk with empathy about the behaviours that led to the dehumanisation of another group of people.

The behaviours that feed the mistreatment of others, that enable commentators to attack people over their culture and their celebration of it. The same behaviours that denigrate the struggles of Indigenous people as their own fault and trivialise poor outcomes as though everyone in Australia had access to the same infrastructure, that we all have access to the same quality of education, that when we walk down the street we are all seen as equal and as worthy.

I've heard it before, but this was different. It's a hard to put a finger on exactly what the difference was. It's not that people in Australia aren't prepared to have these hard conversations, ask any activist that has marched the streets, or lobbyist that has stood at the podium or writer that has put their pen to paper, our leaders are fearless and inspirational.

But when Dr West talked about the need to confront an ugly past head on, to acknowledge how the past has an inseparable link to current Indigenous policy, treatment and expectation, he also said something that we don't hear a lot of. He told us that from the outside looking in, Indigenous people are as worthy and powerful as anyone else. He told us to be proud of the influence we have on Australian culture because we have a disproportionate and positive impact.

Again, this isn't something that we don't know, but it's something that we don't hear said by other people very often, and do you know what? Today I don't feel tired of this story, today I feel good.

Awaken hosts Dr Cornel West for a special one hour episode tonight | 9:30PM on NITV