It was well over a decade ago that we were told Aboriginal women and children were sacred, so sacred in fact, that the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act was deemed necessary to institute a raft of controls over entire Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. According to the former Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane in 2010, it was the kind of “tough love” Aboriginal people needed from the state; as if things hadn’t been tough enough. While the Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs supported the repeal of NTER and condemned the NT’s basics card and cashless welfare card trials in WA and SA in 2017, sadly, the Race Discrimination Commissioner in his final speech in the role in 2018, remained notably silent on these matters.
Soutphommasane’s speech titled ‘Confronting the return of race politics’ instead focused on racism as a matter of “multiculturalism” and “public debates”, “race-baiting commentator(s)” and “dog-whistling politician(s)”. We were warned of the “chilling effect of debates” rather than the brutality of racism upon Aboriginal women. And, in the aftermath of the tragic and preventable deaths of Ms Maureen Mandijarra (WA 2012), Ms Mullaley’s son baby Charlie (WA, 2013), Ms Dhu (WA, 2014), Ms Amy Armstrong-Ugle (WA, 2015), Ms Maher (NSW, 2016), Ms Williams and her unborn child (NSW, 2016), Aunty Tanya Day (VIC, 2018), Ms Cherdeena Wynne (WA, 2019) and Ms Joyce Clarke (WA, 2019), the Human Rights Commission continues to fail Aboriginal women and their children across the country.
In June this year, the HRC published ‘Let’s Talk About Race: a guide on how to conduct a conversation about racism’ which seeks to promote “positive” “constructive” and “objective” conversations about racism, to accompany the documentary ‘The Final Quarter’. The guide forms part of the HRC’s signature campaign ‘Racism. It Stops With Me’ which doesn’t appear to attend to the violence of racism, but instead advises that racism can cause “feelings of sadness and anger, even anxiety and depression”. The HRC assures us however, that racism exists among “a small minority of people”.
While the treatment of AFL player Adam Goodes provided powerful and disturbing insights into the consequences for naming racism in this country, it does not fully account for the ways in which race and racism continue to operate in this place, including the intersections of race, gender, sexuality and disability. That the Goodes affair resulted in not one, but two documentaries this year, tells us about the kind of racism that this nation is most interested in. It’s the one of feelings, intentions and bad apples which people can be educated out of, rather than something that is embedded in our society and within its institutions which is responsible for the ongoing oppression of Aboriginal people.
The deaths of Ms Maureen Mandijarra, Ms Mullaley’s son baby Charlie, Ms Dhu, Ms Amy Armstrong-Ugle, Ms Maher, Ms Williams and her unborn child, Aunty Tanya Day, Ms Cherdeena Wynne and Ms Joyce Clarke shows the fatal consequences of a legal system that refuses to protect Aboriginal woman, and a health system that too refuses to care. These systems work together like a well-oiled machine with devastating results. The one place in which Aboriginal woman should be able to count on to find recourse, one would think, would be the Human Rights Commission. But of course, it too is a state-sanctioned institution that fails to serve Aboriginal women in much the same way that the health and justice systems do.
How else do we explain an anti-racist agenda focused squarely on Adam Goodes and good conversations?
The new Race Discrimination Commissioner doesn’t appear to offer much hope for Aboriginal women. Since being appointed in October last year, according to the HRC website, he has met with “African Australian communities”, joined “Muslim Community for Iftar Dinner”, spoken of the need to “Break the bamboo ceiling”, stood in “solidarity and unity after the Christchurch attack” but been notably silent about the violence of racism experienced by Aboriginal women, who are also, as it turns out the fastest growing prison population. Even in his address on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination delivered on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation (which he acknowledges) he makes no mention of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people – at all.
Where else are Aboriginal women left to turn but to each other? It is hardly surprising that it is Aboriginal women doing the heaving lifting when it comes to combatting racism in this place. One only has to look to the coverage from Aboriginal women in Naarm on social media attending the Aunty Tanya Day inquiry, the letter writing of Ms Williams’ mother and the public appeals of her cousin Professor Anita Heiss, as well as the swift organising of Black matriarchs in Geraldtown for Ms Joyce Clark, which too included Ms Dhu’s grandmother. You see, there is much to learn from Aboriginal women in this place about racism, not only in death. In fact, it is in the living, breathing resistance of Aboriginal women, that an anti-racist agenda must be built in this place, one that has an unwavering commitment to justice rather than positive conversations, one that centres the dignity of Aboriginal people over the feelings of settlers, and favours the courageous over the compliant.
Right now Aboriginal woman are doing so much of the heavy lifting, while suffering the full brunt of racist violence at the hands of the state, so Human Rights Commission, where the bloody hell are you?
The ‘Justice for Joyce Clarke’ rally at will be held at 5pm today in Brisbane at King George Square
Proceeds for this article will be donated to the National Justice Project & the Sister’s Inside Free Her campaign