‘White Australia has a black history’. That slogan is decades old, and its meaning hints at white Australia’s long-standing reluctance to meaningfully acknowledge Aboriginal people and perspectives in the telling of our national history.
Earlier this year a person wearing a shirt with this slogan on it was forced to turn it inside-out before being allowed to enter Parliament House. Despite a spokesperson’s insistence that no-one wearing clothing with printed messages is allowed entry, the seemingly obvious concept on the t-shirt may be perceived as threatening to the white Australian ideal of this land being ‘settled in peace and not war’.
Earlier this week, our most recent former PM Tony Abbott went to great lengths to rewrite his own history in an article for Quadrant, and although he didn’t mention the words ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Indigenous’ whatsoever in his article, he did manage to include the line that “Unlike France or Britain, we lack a colonial past to complicate the present,” – this was just the latest in a long line of similar comments from Abbott in apparently ignoring he existence of Aboriginal people (“Nothing but bush”) and the realities of invasion (“A form of foreign investment”). Soon after the “nothing but bush” utterance he did, in a welcome speech to David Cameron, say, "Modern Australia has an Aboriginal heritage, a British foundation and a multicultural character".
Today, various mainstream media channels are busily acting like terms like ‘invasion’ are brand new and are attacking the University of New South Wales for a document which suggests that students should use ‘invasion’ instead of ‘settlement’ when talking about white Australian history.
A guy from the IPA has said that it is “stifling the free flow of ideas”. To help correct this, breakfast TV hosts this morning were busily finding commentators like Alan Jones, Keith Windschuttle, and no Aboriginal teachers or historians whatsoever, to help bring balance to the free flow of ‘ideas’ by talking to people who obviously wouldn’t agree that Australia was invaded - or even that the Stolen Generations wasn’t awesome.
Stories like this are the journalistic equivalent of posting a gif of a Bambi-lookalike deer licking a sleeping kitten. They are designed purely to get clicks by generating an emotional response - although unlike the gif, the emotion they strive to generate is animosity.
The journalistic merit is pretty much the same though.
I did my teaching degree in the late 90s and early 2000s and terms like ‘invasion’ were commonplace even then. The ‘History Wars’ have been going on for a long time now, and as I written many times before are as much to do with justifying the dismantling of Aboriginal services and programmes as they are to do with how we teach history.
If invasion never happened, Aboriginal people never had any ownership of land, Terra Nullius was justified, and Aboriginal people were never mistreated (Understatement of the Millennium Award), then the impacts of intergenerational trauma do not exist, colonisation and institutional racism are not ongoing, and there is no rationale for any Aboriginal specific programs – from Land Rights to medical services – and all issues affecting Aboriginal communities are the sole fault of Aboriginal people themselves. This is the crux of how the History Wars is used to try to impact on government policy.
This is what it seems people like Tony Abbott are hinting at when they talk of replacing ‘Us and Them’ for ‘We’. Modern day assimilationist rhetoric masked by claims of wanting to promote equality and create a more inclusive society. Inclusion through erasure and omission. Inclusion of all peoples by privileging the perspectives and attitudes of White Australia as being the ‘official’ Australian history, and the ideal Australian identity.
England created colonies in Australia by invading the lands of Aboriginal groups all around the country over a period of over 100 years. The battles and massacres that took place during this time, the Frontier Wars, are well documented. As are the policies of control, regulation, oppression and exploitation of Aboriginal peoples.
The theories that permeated through these times, still felt today, were based on ideas of ‘primitive cultures’ of ‘dying races’, and filled with questions of “What do we about ‘the half-caste problem?” (Spoilers: the dominant theory was ‘breed them out’, but as late as 1984 Lang Hancock also suggested sterilisation as the answer).
White Australia has a black history. A history filled with all sorts of atrocities, not as the exception but as the norm. There were of course people who fought against these atrocities then, just as there are people who oppose the all-too-often brutal treatment of Aboriginal people in custody, the closing of remote communities, and more broadly the racist, punitive and patronising attitudes that permeate policy decisions and media misrepresentation alike.
This doesn’t change the reality that Australia wasn’t settled peacefully then, or that Australia is still a racist country now. Not every white person in the country is racist, but to say that ‘Australia is a racist country’ is to judge our actions as a nation, and those actions are nothing to be proud of.
Expecting Aboriginal people to simultaneously ‘get over the past’ while also celebrating it on Australia Day, and joining in on the sentiment of ‘Lest We Forget’ when talking about all Australian Wars except for the Frontier Wars is as futile as were the ideas that we could be ‘bred out’, and is based on much the same ideology.
Fun Fact: Captain Cook first arrived in Botany Bay on April 29th 1770, and after an encounter with local people in Botany Bay Cook wrote that “all they seem’d to want was us to be gone”… Seems he was smarter than we give him credit for.
This article originally appeared on IndigenousX and was reposted with permission from the author
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