Recently, media and social media have been flooded with discussions of the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA.
When I was looking through these posts, I was aware of my own anger about the ongoing racism, and wondered how America could still be like that? Almost as soon as that thought came to my mind, I realised that the experiences are probably fairly similar as for Aboriginal people in Australia. So, I had a chat with Jen, a Yamathi-Wongotha woman I know, and I asked her to tell me what it’s like for her. At first, she was taken back and not sure where to start, but as I continued to listen, she opened my eyes with her experiences of everyday racism. I came away from that conversation feeling like I had awoken to something. I felt something change within me. As I continued my conversations with Jen, I was confronted with ways that I too had participated in racism. For example, when I worked in a store that sold spray paint during my uni days, we were instructed to check ID on any Aboriginal person that came in to buy spray paint.
I am a Christian, and so, I spent some time meditating on the spiritual implications of this issue. I found that ceasing oppression is something that is central to the Christian ethos. Micah 6:8 says, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (NIV) Justice, mercy, humility. I’m sure that anyone, regardless of their religious and spiritual beliefs, would agree that our society needs a lot more of those. Furthermore, Isaiah 1:17 says, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed” (NIV), an idea which is echoed throughout the Bible – of justice for the oppressed being of central importance. It is not a nice add-on. It is the heart of Christianity. Realising how important justice is within my own faith tradition, I have come to discover that my first step in bringing justice is to listen deeply.
I did notice that within me there was a resistance to this deep listening. When I would hear stories, I would become defensive. Which is why I think the comment of ‘we need to move on from this issue’ is often thrown around. As I thought about my own reaction to stories of experiences of racism, I found that these kinds of statements are actually the symptom of fear. Listening to stories about how what seems like normal life to me is actually social privilege which unintentionally disadvantages some. That’s a confronting and existential worldview shift, which can feel threatening sometimes, especially when those who are marginalised are angry about the racism they’ve experienced. It’s confronting, challenging, and very uncomfortable.
James 1:19 says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak” (NIV), which is an essential step towards healing. I found as I spent time listening to understand rather than listening to respond, my own attitudes began to soften. Having my own worldview challenged is an essential part of listening to people, and after all, I can’t know everything. The more I listened, the more I believed people when they wrote about their experiences of racism on Twitter, the more I began to understand the depth of oppression Aboriginal people have experienced for far too long.
Here are some facts I found on racism in Australia:
• Aboriginal men are likely to live 11 years shorter than white men, Aboriginal women 9 years less than white women
• Aboriginal households are likely to earn $316 per week less than white households, and are significantly less likely to be able to access employment (48.4% vs. 74.8%)
• Aboriginal people were sent to missions still in the 1970’s, meaning there are people alive today who survived such horrible treatment and enslavement
• In recent history in remote communities, Aboriginal people were given welfare cards instead of a jobseeker payment like non-Indigenous Australians
• An Aboriginal voice has never been present in the Australian constitution, and Aboriginal experiences are ignored when teaching history to children. The only story told is an overly romanced story of British invaders landing in Botany Bay – not of the massacring of the First Peoples.
• There was “a noticeable silence on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the 2016 federal election”
• Three per cent of Australia’s population is Indigenous, but 30 percent of those imprisoned are Indigenous and 50 percent of youth detainees are Indigenous – Aboriginal people are 13 times more likely to be imprisoned
• Since 1991, there have been 400 Aboriginal deaths in custody, and Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islanders are 10 times more likely to die in custody, and of these 400 deaths, no police officers have been convicted
Once someone has had contact with the criminal justice system, they receive a criminal record, which can permanently negatively affect their life chances, such as finding a job. It is an empirical fact that disadvantaged individuals are more likely to have contact with the justice system – and for more minor crimes such as petty theft. However, that does not mean they commit more crime. For example, piracy is a crime, however, it does not usually result in an arrest – yet we tend to view these as two separate issues.
When I spoke to Jen, she said, “I go to the shops and there’s people following me. I walk into a store and people look at me like I’m a criminal.” The issue is that Aboriginal people are often assumed to be criminals as soon as they walk into a store. She also said, “Whenever you see the news and a crime is committed, they’ll say they are looking for an “Aboriginal man” but if it’s not, they’ll just say a ‘man.’” The media tends to focus more on crimes committed by Aboriginal people and exaggerates the level of risk creating this belief that Aboriginal people are all thieves, violent and aggressive. If that’s the belief we form about Aboriginal people without even getting to know the individual, that’s going to be pretty hard to shake. Which is, once again, why we need to spend more time in deep listening. Acknowledging their experience, them as a person and not as what we’ve believed.
We can listen to the Aboriginal perspective on Australia Day too. For an Aboriginal person, January 26 marks the day when their land and culture were stolen from them; when their ancestors were murdered in large numbers, and dehumanised since the British invaders declared ‘terra nullis’ on the land. To celebrate Australia on a day such as this is exclusive to Aboriginal people, because it disregards the history of their suffering on that day. Jen said, “We dread Australia Day because everyone keeps telling us to celebrate, but for us, it’s a day that we mourn our land being stolen.” As I listened to this story, it became apparent to me that I disregarded the amount of pain an Aboriginal person feels about Australia’s history.
Will you join me in making deep listening to the Aboriginal experience a priority? Will you include the Aboriginal voice in your youth service and/or youth ministry?
Here’s some of my ideas:
• Invite an Aboriginal person to:
coffee and ask them about their experiences of everyday racism with you, and what you can do differently
to share at your youth service/youth ministry
to share with and advise your youth workers/leaders on best practices
• Listen to Meyne Wyatt’s powerful monologue about his experiences of racism
• Check out these websites:
What other ideas can you think of?