I am a white, middle class, female American and have been afforded all of the privileges that go along with that identity. I am not a person of color or an expert on race relations. Here, I’d like to share a few observations and impressions as I think several of my readers may be interested in what I saw. I’d be happy to engage with any of my readers in more dialogue about these issues offline. At the end of this post, I’ve also listed a few resources for those interested in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues.
Three percent of Australians identify as indigenous, which includes any Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders who descended from groups that existed in Australia and the surrounding islands before European colonization. These people have been in Australia for at least 50,000 years and potentially up to 85,000 based on a study that came out two weeks ago. European colonization began in 1788 and, much like in the US, had a drastic and negative impact on the indigenous population.
Given that, I wasn’t sure what to expect of current race relations in Australia. I thought perhaps that it would be like South Africa, where many of the Afrikaners are openly racist. Instead, I saw more similarities to the US: There is clear over-policing. Local Australians told me several stories of police brutality and I personally saw a young black man aggressively arrested by police. There is clear racism and I saw several older white Australians give Aboriginal families nasty looks on the train platform in Townsville. Unemployment, alcoholism, and illiteracy are high. Yet, there are some clear structural differences between the US and Australia: Australia has gun control, so cops can’t shoot black people on sight like they can in the US. Most government documents, including things like maps and brochures, have a note identifying and thanking the traditional owners of the land. In almost every city, the government seems to acknowledge Aboriginal relations and services in some way. Relevant news broadcasts and documentaries include a notice warning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders that the film may contain images or voices of dead people, as many indigenous communities prohibit the publication of names and images of recently deceased people. There is a free National Indigenous Television channel (NITV) broadcasting stories relating to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander viewers. Several Australians in their twenties told me that while they didn’t get a lot of Aboriginal history in school, the current curriculum does a better job outlining how indigenous people have been treated.
I don’t know if this is all lip service, but coming from a country where the government barely acknowledges the existence of Native Americans, it surprised me.
For anyone interested in a more nuanced discussion of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander issues, here a few resources:
- Koorie Heritage Trust
- Mutitjulu Foundation
- Parks Australia–Anangu Culture
- Reconciliation Australia
- Recommended Book List