Whose lives matter?

Content note for any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers: this blog post contains the names of people who have died.

Content note for everyone else: This post is mostly me, as a white person, trying to grapple with racism, privilege, complicity, and what my responsibility is at this time (though there is a list of resources and content by Black, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors at the end that I can recommend with a clear conscience). I didn’t want my blog to be silent on racism, especially now, but I’ve almost certainly mucked it up, probably more than once, and for that, I apologise.

This is the sort of post which starts with me staring blankly at a screen, because saying nothing feels like complicity, but anything I do say feels inadequate. Because, dear God, America. I don’t even have words.

And… dear God, Australia. Because OK, true, we do at least have a health system and gun control, and our police force isn’t out shooting protesters in the street, so yay, points to us, but have you looked at how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders die in police custody every year? Or how we treat asylum seekers? Or the charming way we have been treating Asian Australians, particularly since the start of this pandemic?

Which is to say, we might want to think twice before we shake our heads over the state of the USA, because it turns out there is enough racism to go around, and we definitely have our share.

(Also… if you don’t like the way police are treating protesters in the US, you might want to keep an eye on some of the legislation the government is trying to push through while we are distracted by the pandemic, because they would like to expand police and ASIO powers in a number of ways that are pretty concerning.)

This post isn’t going to be about the situation in the USA, because while I am absolutely in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter there, I feel as though these stories can best be told by those who are present.

I also feel, strongly, that our primary duty is to clean up our own backyard. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have come out strongly in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA, and have drawn parallels between the situation there and the treatment of Indigenous people here.

The parallels are not hard to draw.

We have plenty of work to do within our own borders.

I’m white. I’ve never been on the receiving end of racism, either institutionalised or individual, and it’s unlikely I ever will. So the story of racism is not mine to tell. As much as possible, here, I’m going to link to what Black people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are saying about the current situation. But I do want to talk a little bit about the work people like me need to be doing.

That last sentence makes me want to weep. Because this shouldn’t need to be stated in five hundred different ways all over Twitter.  Saying ‘All lives matter’ denies the difference in the way white and black lives are treated in the US, in Australia, and in so many countries around the world. It takes a statement that should not be revolutionary (but which, horribly, still is), and turns it into a meaningless platitude.

That rather gets to the heart of it, don’t you think?

And look, I understand the appeal of ‘All Lives Matter’. It is uncomfortable, very uncomfortable, to sit here as a well-meaning white person, feeling complicit and guilty and also vaguely resentful of this (because after all, *we* aren’t out there being great big racists, and how dare you suggest at we might be?), listening to these stories of abuse and harm caused by people who look like us. And  ‘All Lives Matter’ sounds so lovely and inclusive, and leaves all the uncomfortable race stuff out of the equation, and anyway, are white people even allowed to say Black Lives Matter, and isn’t it maybe a little bit racist if we do?

But I have a nasty feeling that the job of white people right now is precisely to be uncomfortable.

I don’t mean that in a nasty way.  I mean… it’s really, really uncomfortable and shocking and unpleasant to witness – even to read about – the way people of colour, and especially Black people, are treated by our society and our police force. It’s really, really tempting to look away, to not read books like Dark Emu or Talking to my Country, to avoid any close encounters with what it feels like to be Black or Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander in our world.

And the reason it is tempting is because the things that Black people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are suffering are absolutely horrible and cruel and one hundred percent unnecessary.  There is no good reason why Aboriginal people are dying in custody at the rate of one per month.  There is no legitimate reason why Black people and Aboriginal people are over-policed. There is no justifiable reason why so many Black men and women have died at the hands of the police and the justice system.

There is only racism.

And it’s absolutely shattering to read about.

The thing is… the closest white people like me are ever likely to come to this experience is reading about it, or seeing video footage, or hearing eyewitness accounts.  Being able to not think about it is actually an incredible privilege.

And that’s something to think about right there, because I don’t want to read all of this stuff which I know full well is going to traumatise me and make me cry and give me nightmares, and yet Black Americans and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders don’t get the choice of switching off from that trauma because it is their lived experience.

(And now I’m thinking about how much of an emotional and intellectual load that must be – I mean, we were all talking about how it was hard to be fully productive when dealing with the stress of the pandemic, but the stress of racism is there ALL THE TIME. There are some amazing, clever, funny, delightful Black writers whose books I love, and I’m just trying to imagine how brilliant they must be to be able to write what they do while at the same time living with a level of stress that I am terrified even to experience at second hand. Imagine how much more they could do – more importantly, how much happier they could be – if they didn’t have that stress and that pain in their lives.)

And look, mental health is real and important, and I am not here to tell you that justice and solidarity demands that you must do things that will be harmful to you. I want everyone to be safe, physically and mentally.

But it is important to acknowledge that if you are white like me, being able to choose to take care of your mental health by not exposing yourself to the harm done to people of colour… is in itself a privilege. And that is a whole extra horrible thing in itself, because the ability to protect your mental health ought to be a right for all of us, not just those of us with a particular skin colour.

In fact, perhaps that’s the thing in a nutshell:  things that ought to be basic human rights – things that white people believe are basic human rights, because for us they are – turn out to be privileges that are only extended to us as a matter of genetic luck. I don’t want to lose my privilege. I want everyone else to have the same privileges I do. I want my privileges to be rights.

So yeah. I’m uncomfortable. And I think I need to be, because 432 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have died in custody in Australia since 2008 and I had absolutely no idea. I thought we had a Royal Commission and fixed that.

I mean, I donate to charities which work to fight racism, and I’ve always felt like that excused me from digging too deep into what racism feels like when you are on the wrong side of it. But I’m realising – rather belatedly – that I don’t have the right to remain ignorant, because ignorance means that I am likely to do harmful things through a lack of knowledge – or if not that, it certainly means that I’m not paying attention to the harm that is happening, and therefore I’m not able to work against it.

I do not like this conclusion. I do not want to read all those books I have been so studiously avoiding.

But I have the privilege of not living my life in a world that views me as something less than human based on the colour of my skin. The least I can do is bear witness.

~~~~~

Things we can do

Note that the links and charities below are primarily around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues.  I’m listing a handful of US-based charities and bail funds at the end, because God knows, they need all the help they can get, but I’d encourage you to make local action your priority – because God knows, we need to do a lot better than we’ve been doing so far.

Places to donate in Australia

  • https://paytherent.net.au/ – As a descendant of immigrants, I live on stolen land. Paying the rent is both a symbolic gesture of solidarity, and a practical way to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.  You can decide how much you can afford to contribute per month, or support them with a one-off donation.
  • https://sistersinside.com.au/ – Sisters Inside supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders women and girls in prison. Many are imprisoned for non-payment of fines (think 19th-century-Debtors’ Prison, but with extra racism), and they have a specific GoFundMe which raises money to pay these fines so that these women can be free.
  • The families of several Aboriginal men and women who died in police custody or at the hands of police are seeking justice, and have fundraisers to which you can donate
  • Welcome to Country has an extensive Aboriginal Charity Guide which lists charities that work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in areas from health and education to activism and the environment. Whatever your favourite cause, you will find it there.
  • https://www.asrc.org.au/ – The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre supports asylum seekers with material aid, legal aid, housing assistance, and help finding work. Asylum seekers in Australia face discrimination on a number of fronts, not least from the government, which denies them access to Medicare, financial assistance, and in some cases forbids them from working. And if you don’t think racism plays into that… well, I suppose I have to admire your ability to think kindly of people who don’t deserve it.

Some articles I have found helpful

Some books I need to read (and maybe you do too)

  • Dark Emu, by Bruce Pascoe – if you were taught at school that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people didn’t practice agriculture or have technology… this book will enlighten you.
  • Talking To My Country, by Stan Grant, talks about his experience as  an Aboriginal man in Australia. It’s highly acclaimed and needs to find its way out of my ‘To be read’ pile and actually get read by me.  He has also written a follow up book, Australia Day, which I gather talks more about reconciliation
  • Welcome to Country, by Marcia Langton – this is a travel guide to Indigenous Australia, with information about Indigenous languages, customs, history, and more, as well as cultural awareness and etiquette for visitors.

Other actions you can take

  • An amazing woman named Zoe Amira posted an hour long video on YouTube filled with art and music from black creators. It has a heap of ads, and is basically designed to rake in revenue that will be used to support Black Lives Matter organisations.  This is a great way to support the cause if you have no money and can’t get to a protest. I’ve had it running quietly in the background while writing this list (because I don’t actually want to hear the ads).
  • Buy some music on June 19 to support racial justice, equality and change.
  • Sign the petition calling for an end to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody.
  • And here’s another petition to prevent deaths in custody caused by improper restraint.
  • There are a number of protests tomorrow.  Honestly, I’m really torn about this. Protest IS important right now.  But I’m also super concerned about the public health risks of having large groups of unscreened people gathering during a pandemic.  It looks like the organisers are trying to do this responsibly, but ultimately, I don’t think there is a responsible way to hold an event of this nature in this context. I don’t think I can, in good conscience, link to them. However, I *have* seen a number of Ministers and politicians out there telling us, with varying degrees of sincerity and self-righteousness that the best way to exercise our right to protest right now is to write to or call your local MP. I think we should take them at their word. So here are some suggestions from my friend Emily about people to contact and what to say:
    • Prime Minister, Scott Morrison – (02) 9523 0339
      Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt – (08) 9359 0322
      Leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese – (02) 9564 3588
      Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney – (02) 9587 1555
    • In Victoria: Premier, Daniel Andrews – (03) 9548 5644
      Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Gabrielle Williams – (03) 9096 8587
      Leader of the Opposition, Michael O’Brien – (03) 9576 1850
      Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Peter Walsh – (03) 5482 2039
    • Talking points:
      • I fully support the important protests that are happening across Australia/in Melbourne tomorrow.
      • Governments must move immediately to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody and police violence toward Aboriginal people, and police who have killed and harmed Aboriginal people must be held to account. I am asking you to take urgent action to make this happen.
      • I am asking you to guarantee that all protesters tomorrow will be able to protest freely without fear of police violence.
      • When you call the office, ask the staffer who answers the phone to take a message for the MP. Give your full name and postcode, and then proceed.

Read, Listen to, and Watch Content by Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, and Black creators

  • Check out some of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander bloggers listed at deadlybloggers.com – you will find blogs on a huge range of topics art to politics to health.
  • Here’s an article listing some great social media accounts to follow from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
  • My friend Heath made this excellent list of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers, actors and musicians. (I would add that Adam Briggs, in addition to being a muso, is a fantastic comedian)
  • Did you know that we have a National Indigenous TV channel? You can find it on Channel 34. I am terrible at remembering to watch TV shows, but we really enjoyed Ready For This, which is just a nice, well-done teen drama series about a bunch of Aboriginal kids from various parts of Australia who come to Sydney for their final years of school, to pursue their dreams. It was very good, and lots of fun.
  • I read a lot of romance novels, and some of my favourite writers right now are Black women.  If you are in the mood for some escapism, check out Charish Reid Alyssa Cole, Talia Hibbert, Farah Rochon and, Rebekah Weatherspoon, for starters. (I especially like them because… not all fiction centering People of Colour needs to be sombre – indeed, writing happy endings for people in demographics who are often denied them is a subversive thing in itself.  Also, as Tom Lehrer so accurately pointed out, dirty books are fun, that’s all there is to it.)

Actions you can take in the USA

  • Donate to a Bail Fund. Lots of people are going to need help with bail in the near future.
  • Black Visions in Minnesota wants to dismantle systems of oppression and violence and to develop Minnesota’s emerging black leadership.  It is Black-led, queer- and trans-centering, and my friend in Minnesota tells me they do good work.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union is recommended by pretty much everyone I know in the US as an excellent charity for justice.
  • Black Lives Matter has a very comprehensive list of actions you can take, from petitions to protests to calling politicians to donating.

One thought on “Whose lives matter?

  1. Thank-you. I knew we had massive racism and an appalling record of deaths in custody but this many? And I didn’t know their names – why aren’t we hearing more about them? Bearing witness and boosting others – thank-you for pointing me towards some possible paths.

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