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.

On 2017, national identity, fear, and hope

Well, hasn’t this been an interesting year?

I don’t think I’d even know where to begin with a proper recap of all the madness that has appeared on the Australian political scene in the last twelve months.  And really, why would I need to?  We’ve all lived through it.  Most of us have no desire to relive it.  And if we do, well, there are many excellent blogs that can help you with that (did you know that Andrew P. Street now has a blog on Patreon?  It’s pretty fantastic, and this post here seems like a good place to start, though he’s pretty reliably witty and interesting at all times.).

So I’m not going to do that.

Instead, I want to write about something that has raised its head in a variety of ways this year, and has, I think, almost been a defining theme of politics in this country.  It’s a question which has been around for a while, and which seems to be being asked a lot at present – or perhaps it would be truer to say that it is a question that is continually being answered, with great forcefulness, even when nobody is asking it.  And it’s a question which I think is going to be part of the political discourse for a good long while yet.

That question is, of course, what it means to be Australian.

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The sky is not falling: How marriage has changed in Australia over the last two and a bit centuries

The people have spoken, the Parliament has done its job, and marriage equality is finally law in Australia.  For my LGBTIQ friends – I am so very pleased that we are finally doing the right thing by you.  And you know that I am just *itching* to make wedding cakes at the earliest opportunity.  (Just don’t all get married on January 9, because there really are only so many cakes I can make in one day…)

Back when this whole debate started, a friend of mine commented that the Marriage Act had certainly changed plenty of times before, and it would be interesting to see how, and who had objected. I started compiling a list of changes (objections were harder to research), but the whole project got so enormous that I never did manage to finish it before I went overseas, and then I came back and was sick for weeks, and by the time I had any brains to speak of, the vote was over and done with.

Still, with Marriage Equality finally signed into law, it seems to me that the time has arrived to take a quick look at all the ways marriage has changed in Australia since European settlement. This is not going to be as carefully referenced as my usual post (December is bedlam when you are a singer, an event organiser, and the person who organises the charity drive and the choir at work), though I will link to all the articles that informed this list at the bottom of the page, so that you can delve further if you are interested (I’m sorry, but referencing often takes longer than the post itself, and December is a busy month for me).

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Marriage Equality: The case for returning your survey (and marking it yes!) if you don’t really care about this issue

This is a post for people who really don’t feel very strongly about marriage equality, and are thinking of maybe not filling in their survey.  Perhaps it doesn’t affect you, or perhaps there are other issues that affect you more, or you perhaps think this whole debate is a waste of time and a big distraction from the business of governing (I’m with you on the last two, by the way).  Perhaps you don’t have a problem with gay marriage, personally, but you don’t feel strongly enough about it to do anything active to promote it.

Perhaps you are just really, really, REALLY tired of people going on about it and wish that everyone could forget about the whole thing.

I do get that, actually.  Right now, there are a lot of people who *do* have strong opinions about marriage equality – on both sides of the debate – and they are all expressing them at the top of their lungs, and without ever stopping.  If marriage equality isn’t something that you feel particularly strongly about, it’s very tedious, often insufferable, and sometimes just plain mean.  Especially as this is – what, the third time? the fourth time? – that we’ve had this conversation in the last couple of years.  It never seems to end.

For me, it’s personal.  I have friends who are directly affected by this issue, and you can bet that I want to do anything I can to help them.  But even I can see how incredibly annoying it must be.  And I can understand the temptation to just wash your hands of the whole thing and throw your envelope in the bin when it arrives.

I’m not going to try to convince you that marriage equality is awesome (even though I think it is!).  You’ve heard all those arguments already, and if they’re not inspiring you, I’m unlikely to change that.

Instead, I want to convince you that if you are sick and tired of this whole debate, the absolute last thing you should be doing is throwing your vote in the bin.

There are five very good reasons to select ‘YES’ on the survey, even – perhaps especially – if you don’t care about this debate.

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Impending election, registering to vote, and an announcement

Well, here we are then.  Malcolm Turnbull has his trigger for a double dissolution, and indications are that he is going to pull it in early May, for an election date of July 2, or, just possibly, July 9.

Before you get any further into this post, there is something you need to do.  Yes, I’m being prescriptive about this, but I’m assuming that if you are here and reading this, it’s because you care about voting.

So first of all, please visit this link and make sure you are currently enrolled to vote at the right address and in the right electorate and with the right name.  If you are not there, you can enrol online or through your local post office.  You can also update your details online.

According to the AEC website, the electoral roll closes 7 calendar days after the writs are issued – that is, after the election is declared. If you are not enrolled at this point, you will not be able to vote, and you will also not be able to change any of your enrolment details after this point.

(I could have sworn it was three days only, but I can’t find information about this. My advice would be to get your enrolment sorted now – you lose nothing by being a little more organised, and you don’t want to risk losing your vote if I’ve got this wrong.)

Sorted?

Good.

Now for the announcement.

As you know, I usually spend the two weeks leading up to the election feverishly reading and reporting on the policies of every party on the Senate Paper (and not sleeping).  That’s not going to be possible for me this year, because I’m going to be overseas for five weeks from May 24th – and I am not going to spend my hard-earned long-service leave reading and writing about politics.  Sorry.

Apparently, close of nominations can be anything between 10 and 27 days after the election is called, so the earliest we could possibly know who is on the ballot paper will be May 16.

My plan is to create, as early as possible, a list of all parties who are running in this election, with links to their websites.  I’ll also link to anything I’ve written about them in the past.  And then I will do my level best to write about all the brand new parties and independents between now and the election.  If, by some very unlikely chance, I have time, I will return to update the posts I wrote in 2014 about existing parties.

I’ll also be writing a post sometime in the next week or two about the new Senate Voting Rules, so that you know where you stand with those.  (Not today, though, because I have laryngitis and my brains are made of marshmallows.)

I apologise for the reduced service this year – blame it on Malcolm Turnbull’s impatience!  If he’d stuck to a proper electoral term and an election in September or October, there would not have been a problem…

Thought Experiment

Let’s, just for a moment, consider the possibility that Malcolm Turnbull has been entirely sincere in the various small-L-liberal things he has said over the years.  That he sincerely supports marriage equality, that he wants a republic, that he wants action on climate change, that even one child in detention is too many, all that stuff.  We’ll leave his economics out of the picture for now, because that’s not what this is about.

If he does believe all these things – and I’m quite willing to believe he does – and he is now Prime Minister, what, precisely, can he do about them?  Without, that is, ceasing to be Prime Minister.  Which is the catch, really, isn’t it?  I mean, theoretically, he has the power to make huge changes, but in practice, I don’t think he can actually do that and continue to lead a Coalition government.  Even setting aside our current fashion for changing our Prime Minister at the drop of an opinion poll, there is only so much the party room can tolerate.  One cannot lean too far outside the boundaries of what is acceptable to the Party.

And this, I think, is one of the big failures of the political party system, at least in the larger parties – the incredible pressure it imposes to compromise, to conform.  No matter how idealistically you start out, at some point, if you want to be pre-selected, you are going to have to get the votes of your fellow party members, and this will mean compromise.  Then you have to get the votes of the public, which may mean more compromise (though not necessarily in the same direction).  How many of your ideals do you have to trade away in order to get to a point where you can act to them?  Is there, in fact, such a point?  Or are you more tightly controlled the higher you get in the party?

Have we set things up so that by the time you reach the top job, nothing is left that is not open for negotiation?

Well, perhaps not quite.  Certainly, your Party will have certain core values that are non-negotiable.  Maybe.  But again, those values change over time – consider Malcolm Fraser’s policies on refugees versus Howard’s.  Howard was, of course, Fraser’s Treasurer, so both sets of policies were Liberal dogma during Howard’s political lifetime.  But something evidently changed in the interim.  Still, if one had entered the Liberal Party in the Fraser era because one sympathised with the Party’s ideology, one might have felt rather compromised by the time Tampa rolled around…

Then again, this example is also one of change occurring within a Party.  Someone clearly drives this change.  Is it the Party Leadership?  The Party Membership?  The Chief of Staff?  The polls?  A bit of all four? Does this mean that Turnbull does, in fact, have the power to change the party from within, if he chooses to use it?

And which policies can be changed, anyway?  Which values are ‘core’ to a party, and which are subject to negotiation?  How fast do these core values themselves change?

And would you, if you were a Prime Minister in our current climate be willing to take that risk?

I suppose it would depend on why you sought power, and what you thought you could do with it.  I mean, if you think you really can push through some vital and fantastic legislation that the country needs, so long as you stay around long enough to do it, that might be a reason to compromise on the stuff you felt was less central.

Then again, the fact that you think certain stuff is less central also tells us a bit about how sincere you are about it and how much you really care…

I’m hoping that Turnbull will work to change the conversation in the party room around marriage equality, around refugees, around climate change.  If he does, that’s definitely a useful thing.  But I think he has already signalled where his priorities lie, and for him, promoting fiscal conservatism clearly trumps promoting social liberalism.  (I note that nobody anywhere has claimed that Turnbull is anything less than sincere in his economic opinions.)

Assuming he really is sincere on the social liberalism side of things, perhaps he feels that getting conservative budget measures through is the only way he can ‘buy’ tolerance for considering these other issues.  This does not seem unlikely.  But I’m pretty sure that’s a price that he is very, very happy to pay.  I’m sure he’d like to be the PM who presided over Australia becoming a Republic that allowed Marriage Equality.  It would be a lovely legacy to leave.  But he wants to be the PM that brought Australia into a new economic Golden Age (for a value of Economic Golden Age that I personally find terrifying) more.

If he makes compromises, it won’t be on the side of economics.

Politics: What is Australian?

I’ve been thinking about Australian-ness for a while, partly inspired by a friend’s blog posts about nationalism in France, and partly inspired by the new Citizenship Test and other acts of idiocy currently being perpetrated by our government.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that I have some ideas about what being Australian is all about that are perhaps more unusual than I’ve thought. Because to me, the key thing that makes Australia Australia is immigrants, immigration, and the stunningly diverse population we have as a result of these things. Let’s face it, with the exception of the few people of Aboriginal and Koorie descent, we are all immigrants here. And most of the waves of immigrants, now I think of it, have been from classes or races that were at the time considered socially unacceptable (criminals! Irish! Miners! Chinese! Greeks and Italians! Chinese again! Vietnamese too! Muslims! Sudanese!). I find it both sad and ironic that the descendants of these earlier settlers now feel the need to turn around and reject classes of immigrants based on religion, colour or alleged criminal tendencies. And this from a country whose most long-established families take pride in being descended from… convicts. Or, less romantically, economic refugees fleeing the Highland Clearances. Or, if they were lucky, Catholics, which carried a fine set of prejudices in its day.

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