Reading this wonderful diary by whattamisaid brought home to me a paralell that I hadn't really thought about before. A parallel between the "conversation" on race in right now on your side of the world in America and the state of race relations here in Australia. It brought home to me, ironically, that while race may be used as a divisive tool by some, it also highlights the similarities in human behavior. The similarities in prejudice (and we're all prejudiced in some way). The similarities in the defensive reaction of some when a country's dark past is pointed out. The similarity that honesty is probably one of the least appreciated qualities in politics.
Some of you may have heard in the news recently about the official apology extended by Australia's new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the stolen generations. For those who aren't familiar with the history, the term "stolen generations" refers to the generation of Aboriginal or Indigenous Australian children who were taken away from their families by the Australian government from the 1870s and I believe until as recently as the 1970s. This was part of official government policy at the time. The issue has been framed in many ways including as "a way of protecting the children from their abusive families" which I think has more than an element of "truthiness" to it. It was primarily aimed at assimilation and the eventual eradication of the Aboriginal race.
The surviving members of the stolen generations as well as many other Australians have long believed that an offical apology from the government was owed as the starting point of reconciliation. For the past decade the John Howard government stubbornly refused to do this. Howard referred to the discussion as "a black arm band view of history". In other words, it's not pleasant so why talk about it? Let's just selectively remember the good things about our country, call it "patriotism" and leave the rest for the academics to argue over! Sound familiar?
Purely as anecdotal evidence, my high school history teacher told us that when she was first hired 20 years ago she was explicitly instructed not to even mention Aboriginal history to her students. So you can see why the eventual apology from the new Rudd government came as a welcome change. If nothing else it was the first time in a long time that any politician had spoken openly and honestly about the atrocities committed against the Aboriginal people. Here are a few excerpts from Rudd's speech.
For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.
We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.
To the stolen generations, I say the following: as Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the government of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the parliament of Australia, I am sorry. I offer you this apology without qualification.
We apologise for the hurt, the pain and suffering that we, the parliament, have caused you by the laws that previous parliaments have enacted. We apologise for the indignity, the degradation and the humiliation these laws embodied.
Here's another excerpt where Rudd recounts the experience of one Aboriginal woman.
But then, sometime around 1932, when she was about four, she remembers the coming of the welfare men. Her family had feared that day and had dug holes in the creek bank where the children could run and hide. What they had not expected was that the white welfare men did not come alone.
They brought a truck, two white men and an Aboriginal stockman on horseback cracking his stockwhip. The kids were found; they ran for their mothers, screaming, but they could not get away. They were herded and piled onto the back of the truck. Tears flowing, her mum tried clinging to the sides of the truck as her children were taken away to the Bungalow in Alice, all in the name of protection.
A few years later, government policy changed. Now the children would be handed over to the missions to be cared for by the churches. But which church would care for them? The kids were simply told to line up in three lines. Nanna Fejo and her sister stood in the middle line, her older brother and cousin on her left
Those on the left were told that they had become Catholics, those in the middle Methodists and those on the right Church of England. That is how the complex questions of post-reformation theology were resolved in the Australian outback in the 1930s. It was as crude as that.
She and her sister were sent to a Methodist mission on Goulburn Island and then Croker Island. Her Catholic brother was sent to work at a cattle station and her cousin to a Catholic mission.
Nanna Fejo’s family had been broken up for a second time.
She stayed at the mission until after the war, when she was allowed to leave for a prearranged job as a domestic in Darwin. She was 16. Nanna Fejo never saw her mum again. After she left the mission, her brother let her know that her mum had died years before, a broken woman fretting for the children that had literally been ripped away from her.
I asked Nanna Fejo what she would have me say today about her story. She thought for a few moments then said that what I should say today was that all mothers are important. And she added: ‘Families—keeping them together is very important. It’s a good thing that you are surrounded by love and that love is passed down the generations.
That’s what gives you happiness.’ As I left, later on, Nanna Fejo took one of my staff aside, wanting to make sure that I was not too hard on the Aboriginal stockman who had hunted those kids down all those years ago. The stockman had found her again decades later, this time himself to say, ‘Sorry.’ And remarkably, extraordinarily, she had forgiven him.
You can find the entire speech here.
This is just one story among many. These stories and these people are a part of Australia and ignoring this past would have been, I believe, detrimental to Australia's future. This speech by Rudd was followed by what was supposed to be a speech "in support" by the opposition leader Brendan Nelson. He instead offered some more "truthiness" once again citing "protection" as a quasi-justification and saying that nobody has "moral highground" on the issue. The primarily Aboriginal audience watching on the big screen outside the parliament turned their backs on Nelson's speech to show thier disapproval.
It is that kind of defensive stance from Australia's opposition party that strongly reminds me of the way the Hannitys and the Dobbs and the Kristols react to any mention or criticism of America's past and/or present state of race relations or anything else. It is unhealthy and regressive. whattamisaid put it perfectly in her diary. An acknowledgement of or anger about a racist past is somehow seen as an attack on the current generation of white people. It is not. This isn't about blaming anyone or attacking white people. It's about the need to talk openly in order to move forward and tackle the currently existing prjudices and racism in America. An acknowledgement that those that have grown up facing these prejudices everyday may not exactly be enamoured with or exceedingly "proud of their country". An acknowledgement that we're all prejudiced in some way and that it's not as black and white (no pun intended) as "good vs evil". An acknowledgement that criticism and a demand for an improvement within one's country is just as, if not more patriotic than covering oneself from head to toe in flagpins while singing the national anthem and eating a bagful of "freedom fries".
That's part of what Barack Obama was talking about when he called for a conversation about race. He wasn't calling for the media to sit around like a bunch of mean girls gossiping about what he meant about his grandmother while going through Rev Wright's trash to find anything that could further help them paint him as a black separatist. And let's not forget those exit polls. You know, the ones that show black people voted for Obama and white people voted for Hillary. Yep, that's right, Obama's mythical "white voter problem" (though curiously Hillary doesn't have a "black voter problem"). There was no need for Lou Dobbs to have a stroke over a truthful statement that America has a birth defect when it comes to discussing race. In fact Dobbs only proved Rice's point by the way he reacted.
Australia too has a birth defect. We haven't completely moved past it yet. Healthcare, education and employment are just some of the areas where Indigenous Australians are still at a disadvantage compared to non-Indigenous Australians. The apology had enormous symbolic value and it was at least a step in the right direction. Australia, not unlike America is a racially and culturally diverse nation and I've seen that this has been cause for division at times politically and otherwise. However, as an Indian living here in Australia, I have also seen the power of how a multicultuaral society can breed tolerance, understanding and acceptance.
America has come a long way and shouldn't stop now. America can move forward and most of the media seriously needs to grow up and help rather than hinder the process. Obama said it best. None of this is stagnant. Not in America, not in Australia or anywhere else in the world.
I think this quote from Robert F. Kennedy's speech after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot is a good reminder of that.
But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.