Kalgoorlie Opens Our Eyes to Our Colour-Blind Nation
I was born into a white, middle-class household in country Western Australia. I went to a relatively prestigious private school, enrolled in a tertiary institution without any dramas, and went on to become a policeman. Oh, and I am Aboriginal.
The recent events in Kalgoorlie have left me feeling ambivalent. As I watched the scenes of violence unfold on Nine News, I thought it reminiscent of the Black Lives Matter riots in the USA. This was far closer to home. And though I cannot condone the destructive actions of some of the protesters in Kalgoorlie, I can understand them.
For those who aren’t following the events in the Wild West, on Monday morning, a 14-year-old Aboriginal boy was found dead in Boulder. He had been riding an allegedly stolen motorcycle when he was involved in a crash with a ute that supposedly belonged to the bike’s owner. A 55-year-old man was subsequently charged with manslaughter. For those unfamiliar with homicide offences, manslaughter is a lesser charge to wilful murder, and as such, it carries a lesser penalty. As there is no need to prove intent, the burden of proof is far easier for the prosecution to uphold beyond reasonable doubt.
When this news was released to an indigenous-heavy community, as is the case in Kalgoorlie, the reaction was catastrophic. The local court house was pelted with rocks, police cars were trashed and specialist riot officers were called in from Perth to reinforce the beleaguered cops.
As someone who has been subject to racial abuse and also been face-to-face with the problems of Aboriginal Australia on many, many occasions through my work, I was very unsure how to respond to the events in Kalgoorlie. Essentially, I believe that the community’s anger is 100% justified, but misdirected. The story is still unfolding, and some news sources are reporting that the bike was not stolen after all. Others are saying Elijah was riding a scooter. What is clear is that the Aboriginal population perceive that the system that is there to uphold justice has let them down.
A portion of the Aboriginal community, while justifiably angry, reacted inappropriately. Rioting rarely solves an issue, and in this case may set their cause backward, but it has allowed for a dialogue to begin on how Australia perceives and handles indigenous affairs. Whether we admit it or not, Australia is a racist country. Maybe not on the scale of overt, lynch-mob, cross-burning KKK, but our inability to recognise that we’ve had our hand on the jugular of non-whites since Federation is what’s really keeping us from being one. I am not convinced the majority of white Australians recognise this, and if they did, they certainly wouldn’t be admitting to it.
I had a discussion with a friend who struggles to see the huge part race plays in what is happening in Kalgoorlie, and as an extension, the rest of Australia. I tried to explain that taking a colour-blind approach to racism is racist in itself. Imagine a white man used a racial slur against a black man, then the black man retaliated by using a racial slur against the white man. In a perfect world, that might be totally acceptable: both men call each other a name, and we move on. But because it’s not a perfect world, we cannot take a colour-blind approach to the issue. Australia is a majority white country. Being black here is different – you’re a minority.
If I call a white person a white dog, although it’s racist, it’s not going to hurt as much as it would if I was called a nigger, because as a white person in a white nation, they haven’t ever had to deal with the ramifications of their skin colour. An average Aboriginal person can expect a lesser lifespan of about 10 years, less access to tertiary education, higher risk of abuse within family, higher risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes and being the odd one in any given situation. The egalitarian approach to racism doesn’t work in Australia when the majority are not disadvantaged by their skin colour.
What the protests in Kalgoorlie have highlighted is this colour-blind attitude to racism, among other things, including how protests should be conducted, poor handling of juvenile justice and a system that has let Aboriginal people down more times than it has helped.
There are multiple sides to a divisive issue like this, and trying to shoebox it as simply a race issue, or a crime issue, or a juvenile justice issue is taking a complex problem and trivialising it. The fact is, it’s a combination of all these issues and more. It’s an issue where a white man ran down a black child and was charged with manslaughter, not murder. It’s an issue where an angry mob let emotions get the better of them and responded inappropriately. It’s an issue where a system of lacklustre responses to juvenile offending could have diverted a young boy’s path into criminal behaviour, but didn’t. It’s an issue where 200 years of persecution have been dismissed by a majority and a nation’s refusal to accept that heinous treatment has made it okay for the general consensus to be that Aboriginals should just “get over it”. It’s an issue where being at the bottom rung of society for so long has become the norm, and apathy has set in for Aboriginal people. Things won’t ever change unless both sides decide that enough is enough, and unfortunately we’re going to see a lot more Aboriginal people dying unfairly and standing in front of the blue line for, or against, their own mob.
Cover via the ABC