This past weekend was the Australia Day long weekend. The holiday marks the genocide and dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This day will never be inclusive or live up to ideals of multiculturalism, as it is a Day of Mourning for First Nations people. We need to not just change the date but also #ChangeTheNation. This is time for truth-telling of our national history, a Voice to Parliament and Makarrata (treaty), as outlined in the Uluru Statement From the Heart.
This past week, Australia celebrated NAIDOC Week (8-15 July), a time to recognise the leadership, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Originally standing for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee, NAIDOC Week has historically reflected the ongoing resistance to genocide, assimilation and land dispossession, famously culminating in the annual Day of Mourning in 1938 (a protest against Australia Day on 26 January). The NAIDOC committee emerged in 1956, and has in recent decades coordinated local and national events and awards to promote Indigenous excellence. This year’s theme is Because of Her We Can, promoting the multiple leadership roles of Indigenous women for their families and communities, as they push for social justice and human rights at the local community and national levels.
My Weekends With A Sociologist series is going to start coming to you more frequently and completely out of sequence. I will share with you my visual sociology adventures from different places, at different points in time, showing you what has captivated my sociological imagination most recently, through to what has lingered with me over time. The purpose of this series is to showcase what it is to see the world through a sociological lens. (For visually impaired readers, descriptions in the alt.) So let’s get started!
What better way to restart our journey, than with the enduring legacy of a strong Aboriginal woman, Barangaroo.
Beginning in the first week of January, Sydney annually hosts the Sydney Festival, with various sites around town housing performances, public art and sculptures, including many interactive installations. The best this year was the artwork, Four Thousand Fish, curated by Emily McDaniel, artist from the Kalari Clan of the Wiradjuri nation in Central New South Wales. The artwork blends sea song, visual story telling, sound, lighting, sculptures, landscape photography, music and of course, a beautiful nawi (bark canoe).
Held at the Cutaway in Barangaroo, every weekend this past January, the site was transformed into a public art sculpture that was set ablaze nightly at dusk. I attended an event hosted by the beloved street photographer, Legojacker (formerly from Melbourne, they had moved to Canberra in recent months).
Barangarro is named after the mighty Cammeraygal woman of the Eora nation, who defied colonialism in Gadigal, her homeland (also known as Sydney).
This year marks 230 years since the British invaded Australia, leading to the decimation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, with inequities continuing to this day. It is also the 80 year anniversary of the Day of Mourning protests, organised by the Australian Aboriginal Progressive League.
Today’s post reflects on the protests on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation (Gadigal is the city now known as Sydney). I then provide a visual sociology of the culmination of the protest march, which ended at the Yabun Festival.
The history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice activism to destabilise and overcome colonial practices in Australia began with the British invasion in 1788 and has continued to the present-day. These acts of social and political organisation have strong sociological resonance that should centrally inform sociological inquiry in Australia. Yet Indigenous knowledges are peripheral to the discipline of sociology. This post is the first in a series exploring ways to decolonise sociology, through the leadership of Associate Professor Kathleen Butler, sociologist and Aboriginal woman belonging to the Bundjalung and Worimi peoples of coastal New South Wales.
To redress the problematic racial dynamics of sociological theory and practice, Associate Professor Butler convened the first Indigenous Sociology for Social Impact Workshop at the University of Newcastle, Ourimbah campus, on Darkinjung land. Held on 27-28 October 2016, Professor Butler invited Indigenous and non-Indigenous sociologists from different parts of Australia to consider gaps and opportunities in addressing the ongoing impact of colonialism in our theories, methods and practice.
Today’s post places the workshop in historic context and summarises the discussion. I also include reflections by Associate Professor Butler about the outcomes from the workshop. I end with a set of questions that emerged from the workshop that we should now face as a discipline in order to centre Indigenous knowledges and methods in sociology.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a strong contribution to make in leading change in sociology, however, their knowledges are kept on the periphery of our discipline. Associate Professor Kathleen Butler is working to transform sociology by “Indigenising” sociology. She is an Aboriginal woman belonging to the Bundjalung and Worimi peoples of coastal New South Wales, and a sociologist who hosted the “Indigenous Sociology for Social Impact” workshop. The workshop explored ways to address colonial practices in sociology, as well as how to draw on Indigenous expertise to decolonise research, methods and theories in sociology.
Using the Aboriginal method of a “talking circle” (or yarning circle), where any person can contribute to unstructured dialogue, Professor Butler began two-day discussions considering how Indigenous-led practices can enhance Australian sociology.
The first day of the workshop was centred on a thoughtful presentation by former social worker and researcher Karen Menzies on how intergenerational trauma of forced removal of Aboriginal children continues to impact the health and life outcomes of Indigenous people.
The second day of the workshop began with Associate Professor Butler reflecting on her evolving research on sociological teaching and resources. She has analysed the topics covered in higher education sociology courses around Australia, and finds that there is almost no focus on Indigenous scholarship, and that there is little attention to race in central sociology teaching. She argued this is one of the ways in which we see how sociology actively participates in an exclusively Western framing of social issues.
We discussed that sociology as a discipline actively perpetuates colonialism in the citing conventions, theories and methods we continue to pass on to students.
Investing in future change
Another question we discussed at length was: how do we account for the fact that the majority of people who are trained as sociologists are not Indigenous? We discussed how Aboriginal sociologists are on the fringes of our discipline, either underemployed or precariously employed as casual staff. We noted a major investment in the training, mentorship, sponsorship, promotion and retention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sociologists needs to be prioritised in sociology.
We discussed what a decolonised sociological imagination would look like, with critiques of foundational Western sociological texts at the centre. Australian sociology has rebuilt itself before – using a White feminist framework in the 1970s and 1980s – we can do this again using Indigenous knowledges and intersectionality. Associate Professor Butler argued that the work of Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson (a Geonpul woman) is our starting point for decolonising sociology, especially in Australia.
We also discussed issues of ethics and intersectionality (the interconnections between gender and racial inequality and other forms of social marginalisation).
When White people try to dismiss Indigenous and other people of colour’s (POC) discussion of colonialism and its present-day impact by focusing on “tone,” that’s racism. Consider this exchange. I shared an important article by Teila Watson , Birri Gubba Wiri and Kungalu/Gungalu Murri woman artist, who wrote about the impact of colonialism on Australia’s past, present and future. Originally published in The Guardian, Watson was unimpressed that the editors changed the title from White “Australia” Has a Black Future, to “Indigenous knowledge systems can help solve the problems of climate change.” So she chose to self-publish the longer version of her article with the original title on Medium.
A White woman writer decided to reshare my tweet, which includes a quote from the Medium piece. By doing so she informs me that she refuses to read the article due to the title, which she sees is “uncivil.” I shouldn’t have to explain this, but in the course of my interactions it was obvious that I did, in fact, have to point out that refusing to read the words of an Aboriginal woman is racist, and calling an article reflecting on Australia’s history of genocide “uncivil” is the epitome of White supremacy.
When White people try to dismiss Indigenous and other people of colour’s (POC) discussion of colonialism and its present-day impact by focusing on “tone,” that’s racism at work. Tone policing is when members of majority groups focus on the language and perceived emotion of marginalised or underrepresented groups during discussions of inequality. The majority group sees themselves as entitled to infer “illegitimate” arguments based solely on the words being used, rather than the meaning of what is being said. This is an attempt to silence or derail discussions, to shift power away from the lived experiences and knowledge of minorities or disempowered groups.
On my latest blog post, I discuss a recent example where a White Australian woman felt a need to tell me that they refused to read an article I’d tweeted, which was written by an Indigenous woman author. The title was White “Australia” Has a Black Future. I didn’t tweet the article to this woman and she doesn’t follow me. Yet because it was being shared by others, she felt a need to comment to me, a non-Indigenous woman of colour, that the title was “offensive.” She said: “We need to maintain civilities.”
She continued to argue for hours that there are nicer ways to discuss Indigenous issues without putting “allies” like her offside with language. The article is about the history of Australia. Everything is fact. There is no offensive language—no swear words; no hate speech. So what exactly is offensive about a Black woman talking about the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people? Especially during Reconciliation Week, where Australia reflects on Indigenous rights issues?
If White people can’t handle POC talking about racism, it doesn’t matter what words we use; the issue you have is that we’re talking at all. There’s no “nice” way to talk about racism. Racism is structural; it envelops us; it ruins the life chances of POC. There’s nothing “positive” about racial inequality.
White people who imagine there’s a “rational” way they deem acceptable to hear discussion of racism is actually them saying they want to dictate how POC express their lived experiences and knowledge of racial oppression. As POC point out all day, every day, White people put more effort into policing discussion of race so they don’t have to work on themselves.
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An important national conversation about racism happened on 21 March 2017. It started with celebrity chef Adam Liaw on Twitter, who said: “It’s #HarmonyDay so I want to be a bit frank about race.” Australia celebrates multiculturalism on Harmony Day annually; it coincides with the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. This year, Harmony Day was marred by a callous but calculated symbolic gesture: the Government chose this day to strip away protections from the Racial Discrimination Act (sections 18C and 18D). The Act now uses the less precise language of “harassment” but it has removed protections against racial “offence”, “insult” and “humiliation.” Essentially, it will be even harder for Indigenous and migrant-background Australians to be protected against racial abuse.
Section 18C of The Racial Discrimination Act has been under threat for years; most recently due to a case against xenophobic cartoonist Bill Leak and another case involving two university students who targeted Indigenous colleagues. The former was infamously dropped amidst great public pressure in defence of the beloved artist whose racist and sexist cartoons delight millions of Australians. You can see a sample of Leak’s work below, in which he mocks Indigenous fatherhood on the 2016 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day. The second case cost $20 million in court and was eventually dismissed. Cindy Prior, the Indigenous woman who exposed racist online messages by White male students, has suffered mental health problems and cannot find employment.
Opponents to the 18C law include right wing personality Andrew Bolt, who lost a racial discrimination suit led by Dr Anita Heiss.
The 13 February 2017 was the ninth anniversary of the Australian Government’s formal apology for the Stolen Generations. From 1910 to 1970, up to one third of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children (100,000 children) were forcibly removed from their families and sent away from their communities. They were classified according to their skin colour and put into Christian missionaries where they suffered abuse and neglect, or they were placed with White foster families who did not understand their needs. These children were forced to forget their language, culture and spirituality, and in many cases they were not told of their Indigenous heritage.
The Bringing Them Home report of 1997 gathered evidence of the impact this cultural genocide had on Indigenous Australians, showing that it led to intergenerational trauma, poor health, and socio-economic issues. The report made 54 important recommendations to end the cycle of violence against Indigenous Australians.
Twenty years later, Indigenous children are being removed from their families up to four times the rate as the Bringing Them Home report.