Reflections on white supremacy on January 26, Invasion Day

You cannot dismantle what you cannot see. You cannot challenge what you don’t understand.

Lidia Thorpe, a Djabwurrung Gunnai Gunditjmara woman and an Australian Greens Senator has called on Australians to join Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders “in acknowledging January 26 as a day of respectful reflection and mourning for those who died fighting for country.”

January 26 – a day of mourning

“The countless injustices Aboriginal people have faced began on January 26, 1788, but they continue today. We must mourn the many thousands of First Nations people across this nation who were massacred in numerous frontier wars, over many decades, often in cold blood. Today, black deaths in custody only serve to remind us that this period of violence and injustice has not yet finished.”

When Aboriginal people speak up about the realities of colonisation, often the response to this reality is the same – casual racism and a collective denial that tells us our lives don’t matter.”

January 26 – a day of reflection

As a white Australian, I challenge white Australians to reflect on the role of white supremacy in our historic and current treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

White supremacy is a racist ideology that is based upon the belief that white people are superior in many ways to people of other races and that therefore, white people should be dominant over other races. It is not just an attitude or a way of thinking. It also extends to how systems, structures and institutions are structured to uphold this white dominance.

Surely, white supremacy explains why we talk about colonisation in 1788 and ignore the act of invasion and dispossession. Why the white Australia policy wasn’t dismantled until 1966, why the first Racial Discrimination Act was only legislated in 1975 and why we lived with the myth of terra nullius until 1992 (and it took a 10-year court battle to confirm that terra nullius violated international human rights norms and denied the historical reality of First Nations peoples’ dispossession).

But I’m not a white supremacist!

Most of us will think that white supremacists are a small group, and we aren’t part of that group. However, we should reflect on the words Dr. King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, where he warned of the “white moderate” being the “greatest stumbling block” toward social justice because they are “more devoted to order than to justice”. We must also consider how hard it is to argue that our systems and institutions are not racist (based on white supremacy) when:

  • Australia is among the only Commonwealth countries without a legally binding treaty. As Lidia Thorpe said, “A treaty would see First Nations people and the Australian state speak to another, for the first time, as sovereign to sovereign. It would radically reshape the relationship between First Nations Peoples and other Australians. … It would transform this country. A treaty that starts with truth-telling is the serious change that this country needs.”
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids make up only 6% of all 10- to 17-year-olds in Australia but they are 54% of the juvenile detention population
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprise 29 per cent of the nation’s adult prison population, despite making up just 3 per cent of the population
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are 9.7 times more likely to be removed from their families than non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are disproportionately targeted by punitive policing. In more than one state, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids are significantly overrepresented in the number of strip-searches conducted by police
  • Currently in NSW, more than $2bn is spent on child protection and out-of-home care, but only $150m is spent on early intervention, despite consistent reviews calling on governments to commit to the Closing the Gap targets by investing in Aboriginal community-controlled organisations to deliver early intervention and family support, as well as funding for restoration.
    • This is an example of white saviourism – the belief white people are more capable of knowing what is best for Aboriginal people than they know for themselves. White saviourism is also the justification for colonialism, the Stolen Generation and not investing in or allowing self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (even when they have the resources to do so).

Are we prepared to acknowledge the wide-spread white supremacy in Australia?

As Layla F. Saad says in her excellent book, Me and White Supremacy, “The system of white supremacy was not created by anyone who is alive today.” But it is maintained and upheld by everyone who holds white privilege – whether or not you want it or agree with it.

Are we complicit in white supremacy?

“We need to take a clear look at different multifaceted aspects of white supremacy and how they operate in both subtle and direct ways within you and within others. Examine how we have been complicit in a system that has been purposely designed to benefit you through unearned privileges at the expense of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour … a system that has been designed to keep us asleep and unaware of what having that privilege, protections and power has meant for people who do not look like you.”

What can we do about white supremacy?
(some suggestions adapted from the book Me and White Supremacy)

  • Support the Uluru Statement from the Heart – voice, treaty, truth – a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution and a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history
  • Take responsibility for your own antiracist education and practice instead of expecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to do that work for you
  • Talk with others about racism and practicing antiracism, donate to Aboriginal-led organisations, amplify Aboriginal voices emphasising the resilience and contribution by First Nations peoples, show up at protests, pay money to more Aboriginal-led business (i.e. select equity over cost), call out/in people, organisations and institutions that are discriminating against and doing harm to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders
  • Take up less space and allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to take up more space so that they can be heard and their leadership can be followed
  • Commit to proactive lifelong antiracism – keep learning, keep showing up, and keep doing what is necessary so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders can live with dignity and equity
  • Challenge systems and work to create structural changes, dismantling white supremacy institutionally as well as personally. Systems don’t change unless the people who uphold them change, and each person is responsible for upholding the system
    • For example, call for action to reduce the number of deaths in custody, reduce the number of First Nations people in prison and out-of-home care, invest in public anti-racism campaigns, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island education in schools, scholarships at university level, renaming of public places so Australians better understand their hidden history and maintaining legal protections against racism
  • We need to understand and take ownership of our participation in the oppressive supremacy. Take responsibility for questioning, challenging and dismantling the way that this system manifests, both within ourselves and within our communities.
    • For example, be aware of microaggressions which are defined as: brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights, put-downs, or a pattern of disrespect.
      • Racial microaggressions in the workplace generally take covert or subtle forms, and may be conceptualised as “everyday” or “passive” racism that serve to invalidate or inferiorise the expertise of First Nations people while positioning white expertise as the standard of “best practice”.

Will we unconsciously allow white supremacy to continue or will we choose to dismantle it?

And finally, consider Layla F. Saad’s challenge, “… you are a part of the problem and you are simultaneously also a part of the answer. … In creating a new world, everyone’s contribution matters. And as someone who holds white privilege, your contribution to this work is of the utmost importance. … The effects of your actions, whether consciously chosen or not, will impact everyone who comes into contact with you and what you create in the world while you are alive. You can continue to unconsciously allow white supremacy to use you as it used your ancestors to cause an impact of harm and marginalisation to Black, Indigenous and People of Colour. Or you can intentionally choose to disrupt and dismantle white supremacy within yourself and your communities so that Black, Indigenous and People of Colour can live free of racism and oppression.”

The choice is yours. The moment is now.”

share on