On Wednesday, November 4th, 2021 Australian model, Jesinta Franklin hopped onto Instagram to share her thoughts, in the wake of the news that little Cleo Smith had been found alive, after her eighteen-day abduction.
Without taking away from the joy of finding a missing child alive and well, I can’t help but think about the disparity that exists in this country between missing children who are white and indigenous children when it comes to the visibility and coverage of the case
The timing of Franklin’s post, the day after little Cleo was found, may have been ill-conceived. The narrative she was proposing was one that most Australians find difficult to digest at the best of times and, if the vitriolic comments that followed the post are a gauge of public sentiment, they certainly didn’t want it encroaching on their moment of shared national celebration.
A Difficult Conversation
But for those of us who sit uncomfortably with Australia’s denial of its cultural inequities, it is these very moments that find us biting our tongues and waiting for the national fervour to pass. It is these very moments in which we are reminded of our cultural immaturity and arrested development, when it comes to conversations about culture, colonisation and our Australian identity.
Ms. Franklin added her name to a list of commentators who have, over the years, dared to name the elephant in a room that, to be blunt, was built on the historical foundations of masterful elephant concealment.
Who can forget the frenzy of outrage that followed a 2017 ANZAC Day tweet by ABC Presenter, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who chose that day to call out Australia’s selective memory when it comes to human rights abuses in our own backyard? She was hounded through numerous media outlets, with celebrities and politicians alike calling for her head on a stick.
And in 2013, when Adam Goodes challenged a thirteen-year-old girl in the stands for calling him an ape, it was Goodes himself who felt the weight of public scrutiny and condemnation, as he dared to hold a mirror up to Australia’s cultural underbelly. But the act of calling a proud and strong Aboriginal man an ape is not one born in the mind of a thirteen-year-old girl. Her actions were an expression of a cultural narrative that has been passed down, from one generation to the next, from the first days of settlement.
An Old Story
It is a narrative that has been propagated by politicians and pastors, journos and high court judges for centuries, characterising Aborigines as faithless, depraved savages, who pose a threat to the innocence and chastity of our sons and daughters.
Such narratives have been culturally internalised over time, allowing us, generations on, to turn a blind eye to violations against people of colour, whether First Nations people or refugees and asylum seekers. They are simply less important.
In nineteenth century Australia, blatant hate speech against Aborigines was given free rein in newspapers such as the Sydney Herald and The Australian. When, in 1838, seven white colonists were charged with the massacre of twenty-eight Aboriginal men at Myall Creek, the public was largely united in its outrage that a black life might be considered equal to that of a white. One juror’s views, expressed during the trial, were published in The Australian in December 1838:
I look on the blacks as a set of monkeys, and the earlier they are exterminated from the face of the earth the better. I would never consent to hang a white man for a black one. I knew well (the colonists) were guilty of the murder, but I for one would never see a white man suffer for shooting a black
Culturally significant days, such as Australia Day and ANZAC Day – intended to unite us as a nation – bring into sharp focus the growing divisions between us. For many, it is becoming increasingly difficult to stay silent in the face of apparent hypocrisy, which remembers so vividly one part of our history, whilst attempting to completely erase another.
It is an inconvenient truth that our very existence as Australians was built on the lie of Terra Nullius and the subsequent attempted genocide of this continent’s First Peoples. This story simply doesn’t fit with our preferred national self-concept. The qualities of the lovable larrikin and the characterisation of the ‘land of the fair go’ are far better served by tales of battlefield mateship and comradery, drawn from WWII.
A national conversation that shines a light into the dark corners of our history is a tough ask. It requires emotional courage and a willingness to be vulnerable. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “true reconciliation does not consist in merely forgetting the past”. In fact, to paraphrase Desmond Tutu, it necessarily exposes the awfulness, the abuse and the hurt. It is then, and only then, that we can begin to move forward, together, with a working understanding of our separate and shared histories, towards the forging of a true and authentic national identity.
Adam Goodes, Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Jesinta Franklin are just three of the many cultural whistle-blowers who have dared to pierce the fragile veneer of this lucky-for-some country, at considerable personal cost. They have challenged us to be (in the Australian vernacular) fair dinkum and sit with the difficult conversations that take us beyond the discomfort, beyond the shame, to reap the rewards of building a fairer, more inclusive, and more authentic story of who we are – today and into the future.