If you thought Australia has a problem owning up to its racist past and future, imagine how hard it is for government ministers selling racist policy on national television.
Last night, we got a small taste of what happens when the great Australian silence is broken. Acclaimed Aboriginal actor Uncle Jack Charles calmly articulated the unique nature of Australia’s “peculiar” racism on ABC’s Q&A program.
The weekly show opened with questioner Amanda Marie Voets, who as a redhead insinuated she had also faced comparable discrimination, and asked whether Sydney Swans star Adam Goodes had been too “sensitive” in responding to backlash surrounding his Indigenous war dance.
Goodes celebrated a goal with a war dance directed at Carlton fans during the AFL’s annual Indigenous round on the weekend. It sparked an apparent “race debate” this week, with many Australians up in arms over the imaginary spear Goodes wielded at the opposing team’s fan base.
The Q&A panel of five, which included Mr Charles along with Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and ALP MP Anthony Albanese, all generally agreed that it was a positive display of Goodes’ pride in his culture.
But when Ms Voets asked a follow up question about Goodes perceived sensitivity, given she had spent all her life as a redhead, Uncle Jack responded with several truth bombs that had Mr Frydenberg squirming in his seat.
“He’s not being too sensitive,” Uncle Jack told the audience.
“… Australia is a unique country. It’s peculiarly, from my observation, peculiarly racist against us. You have to know this. If you don’t know it, I don’t know why you don’t know it now.”
Someone who obviously doesn’t know it, is Mr Frydenberg, who interjected, saying he didn’t believe Australia was a racist country.
“Can I just respond on this issue of racism Jack because in any society there is prejudice but there’s enormous goodwill in our parliament from both sides of the political divide… we’ve got a Prime Minister who has spent many a day in Indigenous communities well before he was Prime Minister… is now spending time out in indigenous communities…
“We are trying to reach out across the divide in terms of reconciliation and constitutional change… we’ve gone through that whole process of the apology… there’s a long way to go… but I don’t want to colour the whole of Australia as a racist society because I think there’s enormous goodwill.”
To which Uncle Jack confronted the politician with the truth behind his government’s assault on Aboriginal Australia.
“Mobs of goodwill by lots of Australians all around the country,” Uncle Jack said.
“But the policies that are making our lives worse than poor white people of Australia… to remove us from lands, the people of the top end, to remove them from their lands, to take away funding… strikes me as peculiar, strange and I’m trying to look for another word.”
Uncle Jack spoke of the personal cost that government cuts to funding could have. The Abbott government slashed the black budget in its first year, and combined 500 programmes into five broad streams under the chaotic Indigenous Advancement Strategy that has resulted in the de-funding of many Aboriginal community controlled organisations and services.
“My lifestyle choice is not being homeless now. Someone lit a fire under the combined mooms, bums, of the Aboriginal health service… and they took me off the streets and put me in a unit.”
Uncle Jack said that keeping funding for housing and drug and alcohol services was important.
Life experience was also important for policy making, and dealing with the crippling problem of Aboriginal incarceration, he later said, responding to a question on the over-representation of Aboriginal youth in juvenile detention.
“You need people like myself with the lived experiences, men and women beyond reproach. There are quite a few people going into prisons now, they are spreading the message, being role models… to these young ones in institutions.”
Twitter erupted in support of Uncle Jack’s truth bombs:
Jack Charles is an inspiration to many, both black and white. He's a great story of tragedy and resilience. A remarkable life #qanda
— Joe Hedger (@cuz888) June 1, 2015
Why arent more people like Jack Charles involved in indigenous policy making. What a breath of fresh air. #qanda
— Arvind Hickman (@ArvindHickman) June 1, 2015
Jack Charles says it so simply: we need people with lived experiences in both creating and implementing policy. #qanda
— Senthorun Raj (@senthorun) June 1, 2015
And Minister Frydenberg went back to his enormous salary, white privilege and ‘loads of goodwill’.
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