Thank You: An Open Letter To Hèritier Lumumba


The Project’s inability to grasp the message Hèritier Lumumba is trying to deliver has not gone unnoticed, anymore than the courage of the man himself. Yassir Morsi pens an open letter.

Thank you.

I do not know you. But I am urged to tell you. I saw your interview on Channel Ten’s The Project. It drove me to grimace, caused me to look away, made me pause, draw courage, and look again.

I guess, my double take works as a metaphor to further explain the root of my gratitude. It’s so easy to look away when racism confronts us. Especially for those who think it is largely a thing of a past Australia. So, thank you for giving a face, a name, a body and a pain to say: “look again.”

It was more than your words. It was a tone that caught me. A defiant and brave vulnerability came through saying what you said. Especially, towards the end, especially about how we must say it and say it out loud.

But I write too for I suspect many suffer in the silence you wish to break. Although as a non-black person of colour my experience is not yours. Yet, I have chosen silence more often than not. I write this for as a writer I know no other way than to commit to paper my double take.

I could be wrong, so forgive me if I am, but I also write because you might be in the usual place of self-doubt right now. For racism always hit backs the moment you say its name. You might be where many anti-racists live when they put their face to its cause. It is a space where we search for internal strength with question marks. It combines well wishes from friends and the hateful comment of others. A place where fingers point at you. Your character, your mental health, your supposed motives become their debate.

They keep asking: Are you sure? Are you sure it’s not you that’s the problem? Like when Waleed Aly asked you: “Isn’t it (Collingwood) just an organisation that doesn’t know how to deal with this?”

From Nicky Winmar to Eddie McGuire, if Collingwood does not know how to address ‘this’ then it is, as you say, an indictment. It is proof. How many times does it have to happen to the same club?

I felt Aly was putting you on the spot, as many others do. We must prove racism is, prove its experience as if it’s some rare bird. We always hear about it but cannot see it. To ask whether you had considered the club’s difficulties is the sad state of where we are at.

This country does not stare at racism long enough. We always talk about racism without talking about it. It’s an excellent way to hide it. Hiding it through saying everything but nothing of what it is. Like a TV with white noise, the conversation is always on, but nothing is showing.

A screencap from The Project airing of the interview between Waleed Aly and Hèritier Lumumba on Tuesday night.
A screencap from The Project airing of the interview between Waleed Aly and Hèritier Lumumba on Tuesday night.

I watched with some embarrassment the white noise around this debate. Aly over-committed to proving the use of a nickname. As if that alone is how we should gauge the meaning of your stance, or the misery you wish to end. But it’s indicative, not-discussing-racism-as-racism, white noise, is about outing the small things. It is about showing moral outrage at nicknames. It is not about detention centres or black deaths in custody or a land with no treaty.

The white noise of racism obsesses over discussions about tolerance and demands respect. It’s about the good will of the corporate brand with slogans of “racism ends with me” or whatever. All this noise drowns out a discussion on racism for what it is. A colonial structure, racism originates in the violence of white settlement. Violence expressed in the practice of social and political institutions. It shaped disparities in wealth, justice, employment, health, housing and our sense of selves.

When we unpack this talking without talking, caring without caring, what does it say? For me there are no double takes, it means discussing racism becomes a fleeting attempt at saving face. It becomes about preserving the fragile image of a tolerant Australia. These discussions centre whiteness. You may not have considered the ‘good will’ of the AFL, it was said as the segment closed.

So, thank you. For as a child, I once scratched off my skin with my broken glasses (a pair broken by a bully). I prayed to Allah that day to ask why I was the same colour of shit? For that’s what the bully had asked me.

I do not say this for sympathy. I survived as did you Hèritier. I’m better and stronger for this. Racism taught me to love justice. And, I want it. I want to scratch the skin off racism and remove this surface argument that it’s all about tolerance.

Thank you and thank you to Amy McQuire for writing the story that made me watch the documentary. Thank you to all my Indigenous mentors.

And, thank you also to Aamer Rahman. He put words to the “innocence” of Peter Helliar and called it for what is, cowardly and dishonest. No two words best describe the inability of white Australia to look twice.

And, since that interview, I have watched it again, and then again, and reheard your words, nodded my head. And with every viewing, I became braver. Because, I know enough to know speaking of and against racism is not a career, it is too often the end of one.

Thank you for your bravery, and for their lack of it.

I want you to know you made me feel I was not alone. And for whatever it’s worth, in every circle of colour I occupy, we turn to tell you that neither are you.

Yassir Morsi is a lecturer at La Trobe University, the Vice President of ACRWSA (Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association), and the recent author of Radical Skin, Moderate Masks.