Why George Floyd’s death should feel uncomfortably familiar, close to home.
It’s National Reconciliation Week, and as a white Australian I acknowledge I run the risk of virtue signalling when I say, it’s time to do more to end systemic racism in Australia. But, it is.
Because until we address the frightening racism and racial inequity that exists in our own backyard, we have little right to shake our heads at the news of George Floyd’s death in the US.
Frankly, as a society, we should be ashamed about our own blindness to the deaths in custody our Indigenous community experiences in frightening numbers. And, what better time to give our racial issues the spotlight, than during National Reconciliation Week.
It’s time to feel uncomfortable, because there should be no comfort in how we’ve treated Indigenous Australians.
In 2011, as a film critic I reviewed a documentary that told a story as deeply unjust as George Floyd’s death:The Tall Man.
It is a powerful documentary that looks at the death of Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004. Doomadgee was arrested for allegedly swearing at a police officer.
Forty-five minutes later, he was found dead in the police holding cell, with the officer on duty claiming he had fallen. That ‘fall’ left Doomadgee with a series of shocking internal injuries that beggar belief.
What happened in those 45 minutes, leave questions which will likely never be answered.
Cameron Doomadgee’s senseless loss of life was but one of 432 Indigenous deaths that have occurred in custody since the end of the Royal Commission in 1991.
He died because he swore at a police officer.
Where was the widespread outrage for Cameron Doomadgee?
How is it that we can see clearly the horror of what’s happening in the US, and yet remain largely blind to our own racial injustices? Are we so ignorant?
Like white privilege itself, it’s easy to choose what we see.
But, too many of us refuse to see our ‘privilege’.
Often when people try to rebuke the notion that they benefit from white privilege, it’s because they struggle to see themselves as being privileged. But, as many have stated, having white privilege doesn’t mean you haven’t had a hard life, it just means that the colour of your skin isn’t a cause of that hardship.
Life is complex.
We can be both from majority and minority groups. At the 99U conference in 2018, which I attended, illustrator Adam JK spoke of how being a gay man, with all the discrimination that part of his identity had caused him, didn’t take away his white privilege, or his male privilege.
You don’t have to be racist, sexist, homophobic or ableist to benefit from racial inequality, gender inequality, heteronormative values or a world that is designed for able bodies.
And yet, the very nature of privilege is that it is so normalised in our life, our community and society, that it never feels unnatural to the beneficiary.
We’re all guilty of having blind spots.
I’m a proud feminist, and yet even as someone who seeks to educate themselves on feminist issues, my privilege has at times blinded me.
In the introduction to Can we all be Feminists? the book’s editor, June Eric-Udorie, highlights the issue of blindness to intersectional discrimination as it applies to modern feminism, specifically white feminism.
She questions: ‘Don’t white feminists know that they have so much more privilege and power than the average trans woman, queer woman, or woman of colour?’
In the case of white feminism, we all too often have women actively fighting discrimination, while at the same time perpetuating it. It’s something I know I’m guilty of. Often, we don’t — or we choose not to — focus on it. That’s wrong.
Having that choice is having privilege.
By exploring intersectional discrimination, we are reminded that there are a multitude of factors that contribute to power, or an absence of, with gender being just one of them.
Of course, if we don’t know better, it’s easy to be blind. We are, after all, the sum of our lived experience.
Too often, we enable the hardships that exist in our own lives to overshadow the systemic injustices that exist in our society. Our personal experiences of discrimination or disadvantage becomes an excuse or rationale from which to ignore the social or cultural issues that make us feel uncomfortable.
We feel justified by our sense of values and purpose — as somehow by being a good person, we absolve ourselves of the systems of power that support us.
Again, you don’t have to be racist to benefit from racism. I was reminded of this recently when watching the TV adaptation of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.
When in Little Fires Everywhere, Reese Witherspoon’s white and wealthy Elena Richardson tells Kerry Washington’s black and poor Mia Warren: ‘A good mother makes good choices’ — she reveals the core challenge and blindness of privilege.
Here, she believes she has made the necessary sacrifices a good parent makes, but as Mia Warren counters: ‘You didn’t make good choices, you had good choices.’
Elena is blind to her privilege and her judgement of Mia is supported by a system of power that enables Elena to not only have privilege, but for her to mask and justify her position according to the values accepted by society.
In an earlier episode, Elena saw a black woman living in her car, and called the police. Even after getting to know Mia and her struggles, she remains blind to her racist behaviour.
Powerfully, Mia refuses to allow Elena to cast her as a bad mother, and rather shines an incisive light on the oppressive forces that have enabled the two mothers to tread two very different paths. It’s a wonderful reminder of the casualness of discrimination, and the terrible risk of only being able to see the world through our own eyes.
So, how do we begin to see beyond ourselves?
We need to find ways to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable.
It’s time to seek a better understanding of the world through eyes that aren’t our own. And, what better time to listen than during National Reconciliation Week.
Every year during this special week, we as a nation should pause, reflect and remember that the traditional owners of the land — our Indigenous community — deserve so much more.
We should hold ourselves accountable to the key measures of an equal society.
In the same way we look at the gender pay gap as a measure of gender equality, we should look at the gap between Indigenous and non-indigenous health, the gap between Indigenous and non-indigenous incarceration, the gap between Indigenous and non-indigenous deaths in custody.
We mustn’t be afraid to confront our past, accept the horror and anger that remains, and use it to do better.
Dr Maya Angelou still said it best when she said: ‘When you know better, you do better.’
I’m a beneficiary of white privilege. And, as someone who claims no expertise or special knowledge in the area, I feel there are things we can all do, too.
My small contribution is ensuring I hold myself accountable to the following, especially this week.
Read, contemplate and sign the Uluru Statement from the Heart — it’s one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read.
Listen and learn.
Be open to feeling uncomfortable.
Support not-for-profits that support closing the myriad of gaps Indigenous Australians experience, such as the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.
Watch films that give Indigenous Australians a voice, such as The Australian Dream, Samson and Delilah, and Ten Canoes.
Call out casual racism.
Accept and recognise your privilege.
George Floyd’s death was horrific. Every death in custody is horrific. Racism is horrific.
But, let’s not just be horrified.
Now that we know better, we must do better.