Updated: Mar 29, 2021
By Palwasha A.
“Revolution is not a one-time event.
It is becoming always vigilant for the smallest opportunity to
make a genuine change in established, outgrown responses.”
- Audre Lorde
As immigrants or children of immigrants, as individuals inhabiting brown bodies in a predominately white society, it can be comfortable to slip into a position of moral righteousness during discussions of racism and systematic oppression. As though by virtue of identity, our own associated discrimination and baggage of historical injustice, we are exempt from deeper critical self-reflection on our role in allyship or how we play into and enable anti-Black racism.
The experiences of POC and the Black community is not the same. In some part due to the consistent categorisation of all races but the perceived white default as “other”, it can be easy to perpetuate the notion that all racism is felt the same way. It is not an easy task to confront your own privilege, but it is necessary in dismantling the power structures that keep Black people down.
How do People of Colour have privilege?
It's become the controversial buzzword of our age, and we’ve all heard of white privilege. But what does it mean that non-Black POC are privileged? In order to properly understand our own privilege as non-Black POC, we have to realise that we do not experience anti-Black racism. On the contrary, we actually benefit from it in many ways, and that is why it is on us to educate ourselves and step up. When Black people fight the patriarchy and fight against racist power structures, it benefits us all. But when tackling oppressive power structures that were created to keep them down, they are alone, and the rampant anti-Blackness in communities of colour means that we are not exempt from having actively contributed to their ongoing oppression.
Because all POC have been cast into the homogenous “other” group, against the perceived white default and our identities are categorised collectively under the “diverse” umbrella, we can internalise the message that all racism against POC is the same. We may know that there are issues that specifically affect East Asians or Arabs, but we are ignorant of the fact that Black people are consistently put at the bottom of this constructed racial hierarchy. As POC writer Almass Badat explains, “I didn’t explicitly pick up on [the anti-Black racism in my community] because it was no different from what was being promoted in the wider media, and although I do remember trying to disassociate myself with it, I accepted that this was just the way things were. Back then, I failed to see that my acceptance came at the cost of someone else’s denial.”
When POC are told that their struggle is not the same as a Black person’s, the general reaction is offence. When you’ve experienced racism first-hand, it can be difficult to understand that we uphold anti-Black sentiments through colourism and the model-minority myth, to name a few of the covert examples that position the Black community at the bottom of a constructed racial hierarchy.
Just as white power structures are allowed to thrive because of the silence of white people, they also rely on NBPOC silence and desire to fit into them. As Mina McMahon and her fellow WOC activists explain in this incredible resource for the BLM movement in Australia-- An excellent place to do more reading, linked here):
“Dismantling white supremacy begins with acknowledging your own implicit biases and choosing to act against the oppressor. Silence is an immense privilege; one that directly upholds and perpetuates the systems and structures of white supremacy. Identifying and acknowledging privilege is something that non-Bla(c)k people should do without shame. Dismissing privilege means that you are complicit in a system that you may not even agree with.”
We must not align ourselves with their separate struggle. BIPOC showing up to our fights against white privilege benefits us all, and then they suffer from a whole separate set of issues that we will never experience, and that will not change unless we add our voices to the rising cacophony for systemic change.
Our anti-Black reality in Australia
Australians being outraged at the way the US treats its Black citizens while intoning how thankful they are that those same things don’t happen here is about the same level of horse-blinder wearing as Tel Aviv citizens protesting Black deaths in the US and Priyanka Chopra’s allyship.
During Sydney’s BLM protest and vigil, Aboriginal Australian leaders started a chant that rang throughout the crowd over to the police standing at the sidelines. “Four hundred and thirty-four…. Four hundred and thirty four…” This is the number of Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia in the last 30 years. 434 deaths and not a single police officer ever held criminally responsible. The filmed death of George Floyd in the US, in all its horror, spurred people in Australia (and around the world) to finally educate themselves on and confront the fact that our justice systems are actively oppressing Black and indigenous citizens. This requires a necessary upheaval of the sanitised and incorrect history we are taught in the school system here, that Aboriginal Australian oppression is as a thing of the past, a necessary but very sad occurrence wherein a primitive people were effectively wiped out to allow for widespread European settlement on the continent.
In 1991 there was a royal commission (major public inquiry) into the issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody. Since then there have been 434 Aboriginal deaths in custody, a number so staggering and at odds with population statistics that it lays our ongoing shame as a nation bare. In 2018 The Guardian made a database to make all these deaths searchable, and the results were shocking. Since updating it further in august 2019, they found that in many measures, things had gotten worse.
“On Thursday, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released data showing the daily average number of Indigenous people in prison had risen 5% from the second half of last year, from 12,322 to 12,902. The proportion of Indigenous people who were in prison on remand – meaning they had not been convicted or sentenced – had gone up. This is concerning because we found that more than half of the Indigenous people who have died in custody since 2008 had not been convicted of a crime.”
-The Guardian, 2020
Now, Indigenous women account for thirty six percent of all women behind bars in Australia. At a cursory glance, an uneducated person would assume that this is because they are committing more crimes. This is not the case. As writer Greg Jericho reported, based on the latest prison statistics released Thursday, “In New South Wales, while Indigenous people make up 26% of all people in prison, they only account for about 15% of all crimes committed in that state.” They surmised that this is a direct result of the systemic racism within our society that influence employment, income, health- “all the things that may put people in situations where they are more likely to commit crime combined with a justice system that appears to both seek them out more, views their actions more as crimes and then treats them more harshly.”
The conclusions that have been drawn from these investigations into Black deaths in custody can be boiled down to “interactions of Aboriginal Australians with our justice system must be minimised” because once they’re in, the risk of their coming out reduces at an insane rate. But if interaction with the justice system needs to be minimised to protect an entire group of people from injustice by the justice system, does this not then necessitate an entire upheaval and reform of our justice system? A justice system that does not work for all is no justice system.
The same outrageous cases originating from America that gain traction on social media are present within our own country but are left mostly to Aboriginal activists to fight against with limited government resources. For example, during their research, In South Australia, The Guardian learned of a family who have been waiting more than five years for the results of a coronial inquest into the death of a loved one, a 68 year old man who had died in Yatala labour prison in April 2015.
The necessary steps have not been taken by state or federal government to make either the necessary changes to ensure less BIPOC interaction with law enforcement or to further address the systemic racism that leads to their ongoing oppression by law enforcement and so it is up to the people to actively work to make it clear that change must occur. Australians need to mobilise now and POC Australians must not consider themselves exempt- as thousands gathered to protest Aboriginal deaths in custody across Australia, another shameful death, this time of a 40 year old Aboriginal man, occurred in custody at Acacia Prison in WA.
Having been made aware then, of the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Australia’s oppression of BIPOC, it becomes clear how bad we’ve allowed it to get when hearing our current prime minister cautioning Australians against “importing a movement from the US”. This is the leadership that we voted in, something we allow to happen every day that we’re not speaking up, not showing up and allowing our country to be defined by and remain in the grip of the genocidal history that it still defines itself by.
How To Show Up/Speak Up
So we’ve posted. We’ve donated, we’ve marched, we’ve signed petitions. These are all important but it can feel like screaming into an echo chamber, especially social media activism. You’re oftentimes expressing your views to a majority that share your same views, passing information back and forth to each other and changing not very much. Aboriginal people will not stop dying in custody because we’ve marched, and because more of the country has finally tuned into the oppression they’ve already been experiencing since Captain Cook stumbled his blotchy self onto Australian shores.
In order to show up in a real way, we have to get uncomfortable. A revolution does not happen overnight and it’s our responsibility, once we’re aware of oppressive racist power structures, to constantly be ready to take action against them in support of our Black brothers and sisters. Everyone can post a black square. True allyship happens when we’re forced to get uncomfortable. This means tackling the racism within our families, our friends and our communities. It means actively learning as opposed to waiting for people to teach you.
Check in on those you know who are traumatised, listen to and take direction from Black activists. Do not think you know, because we can be unaware of how much our own thought process and understanding is shaped by our privilege. Step back and listen. Do not ever expect another person to educate you, especially a person personally affected by the trauma of the news. We have more access to information from every corner of the world than we have had at any point in history, and it should be utilised. We are in a truly incredible place to be able to educate ourselves and grow our own knowledge of the systems we move within, how they’ve come about, and how we can do better.
This is specifically for non-Black people-do NOT shut yourself out of conversations with racist family members, friends, etc. You are in a position where you can genuinely use your inherent privilege to affect change. It may and will likely be a difficult and uncomfortable conversation. Allyship should get uncomfortable. We need to call out the anti-Blackness in our communities.
Here are some steps you can take in ensuring that you have as productive a conversation as possible:
Theres a way to dissent respectfully, especially when it comes to people we love who are acting in the way that has never been contested. We can’t let sentiments of “stay out of the sun, you’ll get too dark” or “they’re fine, but we can’t marry them” or praying for fair-skinned babies to keep being handed down, especially when the children affected by them will grow into a new generation with internalised self-hatred and the cycle will continue.
1. Patience, patience, patience.
A lifetime of internalising racism isn’t overturned overnight, but as allies it is our duty to have necessary conversations with those who listen to us. Be kind in your explanation, as shouting matches are about as effective as political pundits. Open their minds to different perspectives. People are generally resistant to understanding the concept of privilege, defending their viewpoint with how hard they've had it in life, how nothing was handed to them. This allows you to explain that this is not what privilege is, and then define.
2. Ask them to empathise
Reframe a situation into something the other person has some sort of life experience with and can understand is a fantastic starting point for changing an opinion. What if it was you? "We don’t need to worry about police using an everyday interaction as an excuse to brutalise us, we don’t need to worry about leaving a store without buying anything." This can lead into talk of more covert privilege examples, until they understand that racism is not individual acts of racism, but a continuously oppressive system that they are complicit in. Allow them and yourself room to learn and grow but don't use how the fact that it's so easy to make mistakes as an excuse to back away. We cant really afford to give ourselves excessive excuses when people are having to suffer the results of our collective ignorance daily.
3. Hear them out
The difficulty is in hearing them out. Frustration is a given. It's always going to be difficult having to listen to ignorance, but listening is helpful in then urging them to challenge exactly what they’re afraid of. In taking on a person’s racist views by educating rather than yelling, we are using our privilege to dismantle and change their opinion. If not theirs, then influencing the people listening. Sometimes arguing with a racist, a homophobe, a sexist, etc. is like trying to make sense come from a brick wall. But it’s necessary regardless because hate speech cannot be allowed to be given breath. There are people listening and there will be people affected by your inaction.
As first, second or third generation immigrants to this country, we need to take up our role in fighting for the rights of the true custodians of this land. When confronted with their reality, so many of us feel absolved from it’s implications- we didn’t steal the land, our ancestors were not complicit in the horrors against them. But we are living, working on, and wholly benefitting from the pain of their colonisation and their ongoing pain now. Their erasure allows us to go about our lives on soil that was never ceded, unimpeded. And this privilege that we have, aside from the inherent duty that every human being has to fight for equality for all, is what makes us responsible. We are not separate from the issue. We are complicit.
If you’re wondering what you’d do during the periods of history where grave injustice was occurring in your own country, you don’t need to wonder. You’re doing it now.