As the school term draws to a close here in Western Australia, I have been thinking a lot about the assemblies.
I’ve spent a lot of time in schools running creative learning programs, so I’ve seen my fair share of gatherings filled with twisted kids sitting cross-legged on the floor with their teachers silencing me. There’s something beautiful about the way they look at each other, curious to know what the week’s performance will be.
Whatever school I attend, the ritual is the same: the children sit down, the national anthem is sung in a high pitch, then the director pronounces a recognition of the country.
In some schools, acknowledgment includes the phrase, “We would like to thank the traditional custodians for nurturing this precious land where we live, learn and play.” In early learning centers, I have listened to children acknowledging their country with statements such as “thank you for letting us share the land you love, we promise to take care of it”.
This version of the “thank you for the land” story teaches children that the Australian continent was a gift from First Nations peoples to non-Aboriginal people; that “Aboriginal elders” are like cuddly godfathers and that their ancestors are angels who watch over us all.
It’s seductive and dangerous. The reality is that many First Nations elders were subjected to terrible abuse by state institutions, and their ancestors were often victims and/or survivors of racism, violence and attempts at cultural decimation.
Some people will say that children are innocent and cannot be expected to understand these harsh realities, and that simplifying history helps build unity rather than division. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lying to children by sanitizing the past makes them ignorant and prevents them from understanding the current inequalities caused by this history.
Without knowing the truth, children draw their own conclusions about why some people are poor and others are not; why some people are angry while others are happy. The truth explains, while the lie is obscure.
And yet, the history of Australia is not complicated.
We may not like it, but the story is simple. This continent and its people were colonized by Europeans who justified their racism using God and science and treated First Nations peoples with brutal violence. The effects of this racism persist today, as do many of the racist ideas and stereotypes invented by the settlers.
Telling this story is important because it is true and because it is the only basis on which to rely in the fight against racism. It starts with using every opportunity possible to tell the right story rather than the fables that make non-Aboriginal people feel good.
Right now, we are teaching children to see themselves as good-hearted innocents who have the right to share in all that this earth has to offer, as long as they say “thank you” to the “elders”.
It will become increasingly difficult to tell them that the land they live on was in fact not a gift; that it was in fact stolen, that they are the beneficiaries of that theft, and that racism is a defining feature of the lives of First Nations people and an essential part of this nation’s history.
A society that does not tell its children the truth inevitably becomes a society in which adults cannot deal with the truth. Unfortunately, that’s where Australia is.
Beyond the good recognition of the country, many of our school systems struggle to teach the truth to young people. This problem is also reflected in the media and politics; the truth is perceived as invigorating and therefore avoided.
Of course, the truth has been foreign to the settlers here for a long time. Terra nullius was Australia’s first myth, and it was quickly followed by the Aboriginal extinction myth – this idea that First Nations were “a dying race”.
Conveniently forgetting the fact that many indigenous peoples were dying from the smallpox and influenza epidemics that the Europeans had introduced when their ships arrived here, European anthropologists and doctors concluded that the “Aborigines” were on the verge of “disappearance”. for evolutionary reasons. The idea that First Nations peoples were biologically inferior to whites was one of the main inventions of scientific racism, and it was used to justify laws aimed at “smooth the pillow of the dying race.”
Under the guise of “protection”, First Nations people were placed on native reservations, forced to work for a pittance, and placed under the guardianship of the state, who were told who they could marry and what would happen to their children – many of whom were taken from them.
The myth that white Australians were able to help – rather than harm – First Nations people on the basis of their inherent superiority is so powerful that those tasked with managing them were even called chief protectors. The historical record has preserved their cruelty and many First Nations writers – more recently Elfie Shiosaki in his wonderful book Homecoming – examined the afterlife of AO Neville and his ilk.
Unfortunately, we are still struggling with an underlying national ideology that insists that non-Indigenous people are guided by innocence and kindness in all of their dealings with First Nations peoples. This ideology resists even in the face of crimes and misdeeds perpetrated against First Nations peoples. This is why, as Alison Whittaker wrote, “Despite 432 Indigenous deaths in custody since 1991, no one has ever been convicted.”
Djab Wurrung Gunnai Gunditjmara’s wife and Senator Lidia Thorpe upset many when she refused to apologize for dodging the Australian flag in photos last week. On The Project, Thorpe said the flag “represents the colonization of these lands and he has no permission to be here. There was no consent, there was no treaty.
Thorpe went on to say, “I don’t want people to be upset by what I have to say. I want people to be on a journey of learning and a journey of truth so that we can unite this country and mature as a nation.
His interlocutor, Waleed Aly, was unconvinced and argued that calling the “entire nation illegitimate” was not necessarily the “right starting point” for unifying the country.
At first glance, Aly’s comment seemed easy to accept. But of course Aly is wrong. There can be no better starting point for unifying the country than developing a common understanding of the facts, and the fact is that many First Nations people have ample reason to question the legitimacy of this state.
The rest of us have to catch up with Thorpe.
We could start by making sure all those cute, restless children across Australia know that the neighborhoods they live in, and the lakes and rivers they fish and swim in, are not a gift from the keepers of these lands.
Instead, they are rightly the subject of ongoing and unresolved conflict. The sooner all children in this society understand this, the sooner we will make real progress against racism.