A Black Lives Matter protest took over Sydney on Saturday. Picture: Sam Ruttyn
A Black Lives Matter protest took over Sydney on Saturday. Picture: Sam Ruttyn

Australia, we need an honest conversation about our history

Don't be too pleased with yourself.

As you look at what's happening in the US, don't waste too much time shaking your head in disapproval at that sick society.

We aren't better or more virtuous. We certainly aren't less racist.

The only difference between Australia and the United States is that we were colonised in the 1780s instead of the early 1600s.

If we are to count ourselves lucky in anything, it should be that Australia's colonies had, at the very beginning, at least the grains of good intentions.

Our first governor, Arthur Phillip, genuinely sought (but by no means achieved) conciliation with indigenous people rather than simply authorising their genocide. Phillip, a decent and humane man, was attempting to understand rather than destroy Aboriginal culture when he ordered a young man, Woollarawarre Bennelong, abducted and kept in shackles to be an ambassador for his people.

By 1807, as the colony was getting established, England abolished slavery. Although many Aboriginal people quickly found themselves in chains, our system was not the same industrial-scale human trafficking as the American colonies.

Aborigines made up 100 per cent of the Australian population in 1787. Now it's 3.3 per cent, because unlike the United States, black people weren't considered a business input.

Our history is full of horrors endured by black people at the hands of whites: dispossession, disenfranchisement and disease were just the start. Whites massacred blacks - men, women and children - with impunity. This was never a secret: the famous 1907 memoir We of the Never-Never, part of the Australian canon, features numerous blithe description by author Jeannie Gunn of farm workers going on a "nigger hunt" in retribution for Aborigines camping in the "wrong" area.

And yet, in 1996, our Prime Minister, John Howard, said it was important not to overplay the negative or depressing realities of our history, and that to do so would be to take a "black armband" view of history.

We must learn to be more honest with ourselves.

If we can't, we'll never understand each other. If we can't even acknowledge the wrongs in our past, and the everyday slurs and prejudice black people endure right here in Australia, we'll never grasp the real significance of a young Aboriginal boy in Surry Hills in 2020 with his hands restrained having his feet kicked from under him by a policeman.

That matter is still under investigation and no one has been charged.

The simplest explanation I’ve seen is this: acknowledging ‘white privilege’ doesn’t mean your life has been easy. It just means your skin-colour is not one of the things that has made it hard. Picture: Sam Ruttyn
The simplest explanation I’ve seen is this: acknowledging ‘white privilege’ doesn’t mean your life has been easy. It just means your skin-colour is not one of the things that has made it hard. Picture: Sam Ruttyn

But this is an opportunity to learn something from our children, who have grown up in a post-Mabo, post-apology era where people of colour are the superstars of music, sport and popular culture.

For them, there's nothing particularly confronting about acknowledging the existence of white privilege, a concept which older Australians really struggle with.

The simplest explanation I've seen is this: acknowledging 'white privilege' doesn't mean your life has been easy. It just means your skin-colour is not one of the things that has made it hard.

I once read a black American man's description of what it's like to walk across a street at night and hear the car doors being locked by people waiting in traffic - because they are scared of him.

That man crossing the road? It was Barack Obama: a skinny, geeky legal academic and basketball fan who also happens to be the most impressive and courageous leader of our time.

That's a feeling I'll never know. It's not something I have to fear for my children - just like I don't have to teach my children how to stay alive in a prison cell, or how to keep safe in an encounter with a police officer.

I have the privilege - the white privilege - of being able to tell my kids that police are our friends.

The dream is for every mother, no matter her colour, to feel the same sense of trust.

Claire Harvey is the deputy editor for The Sunday Telegraph.

Originally published as Australia, we need an honest conversation about our history



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