Australia Day 2016 was going to be like all the others for me; deciding where the best view of the fireworks display would be. That was the plan until prominent Australian journalist Stan Grant interrupted my ignorant knowledge of the history of the Aboriginal people.
I was given another narrative to consider and ponder. A narrative birthed out of the suffering of a nation as they watched their culture, livelihood and history die at the hands of others who denied their existence.
For the first time, I truly felt the heartbeat of the words he spoke: ‘The Australian Dream is rooted in racism. It is the very foundation of the dream. It is there at the birth of the nation’. The words were loud and clear and as January became February the heartbeat continued, this time on US soil. Australia Day became Black History Month and I found myself reflecting on the journey People of Colour from all over the world have undertaken. As I celebrated the achievements and remembered iconic figures from my racial affinity group, I heard a rattling…an all too familiar voice cutting through my nostalgia as the world was reminded yet again that RaceMatters.
no one is born hating another person because of the colour of their skin, background or religion. people must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite – Nelson Mandela
This time it came in the form of the trending hashtags……#OscarsSoWhite and #BritsSoWhite, referring to the lack of diversity within the Academy Award nominations and the annual British pop music awards in 2016.
I read the recent New York Times interview with actress Lupita Nyong’o and comedian Trevor Noah, both of African descent. When asked about the diversity controversy, both Trevor and Lupita refer to the ‘roadblock that no one tells you about,’ and ‘the gatekeepers’. Could this be the institutionalized racism that has been referred to? The kind that is said to be underpinned by unconscious bias? The invisible power that is said to sit behind desks, boardrooms, classrooms, political offices, history books, studio offices, police stations, homes, financial institutions, prisons, workplaces, human resource departments and the list goes on and on.
Perhaps the starting point could be acknowledging that diversity is often used to replace the word race. In Australia, ‘race’ is sometimes interchanged with ‘multiculturalism, culture and culturally and linguistically diverse (CaLD)’ with reference to migrants and non-white Australians.
What would true diversity look like if we shared Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character?
What would true diversity look like if we committed to the long walk to freedom and accepted Nelson Mandela’s words that no one is born hating another person because of the colour of their skin, background or religion. What would it mean to accept his words that, “people must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite”…?
What would true diversity look like if the we accepted the words of Jesus that, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”…?
What would true diversity look like if we heeded the words of Aboriginal activist Lilla Watson who stated that, “if you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together,”…?
So does race matter? I would have to say absolutely and positively.
Race is a form of our identity. It is a variation of people, not different but diverse.
Race, however, should not define us. In itself, race is not negative or positive – it just is. Society still uses it to label, define and qualify people based on the colour of their skin.
I have heard people ask ‘why does everything have to be about race?’ Perhaps those who are part of the so-called ‘dominant race’ have the luxury to ask this question. They have never had to think about it until confronted by someone from a minority race. For people of colour, who hold very few decision-making roles or positions of power and influence, this could be attributed to the issue of white privilege – term used to describe the more common unearned, privileges and benefits society affords white people as compared to non-white people.
For some like me, born in colonial Africa but fortunate enough to live in a range of countries, from the USA, Zimbabwe, Botswana, UK and now Australia, the issue of race has never been an issue I could choose whether or not to ignore. It was always right there at the tip of my nose.
It may seem disheartening that in 2016 we still have to take pride in the race of an achieving citizen and not in his or her person. In this day and age, should we still be hearing “the first black person…the first Aboriginal…the first Native American…the first African to do this or that… as if, it’s incredulous that it could even happen?
Australia says it embraces multiculturalism, yet ironically as in other Western countries, the media seems to, in general, portray people of colour in a negative and less empowering manner. Positive portrayals of people of colour are few and far between. It is, therefore, no wonder that many people of colour have learned to assimilate into white culture and, funny enough, are at times accused of trying to be white, look white and act white. Yet we live in a system and in a world where some people, because of their colour, often feel invisible. A world that continually undermines their opinions, their thoughts, their ideas and their experiences.
So that brings us to March 2016. What will the trending topic be this month? Perhaps we should take up Lupita Nyong’o’s offer:
“Change only comes when the conversation is happening in all forms at all times. Not just one tactic is going to do it. It’s got to be a convergence.”
Now is a better time more than any to have a Courageous Conversation about Race. To admit to what we don’t know, to hear other narratives, to dig deeper so we can finally surface. After all, Lao-tzu said, ‘the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’.
There comes my cue…I am already walking.