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The Apology and Beyond. How We Must Confront Racism in Australia

12/02/2016 20:52 | Updated 12 February 2016

On this day, eight years ago, on behalf of the Australian Parliament and nation, I apologised formally for the indignities white Australians had inflicted on our Indigenous peoples since the earliest days of European settlement 220 years before.

Our first Australians had been treated disgracefully since white settlement in Australia. A treatment, which has created a significant life-divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

And while the Apology has set the foundations for reconciliation, we have a long, long way to go.

As we reflect today on the state of Indigenous Australia, it is impossible to ignore the current debate about racism in our country. This is a difficult subject. It is a sensitive subject.

But it has now become unavoidable.

Five years ago, as Prime Minister I said I did not believe that racism was at work in Australia.
Perhaps I was just naive back then.

Perhaps I was just wishing that the better angels of our nature had begun to prevail in a newly reconciled Australia.

Or perhaps I was just plain wrong.

I am conscious of the fact that I have spent the better part of the last two years living in the United States.

I don't follow the daily ebb and flow of this nation's political and public discourse.

But I do listen carefully to the Indigenous debate.

And in particular what Indigenous people say.

Over the last year or so we have seen the treatment meted out to Australian of the Year Adam Goodes.

When I spoke out about this last year, people screamed back that it wasn't because Adam was Aboriginal. It was just that they disliked his behavior as a footballer.

I'm not exactly a connoisseur of the finer points of the game.

But I think that's 100% bullshit.

An Aboriginal friend of mine recently put it in these terms: he said that for him there was still the "low, steady hum of racism" in this country.

And in the nearly two decades I have known him, he has never, repeat, never raised racism with me before.

He told me of the story of his mum and dad recently sitting down in a country cafe after a long drive for a cuppa.

They sat in their booth.

The serving staff came along and then served everybody around them, including those who had come in after them.

Thinking there had been a mistake, his dad went up to the counter and asked for two teas for himself and his wife.

The person at the counter just stared at them.

And did nothing.

They left and resumed their drive north.

My friend is not given to exaggeration.

Vicariously he felt the humiliation his parents had gone through as they relayed the story sometime later.

To me this story sounded more like one from the Birmingham Alabama of the 1960s rather than regional Australia half a century later.

I spoke to someone last night, not Aboriginal, but a black Australian, who told me that he just couldn't put up with it anymore being called a "monkey" by one of his co-workers, and had left his firm after seven years.

He also told me proudly about his Aboriginal wife, a university graduate with multiple degrees, but also was the recipient of racist remarks.

Some will challenge how widespread the problem is.

The truth is it's difficult to tell.

But next time you meet an Aboriginal man or woman, ask them what their experience has been.

Surely this is not the Australia we want it to be.

I've listened carefully to what Stan Grant has said about racism in contemporary Australia.

Just as I've listened carefully to Nova Peris.

And I've listened to others.

All have said to me they do not believe this to be symptomatic of the mainstream of Australian society, where they find people to be overwhelmingly warm, welcoming and inclusive.

That is Australia at its best.

That's the Australia I know and love.

That's the Australia we readily identify with.

But there is another side, seemingly a small minority, which we need to name for what it is: racism.

It's harder for our Indigenous brothers and sisters to do so.

It's hard to defend yourself when you are the target

The question for the rest of us is what do we do when we see racism at work.

However blatantly. However subtly. However "humorous".

Whether we just stand around.

Silently.

Fearful we will be labeled as politically correct.

Or just fearful of sticking our neck out when a fellow Australian, who happens to be black, is being bullied.

Leaving it to others to act.

By being silent, we convey consent and we diminish our notion of a fair go for all.

We also diminish ourselves. And in doing so, we diminish this great nation of ours as well.

I have already said that I don't believe this racism represents the mainstream of our society.

But the data tells us racism remains a real problem for a not insignificant minority.

Polling published by the Lowitja Institute in Melbourne in 2012 on the attitudes of indigenous people in Victoria, both metropolitan and regional, found that 97% had been targets of verbal or physical abuse, or discriminatory behavior, in the previous 12 months.

67% said they had been spat on or had something thrown at them. And 82% were told they were less intelligent.

Polling on racist attitudes or on racist behavior is notoriously difficult. But it would be wrong to conclude that we do not have a problem. Australians don't like talking about racism.

As one Aboriginal friend said to me recently, even if it is a small minority who have this view, the words once spoken still carry a great weight, because they are powered by the force of history.

It's like a cancer that eats away at the fabric of our society - the fabric that binds us together as the wider Australian family.

And that is not good for any of us.

So what can be done? The next time any of us see or hear racist behavior, don't be silent. Don't allow our Indigenous brothers and sisters to stand alone.

Call it out for what it is.

Name it.

And shame it.

Australia is a small country in a large world.

We are also strangers in our own region where our large neighbours are of radically different ethnicities and cultures.

The secret for our national future in this troubled world is to be the west in the east and the east in the west.

Comfortable and conversant with the multiple cultures of our region, and respectful of their diversity.

Just as we are comfortable and engaged with the multicultural society we have become at home.

And none of this can be sustained if we are uncomfortable in our engagement with our Indigenous peoples whose continent we now share.

For racism in any form has no place in the Australia of the 21st century.

This is an edited extract from Mr Rudd's address to the 8th National Apology Breakfast at Parliament House Sydney on 12 February 2016.

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