Introduction by Croakey: Black Lives Matter is a defining moment in history, and non-Indigenous Australians must step up in demanding justice and an end to racism, writes Ms Jill Gallagher, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO).
Jill Gallagher writes:
Black Lives Matter needs to be more than just a social movement. It is an opportunity for real change.
Unless we as a Nation, are prepared to address racism head on then we will never see improved health and wellbeing outcomes. Long after COVID-19.
Let’s change history together
In the same week Australia was set to celebrate its Aboriginal reconciliation achievements, the world was devastated that George Floyd was racially targeted and killed by Minnesota police.
This violent act had reverberations at home; it spoke to our own colonial injustice. A story we know too well.
As much as this has become a global story and sparked global unrest among the broader community, for those of us with lived experience of racial abuse, it’s a deeply personal story.
We saw our sons, our uncles, our brothers, our cousins in George’s eyes.
I witnessed my own mother being asked to leave a shop when I was a very little girl in rural Victoria. My son is reluctant to display the Aboriginal flag on his car for fear of being pulled over by police.
Only two weeks ago, during a local supermarket trip the morning of the Black Lives Matter rally in Melbourne, I was wearing my Aboriginal t-shirt and carrying an Aboriginal bag. Once I had finished my shopping, I went through the self-checkout when the person who monitors that section stopped me and asked if she could search my bags. I said no assertively and asked her why she had targeted me, and not the other people just walking through. She advised “because it’s policy”.’
Unless you have experienced this kind of blatant racism daily, it can be hard to appreciate the cumulative impact of this behaviour on an individual’s emotional, mental, and ultimately physical wellbeing.
But the BLM response is a wake-up call that we can no longer ignore – a stark reminder of the violence and racism that plagues our own society. It is time for Australians to truly understand that racism exists here on all levels, and it is killing our people.
This is much deeper than a social movement. It is our current, lived reality. For this generation, and – if we do not step forward to change – it will be the reality for our next generation.
Our reality needs to change
In June 2020, our people are more likely to go to prison, than go to University; and not for serious crimes either, for unpaid fines or petty crimes like shoplifting.
Our people are more likely to be locked up and die in custody. We are more likely to die or be seriously injured in family violence incidents. We are also more likely to die from chronic disease.
We are more likely to live in places that have poor air and food quality too. Appallingly, 95 percent of us have experienced some form of racism, which carries the same health impact equivalent to smoking. And we are more likely to experience high levels of psychological distress rooted in intergenerational grief, loss, and trauma.
The pandemic has taught VACCHO and our member organisations many things. But in most cases it has reaffirmed the inequality around the globe when it comes to health care access.
In the US, the latest data shows African Americans have died from the disease at almost three times the rate of white people. In the UK, black men and women are four times more likely to die from coronavirus than white people.
During the pandemic, we heard abhorrent stories of remote Aboriginal communities being sent body bags, instead of adequate supplies and support. We’ve heard of Aboriginal organisations in Victoria, almost shutting down or being forced to make their own personal protective equipment, as they were not seen as an ‘essential service’.
Federally, we continue to see an abundance of investment being prioritised to non-Aboriginal health organisations that do not always deliver outcomes for our communities.
Of the $2.4 billion dollars invested in a COVID-19 health plan, only $123 million was provided to Aboriginal Communities and $57.8 million went to remote Aboriginal Communities. In Victoria, the flow-down of that funding was minimal.
Courage and resilience
While the challenges we have faced and continue to face as First Nations peoples speak of injustice and heartache. That is not the whole story.
Ours is also a story of courage, resilience, and achievement. This history is also a powerful reality. A story that is seldom told. Starting from today and working backwards.
COVID-19 was predicted to have devastating impacts on our communities. To date, the Victorian Aboriginal community has had a total of six cases. Nationally, that total is 60. We have forged a path in working together for health and wellbeing.
This way of working has stopped the outbreak and saved lives.
That said, even with the low incidence of COVID-19 cases in our communities. This pandemic has placed us in a situation that might take years to recover from.
But alas, Aboriginal people and communities and organisations, right across the country, have shown tremendous strength, fortitude, and adaptability. In some ways, this should not be a surprise. Resilience is in our DNA.
Aboriginal people have inhabited Australia for over 80,000 years, though we believe this to be longer. In this time, we survived the end of the last Ice Age, watching as glaciers retreated, isolating us from the rest of the world. We faced massive changes to the land, to animals, to flora and food sources. And even still our populations flourished.
It is believed by the time Captain Cook crashed into the Great Barrier Reef in 1770; our population was in the middle of a three-century growth spurt.
We developed knowledge and relationships with the land and each other. These complex relationships enabled us to thrive, to adapt and excel, in some of the harshest environments known to man. Yet what was to come was one of the biggest threats; colonisation.
When that occurred, we fought to survive massacres and genocide. We fought to survive attempts at assimilation.
Being forced off our traditional lands and herded on missions like cattle. And having our families and customs ripped apart. That happened to my family, it happened to me.
We fought to survive newly introduced diseases like smallpox. We fought and survived them, nonetheless. We have not been recognised as First Nations of this Country, or for those injustices. And we certainly have not been celebrated for our resilience, and our achievements.
And in 2020, I ask Australians this. Should we be expected to keep fighting for justice and equality?
Fighting to be valued in a world that chooses not to see black or brown people is a heavy burden to bear. And I would argue it is, in fact, not our burden at all. Isn’t it time now for our fellow Australians to finally stand up to alleviate some of this weight? If not now, when?
Time to be #InThisTogether
Black Lives Matter is not just a hashtag or a movement. It is an opportunity for real change.
Unless we as a Nation, are prepared to address racism head on then we will never see improved health and wellbeing outcomes. Long after COVID-19 vanishes.
This point in history is the point in which choices need to be made. We must move beyond mere words of support and into full action.
Being ‘in this together’ is a slogan made popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is more than a slogan. It is time that we understood what that would look like if we accepted that challenge.
To those who are not from our communities, being in this together means this.
- Keep marching alongside us. We make up three percent of Australia’s population only. To the other 97 percent, this is your fight for a better future, too.
- Keep amplifying our voice.
- Keep demanding justice. Support treaty and truth telling commissions as outlined in the Uluru Statement of the Heart.
- Keep calling on the governments to stamp out racism.
We cannot walk this road alone, anymore. It has been 231 years. It goes without saying that this is a defining moment in history. And one that will be reflected upon by future generations.
A legacy will be made forever in the way we choose to respond.
Ms Jill Gallagher AO, a Gunditjmara woman from western Victoria, is CEO of VACCHO.
This article was first published in VACCHO News and is published here with permission.
Further reading and viewing
“We need to go beyond empty gestures if we’re going to end Aboriginal deaths in custody”. By Cheryl Axleby and Nerita Waight, CEOs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, in The Guardian.
Blak Lives Matter: Re-watch, share, or catch up with a recent webinar discussion between the Hon. Linda Burney, Alison Whittaker and Professor Thalia Anthony, and the Hon. Verity Firth, Executive Director of Social Justice at UTS. Presented by UTS Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research and Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion. A draft transcript is here.