Her Life Matters: Australia Fails to Acknowledge #BlackLivesMatter at Home

by Karla McGrady In mid-July, A Black woman in America lost her life under suspicious circumstance...

by Karla McGrady

In mid-July, A Black woman in America lost her life under suspicious circumstances whilst in police custody. Her name is Sandra Bland. We know this thanks to the power that social media wields in its capacity to bring to light issues that would otherwise go unnoticed, particularly with regard to issues that affect Black people.

In Australia, we have come to the one-year anniversary of the death in custody of Ms Julieka Dhu. Ms Dhu, a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman from the Pilbara region of Western Australia, died whilst in the custody of the South Hedland police. Ms Dhu had been detained for unpaid fines. In early July, Western Australia’s Premier Colin Barnett announced a coronial inquest into her death, which is set for November 2015.

When the story of Sandra Bland came to light, I immediately went through a myriad of unpleasant emotions brought forth by reports of yet another Black death at the hands of the authorities. It is exhausting to carry the relentless weight that comes with being a Black woman; it creates what I can only describe as oppression fatigue syndrome. A clip titled calling in black sums this up perfectly.
It also reminded me of the fact that hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in police custody right here in Australia. These are the highest rates of deaths in custody anywhere in the world. Indigenous women are 24 times more likely to go to prison than non-Indigenous women. This doesn’t make national headlines; it isn’t served with breakfast on morning television in the hourly news bulletin. Australians seem to enjoy the ignorant bliss (better known as white privilege) that is their refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing on their part against Aboriginal people. The mainstream media are happy to report on the failings of the American justice system (or any other country in the world for that matter) but avoid shining a spotlight on their own shortcomings as a nation.

This isn’t the only instance of Australian media ignoring issues linked to racism and injustice in this country. There is a long history of avoidance and intentional misinformation that surrounds events and issues of Aboriginal Australia - good and bad.

The forced closure of Aboriginal communities in W.A. is one example of mainstream media’s complicity in intentionally removing Aboriginal issues from the gaze of mainstream Australia. Activists took to social media to rally support and provide information to the general public through the #SOSBlakAustralia campaign and in doing so forced the hand of mainstream media to a point that they could not continue to ignore this issue. An extremely minute amount of air time was given to it, not crediting social media or Aboriginal people for its unrelenting campaign surrounding the issue. This speaks to the incredibly high level of marginalisation that Aboriginal people experience in this country.

The attention that is heavily focused on America’s social issues is a credit to online activism in regard to campaigns such as #BlackLivesMatter. Life gets breathed into campaigns like this one due in part to the sheer volume of African Americans (a population of approximately 41.7 million according to the US Census Bureau) who can make their presence felt on an international stage in defiance of white society and all the media’s ‘whitewashing.’ Another contributing factor is that Black people in America reside in the heart of the empire. The spotlight is always shining on the U.S. It is virtually impossible to avert your gaze from what happens in America on a daily basis.

Aboriginal Australians are an extremely small minority in comparison. Our space on the world stage is reserved for boomerangs, rock art and didgeridoos. Word very rarely reaches the masses in relation to our social issues that often mirror those that Black Americans face, not unlike the lack of attention that is given to Native American people.

Oppression and systemic racism in America are currently election topics. One of the Democrats’ Presidential candidates, Hillary Rodham-Clinton, made a statement on a Facebook chat that referenced Black Lives Matter and the need for America to address these issues. Many view it as simply lip service during a campaign. Regardless, the issue is being discussed openly; what form that will take in terms of addressing the issue is yet to be seen.

In recent history, no government in Australia has ever had to consider their policies in relation to Indigenous Australians during an election campaign. Australians aren’t deciding their vote based on how Indigenous Australians will be treated under a prospective government. Until this is the case and Australia is forced to acknowledge its own disgraceful record of racism and systematic oppression, we will continue to have the message reinforced through all types of media that here in this country and to the rest of the world Aboriginal Lives Don’t Matter.

With the attention that is given to Black American oppression and what takes place overseas filtering through to Australian media, I have heard comments such as ‘thank goodness those things don’t happen here’ or ‘I hope it never gets as bad as that here in Australia’; those statements could not be further from the truth. Oppression and systemic racism in Australia exists at a level equal to, if not greater than, that in the U.S. The difference is it doesn’t receive the same level of publicity resulting in the problems being ignored. This is why you know Sandra Bland’s name but you don’t know who Julieka Dhu is.

Photo: Carol Rho

Karla McGrady is an Aboriginal woman living in Brisbane, Australia. She is a mother of two and artist sharing her lived experiences.

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