A long time ago my husband had to attend a meeting in Redfern. He works in the health and academic sector and it was a consultation with some First Nations clinicians and community workers. He arrived a little earlier for the meeting to the centre – not your typical clinical setting but a regular house. On arrival he was greeted by an older woman who led him to a table and offered him a cup of tea. They chatted. Had a laugh. She offered him a biscuit.
At the time the meeting was to start no-one had arrived. He asked the woman when people might be expected. She wasn’t sure what he was talking about. You see this wasn’t the health centre, this was a private home. The centre was down the road further. My husband got it wrong. He does stuff like that; it’s actually very endearing. He thanked this very gracious host, apologised, and left. He was embarrassed and bewildered that he’d done something so stupid – to choose the wrong house and yet be welcomed by a woman who didn’t know who he was or why he was there.
That’s the part that gets me. This is the part of the story that sits like a parable for what colonisation and invasion is. It didn’t just happen 250 years ago at Botany Bay.
It happens every day in a country that has been stolen from the traditional owners. And it happened when my husband accidentally turned up at a residential house in Redfern and was let in. Because he was a white man in a suit. I can’t imagine how nervous the owner of the house must have been, not knowing who he was or why he was there. But she knew to let him in. White men have power, even when they’re wrong. They easily occupy places that don’t belong to them. That is our white privilege.
It’s hard to hear for many white Australians. It makes many angry and defensive –that’s our white fragility. Our emotional volatility when our entitlement is challenged. It’s the tantrum we throw to avoid taking responsibility for what we have done. Of course we say ‘it wasn’t us’. ‘You can’t hold me responsible for what my ancestors did.’ Really? Then why are you so attached to celebrating 26 January as Australia Day? We are prepared to celebrate the arrival of our ancestors and claim continuous connection to this as our pivotal story, but not be culpable for what they did? How can we have one without the other? We use history like a box of chocolates: we just reach in and take the bits we like.
When Indigenous Australia asks us to choose another date to celebrate nationhood we dig in our heels. We’ve already organised the barbecue. Ordered the sausages. Got the Southern Cross tattoo on our back. Our cultural heritage is empty and meaningless. It’s an esky full of beer. It’s a flag worn as a cape. It’s basically being a bit of a dick.
We have an extraordinary culture to celebrate right here. A history of this place and its people that dates back over 60,000 years and we choose to defend our right to celebrate on the date we ruined culture. Just 250 years ago. We want to have a barbecue on the very day that heralds the beginning of cultural genocide and we wonder why First Nations say No.
26 January is a day of mourning. Our inability to acknowledge this and to move the date sends a message to Aboriginal Australia that we are not prepared to change. That when First Nations start the process of Truth Telling that we are not prepared to listen or act. We won’t hear.
As a nation we have much to be proud of. We also have a lot to be ashamed of. The children we have taken from First Nation parents. The people we have moved off country. Aboriginal deaths in custody. The culturally significant sites we have destroyed in our hunt for coal. The enormous devastation that colonisation has caused First Nations and how this day, the very first of white occupation, is celebrated.
I wonder why we don’t celebrate survival. That the extraordinary story of our nationhood is an Aboriginal story.
If we cannot hear First Nations on this most important and significant day, Invasion Day, the day of mourning, how can we ever have true First Nations Voice? How can we ever have true Reconciliation?
White Australia is in denial.
We are still white men in suits drinking tea in a kitchen that is not ours.
Having barbecues on stolen land.
We do not listen. That is not something I will celebrate.
We need to change the date, but we also need to change our whole fucked-up white-oppressor attitude.
There are many of us white Australians who are allies. We will celebrate our nation when it’s worthy of being celebrated.
When we become a country that listens to First Nations Voices.
And acts. A country that makes amends.