Award-winning journalist talks to TMA about racism in Australia, and the impact of Christianity on Indigenous people.
By Emma Halgren
19 April 2015
Australia still lacks the creative and courageous leadership it needs for its Indigenous people to be included in “the greatness that is Australia”, says Indigenous journalist Stan Grant – and Indigenous people are suffering today as a result of a longstanding racism in Australia that is “a deep, deep stain on the soul of the nation”.
In an interview with TMA, Stan Grant said that decades of purposeful nation-building had failed to include Indigenous people.
“You don’t build a country like Australia by accident,” he said. “When I look around Australia I see what it has created.
It has created this extraordinary, prosperous, tolerant, free, democratic, safe, secure society — but not for us. And the hope is that the greatness of Australia is going to be also applied to us.”
He said that he had been appalled by what he saw as a muted response to the suicide of a 10-year-old girl in Western Australia in March, an event that he says should have been as much of a wake-up call to Australians as the death of young Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach in September last year was to the world.
“We could see ourselves in that boy,” he said. “We could see ourselves in the tragedy of that death. We could see ourselves in the humanity of the struggle of people to find safe havens from war. But why can we not see ourselves in the death of that poor little girl?
“That should be our defining moment; that should be the moment at which we say ‘this is enough, this is a collective failure, a failure of us as a nation, a failure of our policies’. And for Indigenous people as well, to look at ourselves and say ‘we failed too’.
“And what have I heard since? Just a deafening silence… a failure to grapple with it, a failure of comment from our leaders. I haven’t heard the outrage in the media, I haven’t heard from our Prime Minister or our Opposition Leader.”
He said he was dismayed by the way politicians seemed to “shrug off” Indigenous issues or consign them to the sphere of socially progressive causes.
“We sit off to one side… when we should be at the centre of political debate, alongside the hard questions of taxation reform or immigration policy or health policy,” he said.
“This failure to see Indigenous affairs as integral to the well-being of this nation has just let us down.”
In October 2015, Stan Grant gave a speech at the Ethics Centre in Sydney in which he claimed that the “Australian dream” was “rooted in racism”. He said, “It is the very foundation of the dream. It is there at the birth of the nation. It is there in terra nullius.”
Still today, he said, “racism is killing the Australian dream”.
“My people die young in this country. We die 10 years younger than average Australians… We are fewer than 3 per cent of the Australian population and yet we are 25 per cent – a quarter – of those Australians locked up in our prisons. And if you’re a juvenile it is worse, it is 50 per cent. An Indigenous child is more likely to be locked up in prison than they are to finish high school.”
Christianity gave ‘greater sense of our rights’
Stan Grant told TMA that Christianity had played an “extraordinarily important” part in his and his family’s life.
“Christianity and the missions that were set up around New South Wales, Victoria, helped give birth to the beginnings of the Aboriginal political movement,” he said.
“The fights for citizenship and equality came directly out of that Christian experience. Men and women… emerged from the missions with a divine sense of their equality. My grandfather was one of them. He went away to fight a war for this country when he wasn’t even a citizen. He came back to this country where we’re segregated and his basic human rights were denied.
“But he believed in his divine right, the divine right of his own humanity and his equality and he fought for that. God had told him you are an equal and he demanded that equality from Australia.”
He said that while Christianity’s impact was certainly not all positive – “the Christianising was often coupled with civilising… we saw the destruction of culture, the denial of tradition, the silencing of language” – Indigenous people had been able to take its core messages and be empowered by them.
“It helped give rise to a greater sense of our rights and our equality and our humanity, and I’m directly shaped by that. I remember going to the mission church near where I lived and my uncle preaching stories about overcoming oppression. We took the Christian message and like the black American churches did, turned it into a potent political message of survival and salvation and equality.”
He said that although he did not now locate himself within a particular faith, he had a “very, very strong spiritual belief and sense of the importance of spirituality to our lives… I’ve seen it work in people’s lives, I’ve seen the impact it can have.”
In his new book, Talking to My Country, Stan Grant reflects on race and national identity, and his own experience of growing up as an Indigenous person in Australia.
He said his goal with the book was simple: to encourage non-Indigenous Australians to “see us as human beings. See in our lives, your life. See how we’ve lived with the full weight of this history. See how this has shaped the malaise that sits so heavily a part of Indigenous communities and Indigenous life.
“It’s a very, very simple story. It’s the story of people, of lives, shaped by the weight of our country’s history, and I think if anyone comes to it with an open mind and an open heart, they couldn’t help but see the humanity of that story.”