Racism and Sustainability in Australia

In Blog by Sandra TaylorLeave a Comment

I was recently a plenary speaker on the subject of diversity at a wine industry conference in Adelaide, Australia. Confident that I could speak knowledgeably about diversity, equity, inclusion and social responsibility in the United States, I shared my experience and personal journey as an African American female corporate executive. However I felt ill-equipped to address the topic of cultural diversity, equity and inclusion in the broader Australian context.

Australia is a vibrant, multicultural country, home to the world’s oldest continuous culture, as well as Australians who identify with more than 270 ancestries. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, since 1945, almost seven million people have migrated to Australia, yet one in ten Australians (1.5 million of the nation’s adult population) believe that some races are inferior or superior to others. Aboriginal Australians, normally referred to as indigenous people, are actually many different peoples that have developed across Australia for over 65,000 years. Subjected to oppression, racist government policy and community attitudes since the British settlers first arrived there, today some Aboriginal Australians describe themselves as a discarded people, not wanted in their own country.

In my research and preparation I came across an interesting article in the July 5 issue of The Adelaide Review entitled Lifting the Veil, describing a book by Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the birth of agriculture on the subject of Australia’s colonial past and treatment of the Aborigines. Pascoe laments the false teaching of his country’s history he received as a young student and his determination to write the more accurate history.

“When people moved out of Europe, in our case England, they were doing so with that colonial viewpoint: we are the masters of the world,” he wrote, “the rest of the world is a basket case and we’re here to fix it all up. But it was really a kind of intellectual blindness that the British could deceive themselves and the rest of us so much..…British people came out here determined not to see Aboriginal people as human.”

However the original written accounts by the English settlers of their first observations of the indigenous people told a different story: “They first encountered miles upon miles of cultivated native crops, carefully maintained dam systems and fish traps, and permanent settlements that could house over 1000. These entries plainly describe things that their own writers could not or would not recognise: complex societies with sophisticated agricultural practices, infrastructure and governance.”

This hardly squared with the history education Pascoe, and most young Australians, received. His book was intended “not just a history lesson, but a road map for how we might harness native species and First Nations land practices to live sustainably in an ecosystem dramatically reshaped, first by two centuries of colonisation and now by climate change.” This summer he published Young Dark Emu, an illustrated 80-page book tailored to modern curriculums and youthful readers. “We need our young people to be active in the change because we’re destroying our country, and we need to fix it.”

As Australia wrestles with its history and legacy of oppression and racism and its current sustainability challenges — rivers of dead fish, soils plagued by salinity and erosion, and constant water scarcity — Pascoe makes clear that the “relationship with the land set out by those first colonists bears fundamental flaws. How better to restore it than by looking to the world’s oldest living culture, who thrived for millennia?”

But first, that requires humility and respect.

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