Sunday, November 30, 2014

Only when relevant...

Australian media is guided by various standards and frameworks which, apart from legal requirements, are often internally developed and implemented. These included how to discuss certain topics, how to refer to certain groups, whether or not to capitalise certain words, and how to decide which information to include or omit in a given story.

These documents are what determine whether to say ‘Aborigines’ or ‘Aboriginal‘; whether or not to spell Indigenous with a capital ‘i’; and most recently, if you should say ‘X is a Gamilaroi’, ‘X is Gamilaroi’, or ‘X is a Gamilaroi person’.

They also include whether or not you should even bother to mention that a person is Aboriginal or not. Usually this is something along of the lines of ‘no undue emphasis of race’, or ‘only if relevant to the story’, and some even acknowledge that there has been a long history of media outlets placing undue emphasis on Aboriginality in stories related to criminality and drunkeness.

This is what I’d like to pause on for a while.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, just letting it quietly bubble away in the back of my mind waiting for it to naturally surface on its own, but last night on Twitter it was thrust into the forefront of my mind.

I was grumbling away in my frustration of democracy and elections and media to help celebrate the elections in Victoria, and mentioned that a part of my lack of engagement in the democratic process is that, as an example, the only party to have an Indigenous candidate running was the Liberal Party, who has Sean Armistead down in Frankston.

In case you are not familiar with my personal politics, I am not a huge fan of the Liberal Party… or the Labor Party, or the Greens, or any other party really, but particularly not the Liberal Party. I am also not a huge fan of the huge underrepresentation of Indigenous people in politics.

(For those whose minds are tempted to wander off on thoughts about how if I want that to change then I need to engage with the democratic blah blah blah, don’t. Stay focused. That issue is another blog which I’ll address at another time, or not.)

It was then pointed out to me that no election coverage actually even noted that Mr Armistead is Aboriginal.

This was quickly interrupted by people effectively arguing that as we live in a post racial society it shouldn’t be mentioned at all.

The problem with this thinking is much the same as the problem I have with the documents I mentioned earlier. It ignores everything that is going on around us everyday. 

Just as over reporting on crime committed by Indigenous people (as well as non-crimes perceived as offenses against ‘Australian society’) serve to reinforce any number of stereotypes, the under reporting of Indigeneity in a variety of other contexts serve to maintain homogenous, dehumanising, and generally ignorant views on Indigenous people.

In short, if the media only report on Indigenous poverty, crime, infighting, abuse, flag burning, and sport, then that’s pretty much all people are going to know, and think, about Indigenous people. Even the stories that are not directly related to these issues are often framed against the backdrop of them.

So if it is relevant when an Aboriginal person commits a crime, then it should have been equally relevant when an Aboriginal woman was tasered in the eye by a police officer. It should have been relevant when an Aboriginal man saved a family from drowning; or when an Aboriginal man was mistaken for another man who had escaped from care, and was subsequently heavily medicated with someone else’s drugs; and it certainly should have been relevant when an Aboriginal man was running for office.

But what is the context that these stories be told in? And what would these contexts suggest about our society?

The story of a women tasered in the eye is viewed by many people as an example of ongoing police harassment, brutality, and over policing of Aboriginal communities. In the time that has passed it has also become a story of a gross lack of police accountability for crimes, including murder, committed against Aboriginal people. It is a story of abuses commonly suffered by Aboriginal people, and it is a story of institutional racism.

The story of an Aboriginal man saving people from drowning is a feel good story. An everyday hero. The sort of person who restores, if only temporarily, our faith in humanity. The sort of person we hope we would be if we were ever tested. The sort of person we hope would be there for us or our loved ones if needed. The sort of person you would imagine that you would like to shout a beer for their bravery. In this instance, an Aboriginal person. 

The story of mistaken identity resulting in terrifying consequences the likes of which would make for a harrowing movie experience. ‘It could happen to anyone’ sort of story. What if he was never discovered? What if he spent years wrongly incarcerated, medicated, pleas ignored as the ‘delusional rantings of a madman’? The script writes itself. But what if that person is Aboriginal? What if the dehumanising nature of how Aboriginal people are viewed by many, and are regularly treated within institutions, played a part? Is it a case of ‘they all look alike to me?’ or ‘they are all crazy and not to be trusted’ or ‘who cares?’. If the person’s Aboriginality is included, the question of racisim, both personal and institutional, potentially comes into the frame.

The story of an Aboriginal man aiming to become the first ever Aboriginal person to be elected in Victoria speaks not only of a history or under representation, and makes people wonder why no other party has any Indigenous candidates. It also speaks for Indigenous participation in the highest levels of political involvement. It raises the bar for what young Indigenous people believe may be achievable in their own lives. It serves to raise the bar of expectation. As we often say in education: ‘You can’t be it if you can’t see it’.

This issue is also relevant to the push for colour blind casting in roles where race isn’t central to the character. Apart from the inclusion of a very small number of Indigenous actors, all of whom are household names, something which is drastically missing on our screens. If a character has to go see a doctor, and that doctor is Aboriginal, it sends a similar message not only to Aboriginal people, but to other Australians as well. That Aboriginal people are involved in Australian society at all levels, and that those roles are not always framed by, or not to be made specifically related to, their identity. If I go to see a dentist, and that dentist is Aboriginal, I don’t congratulate them on their overcoming of adversity, or question them on the difficulties of living in two worlds, or ask them to play the didgeridoo for me, I open my mouth and let them fix my teeth. Their Aboriginality shouldn’t need to be a focus of any aspect of your professional interaction. It may however, act to reinforce the illogical nature of racism, and that people are not defined, or limitlessly bound, by stereotypes)

These sorts of roles on tv, and inclusion of these sort of stories in media, serve to humanise Aboriginal people (a painfully tragic thing to be needed in 2014, but it is what it is). They serve to break down the all too common stereotypes which have been perpetuated by media reporting, on screen story telling, and by those who make the decisions off screen about who is included, when, and why. This is not always done consciously, it is simply what happens when whiteness is mistaken for the status quo.

This is something that largely seems lost on those calling for total colour blind reporting.

Whiteness is the unspoken norm. So much so that if you read a story about a ’35 year old Sydney man’ it is fair to presume that the person in question is white. If he wasn’t it likely would have said ‘a 35 year old Aboriginal man’, for example. So much so that if we suddenly started reporting it as ‘a 35 year old white man’ there would be endless uproar from white people about it. White privilege includes the privilege to not need identifying by any means other than omission.

Whiteness is the unspoken norm which others must be identified as ‘different from’. A white man does need to be identified as a white man, he is just ‘a man’. I am not just ‘a man’ however, I am portrayed as a hyphenated subset of men, ‘an Aboriginal-man’. I am ‘an other’.  

There are no easy answers however. Perhaps if the identity of Mr Armistead was reported on more widely it would have had a negative impact on his perceived electability. Perhaps it would have had given hope an inspiration to a young Indigenous aspiring politician. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…

What we do know, however, is that are clear correlations between media reporting and health outcomes, both directly on individuals, and at a policy level. We do know that the current interpretation of ‘no undue emphasis’ or ‘only mention when relevant’ has no clear guidelines for interpretation or implementation. We do know that involvement from Indigenous people in establishing these frameworks, and considering these issues is severely lacking. We do know that there are far too few Indigenous journalists, and ever fewer editors.

We know that the current state of affairs on reporting on Indigenous affairs is sub par at best.

Indigenous people need to see themselves included in all aspects of society, not just as criminals, as impoverished, as victims; as people at best misunderstood and under represented, and at worst people who are maliciously demonised, ridiculed, and despised.

Indigenous kids need to see role models celebrated in the wider society as well as in their own families and communities. They also need it to see it as a normal, everyday occurrence. Because it is.

They need to see Aboriginal people who are successful on their own terms, for their own merit, and not having their success called into question simply for their Aboriginality. And if their success is framed as exceptional because of their Aboriginality it needs to be in reference to success in spite of racism, not in spite of Aboriginality. Aboriginality should not inherently be perceived as a deficit. It isn’t. The deficit only comes from the obstacles society places in the way of Indigenous people, the conditions that many Indigenous people are forced to endure. It is nothing to do with anything inherent to being Indigenous. It is do with the inherent obstacles of living in a racist and oppressive society. Sometimes even that isn’t relevant to an individuals’ interpretation of their own life story.

These issues are complex, and there is no dot point list of protocols that can tell you whether or not to call someone an Aboriginal person or an Aborigine, or First Nations, or a First Australian, or an Indigenous person, or a Gamilaroi person, or any other possibility. The only ones who can speak to the most respectful way to refer to themselves is themselves. When you are talking about all of us collectively, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders alike, then whether you choose to use the former, or Indigenous, or First Nations, some people will agree, some will disagree, others won’t care. This is not an excuse for ignoring the issue and just referring to us however you want though.

 For what journalist or editor should have power over how Indigenous people are identified? Whether, in a particular story, I am ‘a person’ or ‘an Aboriginal person’?  Whether I am a business owner and a social commentator or I am a Indigenous leader and an activist? A teacher, or a troublemaker? Someone you should listen to or ignore? Why do I never hear about ‘white leaders’, ‘white criminals’, ‘white activists’? It is because many white people see obvious problems with those labels, but see no problem when equivalent terms being used to describe Indigenous people? Is it because many white journalists do not perceive themselves as ‘white’, but only as a ‘human being’, or more like likely ‘I’m just Australian’? Do they not believe that their identity has been in any way relevant to their success, to their worldviews and experiences, or to their own sense of ‘objectivity’?

If you are tempted to call someone a leader, first ask yourself if they actually have a title, or job description, and ask why it wouldn’t be more relevant to use their title instead? Ask yourself if you are trying to honour them, or if you are trying to dumb it down for white audiences, or if you are using the label to make some other sort of statement about the person or issue being discussed. Or better yet, ask them how they would like to be described. If ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Indigenous’ or ‘First Nations’, or their actual country name, is what they prefer, or if they would prefer to have their Aboriginality not specifically mentioned at all. Ask if ‘leader’ or ‘activist’ is how they or others identify them, or if they would rather just use their name and title. 

So long as the frame of objectivity used to determine the answers to these questions runs in parallel with the lens of whiteness rather than the views of the people concerned, we will still have a long way to go to finding anything near a sensible balance on what is ‘newsworthy’, and how Aboriginality makes something less or more likely to engage the readers, and whether this tool for engagement perpetuates stereotypes, combats them, or transcends them.

 We do not live in a vacuum.

We do not live in a post racial society.  

And we most certainly do not live in a society where everyone is given a ‘fair go’.

Media plays a crucial part in maintaining the status quo of institutional, societal, corporate, and personal racism. It plays an integral role in what issues the public is made aware of, and how they should feel about them. It directly influences Indigenous affairs policies. It directly impacts on how Indigenous peoples and cultures are viewed by the rest of the nation, and on how we perceive each other and ourselves. It also directly impacts on the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the rest of the nation at personal and collective levels.

And while I do no claim to have the answers, I think it is time we all started paying a lot more attention to what is going on in the media.

It is time we started being more aware of how race and racism are framed, and reflecting on how we all contribute to, exist within, and challenge that framework, or not. 

 Colour blind reporting.


  1. What a great article!

    At the very least every journalist in Australia needs to read it.

    The Aboriginal candidate may very well not have wanted his Aboriginality emphasised, for a number of reasons, some better than others, but it seems very strange that nobody mentioned it at all. Surely just the fact that someone got themselves endorsed, even by the Liberal Party, is a matter for celebration. (Very sad, but that's still true). Wonder if they gave him a winnable seat?

  2. Kia Ora: Our media does have problems when reporting crime ;ie the mainstream media. They have few problems reporting someone the police are looking for as Maori or Polynesian but otherwise a white man has either no ethnicity, or is sometimes described as a Caucasian whatever that is.

  3. Michelle Dunne BreenDecember 6, 2014 at 12:08 PM

    Thanks very much for this. As a (former) journalist, journalism educator and pre-doc whose thesis is about media representation of Indigenous opposition to the NT Intervention, I found much to ponder here.

  4. Great piece Luke. As I trawl the corridors of education and confront the legacies of racism, unknowingly, unintentionally and ignorantly but just as damagingly espoused, I am beginning to question my life's work. Has it been for nothing?

    What is this many headed phenomenon, this racism thing? Is it our primal fear? Is it the beast burning bright?

    What immortal hand or eye could frame its mortal symmetry?

    For truly, if it is our beast, how do we vanquish it?

    I'm fucked if I know.

    And as I've been brought, dragged in fact, to the idea of seriously considering the issue of constitutional recognition, all I can see is the beast's eyes glowing, burning in the infinite darkness beyond the bubble of light surrounding me.

    Geoff E