“Emu Spirit (3rd April – 15th May): Don’t get stuck in a rut! Shake up your daily routine and grab yourself a block of VB today instead of Export to see your spirits rise. It may cost extra, but the extra 0.1% adds up to an extra beer over the course of the evening.”
This is just one example of the ‘astrological’ advice from fictional Aboriginal character ‘Nooloo Bily’, in the controversial Prosh newspaper article earlier this year that was meant to be “just a joke”.
The column, titled “Dream Time Horoscopes”, came under fire across Australia for its racist comments about Aboriginal culture, and about serious problems like petrol-sniffing, alcoholism, land rights and poverty. The annual satirical Prosh newspaper published by the University of Western Australia’s student guild, has raised money for local charities for more than 80 years. Ironically, one of the four beneficiaries this year was to be the Indigenous Communities Education and Awareness Foundation, a youth-run reconciliation body.
Instead of a harmless joke in the name of charity, the ‘horoscope’ sparked a debate that saw Western Australia labelled “a backwater on racism”, and resulted in ICEA refusing the donation. More recently, racist comments made to Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes during the AFL Indigenous round caused an even bigger stir.
Many Australians do not like to admit to racism, but these recent incidents serve as a stark reminder that racism is still alive and well in Australian society.
Racism puts a massive hand-brake on the process of reconciliation.
According to a 2012 study by Reconciliation Australia, 92 per cent of Australians view the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians as important, but only half believe it is improving. This raises important questions: What does reconciliation actually mean for Australians? And: How far are we from achieving it?
Lockie Cooke is CEO and founder of ICEA. Cooke decided to reject the donation from Prosh after hearing of its racist content, to send the message that racism is not acceptable.
Cooke says a lot of people have been seriously hurt by the fake horoscopes.
“It’s looking down on and pushing down a minority group who are, to a degree, already down on their knees,” he says. “It’s up to us as Australians – black or white – to support Indigenous people who have been scarred through a lot of prejudices that came alongside, hand-in-hand with colonisation.”
The fact that Australia was colonised on the racist assumption of terra nullius is widely recognised. The false assumption that ‘the land belonged to no-one’ when British settlers arrived in 1788 stripped Australian Indigenous people of their land rights, and their humanity in the eyes of the colonisers. It was not until the Mabo High Court decision in 1992 that terra nullius was overturned and Indigenous ownership of the land could be recognised.
Reconciliation Australia spokesperson Al Harris says he’s noticed a significant change in attitudes over the past 30 years, but racism is still a major issue among Australians. “I think there’s a high degree of institutional and other forms of racism in this country that impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” he says.
Harris says racism is also a major determinant of health for Aboriginal people.
“Exposure to racism causes a high degree of stress for people. It undermines self-respect and self-confidence … [and] impacts on a whole lot of other things that are critical for good health,” he says.
Such as youth suicide.
Aboriginal suicide statistics in Western Australia paint a shocking picture. They are among the highest in the world, with children as young as 11 taking their own lives. The Hear Our Voices Report by the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research reveals that, between October 2010 and September 2011, there were 36 Aboriginal suicides in the Kimberley, a rate six times that of the general WA population. And for Balgo, a small town with only 450 people, the rate during that same period was 100 times higher.
An earlier Kimberley survey, in 2000-2001, found that low self-esteem and exposure to racism were key determinants in suicidal thoughts. Other factors included exposure to family violence and having friends who had attempted suicide.
Casey Kickett is treasurer of the Western Australian Students Aboriginal Corporation. She says the challenges facing her people can be very disheartening.
“I feel like a lot of us mob have got two choices: you’re either in the cemetery by the time you’re 50 — if not younger because of suicides — or you’re locked up by the time you’re 20,” she says.
Kickett says racism takes its toll on Aboriginal people. “If you aren’t a really strong person, [it] can really shake you,” she says. “Racism isn’t just someone calling you a ‘coon’ or a ‘boong’ – man, I got called that the other day on a freaking bus!
“But if things are said to you over and over again and nothing seems to change and no one seems to stand up for you, then you kind of feel really hopeless.”
Kickett says that the day after the Prosh article was published, WASAC met up with the UWA Student Guild. She says the guild delivered a formal apology at the meeting.
Kickett says it was clear the writers of the article did not realise how damaging the Prosh horoscopes were.
“When we spoke to those people who wrote it, it wasn’t that they were nasty people and they had bad hearts, it was that they were just so uneducated,” she says. “They couldn’t even tell us what was wrong with the paper. They never even met a blackfella before!”
The reason for this ignorance, Cooke explains, is that racism has been conditioned into white Australians. “It’s a prejudice they’ve inherited through their upbringing … a prejudice that’s gone through generation after generation from colonisation,” he says.
“People [are] going through education and not getting taught about Indigenous culture at a level where they are aware of the history … and how we can move forward, rather than reinventing the will of this racism and prejudice.”