If you were to ask someone what comes to mind when they hear “Australia”, you’ll probably get a bunch of responses of “Kangaroos”, “Sydney Opera House”, and “The Outback”, and maybe even a “Bondi Beach” here and there. What you probably won’t hear is “Racism”. What most people don’t know about Australia is its dark history of racism against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Aboriginal refers to the Indigenous people of mainland Australia, while Torres Strait Islander refers to the Indigenous people from the hundreds of islands in the Torres Strait, located just north of mainland Australia.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are distinct groups. For more than 60,000 years, Indigenous Australians have lived in Australia, making them the world’s oldest civilization and culture. The British only arrived 250 years ago. The story of colonization in Australia and the mistreatment of Indigenous people by the British is similar to that of the mistreatment faced by Native Americans when settlers came to the Americas.
The British only arrived in Australia 250 years ago in 1770, but they didn’t start to colonize Australia until 1788. It is estimated that there were 750,000 Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders when the British arrived. While they were colonizing Australia, they created laws and policies to oppress Indigenous Australians with the intention of wiping out all Indigenous Australians.
Experts estimate that only ten years after British settlers first arrived, 90 percent of the Indigenous population had died from diseases such as smallpox which were brought by the British, violent conflict with settlers, and from the British forcibly removing them from their land.
The British claimed the land that belonged to Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders as their own and forced Indigenous Australians off of land that was rightfully theirs. In the process of forcing Indigenous Australians off their land, many Indigenous Australians were killed because they resisted being relocated.
The Black War, which lasted from 1828 to 1832 was a violent conflict in Tasmania between Aboriginal Australians and white colonists during which almost 900 Aboriginal Australians and 200 British died. The small population of Aboriginals that survived the war after surrendering was forced off their land.
The Aboriginals were forcibly relocated to Flinders Island, which is just off the north-east coast of mainland Tasmania. Many Aboriginals died on Flinders Island, and the remaining Aboriginals were once again forcibly moved to Cape Barren Island, right next to Flinders Island.
The forced relocation of Indigenous Australians, which was legal in the eyes of British law is responsible for thousands of deaths of Indigenous Australians caused by white settlers.
The Stolen Generations
Another way the British went about oppressing Indigenous Australians was to strip them of their culture by taking Indigenous children and placing them in institutions and foster homes with white families to teach them how to act like the British – like “civilized” people. This program created the Stolen Generations and was very similar to what Indigenous Americans went through.
The Stolen Generations were generations of Indigenous Australian children that were taken from their families by the British to be assimilated into white society. The government officially began this assimilation program in the 1950s and used “child protection” as their rationale.
They claimed that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations were dying out and that they needed to assimilate Indigenous Australian children so that they could have a future once their people died. As many as one-third of Indigenous Australian children were taken from their families and put in institutions or fostered and even adopted by white families.
On May 26, 1997, the Australian government released the National Inquiry into the Forced Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, which is more commonly known as the Bringing them home report. This 524-page document includes written testimony from more than 500 Indigenous Australians who were survivors of the government’s assimilation program.
A girl named Fiona, who provided testimony, said,
“I couldn't communicate with my family because I had no way of communicating with them any longer. Once that language was taken away, we lost a part of that very soul. It meant our culture was gone, our family was gone, everything that was dear to us was gone” (Bringing them home, 1997).
The government sought to strip Indigenous Australians of their culture, and they, unfortunately, were somewhat successful with the assimilation program because they alienated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and language from the children that were a part of the program and created a language barrier. The government tore these children from their homes, their families, and their communities in an effort to abolish the Indigenous Australian race and culture.
In 1850, the Australian colonies became self-governing and between 1850 and 1896 all Australian men aged 21 and over were given the right to vote, which legally included Indigenous Australians too. However, the colonies prevented Indigenous Australians from voting.
Denying Indigenous Australians the right to vote became law with the Queensland Election Act in 1885 for Queensland, and in 1893, Indigenous Australians were officially denied the right to vote because of Western Australian law. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, most white Australians, especially the government were focused on oppressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and disenfranchisement was used as a tool of oppression.
It wasn’t until 1949 that some Indigenous Australians were given the right to vote in federal elections. Indigenous Australians who had served in the military or were registered voters in state elections could vote in federal elections, but Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory, Queensland, and Western Australia still could not vote in their own state elections. Finally, in 1962, the Commonwealth Electoral Act gave all Indigenous Australians the right to vote in federal elections regardless of their right to vote in State elections.
Throughout the 20th century, public sentiment slowly started to change from one in favor of oppression to one more in favor of equality. Between 1893 and 1965, the Australian states gave Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders the right to vote in State elections, with Queensland being the last state to do so in 1965.
In Australia’s Constitution, there are two sections that specifically refer to Indigenous Australians: Sections 51 and 127.
Section 51(xxvi) stated that Aboriginals were outside of the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth, so the government could not make special laws for Indigenous Australians like it could for non-Indigenous Australians.
Section 127 stated that Indigenous Australians could not be counted when counting the people of the Commonwealth. This didn’t mean that they were excluded from the census entirely, but the government used this section to keep Indigenous Australians out of politics because the number of House of Representative seats allocated to each state was determined by the census.
Two states with the same number of non-Indigenous Australians would get the same number of House of Representative seats regardless if one had more Indigenous Australians than the other.
These two discriminatory sections of the Australian Constitution were the focus of the 1967 Referendum. Voters decided on amending the part of section 51(xxvi) that specifically excludes Indigenous Australians and removing section 127 from the Constitution entirely. This proposed Act was proposed unanimously by both the Senate and House of Representatives, and 90% of Australian voters voted YES to amend the Constitution, resulting in all six states voting to amend.
The 90% of Australians that voted in favor of getting rid of the sections of the Constitution that specifically discriminated against Indigenous Australians shows how widespread the fight for racial equality became in Australia with not even an argument against amending the Constitution heard in Parliament.
Since 1975, it has been illegal to discriminate against someone because of their race in Australia thanks to the Racial Discrimination Act, but that was not a one-and-done for racism.
Racial discrimination, especially against Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders remains common in Australia despite 86% of Australians supporting action to tackle racism as of 2014. Interpersonal discrimination against Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders exists in every corner of Australian society.
A recent survey asked non-Indigenous Australians aged 25-44 about their views of Indigenous Australians. The survey found that 21% of respondents stated that it was hard to treat Indigenous Australians as they would anyone else. 1 in 5 respondents said they would move away if an Indigenous Australian sat near them and that they would watch an Indigenous Australian in a retail environment.
The racial profiling of Indigenous Australians is prevalent among non-Indigenous Australians, which can also be seen in incarceration rates for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders compared to non-Indigenous Australians.
Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders are overrepresented in the prison population, and they made up 28.6% of the prison population in Australia in December of 2019 even though they only make up 3.3% of Australia’s population. Indigenous Australians are criminalized by society and are incarcerated at much higher rates than their non-Indigenous counterparts
Australia’s history of systemic oppression and racism against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is a long, dark one that many say is an issue of the past, but interpersonal discrimination against Indigenous Australians remains alive and well in Australia. While discrimination based on race is illegal, that does not mean it does not exist. Discrimination against Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders remains prevalent in Australia.
Lastly, Australia is stolen land, and Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders only recently received a formal apology for the atrocities committed against them in 2008 when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd formally apologized to Australia’s Indigenous people’s on February 13, 2008, acknowledging the trauma suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as a direct result of government policies, especially that of children taken from their parents.