Tokenism in Australia Against the Aborigines

by Lindsay Wong
Image: k8rry / Flickr

It’s no surprise that the Australian government and general public is hostile towards their indigenous people, just like Canada and the US. The country has a complicated relationship with the Aborigines, who have endured centuries of discrimination and violence since the arrival of settlers on the land. They have been repeatedly massacred, silenced and underrepresented in society; even now, in the 21st century, they are given very little visibility.

Despite efforts from the public – petitions, donations, rallies, etc. – to advocate for Aboriginal rights, authorities have been slow in implementing policies that bring about real change. Instead, they have been passive in their efforts, enabling the Aboriginal community to continue suffering. Most recently, at the start of 2021, the Australian government announced that they were changing one word in the national anthem in an attempt to be more inclusive. The line was changed from “Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free” to “Australians all let us rejoice, for we are one and free.” From changing “young” to “one,” they want to convey the message that they are advocating for a more inclusive and united society. However, this is simply an act of tokenism – the practice of making a symbolic effort to do something in particular. Changing one word does very little for actual inclusion and Aboriginal people continue to be marginalized in the present day.

In 1788, colonizers first settled on Australian land and immediately started to oppress the Aboriginal people, who had already been there for thousands of years. At the time, there had been 750,000 Aborigines within around 400 tribes. Territories were divided between different tribes, with each tribe claiming sovereignty of their respective piece of land. Every tribe was self-sufficient, although a trade system had been established. There was very little conflict as the tribes respected each other.

The situation changed completely when James Cook and the First Fleet from England arrived. They intended to establish a colony and clear the land so they would have space for farming efforts and the construction of their own community. The colonizers attempted to wipe out the Aboriginal population by infecting them with contagious diseases, which they had carried all the way from Europe. Smallpox itself killed off roughly half of the Aboriginal population within a year, as they had not built up immunity against these diseases. Soon after, the remaining Aborigines were assimilated into society. They were separated from their families and many women were forced to have children with White men to eradicate Aboriginal DNA through subsequent generations. Aboriginal history was not taught in schools and there was barely any mention of their community in the curriculum or textbooks, erasings their identity as Australians as a result.

This marginalization of the Aboriginal people has paved the way for even more discrimination in the community in recent years. Among the White majority, there is an implicit bias against the Aborigines – an unconscious association, belief or attitude towards a social group. Colonial history is not often talked about, so there is a lack of understanding and respect for them. There are few policies and practices that uplift the Aboriginal community, resulting in high levels of poverty and poor health. For instance, out of all the Commonwealth countries (countries that were formerly British colonies), Australia is the only one that does not have a formal treaty between the colonizers and the Aboriginal people. This means that there have been no top-down efforts to improve their rocky relationship and a clear historical injustice still exists in the country. Furthermore, they are not given accurate or authentic representation in the media – if there is any representation at all. They are stereotyped to be lazy, violent, and alcoholic, sometimes with criminal tendencies, which impacts the way Australians perceive them.

Nevertheless, the past few decades have seen an increase in the advocacy for Aboriginal rights. In 1967, Australians voted to change the constitution by removing derogatory language, making laws for the Aborigines and including them in the national census. However, this referendum only recognized them and did not actually grant them any new rights. They are seeking the right to self-determination – freely determining their own political status and economic, social and cultural development. There have been more ground-up initiatives to recognize them as the traditional owners of the land, such as by acknowledging and paying respect to the Aboriginal tribe of the land where someone is. National Reconciliation Week was established in 1993 to commemorate the 1967 referendum and is now celebrated every year. There certainly is support for Aboriginal rights in Australia.

The change in the Australian national anthem was intended to be a step in the right direction to making the country more inclusive. However, it immediately met backlash from the public, who argued that it was a simple act of tokenism and not a genuine attempt to be inclusive. Instead of changing one word of the national anthem, the government should be focusing their energy on implementing laws that would uplift the Aboriginal community, educating the public on Aboriginal history and issues, or making attempts to give them better representation or more visibility.

Changing one word of the national anthem does not acknowledge or make up for the centuries of erasure and silence that the community experienced. However, people may argue that it is a small yet significant change in recognizing that there does need to be change in the country. The Aboriginal people have had to endure unfair discrimination and marginalization for far too long. The government needs to make a stronger stand if they truly want to be an inclusive nation.

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