Knocking them off their pedestals

By Amy McQuire, November 10, 2013, Tracker Magazine.

NATIONAL: I love seeing black faces on our predominately white screens, writes AMY MCQUIRE*.

For so long, the only time we saw ourselves was through the long lens of white Australia. These negative images were filmed from afar – from the days of black and white to technicolour – and broadcast to lounge rooms across the country. The constant negativity and “othering” of our people made it easier for Australia to swallow the lie that blackfellas are somehow inferior in their own land (unless they fade their blackness into the national portrait).

No one is denying this, in fact it’s now an adage that blackfellas have been, and continue to be treated unfairly by media.

The solution to this has become a catch cry used to justify government-funded Indigenous media – we need more positive stories! – as if this acts as a bullet-proof vest against the negativity fired our way.

Sometimes I feel this catch cry is a little outdated. For one: Nothing is entirely bullet proof. And two: Times are slowly changing, and the number of positive stories are increasing.

Mainstream media have become adept at reporting these stories, particularly with the current dominance of public relations over journalism. It’s easy to ring a media contact on a press release, ask a few fluffy questions and attack the keyboard.

It’s when it comes to tackling the serious issues – of disparity in health, economy and housing, and the untangling of the messy knots of Indigenous politics – that mainstream journos have a hard time.

But I digress.

The success of our people in so many arenas of public life has also made it easier to broadcast positive stories on Indigenous Australia.

I’m talking about our sporting stars, our artists and our actors – the people whose faces are perhaps the most commonly recognised representatives of our communities.

For many Australians, these role models are used as a filter to interpret Aboriginal Australia. The majority of Australians are rarely in contact with our people, outside of their TV screens.

This success has afforded them a degree of acceptance amongst non-Indigenous Australia and emboldens our people. We look to them as positive role models and we lift them up on pedestals.

For the most part, they are accepted by non-Indigenous Australia because they are unthreatening and safe. They are celebrated because they do not bring with them the guilt and shame of a racist past and present.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m the biggest cheerleader for Indigenous success.

The pride I feel watching Jessica Mauboy sing her lungs out in front of millions at the NRL Grand Final is almost inexpressible.

And who doesn’t love seeing Greg Inglis dominate his code, and in turn, the hearts of its followers (regardless if you loathe the Rabbitohs.. or Queensland)?

The gorgeous Deborah Mailman and the striking Samantha Harris are two other blackfellas who have captivated Australia – and how could I not love them for their inner and outer beauty?

But in a time when Aboriginal people are still confronting an even more insidious racism – the hidden, but more dangerous type – why is it these Aboriginal Australians who wield a great deal of influence over white Australia, are largely silent on the racism that hurts their communities?

Why, when there is still a real need for justice in so many areas of Aboriginal life, do they fade into the background? Why don’t we see them at protests, or hear them talk out on issues that they could actually influence public opinion on?

When have we seen any prominent Indigenous Australians in sport or the arts (those who are household names in wider Australia) on political issues like the intervention? On issues like the murder of three Aboriginal children on Bowraville mission?

You could argue that our sporting heroes – the NRL and AFL stars – are often in communities, working with kids, acting as role models. They do this through government or club focused programs, run largely to promote the social responsibility credentials of sporting corporations.

They’re contracts are often tied, and their obligations are set.

But if you think of how much they have gained in their careers, how much are they actually giving back? Their communities built them up and they now have a privilege that these communities don’t – the ability to influence Australia. Why don’t they wield that power?

Of course, there are always exceptions. Think of Michael Long, Nicky Winmar and Adam Goodes.

But perhaps the answer to this silence lies in another exception.

In 2010, Timana Tahu took a stand – walking out on the NSW Origin team and placing the Blues camp in crisis after coach Andrew Johns made a racial slur against Maroons player Inglis.

He was predictably knocked down by media – proving that in Australia, it is dangerous to speak out for your people. But although it did damage his career, Tahu is still playing – after all, he is a freakishly gifted athlete – and in turn he has earned the respect of blackfellas across the country.

He used his profile and threatened his career to rebuke racism in a nation that doesn’t want to confront it. To me that is far more courageous than going in for a shoulder charge.

You could argue that white athletes are not burdened with that same responsibility. So is it fair to burden Aboriginal athletes with it, when it would never happen to their white teammates?


Our communities inherited a legacy of disadvantage – an intergenerational trauma that will not end anytime soon (at the current rate). A lot of blackfellas face similar burdens in their daily life – they just do not have the same opportunities and the privilege of a national profile.

Successful Aboriginal athletes are successful because of the foundations laid within their communities – by the support they are given by wider Aboriginal Australia – allowing them to rise above that legacy of disadvantage. I firmly believe they have a responsibility to give back.

Then you think about our high profile actors. It is extremely rare you hear them take a stand on Aboriginal rights unless they are promoting a film or project that deals with that very issue.

Or if they are being paid for the photo opportunity – for the use of their images in a campaign – whether they believe in it, or understand it.

I’m not saying this is true for all artists and athletes. There are always barriers to speaking out, and after all, this is their livelihood. You would expect there to be a bit of risk management.

But who is going to support you at the end of your career? What if you suffer an injury and are kicked out of your sport, or what happens when the auditions and the acting opportunities dry up? Then you will fall back on the solid foundation of your communities. Think of all the rugby players who now tour communities promoting government-funded messages?

Where were they at the height of their playing careers? Why didn’t they speak out on the topic then, when they were at the peak of their influence?

The “positive” stories mantra also has a negative side. It means that projecting unconfronting and unthreatening images of Aboriginal Australia – the kind that promotes our athletes and actors and artists at the expense of other stories – can actually be of detriment to our communities.

It paints that image that all is right – that look – Aboriginal Australia does have its successes, so it is time for the blackfellas who are protesting, the “radicals” – to move on. If those high profile blackfellas can get on with it, why can’t the rest?

If we want to keep putting our high profile actors, artists and sporting stars on a pedestal, we have to start expecting something in return. They may give us an occasional strength when we see them accepted by non-Indigenous Australians – it may well our chests with pride – but we have to remember the true examples of strength – the real role models – already live within our communities. The ones who struggle, who fight, who survive, but who are largely unrecognised.

I end this column with only one example and it is the subject of this month’s Tracker.

The families of the Bowraville children have tried desperately to get their case on the front pages of newspapers across the country. Public awareness is really the only tool they have to force politicians to listen.

All they want is one day in court and they want the NSW Attorney General to consent to that day, even if the court doesn’t. It is the first roadblock – but it is a vital one to overcome.

I accept the NSW Attorney General had his reasoning behind his decision to refuse to send the matter back to the Court of Criminal Appeal. But there was little pressure on him to change his decision – there was no outrage. There was little media coverage outside of the AG’s press release. These communities need closure before their elders start passing away. This tragedy hangs like a cloud on this mission – and it won’t leave.

It’s horrible to compare – but would Daniel Morcombe’s parents be treated with this terminal silence? Would his parents have trouble attracting media to their side?

The families have tried to sign up any high profile support for their case to no avail. Where are our sporting stars and athletes when it is time to march for justice? This is a case where they have a real chance to make a difference, and I doubt the blows to their careers would be substantial.

Why don’t they come down and march with the families on November 21st?

Maybe if a movie were made on it, they could manage a sound bite.

*Amy McQuire is a Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist and editor of Tracker.

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