I was fortunate to know Bill Leak and proud to have called him a friend. Bill was no racist. But he was labelled racist by a cohort of people who frequently see racism where it isn’t.
Bill’s cartoon depicted an Aboriginal policeman taking an Aboriginal boy to his Aboriginal father, asking him to teach him personal responsibility. But the father can’t even remember his name. It highlighted the lack of parental responsibility underpinning high Indigenous youth incarceration. It’s a real problem. Report after report has found Indigenous children in communities across Australia, but particularly remote ones, plagued by dysfunction, child abuse, family violence and addiction.
Telling the truth can never be racist. So those who labelled the cartoon racist believe one of two things. Either they think the cartoon depicted a lie (which case they’re wrong; it depicts a real situation); or they think depicting an irresponsible Aboriginal man condemns all Aboriginal people. But Bill didn’t believe this and the cartoon said the opposite. The policeman is a figure of responsibility helping a victim of poor parenting. If the characters were caucasian no one would say it criticised all caucasians. If he drew a cartoon satirising the bad behaviour of police, no one would say it criticised all policemen.
I’ve even heard people say the cartoon is racist because some people will see it and think less of all Indigenous people, even those who aren’t bad parents. What about Indigenous protest groups who burn the Australian flag? Some people see those protests and think less of all Indigenous people, even those who aren’t burning flags. Do journalists demonise us by reporting them?
Those who think it condemns all Indigenous people or demonises Indigenous men should examine their own biases and insecurities, not Bill’s.
It was the plight of the boy Bill wanted to draw attention to. In an email to Barry York (now published on his blog C21st Left) Bill said:
“I hoped it would prompt people to take a good, hard look at the plight of aboriginal kids in remote communities but it seems that’s something so confronting they prefer not to look at it at all. So much easier to accuse me of racism for having brought the subject up. It’s pleasing to see, though, that finally the virtue signallers are running out of abuse to hurl at me and the conversation is starting to focus on the little boy in the middle of it and his indescribably sad, desperate life. The cartoon was supposed to be about him after all, for Christ’s sake.”
The cartoon's message was that youth like the ones in Don Dale often grow up in dysfunctional environments. That’s why they end up in detention. I’ve said exactly the same thing. Why is it racist to call out real problems destroying so many of our kids?
Racism is an English word with a defined meaning: to show prejudice, discrimination or antagonism to someone because of their race, believing their race is inferior.
Like many Indigenous people my age I’ve experienced violent and humiliating racism. Until aged 13 I lived under the Aborigines Protection Act which imposed segregation. My family were under the control of the Aborigines Protection Board, excluded from Federal laws. Indigenous people were inferior under the law and treated as inferior by many Australians. My mother taught us we had to be cleaner, politer, better dressed and better workers just to be tolerated. Australia today is completely different. I still experience racism occasionally, but it’s mostly racial slurs from people unhappy I don’t toe their preferred political line.
Western thought has evolved to reject racism. Not satisfied with this triumph (or perhaps because of it) activists are busy redefining the word’s meaning. Civil rights campaigns fought for people to be judged by their character not their skin colour. Yet many anti-racist activists now seriously propose that, for black people at least, the primary identity should be their race, even describing them as “race traitor” if it’s not.
This is fuelled by extreme academic theories emerging over the past few decades that argue racism is permanently engrained in the fabric of society and institutional racism persists even if there aren’t actually any racist people. Under these theories, black equals subordinated; meritocracy equals white privilege; believing people can move past race is the language of oppression. Reinventing and redefining language for ideological purposes is the hallmark of a totalitarian mindset. In George Orwell’s novel, 1984, the state invents a new language, Newspeak, to force people’s thoughts and actions to reflect the state’s ideology. Its mantra: "War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength"
These wild ideas are grounded in the notion black people are inherently inferior. That these theories also propose permanent, codified racial preferences as a remedy is irrelevant. This thinking can just as easily be used to justify racist segregation and subordination, and has been.
Too often the activist mindset sees Indigenous Australians as defined by membership of a group rather than by our individuality. We’re supposed to share the same opinions and want the same things. Like the Borg in Star Trek we're part of a collective where no single individual truly exists.
Step out of the collective, you’re labelled “Uncle Tom”, “coconut” or some other racist slur, without a hint of irony. You often hear Indigenous people describe this mindset as like crabs in a bucket; as a crab climbs its way out others pull it back down so none ever escape.
In this world view, criticising one Indigenous person demonises the group; insulting or offending one means insulting or offending all. So: racist. This was the basis of the aborted 18C complaint against Bill Leak. A satirical cartoon that wasn’t racist or made with racist intent was the subject of racial vilification complaints elicited, then seriously entertained, by the Human Rights Commission, simply because it criticised a real subset of Indigenous people and some others were offended by it.
If these activists want to find real racism they should look at their own rhetoric. It’s founded on the idea Indigenous people are a group to be pitied, not individuals who choose their own path. It’s obvious to me who thinks Indigenous people are inferior. And it wasn’t Bill Leak.
Edited versions of this article were published in The Australian on 17 March 2017 and the Koori Mail on 5 April 2017.
Bill Leak, a policeman, a boy and his father
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO