Social media can be alternately a wondrous invention of the 21st century whilst also being a curse. It's wonderful because with the click of a mouse button, you are able to connect with an infinite amount of people instantly and find out what's going on. A particularly useful tool to have when communicating with the Indigenous community. However, when what's going on is not particularly pleasant stuff, the gift of social media fast turns into a curse.
Such it was last week when news spread rapidly that a publican in Coolgardie had banned Indigenous people from drinking in her pub because her phone was allegedly stolen. A sign, that was quickly photographed and circulated on social media attested to this racist ban. The story of an Aboriginal miner who was refused service and is now seeking legal advice was told. The pub's page on Facebook was trolled with reviews being written about the regular KKK meetings and the archaic attitudes and decor. In short, some well-oiled internet activism sprung into action and let people know that this was not acceptable.
The publican apologised soon after the sign had gone viral, but by then the damage had been done. People had witnessed the modern day exclusion of a group of people based on race via the information superhighway. For a moment we felt yet again like things hadn't progressed since the time Freedom Riders were spat on and arrested at the Moree Pool for trying to gain access so the local black kids could have a swim.
The problem is, this is not an isolated incident. This happens more regularly than people in this country either hear about or acknowledge. In this instance, thanks to social media, information was quickly and widely dispersed, but this was not the case in Bairnsdale in 2011 when Police issued a blanket ban on the sale of alcohol to Aboriginal people in an attempt to curve street violence. In 2008, a Taree bottle shop put a ban on “mixed or otherwise” Aboriginal people and instructed staff to tell these people to leave. Of course, in 2007 the Racial Discrimination Act was suspended and blanket alcohol and pornography bans were enacted in remote Northern Territory communities but it has been mainly activist groups who have questioned these government policies. The general public have been mainly silent. They probably believe, what with the government rhetoric and the media reporting, that these bans were completely warranted despite the original Lateline report that led to a declaration of a “state of emergency” was found to be seriously lacking in credibility.
Of course, exclusion does not always centre around alcohol. Last year the cast of The Shadow King were repeatedly refused taxi service in Melbourne and were later racially abused by a tram commuter. Also last year, well-known community character and Elder statesman of the theatre Jack Charles went public on an incident of racism he had experienced again from a taxi driver. Famous Yolgnu singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu was refused a taxi the previous year in St. Kilda, despite him being blind and therefore needing reliable assisted transportation. These are the incidents involving public Indigenous figures so you can just imagine how often it happens to everyday Aboriginal people.
We see the continual videos taken on public transport of racist attacks including one on a presumed Aboriginal person (though later this was found to not be the case) only a couple of weeks ago. We hear the offensive opinions some Australian revellers on Australia Day have of Aboriginal people in John Pilger's documentary Utopia. These are all incidences of what we call “blatant racism” but while this stuff raises its ugly head occasionally, events like Australia Day, statements such as “black armband view of history” and frequent tales of how acknowledging difference is apparently racist also exclude Aboriginal people. They tell us that we don't have a right to our truth, our history and present, and our right to define ourselves how we choose. They exclude through denial and assimilation. If people don't feel that this is every bit as damaging as being excluded through blatant acts such as bans and denials of service, they are very wrong.
Racism is a part of every day life in Australia. It is heartening to see people band together on social media and state that these sorts of acts against an entire group of people are not acceptable. It gives me hope that through these channels and contact over networks that did not exist in previous generations, people are connecting with others they may not have in the past and are therefore being challenged and gaining different perspectives. They can also pressure people who exhibit attitudes that exclude entire races of people and enact change. There is still so very far to go though...