If you want to know the difference between the Black and White Witness, all you have to do is mention the war. The White Witness will often describe it in this way. In 2004, Palm Island was continually referred to as the ‘most dangerous place on Earth outside of a conflict zone’, following the tragic death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee (who died on a watchhouse floor, with a liver cleaved in two and injuries akin to those of a plane crash victim). In 2015 the Cape York community of Aurukun was labelled ground zero, with ‘clashes between warring families … Forcing terrified locals to flee for their safety’, and ‘children (who) were now caught in a warzone’. The same was said of Wadeye, thousands of kilometres away in north-east Arnhem Land, which in 2006 was labelled ‘Not the Third World, just Australia’s first war zone’ with ‘scores of Aborigines’ ‘fleeing their homes’ and ‘living in squalid refugee-like camps’ due to ‘gang violence’. In 2013 the Sydney Morning Herald manipulated crime statistics to claim that the far-west NSW town of Bourke, with its large Aboriginal population, was ‘the most dangerous place on Earth’.
In this telling, the White Witness becomes a war correspondent, reporting on the civil war between black and black. He or she is the credible observer who has ventured from the borders of respectability to the borderlands of ‘out there’, most commonly remote Australia, where blackness is seen as savage and violent, and the victims are given no voice, no agency, no humanity. This is the war the White Witness will tell you about, one focused on dysfunction and hopelessness, and told with the veneer of impartiality, because to tell it like this is to ensure the White Witness is only the correspondent, and never an active player. The White Witness will not tell you about the other war, or if they do they will tell you it ended a long time ago. They will tell you it had no consequences for the present, and so the violence they are reporting on becomes biological, somehow innate to the Aboriginal race, or cultural—a practice formed over tens of thousands of years, before white people even arrived.
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In January, one of these white witnesses, Kerri-Anne Kennerley, appeared on Channel Ten’s morning Studio 10 program. The topic of the day was the 26 January protests, in which tens of thousands of Aboriginal people and allies shut down the Melbourne CBD to protest over a day that for blackfellas has always represented invasion and genocide. The TV panel had no Aboriginal representative, and only one person of colour, Yumi Stynes. Despite having no credentials other than being white and on television, Kennerley launched a diatribe, echoing the war correspondents who have gone before her: ‘Has any single one of those 5000 people waving the flags saying how inappropriate the day is, has any one of them been out to the
outback where children, where babies and five-year-olds are being raped, their mothers are raped, their sisters are raped. They get no education. What have you done? Zippo.’
On each repetition, Kennerley stressed the word ‘raped’, and finished with her fingers in a makeshift cross, as if to ward off evil spirits, while the rest of the panel stayed silent. It was only Stynes who spoke up, completely measured: ‘That is not remotely true, Kerri-Anne, and you are sounding quite racist right now.’
Despite Kennerley’s offensive, self-righteous and, quite frankly, racist attack on Aboriginal people as a whole, it was Stynes’ words that were met with outrage by the audience, and by Kennerley who painted herself as the victim, as white women have historically been wont to do.
‘I’m offended by that, Yumi,’ she said, disappointed.
‘Well keep going then, because every time you open your mouth you’re sounding racist,’ Stynes responded.
Again, the panel and audience gasped at this audacity.
‘I’m seriously offended,’ Kennerley said, speaking through Stynes’ points, and cited colleague Joe Hildebrand: ‘What Joe just said was the report that came out when these people need desperately help [sic]. It is most of the Aboriginal elder women who are desperate for help, and they are not getting it. Where are these people on one day of the year. They’d be better off doing something positive.’
Stynes was denied a response by the other white woman on the panel, but the fury on social media, particularly from Aboriginal people, was immediate. Over the next few days, Aboriginal women, many with lived experience of violence, were forced to respond to the ludicrous but cyclical claim that black communities do not care about the safety of women and children and are instead only interested in ‘symbolic’ fights.
Lowanna Gibson wrote an open letter on news.com.au, attempting to provide more nuance to statistics around ‘Aboriginal violence’: ‘Maybe people should do more research into statistics before making a correlation between culture, race and violence.’ Amy Thunig, on IndigenousX, recentred the importance of Aboriginal protest, calling out Kennerley’s solution of ‘education’: ‘Education may be a cure for many ills, but in the cases of Kerri-Anne and Studio 10 education is rarely the answer, because this is not about facts, it is about control. Control of the dialogue, control of the broader narrative, and ultimately attempting control of the way Indigenous people are seen and received by their audience and broader Australia.’ Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts argued on Junkee that the racist rhetoric of Kerri-Anne Kennerley would have detrimental consequences for those she presumed to care about: ‘they also have serious impacts for our women of colour, our children and all those in communities that “represent the outback” and how wider Australia may view Aboriginal Australia’.
Despite Kennerley’s claim that she cared about the women and children, the idea that black women could have a say over their own representation was such an affront to Hildebrand that he chose to write not one but two long op-eds for news.com.au, first defending Kennerley and then himself, against the irrational black hordes harassing him via social media.
Hildebrand became the stereotypical White Witness—the war correspondent Black Australia did not know we needed. He has a right to speak on these issues not only because he is a white male, but also because he almost enrolled in an honours degree in history. Like all war correspondents in Aboriginal affairs, his credentials, although shaky, are more than enough to grant him legitimacy over any Black Witness.
According to Hildebrand, ‘all of history is war’, and the process of colonisation in Australia is just that: ‘It is equally vital that indigenous [sic] Australians understand that for all the tragedy and horror that has befallen them, there has never been an intent to “invade” them, nor a deliberate campaign of genocide.’ That is of course a complete falsehood because the very aim of settler-colonialism is the ‘extermination of the native’, as historian Patrick Wolfe so astutely said.
In my own country, Darumbal people were murdered by the waterways and chased off the cliffs, all in the name of white prosperity. Just one example is the massacre at Glenmore Station in Rockhampton in 1865. In his 2013 book Conspiracy of Silence: Queensland’s Frontier Killing Times, historian Timothy Bottoms describes how the station owner Samuel Birkbeck watched a peaceful ceremony of Darumbal people who were ‘moving back and forth through the scrub with lighted torches to see their way’. Birkbeck called the Native Police, and the next day the force rounded up and killed 18 Darumbal people, burying them in a mass grave. The Birkbeck family have owned the Glenmore Homestead for more than 150 years, and have a mountain named after them.
Such massacres were carried out across the continent, yet Hildebrand mentions just one, the Myall Creek massacre, and only because he claims it illustrates the massacres were ‘not government policy and it was not the government’s intention—on the contrary, the government was often desperately trying to stop it’.
That would come as news to any frontier wars historian. Just looking at Queensland, a killing field, the emergence of the Native Police coincided with the colonisers’ ambitions to fill their coffers and expand the emerging pastoral industry, using stolen Aboriginal land. As University of Technology Sydney researcher Padraic Gibson writes:
Before the transition to Queensland control, the white officers of the Native Police were already leading large scale killing missions in the areas now known as Queensland, operating under orders to ‘at all times and opportunities disperse any large assemblages of blacks’.
From 1859, the force reported directly to the Colonial Secretary now ruling the new colony from Brisbane. Under this administration they received a renewed injection of resources and political support, operating as a standing death squad for the next 50 years across the Queensland Frontier.
Guardian Australia’s recent ‘Killing Times’ series found ‘45 percent of the massacres and conflicts recorded involved the forces of colonial governments—police, native police, military or government representatives’. The last known massacre—the Coniston massacre in 1929, where more than 60 Aboriginal people were slaughtered, was excused by the federal government, even after the perpetrator admitted the crimes in a report.
Hildebrand’s claims were easily debunked. But not only was he published, he was allowed another thousand words on news.com.au to lament the standard of public discourse and claim the ‘facts don’t matter in public debate anymore. All that matters is whether something fits within a pre-constructed “correct” narrative; if not it is deemed offensive. If something upsets somebody then it cannot be true.’
Of course, Hildebrand, for all his proclaimed victimhood, was not some heroic truth teller, but simply repeating the ‘correct’ narrative of the past two hundred years, the one used to falsify the true history of this country and the original sin at the heart of it—the theft of Aboriginal land. It is typical of the White Witness to do this, to act as if the Black Witness is simply upset, or angry, or irrationally emotional, and yet never apply the same barometer to themselves.
Hildebrand, with no qualifications in Aboriginal history, with no lived experience being Aboriginal, and with no right to speak for any Aboriginal nation, is seen as a credible witness, not just because he has positioned himself as one, but because the White Witness is always prioritised over the Black Witness, unless, of course, that testimony is being used to justify their own agenda. Citing a National Press Club address delivered by Aboriginal women Marcia Langton, Jacinta Price and Josephine Cashman, Hildebrand claimed that ‘for too long men in indigenous [sic] communities had used the fig leaf of racism to deflect any attempts to remedy or even identify the violence’.
In effect, Hildebrand and Kennerley used the bodies of black women to delegitimise protestors who, in Hildebrand’s words, are more interested in ‘second tier issues’ than the ‘suffering of indigenous [sic] people—especially women and children—in their own communities’. This is a form of silencing.
By only choosing from the ‘issues’ that do not implicate white Australia, that do not speak of the ‘war’, they enact a form of violence, through silencing and erasure, on the people they purport to care about. Aboriginal women have not been silent, rather they have been drowned out by a chorus of white voices continually speaking over them.
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When White Witnesses such as Hildebrand and Kennerley speak of violence in Aboriginal communities, they are talking about a certain ‘space’ in Aboriginal Australia—and that space is ‘remote communities’. After all, it is not often an Australian journalist is a ‘war correspondent’ in their own country. In order to define their fictional war, they must set up their own borders or retrace the spatial boundaries enacted by force during colonisation. Citing David Goldberg, Canadian academic Sherene Razack writes about the ‘spatial configurations of colonial societies’ and how ‘racial categories have been spatialized’. In the Canadian context, but which we could equally apply to Australia:
Colonizers at first claim the land of the colonized as their own through a process of violent eviction, justified by notions that the land was empty or populated by peoples who had to be saved and civilized. In the colonial era such overt racist ideologies and their accompanying spatial practices (confinement to reserves, for example) facilitate the nearly absolute geographical separation of the colonizer and the colonized.
When the White Witnesses of the mainstream media speak on violence, they are talking about the violence that exists in this space, in the space of the colonised. This space is ‘black space’, it is the space where violence is routine, where the ‘rapes’ of Aboriginal women and children, as Kennerley puts it, are normalised and so become zones of degeneracy. They are the ‘others’ who cannot speak but who can be spoken of and who are in need of saving. Because they live in these spaces, their bodies are marked by this otherness, and the judicial and media responses are shaped by their race, class and geography.
The most disturbing element of the White Witness’s testimony is that it can be a form of violence. As Mexican sociologist Paulina García-Del Moral writes, media representations can act as ‘technologies of violence’ by obscuring historical relations of power, ‘institutionalising discourses that construct these women as “social waste” and making the violence invisible through sensationalist reporting that fosters indifference’. This form of violence can have real, material effects, and we saw it most pertinently in the form of the Northern Territory Intervention. But it also has a reality in the silences, the absences in the news columns and broadcasts around the country when Aboriginal women are killed or go missing. Having been identified with what has been marked as a violent space, they are seen as disposable, and the violence perpetrated against them is portrayed as inevitable.
In comparison, those who live in white spaces live in zones of normality, where the same social problems, namely violence against women and children, are not seen as the defining characteristics of the people who inhabit them. That is where the fear comes from. The Melbourne CBD is seen as safe, respectable, white space (despite it being on unceded Aboriginal lands), and so a protest of tens of thousands of Australians—black and white—rallying to recognise the true, bloody history of this country is perceived as threatening. These protesters are hard to comprehend for a white Australia so accustomed to designating ‘Aboriginal affairs’ to the ‘outback’, to use Kennerley’s words. How can blackfellas be so articulate, so vocal, resistant and hardworking, when the images they know of black Australia are of welfare dependency, of violence, of child rape, of battered women?
In order to divert the gaze from this resistance, these White Witnesses claim that these protesters are not the ‘real Black Australia’. Instead, attempts are either made to dilute their Aboriginality or to claim they simply do not care, and are thus the enablers of violent men and silencers of Aboriginal women and children. In the words of the White Witness, the real black Australia exists out there, in the borderlands, and so deficit language is used to secure the confines of that space. Aboriginal people in remote communities are either victims or perpetrators—they are never afforded any complexity, despite the diversity of histories, languages, cultures and traditions. Remote communities are also denied their own voice, including their own right of protest, even though some of the most significant actions in history took place in remote Australia. Where would we be without the Gurindji walk-off at Wave Hill, or the Pilbara strike? By confining a fake concern to the borderlands, the White Witness not only positions themselves as the only credible witness, they enact their own forms of violence on the people they claim to speak for.
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Imagine if any other Australian community were defined as a ‘war zone’, and its people as ‘warring’, ‘dysfunctional’ and rapists over a long period of time. Imagine that you then tell them: your protest means nothing, you should care about the ‘real’ issues, the fact that your women and children are being raped—when these women and children are their cousins, aunties or friends. Hildebrand and Kennerley are not alone in their characterisation of our communities—they are simply the latest in a long line of White Witnesses, the witnesses of Trove, of parliament, of anthropology, of breakfast television. As White Witnesses, their testimony, however inaccurate, however violent, holds power.
It is crucial to recentre the voice of the Black Witness.
Like the White Witness, the Black Witness also uses the language of war. While the White Witness uses it to stage an attack, the Black Witness will mount a defence, because it is not the White Witness’s war they want to talk about, it is the real war—the continuing resistance against an occupying force.
We use this language to raise our young people and elders as resistance fighters and warriors in ways that do not victimise, but instead instil strength. Our communities are not ‘war zones’ of killing, but epicentres of survival. Our women are not helpless, but on the frontlines of battle, and our children are not the objects of neglect but the very reason for fighting in the first place. While the White Witness thrives on accounts of the brutalisation of black bodies, most commonly of black women and children, the Black Witness pushes these same black women to the forefront—they are the ones with the megaphones in the centre of the Melbourne CBD—in the very heart of white, respectable space.
While the White Witness uses the language of war to disconnect us from our past, the Black Witness uses it to connect our past to the present. That is the power, right there. •
Amy McQuire is a Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist.