People

Why The Responsibility Of Reconciliation Does Not Sit With First Nations People

By Taneshia Atkinson
27th May 2021

a collage of images of Yorta Yorta writer Taneshia Atkinson.

Just a few days ago, I saw a tweet from Yorta Yorta rapper Adam Briggs that resonated with me. “Reconciliation is for white people. [They] are the ones who need to reconcile”. I laughed, but then thought I couldn’t have said it better myself. I can’t speak on behalf of all First Nations people, but in my opinion— the celebration of reconciliation and the surrounding events are problematic. Here’s why.

Since 1991, reconciliation has been on the ‘Australian’ agenda—to apparently right the wrongs of the past so we can all get along as one happy family. Reconciliation Australia’s website states that “At its heart, reconciliation is about strengthening relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, for the benefit of all Australians”. This is nice enough, and well-intentioned. But I don’t want to talk about holding hands with white Australia and various forms of bush tucker at morning teas. I don’t want to put my energy into bridge walks and BBQs with no real outcomes. I want to talk about accountability and ending structural racism far beyond surface level relations.

National Reconciliation Week (NRW) is celebrated annually from 27 May to 3 June, falling between two significant and important events on our shared calendar. May 27 commemorates the successful referendum which amended the Australian Constitution to include First Nations people in the census and make laws on our behalf. The 3rd of June recognises Mabo Day, commemorating Mer Island man Uncle Eddie Mabo who overturned the legal fiction of ‘terra nullius’ which translates to ‘land belonging to no one’. Uncle Eddie Mabo was instrumental in our ongoing fight for land rights.

Looking back at NRW celebrations over the last twenty years, I can’t help but be reminded about the labour imbalance, and lack of real change. First Nations people are expected to perform, balance multiple gigs and share their insight, lived experiences and trauma, often unpaid—all in the name of reconciliation. This is also problematic, as attendance at such events gives white Australia a false impression that they have somehow contributed to a better society.

During my schooling, I can recall Aboriginal dance groups powerfully performing at school assemblies, accompanied by Aboriginal students proudly performing Acknowledgement of Country throughout the week, all while non-Indigenous students kicked back and watched.

In my former workplaces, First Nations staff were invited to host BBQs and share their stories for free, while non-Indigenous staff also kicked back entertained, returning to their day jobs still harbouring the sentiment that that they are not to blame for past government mistakes, and that current injustices have nothing to do with them.

Currently, NRW gives opportunities for million-dollar companies and those in between to display their progress in meeting key deliverables in their Reconciliation Action Plans (RAP). Many of these companies however continue to frack traditional lands (with a requirement to give only 30% of royalties’ back to community). If this isn’t contradictory enough, one of the largest prison management companies in the world has a RAP. I’ll let you process that one on your own.

Whilst reflecting on my last twenty years, it’s hard to accept that not much has changed and that it has in fact gotten worse. First Nations people are dying in custody at unprecedented rates and there are more First Nations children in out-of-home care than ever before. These realities are what First Nations people are expected to reconcile with.

The theme for NRW this year is fitting with my last point. “More Than A Word. Reconciliation Takes Action”. So how about we stop throwing the word around as if it is going to create immediate powerful change. Let’s cool the morning teas and direct our collective energy towards mounting pressure to ending black deaths in custody, to truth telling and to giving land back. Until structural racism is dismantled—I’ll pass on the Indigenous-themed cupcakes.

It’s important to remember that the responsibility of reconciliation does not sit with First Nations people. Here are a just a few ideas on how you can get involved this NRW, and every other week:

  • Be a conversation starter and practice truth telling
  • Support First Nations causes, like the Dhadjowa Foundation which aims to provide support to families who have lost loved ones in custody
  • Learn about the country you are on and it's true history
  • Recognise your privileges and take accountability
  • Attend a First Nations-led community celebration
  • Pay The Rent
  • Amplify First Nations voices and share their work and platforms
  • Support Indigenous-owned businesses
  • Stream music by First Nations artists; and
  • Remember this always was, and always will be Aboriginal land.

Image Credit: Taneshia Atkinson Instagram

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