Smoking used to be, and was promoted as, the thing to do. The status quo role-modeled the behaviour to the point where groups like soldiers were provided rations of cigarettes; smoking was readily seen on every TV screen; people smoked in every workplace, media outlet, air plane, sporting venue, and home in the country. Today, despite health promotion efforts and legislation the tobacco industry is still a massive machine that creates local and global jobs; generates huge revenues and profits; advertises its products and perceived lifestyle benefits far and wide; and kills people. Racism does much the same.
Doctors used to promote the use of tobacco products until the early 1950s when Dr Richard Doll worked it out. For a long time there must have been debates once the evidence was in about the negative health effects of tobacco. But eventually the status quo decided they should do something substantial about it. In the mid 1970s we started to see the first anti smoking ads on TV. Then followed public policies to ban the advertising of tobacco products, and more recently to ban the use of tobacco in public spaces such as pubs, parks, beaches, and sporting venues. Since the implementation of these policies we've seen a steady decline in smoking rates from above 50% down to around 17% as more evidence became available and anti smoking campaigns got more sophisticated. Great news.
Interestingly there is an element of racism included in this. From the mid 1970s when the anti smoking campaigns began until very recently the smoking rate amongst Indigenous People remained around 50%, while the mainstream smoking rate declined. Many theories centred on the fact that the anti smoking campaigns did not include or speak to Indigenous People.
Through the recent Close the Gap campaign, the federal government committed to a significant investment in Indigenous Health in 2008. The main focus of the Tackling Tobacco and Healthy Lifestyle Initiative was to give control to Indigenous Communities to develop and implement local, targeted initiatives. During the course of this national initiative there has been an approximate 8% fall in the smoking rates of Indigenous People.
Working in collaboration, that's true collaboration where each party is committed in a way that brings mutual benefit, is the way forward in making an impact on a range of issues.
Which brings me to racism.
Racism, like smoking, was promoted as the thing to do. The lack of understanding and communication during colonisation set the tone when it came to Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations in Australia right up to this very day. It doesn’t take a very deep scratch in the veneer of multiculturalism to uncover racist attitudes.
Racism is promoted by the status quo, albeit more covert than overt. The number of institutionalised obstacles for Indigenous People is astounding, mostly based in the premise that after 227 years we should all be functionally literate and numerate. The main reason that many Indigenous People are not literate or numerate is because there is seemingly little value in it for us. Education is a racist structure where Indigenous kids are not included in the curriculum through the whitewashing of history. Without an education you can't get a meaningful job, and most entry level jobs are within organisations and businesses with, let's say, less socially enlightened people.
Racism is seen on TV. We witnessed it in full HD and surround sound during the recent saga involving Adam Goodes. Has-beens and media bullies (all non-Indigenous) told Goodes that his perception of what was happening to him was "not racist", as if they're the most qualified, and apparently the only, people to judge. That's racism! As my friend Luke Pearson tweeted – Because we can’t prove that it’s 100% racist doesn’t mean that it’s 0% racist.
There are very few Indigenous faces on TV. Miranda Tapsell, upon winning her Logie, called this out and was absolutely correct. We'll have to wait and see if this changes further than the commendable efforts of the ABC and SBS.
Racism is a massive machine. It is so entrenched in institutions and government policies that non-Indigenous people can't recognise it because it is part of the organizational or departmental culture. When racism is pointed out it is immediately dismissed. Which is only natural, because who wants to be proved a racist.
But Australia IS racist.
Yes we are multicultural but that doesn't mean racially tolerant. It just means that a lot of different races live here under the same intolerance of different languages, traditions, dress, and cultures.
Interestingly there is yet another link between smoking and racism. Many Indigenous People were not paid properly for their toil on nation building projects and laboring jobs. They were paid a mix of wages, most of which was held in trust by the state, and rations of flour, tea, sugar, and tobacco. The tobacco was the interesting addition as the ensuing addiction made sure the Indigenous workers kept coming back to work and did as they were told or their supply would be cut off. The British have form on this practice as evidenced by the opium trade with China.
The intergenerational damage this practice has wrought on Indigenous People has recently been covered in a documentary I worked on called Clouded History.
Owning up to having a problem with racism is going to take many tough conversations, with the country needing to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
Overcoming racism will take at least the same time and effort as overcoming our addiction to smoking. The concerted effort, the funding, the resources, the ads on TV and social media, the social policies, the legislation, the role modelling, the branches in state, territory, and federal health departments, and the attitudinal shift in the media reporting of Indigenous issues through this new lens is the only way we can begin to change our current racist cultural fabric. As Waleed Aly recently said "we need to change people's hearts as well as their minds". I like Waleed. I think we’d bond over a chat and a net session. I’ve got the batting gear Waleed if you’re interested.
Racism generates huge revenues. Without the intervention of institutionalised racism, many Indigenous People and Communities would probably have control of their own lands. I wonder where this would leave the mining industry, or the tourism industry? And I wonder where the Indigenous Art sector might be without the incessant exploitation of amazing Indigenous Artists by unscrupulous art dealers?
And racism kills people. Through social injustice; through lack of access to all the services many people take for granted; through the dismissal of our issues as not being serious enough; through the destruction of our cultures, leaving many Communities lost without our lore; through the stereotyping of us, as seen in a couple of examples of Elders being withheld help and accused of being drunk, when in actual fact they are slipping in to a diabetic coma.
Australians are pretty laid back, casual folk. But on the issue of racism we cannot be casual. This brings me to my third link between smoking and racism.
Many people who've quit smoking might have a sneaky one or five on the weekend or when they're having a drink. They wouldn’t think of themselves as a smoker at all, but in reality they are a casual smoker. This is a similar situation to where someone may not consider themselves to be racist, but every now and then they’ll let a few racist comments or attitudes slip. These people are causal racists and there are more of them in Australia than I would care to count. They usually give themselves away by starting their sentences with – “I’m not racist but……”
We can do better than this. I want my country to gain and learn from its more than 50,000 year history instead of being reduced to 0.0045% of this timeframe. But the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people needs a lot of work based on respect, collaboration, and mutual benefit, and a deeper understanding and acceptance of our shared history. Why not start now. 227 years is long enough.
Written by Sean A
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!