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World

Grant: 'The Australian Dream remains outside our grasp'

Stan Grant gave a speech about discrimination against Aboriginal people that many call a 'Martin Luther King moment for Australia'. The journalist spoke to DW about the issue and about his own personal story.

DW: Your speech given as part of the IQ2 debate series held by the Ethics Centre has already been called a kind of Martin Luther King Jr. moment for Australia, a country where the indigenous population remains heavily discriminated against. The debate was centered on the question whether racism is destroying the Australian dream. You gave your speech in a hall in Sydney that was largely filled with white faces. What was going through your head if you can think back to that day?

Stan Grant: It is really interesting you made that observation. I was acutely aware of that. I was acutely aware of everyone I was talking to and the fact that I wanted to look directly at them and speak to the experience of being indigenous in Australia and the experience of living with the weight of all of that history. I was not a speech that I had written. I was not relying on notes. It was not rehearsed. I had an idea about the issues that I wanted to raise. I knew that I wanted it to be reflective of our history. I wanted to contrast our experience with the mythology of the Australian dream.

You have a mixed background and both sides suffered for bridging the racial divide by joining hands, so to speak. How formative was this mixed family experience for shaping your identity?

Very, very formative. I think it is a common experience for all indigenous people in Australia. We are mixed. We are only a small percentage of the population. We are formed out of the brutality of that initial disposition and the frontier wars, the frontier conflicts that accompanied that. We emerged from the fringes of the frontier: Mixed in heritage and race but united around the sense of survival and desire to keep that culture alive. A new Aboriginal culture, a new society if you like, emerged from that frontier and that is where I come from.

But certainly, for any white Australian, and in my case my grandmother, who is a white Australian, who married an Aboriginal man, had Aboriginal children, the experience could be searing. The fact that they would often be outcasts from their own society, seen almost, in some ways, as worse as the indigenous people themselves because they have crossed that line. She certainly experienced all of that. It took an enormous toll on her and her life. But it was a great show of bravery and courage on her part, in the 1930s in Australia to embrace us. And I think for indigenous people as well. We have embraced white Australia. When they have come into our society they have been welcomed into our society and in many ways have strengthened it.

You said in your speech that you succeeded in spite of the Australian dream, not because of it. What is the Australian dream to you?

I think you see the Australian dream every day, and that is the extraordinary achievement of Australia. Here is one of the world's most stable democracies, a resilient democracy. It is an extraordinary prosperous country, one of the richest in the world. A country that prides itself on its tolerance and, as we say in Australia, "a fair go," which is a egalitarian spirit that no one here comes with a particular rank. It is not a place that is rooted in class or hierarchy. That people have the opportunity to come here and make something of themselves. And that has been a broad migrant experience that has been the experience of those whose forebears came here in chains, as convicts, and rose to great prominence in Australia. I think if you contrast our experience with that of indigenous people - is that the Australian dream, all that they celebrate, remains outside our grasp, still today.

Now, it is not true for all of us. I have enjoyed a very successful life. But for so many of my own people that is not the case. Those of us who have managed to gain a foothold remain the exception. The statistics bear that out: We are at the bottom of every socioeconomic indicator in Australia. Statistically, we die 10 years younger than the rest of the population. We are less than 3 percent of the population but we are more than 25 percent of the number of prison inmates. Amongst children it is even worse: Half of those who are in detention are Aboriginal or Islander. It is the stain on the soul, as I have called it.

My point is that if Australia can be a great country - and it is in so many respects - then surely it can be the test of that greatness. And of the first people of this country, fewer than 3 percent should not have to suffer in the numbers that we still do.

Discussing the injustice of Australia's colonial past can be a touchy subject for non-indigenous Australians. How do you get them to join the conversation about the figures that you have just mentioned and about the racism that indigenous people still face?

That is a very, very delicate operation indeed. People immediately become defensive. They immediately feel as though their own heritage, their own traditions, their own achievements are somehow under attack. Australians are rightly proud of what they have achieved here. If you look at the vast majority of Australians, they are living good dignified lives. They are going to work, sending their children to school, paying their taxes, obeying their laws. These are people who do not feel as if they need to carry the weight of the burden of that history. So it has been a very difficult conversation.

I think it is part of the growth of the society, the maturation of Australia, the changing face, the demographics of Australia, that people are now looking at this and saying: "Why? Why do we still have this hangover of our colonial past? Why are we not a republic? Why do we still have the Union Jack as part of our flag? Why are indigenous people still not recognized in our constitution?" All of this is part of the contemporary debate.

I think that my speech and others as well who have made these points are starting to catalyze this issue. We are starting to be able to bring people to this very, very difficult discussion. It is incumbent on us as indigenous people in Australia to find a way to have an inclusive conversation to be able to find the language that brings people with us, that opens up our lives and shares that vey human experience in a way that does not make people feel as if they are being blamed or carrying an unnecessary burden of guilt.

Stan Grant is the Indigenous affairs editor for Guardian Australia.

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