Australia Is Tearing Down Another Woman Of Colour For Daring To Have An Opinion
There is something deeply broken about our political culture.
One of Australia’s favourite past times is targeting members of minority communities who dare to question the conservative, Anglo-centric view of Australian culture and history, and ripping them apart on the national stage. We saw it happen with Yassmin Abdel-Magied last year, and now we’re seeing it play out all over again.
During last Friday’s Invasion Day rally in Melbourne, one of the event’s organisers, Tarneen Onus-Williams, addressed the crowd and said “Fuck Australia, hope it burns to the ground”.
“All you fellas in your Australian flags should be ashamed of yourselves,” she added.
The comments drew a furious reaction from right-wing figures in politics and the media, and over the past few days Onus-Williams has been subject to personal abuse and dozens of fiery news articles, including some attacking her family. And the media storm doesn’t like look like it will die off anytime soon.
The response to Onus-Williams’ comments is just another reminder of how the conservative establishment in Australia will use its full force to try and destroy anyone, but especially women of colour, for speaking out against the suffocating political consensus.
The Reaction To Onus-Williams Has Been Absurd
Former Victorian Liberal premier Jeff Kennett was one of the first people to attack Onus-Williams for her comments, saying: “those who use inappropriate language against the country they choose to live in use language like that because they don’t have the intellectual capacity to argue their case”.
“If they don’t like it, if they think the country is as bad so many of their banners indicate, they have the opportunity to buy a one-way plane ticket,” he said.
Essentially, he’s telling Onus-Williams, an Indigenous woman, to go back to where she came from. Which is Australia.
But even though Kennett’s comments were nonsensical, they ushered in a chorus of further attacks and denigration. Victorian opposition leader Matthew Guy said the comments were “a disgrace”, while the Herald Sun admonished Onus-Williams for failing to talk about “welfare issues in indigenous communities, including domestic abuse, alcoholism and murders”.
The fact that right-wing tabloids are lecturing an Indigenous activist on how she should do her activism is obviously unhinged, but it’s also par for the course in Australia.
The vitriol against Onus-Williams didn’t abate even after she clarified that her comments weren’t meant to be taken literally, (which seemed… kind of obvious).
“It was a metaphor, not actually a statement to be taken literally,” she told The Age. “I just want everything, all the governments to fall apart, because our people are dying and nobody cares and the whole system needs to change. The leaders of this country continue to ignore and oppress us. I am sick of our people getting locked up and dying in custody, of our young people suiciding.”
It’s hard to disagree with her comments, but faux outrage is what conservatives do best. Victorian government ministers were harangued over the fact that the Koori Youth Council, which promoted the Invasion Day rally, received public funding. And another Indigenous activist organisation, Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance, was attacked by the Herald Sun for defending Onus-Williams.
Daily Telegraph columnist Tim Blair wasn’t happy with just criticising Onus-William’s comments, he felt it was necessary to attack her physical appearance as well:
The racism and fatphobia that @Tarneen is copping for her powerful comments on January 26th is a disgrace. Shame on @dailytelegraph for commenting on her appearance in this way. We're lucky to have voices like Tarneen to challenge white supremacy in Australia. pic.twitter.com/owlaJShXYj
— Ally Garrett (@allygarrett) January 27, 2018
But the prize for the most bizarre attempted takedown of Onus-Williams goes to the Daily Mail.
That publication managed to find a way to link Invasion Day to Married At First Sight by writing an entire article about the fact Onus-Williams is related to Telv, one of the show’s contestants.
In just a few days some of Australia’s most read news publications have managed to turn one comment made by an Indigenous woman at an Invasion Day rally into a barrage of stories attacking her, the organisation she represents, her weight, her family, and Indigenous activism generally.
People on social media have been pushing back against the onslaught targeting Onus-Williams by using the hashtag #IStandWithTarneen.
I grew up on a farm, and now live in a semi-rural area – I've seen a lot of fires in my life. My brother is a fire-fighter, both at work and as a volunteer. A house I lived in burnt down, and I lost belongings. Fire is powerful. And so was Tarneen's METAPHOR. #IstandwithTarneen
— Karen Wyld (@1KarenWyld) January 30, 2018
#IstandwithTarneen because she is a young female activist who articulated a metaphor. Nothing more, nothing less. The manufactured racist hysteria around her words is odious. Young women’s involvement in activism should be encouraged.
— Nareen Young (@nareenyoung) January 30, 2018
— Nakkiah Lui (@nakkiahlui) January 30, 2018
#IstandwithTarneen because I thoroughly resent the idea that an Aboriginal woman is required play respectability politics and to not confront, to not rock the boat and to not be angry in the face of colonisation and sexism.
— Celeste Liddle (@Utopiana) January 30, 2018
I stand with Tarneen. Aboriginal women are continually slandered and when we speak up we are branded angry and irrational. Tarneen speaks the truth. The media will do anything to delegitimise her because her words have power!! We support you sis xo
— Amy McQuire (@amymcquire) January 30, 2018
I marched with Tarneen, I raised my voice with Tarneen, I protested with Tarneen, #IStandWithTarneen
— Senator Briggs (@Briggs) January 30, 2018
White fragility is demolishing someone's culture and living off their dispossession for centuries, then crying and publicly crucifying them when they say dare to say they really don't like it. #IstandwithTarneen
— Aamer Rahman (@aamer_rahman) January 30, 2018
The social media campaign summarises the power imbalance between the organisations targeting Onus-Williams and the community she represents. Media organisations and politicians with a massive reach are using their power to try and destroy the reputation not just of an individual, but of an entire community that doesn’t have the same structural power to respond.
I am not the problem when white supremacists media choose to use victim blaming tactics to demonise and attack every aspect of my life.
— Tarneen (@Tarneen) January 30, 2018
This Has Happened Before And It Will Happen Again
There is something deeply broken about Australia’s political culture if the current media storm around Onus-William’s comments is just what we should have to expect whenever someone says something mildly controversial.
But it’s important to understand that this kind of reaction isn’t really about what she said, but what she represents. White Australia can’t handle the idea of a confident Indigenous woman telling the truth about Australia’s history, and the contempt our current political class has for Indigenous Australians. The goal is not just to silence Onus-Williams, but to discourage anyone like her from speaking up.
Let’s be honest: there is no one who actually thinks Onus-Williams wants to literally light a fire and burn down Australia. In 2003 when The Herd released a tracked called ‘Burn Down The Parliament’, they were expressing a similar sentiment:
“Burn down a parliament, we burn down a flag
Burn down a liar like we burn ounce bag”
No one thought they were literally saying federal parliament should be burnt down alongside John Howard. It was a metaphor to describe their political view that the system was broken.
Fifteen years later it’s more broken than ever, and Tarneen Onus-Williams should be congratulated and supported for saying so.
Feature image via Twitter