SBS Documentary ‘Our African Roots’ Is Under Fire For Erasing Indigenous History

SBS has since apologised for the framing of some language in the documentary.

our african roots

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An SBS documentary on the role of African migrants in Australia’s colonisation story has received backlash for erasing Indigenous history.

Our African Roots: Australia Uncovered is described as an attempt to unravel “the absence of the African-Australian story within prevailing historical accounts” and investigate the “circumstances that saw them fall out of the national consciousness”.

Author and journalist Santilla Chingaipe delves into the lives of African convicts and slaves, whose role in post-settler Australia are often dismissed or unacknowledged. However, in telling that tale, the documentary isolates and undermines Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lived experience in favour of nationalism.

Like many, I have grappled with the question of belonging. Our African Roots made me wonder about the appropriateness, as an African-Australian, of wanting to ‘belong’ in this colony,” writer and scholar Dr Tinashe Jakwa said on Twitter. “‘Australia’ is a colony whose foundation is white supremacy.”

Critics of the film from both Indigenous and African backgrounds found that in the mission to draw out a tale of multiculturalism, Our African Roots inadvertently played into a white-serving narrative.

“From the ‘uninhabited wilds of the North Shore’ to ‘the first multicultural families’, her loyalty to the doctrine of Terra Nullius is worryingly plain to see,” Jared Field wrote about Chingaipe in an op-ed for Indigenous X. “While it may sound obvious to some, it clearly needs to be stated to others: our lands and waters never were and never will be uninhabited wilds.”

“This documentary, if I’m generous, feels like it comes from a place of wanting to be seen,” said Field. “The view provided, however, has been no less than a diversification of the colonial project, with something close to pride attached to it.”

SBS told Junkee that Our African Roots‘ main purpose was to “highlight the existence of people of African descent, and their contribution to Australian society”, and acknowledged the concern around controversial language choice in it.

“The documentary explores an important and largely unknown part of Australia’s modern multicultural history, and is designed to complement and contribute to a range of different perspectives which are shared across the SBS and NITV platforms,” said the broadcaster. “The documentary acknowledges that Indigenous Australians are the original and enduring custodians of the land, and the impact of colonisation.”

“The film used the word ‘uninhabited’ in one scene, in reference to the viewpoint of colonial settlers looking at land they had not yet taken,” the statement continued. “However, this was poorly framed and SBS recognises the use and framing of this word was incorrect and we unreservedly apologise. It has been amended for future screenings of the documentary.”