Dear white Australia,
My name is Nayuka, and up until a few years ago I supported constitutional recognition. I really believed in it, probably for the same reasons you might. Racism sucks and shouldn't be in the constitution, certain clauses stink and need to go, and surely it doesn't hurt to mention some truth in this old document. I wanted to include this photo here of me eating salad at a workshop on how Australia should go about legally recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. But I deleted every photo of me working with the Recognise Campaign when I stopped believing in its cause.
Right now, I just want to yell, "Fuck your recognition." I know you think "it's the right thing to do" but I don't want it and we don't need it. I want a treaty. A treaty forces you to see me as an equal with a separate identity, history, and culture that has existed for tens of thousands of years. Recognition forces me to ask to be seen by you in a colonial system that I don't want to legitimise. Fuck that.
Consultation and self-determination are two entirely different concepts. Hundreds of Koories recently met in Melbourne during consultations run by the Victorian government and voted, almost unanimously, against constitutional recognition in favour of a treaty. But today, the government is still funding a campaign marketing the Yes vote on a model we, the people actually affected by constitutional reform, haven't even seen yet.
Just imagine for a moment that you're living in this sick share house. You got rules, you got food, you all pay rent on time, and you got policies for sex friends who stay over (they leave when you leave, obviously). Then, suddenly, some random rocks up and starts using your shit and utilities.
After 228 years you're like "Bro, can we talk about that time you moved in and didn't ask?" And they are like, "Hey I made this joint better. You should thank me for squatting."
It's still your sharehouse, but they've made themselves so comfortable that your only real choice is to ask them to sign onto the lease. "We were here first," you say. "Pay the bond you prick. You keep putting holes in our pristine walls." But instead this housemate says they'll "recognise" you, and they ask all their friends what would be the best way to do it. All you want is this deadshit housemate on the lease.
This is what the government has done, pulling together a crew to explore different constitutional recognition models, largely made up of Old White Men. Many of the consultation panels held by these experts were invitation only, excluding voices of the broader black community.
Treaties are legal mechanisms between two parties that recognise one another's sovereignty. Like any negotiation some people get stuff and some people lose stuff. So far this whole invasion meant us losing stuff, getting scraps, and being told to be thankful.
The thing we want recognised is our sovereignty. We fought, we were massacred, we were subject to genocidal policies but not once did we give up our sovereignty. Time may have gone on but the elephant in the sharehouse remains and continues to grow. Most colonised nation have treaties. In fact, Australia is the only Commonwealth country without one. They aren't perfect (look at Aotearoa) but they are tangible and a good bloody start.
Back in 2012, I was asked by the Victorian Indigenous Youth Advisory Council (now the Koorie Youth Council) to write a piece on my concerns around constitutional recognition, that being that it wouldn't achieve anything practical. I've since reconsidered this. Symbolism does matter but it needs to be coupled with something real and tangible.
Take, for example, the 2008 apology. Kevin Rudd's words don't mean much to me when we have more black kids than ever being taken from their homes. This is a fluff piece for white people to feel good about themselves without any implications for the real world, which is why it is appealing. It is the legal equivalent of sharing that dumb Kony video—nice, misguided and does fuck all.
I am one of just over 500,000 black people in Australia. There are a few blackfullas who want recognition, and a few that don't, and I don't pretend to represent anyone but myself. But together we make up less than three percent of the Australian population. Even if every single black Australian voted against constitutional recognition, we still wouldn't have the numbers to outvote the rest of the country who are being told: VOTE YES.
Let's try another metaphor: say you're in an auditorium with a bunch of other people, 97 of them to be exact. There are three spare seats up the front that you and your two friends want, but every single person has to vote to decide if you get them. "Can't we just take those three up front?" You ask. "Hey, the front is rad but you can't just decide where you sit," the reply comes. "We should all get a say, ya fascist."
This is where we really are. Black Australia has been in the room the entire time, we were there first, but where we get to sit is still being decided by people who aren't us. Democracy is tops but I can't see any point in any political action that disempowers people in the process without any meaningful outcomes. What would be even more tops, and I am sure at least a couple of you would be thinking this, is to maybe just ask us what we want to do and where we want to sit. Right now black people around the country are mobilising to push for a treaty, right now I ask that you back those people.
Follow Nayuka on Twitter.
See more of Kiernan's work here.