As Aboriginal people, my parents lived most of their lives as second-class citizens. But in their own minds they weren’t. Their attitude was to live life as if there were no limitations.
Nothing illustrates this more than their determination to own their own home. In the 1950s, my father was paid an “Aboriginal allowance”, not a full salary, and couldn’t afford a mortgage. He approached his union, which helped him secure equal pay. Because he was Aboriginal, no bank would lend him money. He borrowed from a money lender at twice the banks’ interest rates. My parents made many sacrifices to repay the loan. We had nights without power after bills went unpaid, and meals of damper fried in dripping because we couldn’t afford meat.
As a child I learned not everyone was happy when Aboriginal people got ahead.
In school holidays, my brothers and I sometimes went with Dad to the construction site where he worked as a grader operator. Once while driving back to the depot after work, a police car pulled Dad over and strip searched him. Dad didn’t argue but asked them what he’d done wrong. These policemen knew him. They looked at him with contempt as one said: “You might own a house, but to us you’re still an abo.”
Racial slurs like this silence Aboriginal people and warn them against stepping out of line.
These days I rarely hear that slur, other than occasionally in the dialogue of a fictional character or to discuss the word as a slur, both of which are quite different uses. The racism my father experienced is almost unheard of today and is roundly condemned if it is. Last week my son bought his first home. He had no trouble getting a loan and has never been paid less for being Aboriginal. His life experience is entirely different to my father’s. That’s something to celebrate.
I am a big critic of activists who complain about racism where none exists. The activist mindset that sees racism everywhere also defines Aboriginal people through group identity rather than individuality. We’re supposed to share the same opinions and want the same things. Step out of that collective and you’re a traitor.
Aboriginal people who are successful, vote conservative, attain mainstream leadership positions or get ahead are often called sellouts and traitors to their race. This mindset is itself racism and it comes with its own set of racial slurs which also operate to silence Aboriginal people and warn them against stepping out of line.
“Uncle Tom” is chief among them. The expression originates from the American book Uncle Tom’s Cabin about a black slave. The slur condemns black people who don’t hold left-wing or activist political views or who achieve things associated with being “white”. All my life it has been used in the same way against Aboriginal people.
There are people who otherwise vehemently oppose racism who use this slur as if it’s OK.
Recently I complained to the ABC about Radio National paid commentator Paul Bongiorno. In a tweet defending the ABC, he said Sky News presenters with Labor backgrounds such as myself were “Uncle Toms”. When I objected he denied intending racial implications. When I asked how a racial slur could not have racial implications, he called it a “derivative metaphor”: that is, lefties who don’t follow left-wing talking points are sellouts.
A racial slur is a racial slur. There’s no place for it in polite conversation, metaphor or otherwise. The ABC washed its hands of the incident, saying Bongiorno was a contractor tweeting from his private account, even though its social media policy applies to private tweets by contractors if they bring the ABC into disrepute. Perhaps the ABC thinks a racial slur doesn’t?
Bongiorno has now apologised and said he won’t use the term again. Others are unrepentant. Bruce Haigh, a retired diplomat who still writes regularly for The Sydney Morning Herald and until recently wrote extensively for ABC’s The Drum online, repeatedly has called me “Uncle Tom” on Twitter. He refuses to apologise and defends using the term. He often condemns government policies as racist but dishes out racial slurs to me.
The progressive media has a hypocritical attitude to racial slurs. When Roseanne Barr tweeted that a black politician looked like an ape (a notorious racial slur) her sitcom was understandably cancelled, despite her claim she didn’t intend racism. But “Uncle Tom” is usually given a pass. Why? Because there’s sympathy on the left to the idea black people are traitors if they step outside permitted group identity attributes. This is wrong. The Uncle Tom narrative says failure, oppression and toeing the line are part of black culture but success, leadership and thinking independently are not. I’ve seen Aboriginal people called these slurs for being middle class or becoming business owners or homeowners. In the 1950s, my Dad was abused as an “abo” for owning a home. He might also have been called an “Uncle Tom”. Both slurs are sinister and destructive.
Nyunggai Warren Mundine is author of bestseller Warren Mundine — In Black and White and host of Mundine Means Business on Sky News Australia. @nyunggai