The blistering, eloquent and very sad speech from Stan Grant – delivered in a debate forum last October, and posted by the Ethics Centre on its website ahead of Australia Day – laid out specific problems facing Indigenous Australians, most shamefully the fact that Indigenous children are more likely (than white kids) to end up in jail than finish high school. Where Grant talked about history, it was as a living, resonating and destructive entity.
"The Australian dream is rooted in racism," he said. "It is the very foundation of the dream. It is there at the birth of the nation. It is there in terra nullius."
Stan Grant's extraordinary speech on racism
Census privacy concerns
Should we eat Skippy?
And the winner is
One Commissioner not enough: Dodson
Australian arrested over terrorism-related activities
Commission needs Aboriginal involvement: Shorten
The hardship of foster care
Stan Grant's extraordinary speech on racism
Watch the indigenous journalist's raw and powerful speech he made during the IQ2 Racism Debate.
As Grant pointed out a few days later, many Indigenous people have made similar speeches and entreaties – although perhaps none so surgically targeted at the national psyche. A Gija businesswoman from East Kimberley described the speech as "emotive and thought provoking, but there wasn't anything new".
Still, this one went viral, here and abroad. CNN described it as the speech that made Australia "sit up and take notice" – reporting that it had been watched more than a million times over three days. Noel Pearson told the National Press Club that Grant's speech was a "tour de force" and the companion to the Redfern speech given by Paul Keating.
But it was former Fairfax journalist Mike Carlton's tweet that pondered if this was "Australia's Martin Luther King's moment" (a comparison that Grant said was flattering but embarrassing) that took on a life of its own. Regional newspapers, radio stations and blogs took up the question. Could it be so? At the least, it suggested a widespread desire for a transformative moment.
How widespread it is hard to say. There were of course many online citizen-critics who mocked, dismissed and insulted Grant's words from a position of anonymity. Their argument was best summed up by a piece in the Herald-Sun by Rita Panahi headlined "Most Australians reject the black armband view of history."
Ms Panahi was referring to an Institute of Public Affairs poll of 1000 people that claimed "more than 90 per cent say they are proud to be Australian and almost 80 per cent agree that the country has a history about which we can be proud." Racist Australia, she said, was a construct by the "self-loathing social justice warriors who populate the media and twitterverse" – and wasn't a concern for the "silent majority".
Nevertheless, Panahi described the idea of Australia as bedevilled by racism as "mass delusion" – and inadvertently touched on the probable truth of things.
Dr Karen Jones is a moral philosopher with the University of Melbourne. Her interest lies in the philosophy of emotions and rationality. She points to an emerging field called Ignorance studies, which was described in a New York Times article as part "exploring the psychology of ambiguity" and "the strategic manufacturing of uncertainty".
Dr Jones notes that people tend to think of ignorance "as a passive thing, a mere lack or gap in knowledge and something which excuses us. Yet some forms of ignorance are active, purposive, and not excusing. This is the ignorance that comes from ignoring. Australia has practised just this kind of ignoring since the colonial lie of terra nullius."
Purposive ignorance, says Jones is self-reinforcing. "We don't feel we have to listen to the very people who might be able to correct it for us, because what have we to learn from them, anyway?"
Hence, it is common to dismiss people who challenge ignorance as being overly sensitive: "Why are you still talking about this?" "It's ancient history!" "It's only one of the possible meanings of Australia Day and it doesn't mean that to Australians, now."
Angry responses to past discrimination are dismissed as a "culture of complaint" or "playing the victim" as if that discrimination does not continue up until now.
Says Jones: "Stan Grant's [speech] is sure to have got negative comment because if you really took it seriously you would be forced to feel very very uncomfortable about your position as a non-Indigenous Australian, which sets up self-defence mechanisms because of the need to feel that we are all of us basically good and decent human beings.
"In these ways, we collectively regulate what it is legitimate to feel ... dismissing certain forms of anger, evading shame, and validating certain forms of comfit even if they must be predicated on forgetting."
Dr Dan Woodman is a sociologist in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. He notes that a "bit of strategic ignorance is essential for getting on with life, and probably with each other, but this active ignoring is not neutral ... It is linked to power, inequality and race."
Professor Michael Smithson is a researcher at the Australian National University's Research School of Psychology, whose interests include ignorance and uncertainty, fuzzy logic and social dilemmas. He wrote the summing up chapter for the seminal Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies and has conducted an online course on ignorance for the general public.
"There are things we're motivated not to know," writes Professor Smithson, in an email. "These motives may be based on emotional responses ... where admitting something as fact entails emotionally unacceptable implications about oneself."
Few of us want to see ourselves as racist or sexist, and so most of us are motivated to tune out or discredit any message that would pin those labels on us. "I suspect that for many of us this response isn't always voluntary, or even accessible to conscious inspection. I therefore suspect that quite a few of us are in denial about racism in Australia, in addition to those of us who are wilfully ignorant about it."
Jones, Woodman and Smithson all point to cognitive studies that support this idea. If this is true – that racism is working unconsciously in many Australians – how do you bring it into the light?
Karen Jones advises that people learn about the workings of implicit bias, "which provides a theory for how basically good people can nonetheless contribute – and through no ill will or overtly racist or sexist beliefs – to the reproduction of racism and sexism."
At this moment, you might be righteously declaring: no way! If that's the case, after reading this article, test yourself at Harvard University's Project Implicit. There you'll find your implicit attitudes to dark skin, Asian faces, old people, fat people, people with disabilities.
"Implicit attitudes," says the website, "are positive and negative evaluations that occur outside of our conscious awareness and control."
Apparently, the results of taking an Implicit Attitude Test are consistently challenging, so much so that the site asks participants to digitally sign a disclaimer: "I am aware of the possibility of encountering interpretations of my IAT test performance with which I may not agree. Knowing this, I wish to proceed."
Jones believes that by confronting our own implicit bias, we reduce "the cognitive dissonance required to really listen to what Indigenous people are saying by helping undercut mechanisms of self-defense."
Smithson suggests it would pay for ordinary Australians to learn about confirmation bias, the well-documented tendency to pay more attention and give greater weight to information that confirms what we already believe.
Why might learning about these things help?
"First, it puts all of us in the same basket. Everyone has implicit bias and confirmation bias. No one is immune to them. Second, it reduces the moral charge against us regarding our ignorance, because these are not wilful, explicit biases – they're unintended and tacit. Third, it puts us on our guard against being meta-ignorant – denying our own part in reproducing racism and sexism, however implicit and unintended that may be."
If Stan Grant has a dream, maybe it's that we all start digging inside ourselves – and deal with what's buried there.