Stan Grant's decision to step aside from the ABC reminded me of a conversation I once had during a performance review.
"I want you to continue speaking up at meetings", my manager said - meaning I should continue to make the difficult observations, paying a hefty emotional price and likely a career one as well. Like Stan Grant, one day I stood firm - "I am not the voice of morality of this executive", I said. The point being that there are others who also need to play their part. It is too easy for many to sit back and have coloured people offer difficult and necessary commentary but then, like Stan Grant, have their organisation offer no support when a price is paid for the very thing the organisation asks them to do.
I cannot compare my experience to that of Grant or to other First Nations Australians who have experienced this for generations, only that other coloured people like me know how it feels and we don't like it.
Reading the hateful messages Grant received after the ABC's coronation coverage, one would think he was the first to lament the role that the institution of the monarchy has played in the lives of coloured people around the world. The world's literature is replete with academic commentary on this topic for anyone wishing to read it. For example, Kehinde Andrews book The New Age of Empire; How Racism and Colonialism still Rule the World is an account of how genocide, slavery and colonialism are the foundations of how the West was built. The back cover has a review by Ashish Ghadiali, formerly of the Observer, in which he says it "provides readers with a solid grounding in the 500-year history of racial capitalism ... a primary text for a new generation of students of anti-racism looking to get to grips with the violence of our imperial inheritance."
There is nothing new or particularly controversial (at least for coloured people) in what Grant said. He just had the courage to speak up during the ABC panel discussion, an organisation which columnist Osman Faruqi describes as "overwhelmingly unrepresentative of the country it claims to serve", recalling the overt accounts of racism Faruqi had heard before he joined the ABC.
Meanwhile Faruqi's mother, Greens' senator Mehreen Faruqi is in the Federal Court in an action against Senator Pauline Hanson after being told by Hanson to "pack your bags and piss off back to Pakistan". That also involved discussions of the Royal family. Mehreen Faruqi's comments followed Queen Elizabeth II's death in September last year when Senator Faruqi said she could not mourn "the leader of a racist empire built on stolen lives, land and wealth of colonised people".
There seems to be something about challenging the institution of the monarchy and all that it stands for that gets under the skin of many. Maybe it's because we think of the royals as though they were our own family, because we see them so often on television like they were a reality show. And there is comfort in the fact that they look like us. Or maybe, we are not ready to let go of the last vestiges of our colonial history as evidence by the failed 1999 republican referendum.
But don't blame Grant for stating the obvious. His mistake is that unlike many, he is widely read and articulate so he is able to prosecute his arguments better than most. Many who wrote in after the coronation coverage said good riddance, that they hated his pontification. However, as Grant himself said in his parting post last week, he is not beyond criticism. Yet the truth is there are many presenters on the ABC and elsewhere that are no less pompous or disrespect guests through their constant interjections, but who do not attract the same criticism. So by all means criticise Grant for his journalism, but not his race and everything it represents.
Grant's other challenge is that he is one of only a few with a public voice. Almost all Australian institutions are unrepresentative of our multicultural country. The Australian Human Rights Commission found that about 95 per cent of senior leaders in Australia have an Anglo-Celtic or European background. Although those who have non-European and Indigenous backgrounds make up an estimated 24 per cent of the Australian population, they account for only 5 per cent of senior leaders. There is little cultural diversity within the senior leadership of Australian government departments and Australian universities. There has not been a single First Nations or other coloured person appointed to the High Court in its 120-year history and only one or two to its superior courts.
Only when we increase cultural and ethnic diversity in our public institutions will we see comments like Grant's be more accepted. At least then we can have a healthy debate about the issue, rather than shoot the messenger. That is all Grant tried to do. In his post he consistently says that he is not filled with hate, he spoke the truth with love and he can't speak for those who hear only hate in what he said. Yet sadly, as Grant and others well know, what he said and his leaving will not make any difference until we are mature enough to have an honest discussion about race.
- Ray Steinwall is a Sri Lankan born Australian lawyer, author and academic. These are his personal views.