In 2017, Nayuka Gorrie hosted an open forum after the preview screening of Raoul Peck's essential Academy Award-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro. This is their response to the film.
I have stopped and started this essay several times. The truth is, I don’t know how to write it. I don’t know what tone to use. It is tempting to be suggestive. It is tempting to be emotive. It is tempting to use big words. It is tempting to be strategic. If only I wrote the right words, then reader, you would know and believe what I wrote was true. Perhaps if I am polite enough and don’t use offensive language you will feel comfortable enough to believe me. Maybe if I tell you it is not you I am talking about, it is those other people over there, then you’ll dispose your guilt long enough to let me convince you. It is tempting to be gentle to you and softly corral you to my position like a loving shepherd. But I am no shepherd and I have no love left. There is no gentle way to tell you that I am weary. There is no gentle way to tell you that this country has an insidious and violent problem that isn’t going away. Australia’s past and present is soaked in white supremacy.
James Baldwin says that no other country in the world has been so fat and so sleek and so safe and so happy and so irresponsible. I reckon he probably hadn’t been to Australia. I have watched I Am Not Your Negro three times now. The first time was on a flight the week after the killer of Elijah Doughty, the 14-year-old Aboriginal boy from Kalgoorlie, was sentenced to dangerous driving. I was wedged between two white men and on my way to Perth. I got drunk because I was sad and ten minutes into the film I was already crying. I drunkenly scrawled quotes from the film in my notepad. I Am Not Your Negro is comprised of a dead man’s words written four decades ago but I was crying because it could have been written today and it could have been written here and I guess that's the purpose of the film.
The film itself did to me what I suppose it is intended to. It is evocative. It is emotional. I imagine many white people watch this film over here and tut tut because it is easy to condemn something from afar. It is much harder to condemn what is happening in your own backyard and harder still to dismantle it. But whether we like it or not, whether it is hard or easy, white supremacy is here and since invasion always has been. I imagine there is a positive feedback loop with white supremacy and colonisation. White superiority justifies colonisation and colonisation drives white supremacy and so on and so on until 2017. Terra Nullius was one of the principles that allowed the British to justify invasion after Captain James Cook’s (then Lieutenant) visit to the east coast. They saw the way we lived and measured us against their measuring stick. They didn’t recognise our ways of relating with each other and the land. Rather than chalking that up to their own inadequacies, their own inability to recognise the law of our land, they made their inadequacy our inadequacy and we have paid for it every day since.
By the third time I watched this film I couldn’t watch some parts anymore because they were traumatic. These were images of people hanging from trees and people getting bashed by cops. How can black trauma be so entertaining? Why does it take black trauma for you to believe us? Is it that you don’t believe us when we say it? Are we less trustworthy? Is it your instinct to defend white people and whiteness to such an extent that when we tell you what has happened, despite all evidence to the contrary, you think we must have got it wrong? We are offered excuses and start to question whether or not it is right to feel the way we do. We start to feel like we are just being sensitive.
It is tempting as a writer interested in race consciousness to share stories to illustrate the point, to convince you that what I am saying is real and that you should feel some type of way about it. I don’t want to write for you though. I am not entirely sure anymore that you (white folks) can be convinced. I don’t think any one writer or person for that matter can convince you; it takes a particular set of values and introspection to get it. I want to write for my people. I want, as James Baldwin says about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Junior, to corroborate your (black folks) reality.
I want to remind you that you are not imagining it. It is real. White supremacy affects our lives and not in a “just a bad day” kind of way but the kind that determines how you are treated on every level of society and real life outcomes. White supremacy is the difference between an arrest and a warning, not being able to get a house or not getting the right medical care.
It can be overt like the killing of Elijah Doughty or Ms Dhu. It is the recent experience of journalist Amy Mcquire in Kalgoorlie, one year on from Elijah's death, when a white cab driver told her that she would shoot the next Aboriginal kid who broke into her house. It is Pauline Hanson wearing a burqa into parliament to demonstrate how scary Muslims are. It is Peter Dutton attempting to legislate university English standards to be a citizen of this country. It is the prison camps in black and brown countries we imprison brown asylum seekers. It is Twiggy Forrest spouting paternalism because apparently we are such wretched souls we cant look after ourselves. It is the black people indoctrinated to do his work. It can also be subtle. In can be walking through your local Coles and looking at all the magazines which only feature white faces. It is going to school and only learning about white heroes from white people. It is seeing a push for a white man to be commemorated with a statue at the same time “vandalism” of white people who led massacres will be imprisoned for seven years. It is watching morning television shows – Sunrise, Today Show and whatever else they are called, and seeing only white faces. The same white people who get to decide if something is racist or not. It is listening to the radio and only hearing white people. It is popular youth radios interviewing neo-Nazis to get their perspective on things.
You do not have to seek out whiteness because it is everywhere you look. You have to seek out blackness and black people. Whiteness is thrust upon you to such an extent you don’t question it and begin to internalise it as well. It is the constant reinforcement that whiteness is normal and you are different. Beyond this, for the black person it is the constant overt and subtle reinforcement that you are inferior.
White people - I am not going to show you black people hanging from trees or cops bashing black people. That stuff already exists and if you find black pain that entertaining I suggest you need help for your racialised sadism. What I will say is: go watch the film. But don’t tut tut, because it is here too. Go do something about it. Give the land you “own” back to the traditional owners. Put us in your wills. Hold police to account when they murder black people. Call and email television stations and ask them why you’ve been watching television all day and it has taken until 3pm to see a person of colour. Ask Coles and Woolworths why on any given day out of the thirty magazines one of them has a person of colour on the cover. Build statues of black heroes and not just ones that make you feel comfortable.
I have been thinking about the age 15 lately. I read a letter James Baldwin wrote to his 15-year-old black nephew about the state of the world. 15 is an age that Eijah was robbed of. I am currently reading Between the World and Me (2015) by another brilliant writer Ta-Nehisi Coates which is composed as a letter to his then 15-year-old son. I have stumbled across a line that I think I will end on – the people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick.
This article was originally published in 2017.
Nayuka Gorrie is a Gunai/Kurnai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta person. Their writing spans online satire, television comedy and political commentary. They have contributed to ABC and SBS Comedy, are a contributor to NITV and Junkee, and their writing has appeared in Pedestrian TV, Vice and The Saturday Paper. They are passionate about self-determination and culture.