Stan Grant: 'Black Australia is a foreign place and I feel like a foreign correspondent in my own land'

Stan Grant

Award-winning journalist Stan Grant was careful never to be typecast as ‘the Aboriginal reporter’. But the booing of Adam Goodes made him rethink his whole career. Here he explains why he’s now joining Guardian Australia as its first Indigenous affairs editor


The man sitting across from me had been defined by war and conflict. It had cost him his home, he had lost family members, he had fled violence and upheaval. But he could never truly escape. War had come again, the sounds of jets and bombs and the cackle of gunfire provided the soundtrack to a life from which all certainty had been removed.

War had brought us together. I was sitting inside his home in a suburb of Baghdad with my CNN television crew. The US-led coalition had toppled the government of Saddam Hussein: the dictator’s statue brought down by jubilant locals welcoming the liberation of their country. It didn’t just symbolise the collapse of a brutal regime, the country, too, shattered into so many pieces.

Here was a man like many others caught up in events outside his control. These lives are not determined by their own actions so much as the forces of history. We talked about life and family; the little things like getting kids to school, shopping at the market, the things we take for granted like flicking a switch and turning on a light – these things he could no longer rely on.

Suddenly he rose and went into another room, returning with a bottle half filled with soil. This is my true home, he said. He wasn’t from here; Iraq was meant to be a haven, an exile from what he called the Nakba or catastrophe.

Home, he told me, was Jenin, a Palestinian city in the West Bank; captured by Israeli forces in the six-day war in 1967. His family had fled but he always dreamed of return and carried with him that reminder of what he had lost.

We were alike in so many ways, this man and me. What he carried in a bottle, I carried in my heart. I had spent years away from my home; my own personal exile. I had gone out into the world to cover the great stories of our time, reporting for one of the world’s largest news organisations.

My journey had taken me to more than 50 countries; I had lived in London, Hong Kong, Beijing, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I had spent so much time abroad that cities such as Islamabad, Amman and Jerusalem had the familiarity of home. I knew where to get a haircut or the best, hidden lunch spot in each of them; I knew where to buy a guitar in Kabul.

But home – true home – was far away. It was in western New South Wales, in the plains beyond the Blue Mountains. I had been raised in a series of small towns, travelling with my parents as they sought work.

I had spent years away from my home; my own personal exile

This was the life of an itinerant Aboriginal family. We often lived on the margins: the fringes of town, bound in poverty under the weight of our country’s history.

Through good luck, good timing, a special family and my own persistence I had found a way out. Journalism had opened doors I could never have imagined, first in Australia reporting politics and current affairs, then overseas.

Each step broadened my horizons, deepening my knowledge and understanding of the world. It also brought into sharper focus my own life and the plight of my people. My country had never appeared so clear to me as when I viewed it from afar.

I was drawn to those who also lived in the cracks shaped by the great ruptures in our world. Like me, these people – from China to Korea to Pakistan or Israel and Palestine – had known persecution, injustice and suffering. They had seen their land seized, their cultures obliterated and their languages silenced.

I have said many times how living away from Australia liberated me. I often thought I had no wish to return.

But the pull of home is strong. Each time I would return for a holiday I would melt at this country’s beauty. I bathed in its golden evening light and filled my senses with the sounds and smells I had never found anywhere else.

Each time I left I felt the separation more deeply.

To come home would ultimately demand a reckoning, not just with my past, our country’s history; but how I had changed. I could never again report on the mundane or the trivial – the staple Australian television news diet of suburban crime, court cases, opinion polls or shonky businessmen – as I once had. Any frivolity I may have had was blunted in the suffering of overcrowded refugee camps or terrorist bombings.

I returned to Australia three years ago but have felt adrift, looking for that sense of purpose and meaning I had found overseas. I have continued to report and debate the big shifts in our world as international editor of Sky News but it has often felt laboured. Australia is just too far away to feel connected; the discussion feels remote and academic.

This isn’t to deny the importance of the issues – how the troubles of the world can reach us, no matter how far away – or Australia’s place in the world. But I had spent years in the dirt, living and breathing these stories, and now I felt cut off.

It has been the pattern of my career that I have found stories less often than the stories have found me. Now I have felt called by the story most close to me, most personal.

It is a story I have sought to distance myself from; not because I didn’t care but because I cared too much; it is too revealing, too painful and disheartening.

I have never wanted to be defined as the “Aboriginal reporter”. I have always wanted to be judged good or bad alongside my colleagues as a journalist in my own right, covering the same stories as the reporter alongside me. I have fought against being typecast or marginalised; I wanted the right to explore the whole world.

But in 2015 my career turned in ways I could not have anticipated. This is the year the festering sores of Australian racism were torn open. Adam Goodes, a Sydney Swans AFL footballer, retreated from the field amid a chorus of boos that echoed from one ground to the next, week after week.

Goodes had been Australian of the Year, now he felt rejected by Australia.

There have been many thousands of words written and spoken about what this all means. To some it was the ugly face of the Australian character, a hangover from a past when Indigenous people were seen as barely human.

Others argued that this was nothing but sporting passion; the right of spectators to cheer or jeer whomever they wished. Goodes, they said, needed to toughen up.

What it told me was how far we apart we still are in this nation. It is still true that most Australians have never met an Indigenous person; many would not even know if they had. We remain at a distance: a people remote, unseen and unknowable, trapped in the legacy of two centuries of colonisation.

Few Australians could have known how we – Indigenous people – felt when we heard the booing of Goodes. They could not have known what wounds that reopened; what painful memories it revived.

We speak of reconciliation, recognition, ending disadvantage but platitudes are easy: our record is failure

I had been back in Australia for a while by then but this felt like my true homecoming. This was a reminder of the country I had grown up in, a country that made us feel apart; a country in which the black kids I went to school with all sat apart in our own section of the playground. It was a country I had thought – had hoped – we had moved beyond.

In July I wrote an article for Guardian Australia that sought to tell our story; not to look into the minds and hearts of those who were booing Goodes, but to tell readers how we felt; what we heard in those boos. I wrote how we felt estranged in our land and how that humiliation of Goodes roared like a howl across our history of dispossession, injustice and suffering.

I didn’t anticipate a great response; I wanted to write as much for myself as anyone else. I was wrong – I had underestimated people in this country. The reaction to my article was overwhelming. It was shared from the Guardian site 100,000 times in that first day. It lit a fire on social media: Twitter and Facebook.

Australians wanted to know. They didn’t necessarily understand what was happening but they didn’t like what it said about them. Many people said they simply did not know what had happened to my people and how we felt.

I was invited on to television and radio programs and the response grew. It was profound, it was moving and it was humbling. I don’t pretend to be a leader of my people and I certainly don’t have the answers. But I am a storyteller and now I had found my story.

This is the story of a people – my people – who have lived in this land for more than 50,000 years. Like many throughout the world we have borne the impact of the march of history, the quest of new lands, spread of technology and the devastation of war. We have lost our lands, our languages – indeed, for some, our very identity. Children have been stolen from families; people were massacred and brutalised and herded on to missions; we have had to fight for citizenship and recognition. All of this happened: it is undeniable.

We die 10 years younger than other Australians. We are 3% of the national population yet a quarter of those locked up in prisons. I have never met an Indigenous extended family that has not had someone jailed. An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child is 24 times more likely to go into detention than a non-Indigenous child.

The rate of Indigenous incarceration has been called an epidemic, a state of emergency, a catastrophe and a national shame. Two decades ago a royal commission into black deaths in custody recommended the rate of imprisonment be reduced – it has only got worse. Between 2000 and 2010 the number of Indigenous people behind bars grew by more than 50%. At the same time the number of those dying in custody has also increased.

I don’t pretend to be a leader of my people, I don’t have the answers, but I am a storyteller and I had found my story

Indigenous families are in an almost constant state of grief, mourning and loss. Depression rates are nearly three times higher than the general population and Indigenous people are twice as likely to take their own lives.

We are more likely to go blind and deaf. Indeed, the rates of hearing loss among Indigenous populations are the highest in the world.

By every measurable socioeconomic indicator – unemployment, education, health, housing – we are the most impoverished and disadvantaged of all Australians. This does not happen by accident.

Yes, billions of dollars are spent on Indigenous programs each year. But only a fraction of that reaches people on the ground. The money is tied up in red tape and layers of bureaucracy.

The outcomes are atrocious. The latest closing the gap report is a litany of dashed hope. The Productivity Commission says the government will not meet its key targets. The report covers life expectancy, child mortality, education and employment. In almost areas there is little progress, in some cases it is getting worse.

This is the legacy of Tony Abbott, the self-declared prime minister for Indigenous people. But, he is not alone. This failure belongs to successive governments, Liberal and Labor.

We have yet to hear anything substantial from Malcolm Turnbull. The prime minister still hasn’t even met the only elected Indigenous body, the National Aboriginal Congress.

Noel Pearson, the Cape York Indigenous leader who has had the ear of prime ministers, is now sounding increasingly despondent and disillusioned. His report, Empowered Communities: Empowered People, a manifesto for breaking cycles, is still awaiting a response from the government nine months after it was delivered.

In Australia 2015 we are still investigating deaths in custody. The case of the Western Australian woman Ms Dhu has raised allegations of callous neglect by police, the 22-year-old left writhing in pain while precious minutes ticked by without medical treatment.

Despite demonstrable public support and apparent bipartisan political commitment we are still nowhere when it comes to recognising Indigenous people in the constitution. The life of this parliament will likely pass without even an agreed question to put to a referendum.

Indigenous people open parliament with a welcome to country and then largely disappear. It has taken more than 100 years of federation for the first Indigenous MP – Ken Wyatt – to be appointed to the frontbench of either major party.

We speak of reconciliation, recognition, ending disadvantage but platitudes are easy: our record is failure. We all own it and we are all diminished by it.

Black Australia is a foreign place and I feel like a foreign correspondent in my own land.

Australians – the first Australians – dying young, going blind and deaf and locked up in prisons, dying in custody, is not a first-order priority. Superannuation, taxation reform, national security, climate change, the scourge of ice addiction, abolishing knights and dames have all rated higher on Turnbull’s agenda. I don’t question the importance of these issues (national honours aside) but we know where we stand.

I do see change but it is far from the corridors of power. I see it each weekday morning at 6am in Redfern, Sydney. Here boys and girls gather in the dawn light to go through their paces in a rigorous boxing routine. It is part of a program called Clean Slate Without Prejudice. It is the brainchild of local Indigenous leaders and the police. One of the program’s founders, Shane Phillips, credits Clean Slate with cutting local crime by as much as 80% since it began in 2009.

Each morning I arrive to train and watch these kids pushing themselves; testing their limits. They are all given breakfast and then change into their school uniforms – ties, blazers – to catch the bus to school. It is a grassroots program and it is making a difference. Sadly, progress like this is a light in the darkness.

This is the story of my country; this is the story I am now drawn to tell. Black Australia is a foreign place and I feel like a foreign correspondent in my own land.

This is the story I will now be telling for the Guardian as its Indigenous affairs editor. It is you – the readers – who have inspired me. It is you who told me you were ready for this as we grappled with the fallout from the Adam Goodes saga.

I don’t expect you will agree with everything I write – I’d be disappointed if you did. I don’t agree with everything some of my people say. There are those who would prefer we pursue a separate path, I believe we – all Australian people – share a common destiny. That faith though is sorely tested in a country where words like sovereignty and treaty are still not seriously in the agenda.

I will also now be working for National Indigenous Television, presenting programs and collaborating with the talented young team breaking down the barriers of a still overwhelmingly white media industry.

In early 2016 HarperCollins will publish my book Talking to My Country – a direct and personal meditation on race, identity and my journey through our country’s history. This is the journey I wish to share with you.

I have wondered what happened to that man I met in Baghdad. I hope he has survived that country’s war – I suspect I will never know. I hope he still carries that jar of dirt from his home and the dream of returning.

I have come home and I have found a story that was waiting here for me all along.

• Last week Stan Grant won a Walkley award for his columns on Indigenous affairs for the Guardian.