Almanac Books: Empathy, Race and Australia Day – thoughts based on A Rightful Place, edited by Shireen Morris, & Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge.  

In the lead-up to January 26, I read two books.




A Rightful Place: A Roadmap To Recognition is a collection of essays about Indigenous recognition in the Australian Constitution. Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is an award-winning book about race relations from black British journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge.


When I finished both, my brain was a mess. Racism. Australia. Mabo (but not the vibe). The Constitution. Section this. Section that. Truganini. Cook. Structure. Privilege. We. Us. Them. Empathy. Australia Day. Invasion Day?


On the evening of January 26th, I drove through the centre of Melbourne and past Parliament House. A sign left over from the day’s protests remained perched on top of a statue.


Change the




The sign is probably the more concise summary of where my mind landed once it had been successfully unscrambled. This is the longer version.


I’ll start with a brief summary of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book. First and foremost, it does the opposite of what the title suggests. It’s a book about race for anyone who can be bothered to read about race. It’s based on British racism, but I read it through an Australian lens.


It’s uncomfortable and confronting. I’d describe the experience of watching Rabbit Proof Fence in Grade Four along the same lines. At first, I thought it was an uncomfortable film because the content was too heavy for young students, but confronting racist histories, structures and policies doesn’t get any easier in adulthood.


Eddo-Lodge’s argument discusses all of those things, but never moves too quickly. She starts with history and the very roots of racism – slavery, “something Terrible that happened A Very Long Time Ago”; colonialism; and science, which labelled colour as a handicap.


A strength of the book is the fact it’s incredibly easy to follow. Each point is a logical progression from the next. There’s no jumping.


Another strength is the universality of the themes. I found it compelling because it explained a part of my own country to me. It explained things that happened long ago, things that happened this decade, and things that are happening right now. It made me question myself, too.


One of the most confronting quotes in the book is from Martin Luther King. It’s not a well-known MLK quote. In Liberation Magazine in June 1963, King expressed his disappointment in the “white moderate…who prefers negative peace which is the absence of tension to positive peace which is the presence of justice”.


I wonder, in the context of Australia Day, how many conversations I’ve shirked to maintain negative peace?


Does Australia thrive off negative peace? Do we shut arguments down and rubbish protestors and continue on our merry way simply because we don’t want to be uncomfortable with our national history?


Most Australians don’t feel racism’s sting on a daily basis. There’s no urgent, life-defining need for change for them. There’s no need to confront racism, no need to have a conversation and no need to change our national day. ‘Stop being so sensitive!’


“Tackling racism moves from conversations about justice to conversations about sensitivity. Those who are repeatedly struck by racism’s tendency to hinder their life chances are told to toughen up and grow a thicker skin.”


Eddo-Lodge isn’t talking about the Adam Goodes saga in the above quote, but it applies nonetheless. A thirteen-year old girl calls you an ape over the fence. You call it out. You’re publicly booed for weeks on end as a result.


Turning the tables on those who call out racism is a universal phenomenon. Make the Adam Goodeses of the world the problem. Shut the conversation down, lest we feel uncomfortable. ‘It’s Adam’s fault. He’s dividing us.’


In Talking To My Country, Stan Grant writes that his people “have been defined and redefined sixty-seven times: sixty-seven versions of us”. Later, he writes of lives “measured in grim statistics” that can define his people: “disease, unemployment, death”. Statistics have long defined the “us” to which Grant belongs. The statistics aren’t changing. The system isn’t changing.


Richie Benaud used to muse that there were no cricket teams called “us” and “them”. Away from our cricket fields, “us” and “them” have always existed – in government policies and in statistics, and as Grant writes, in the box Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have to tick each time they fill out a form.


Adam Goodes didn’t draw up the forms. Adam Goodes didn’t create the distinction.


January 26 in 2018 showed that some Australians are prepared to confront the uncomfortable truth of our country’s narrative. Others might tell you they want real change, not just a date change, an argument that acknowledges the very system they might also deny the existence of.


If we’re going to change that system, the second book to discuss here, A Rightful Place, offers us a starting point. It includes the voices of Noel Pearson, Megan Davis, Jackie Huggins, Rod Little, Damien Freeman, Nolan Hunter, Warren Mundine and the aforementioned Grant. The main difference for them is that unlike Eddo-Lodge, they have to find a way of speaking to those who don’t want to listen.


Theirs is a book about the Uluru Statement, which outlines a plan for a constitutionally recognised body to have a say in Indigenous affairs. There are numerous suggestions for what such a change would look like. The sticking point, of course, is that referendum requires a double majority – a majority of voters and a majority of states.


Bipartisan support is paramount. Changing the Constitution means these writers have to strive for unity rather than utopia.


That’s not to say that Eddo-Lodge’s book is pointless and we shouldn’t strive for a world free from racism. It’s just that the degree of change she demands will take a lifetime, perhaps longer. A Rightful Place amounts to call for Australia to take the first step.


Giving Indigenous people a say in their own affairs via the Constitution would shift the power dynamics in this country. It would bring on the beginning of the end for Indigenous powerlessness. It would begin to chip away at the system.


Malcolm Turnbull recently turned his back on the idea. It’s hardly surprising. Without empathy, why would a leading white politician begin to dismantle a system that is working for him?


Without empathy, without white Australians taking time to understand and feel how Indigenous Australians experience the world, will we ever see change?


The argument against the Uluru Statement, from Turnbull at least, has centred around the idea that a constitutionally enshrined representative body for Indigenous Australians would be akin to establishing a third house of Parliament. Similar bodies have functioned overseas with success, a point I imagine Turnbull would rather not contend with.


In A Rightful Place, Shireen Morris’s essay deals with the other objections. One of them is the idea of a ‘secret separatist sovereignty agenda’ – a push for an Indigenous nation separate to Australia. There’s a parallel here with an entire chapter of Eddo-Lodge’s book, titled Fear of a Black Planet.


In 1968, British politician Enoch Powell uttered the following words: “In this country in fifteen or twenty years’ time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”


This idea is where Eddo-Lodge begins her discussion about fear of black power. Uncertainty about how a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice would function follows a less severe line of rhetoric, but at its core lies the same fundamental fear.


What will they do if we give them power? Create a new nation? Block all our legislation? What if they end up stifling us in the same way we’ve stifled them?


Pearson and his co-authors aren’t asking for a say in every Australian law, or for a country of their own. They aren’t asking for the whip. They just want a say in their own affairs.


A Rightful Place ends with an essay from Stan Grant which outlines his vision for Australia. He calls for a Makarrata Declaration – a Declaration of our Country. Makarrata is an Indigenous concept. It’s about resolving a conflict and then coming together in peace, accepting all that has gone before.


Everything Grant writes is powerful. His words derive their power from the way he mixes the pain of the past with his own optimism for the future. He doesn’t need to explicitly ask to be understood. He makes you feels what he feels. He makes you dream what he dreams.


“A nation is not just a set of laws. Above all, it is a story: a never-ending story of us. It is the story of a land steeped in time, awaiting people from many other lands, who in time will call themselves Australians.”


This is the “us” we should all crave. There is no “them” in this vision of Australia, which brings me back to the matter of our national day. If we can find it in ourselves to realise why a change of date is significant, what will matter most won’t be the fact we have a different national day. The empathy and depth of understanding it would take for the date to change would matter far more.


That empathy and understanding would lead Australia elsewhere. Elsewhere would include constitutional recognition, and a true and enduring representative voice for Indigenous people. Elsewhere might eventually be a world where Reni Eddo-Lodge, Stan Grant and so many others don’t have to fight against an unjust system.


Grant writes that “A Makarrata Declaration should be the song of our country”. It would be a song filled with empathy and mutual understanding, with characters who want to listen to the songs of the people around them.


A new national day would amount to little more than the opening beat.


A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.




Here is the list of my 2018 reading thus far, with some future picks…


1. A Clear Blue Sky by Jonny Bairstow & Duncan Hamilton – (Finished/reviewed)

2. The Cricket War: The Story of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket by Gideon Haigh (Finished)

3. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge (Finished/reviewed)

4. A Rightful Place: A Roadmap to Recognition by Various authors (Finished/reviewed)

5. The Coach: A Season with Ron Barassi by John Powers (Nearly done)

6. The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms by Rebecca Solnit (Ongoing)

7. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

8. The Short Long Book by Martin Flanagan


9 – 52 TBC


About Jack Banister

Journalism student @ Melbourne Uni, Brunswick Hockey Club Men's Coach, tortured Tigers fan.


  1. Kasey Symons says

    Great reviews Jack and you’ve raised some really interesting questions. I found myself thinking about how many times I too participate in ‘negative peace’ to prevent awkwardness or difficult conversations but if anything, conversation is exactly what these issues need so we can really start to understand their impact. Your reviews are also doing serious damage to my ‘to be read’ pile – it’s getting bigger and bigger!

  2. Thanks Jack, a most insightful critical analysis of an issue that must be addressed and resolved. Have you read John Birmingham’s essay re 26 Jan? Check it out.


  3. Thanks KS. I need to join a library ASAP. Book buying is hurting my hip pocket!

    Thanks Rick/JTH – I’ve just read the essay. I have wondered at much of what J.Birmingham confirms. I’m glad he wrote that piece. Needed.

  4. Yvette Wroby says

    Thank you for another great read. I am loving you rising to the challenge, and the education and thoughtfulness that is being shared with me and others. So great.

  5. John Butler says

    Excellent and timely choices here.

    It occurred to me as an adult that my schooling taught me much more meaningfully about the French Revolution than it ever did about the history of my own country. I expect that is a common tale.

    WEH Stanner spoke 50 years ago of a ‘cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale’ regarding indigenous history. One consequence of that forgetfulness, or silence, is an ongoing public debate that exhibits rather more heat than light much of the time. But some progress was made in the past on these matters. It can be made again.

    On this topic, I recommended Warwick Thornton’s current film Sweet Country.

    Keep up the good work, Jack.

  6. Jeff Smith says

    Good read Jack

  7. Thanks Yvette/Jeff!

    JB – yep. We got some work on Indigenous affairs etc, but not nearly enough. I think the frustration is every step forward is marred by such long periods stagnant. But I’m hopeful that it will end eventually and the Uluru Statement will come to fruition.

    I’ll list Sweet Country as one to watch on the film list!

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