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How much is an Aboriginal youth's life worth?

Sandra Norsen |  07 August 2017


In the wake of the Elijah Doughty verdict I find myself considering the implications for my own family and loved ones. I have followed for some time the extraordinary number of American citizens recklessly killed by police (over 700 so far this year and counting) and I am distraught at the disproportionate number of black people, including minors as young as 14 and 15, represented in these statistics. The prejudice and self-righteous bigotry behind these deaths in unconscionable. But until the Elijah Doughty case, I had not considered that this horrific, racially motivated violence does occur so much closer to home.

Survival Day protesters 2012I have four sons, one of whom identifies strongly with his Tasmanian Aboriginal heritage and claims this as a significant part of who he is and where he fits in the world. His partner is Indigenous as well. These people are my family. Are their lives in danger? Do I need to worry? In the past, my son has encountered unprovoked conflict instigated by authorities whilst using public transport, and also from random strangers whilst walking down the street. He is an individual and does not conform to society’s expectations of dress or appearance.

On top of this, by claiming his Indigenous heritage it seems to me that society has placed him further in the path of danger; a personal decision to claim his identity will, in all likelihood, make him a target for vilification, abuse and increased aggression – something thousands of Indigenous Australians experience on a daily basis. This troubles me deeply. We live in a society where this should not be his, or anyone’s, reality.

Australians claim an identity as a nation built from the principle of a fair go for all, regardless of background or the colour of a person’s skin. Yet I hear and read an ongoing litany of complaints about our Aboriginal communities and individuals; attitudes which reveal no understanding of why people present themselves or conduct their lives in the ways they do.

I hear and read rubbish about so-called privileges afforded Aboriginal people in this country, when clearly the opposite is the norm and it is the white whingers who hold the actual position of privilege.

Rule of Law is supposed to be the great equalizer, one of the irrefutable tenets of human rights. Australia claims to be an egalitarian nation. How can we make that claim in the face of plain and clear evidence to the contrary?

Elijah’s death was tragic and should never have happened. Elijah deserved justice, and our broken legal system failed to deliver. His community understandably feels let down, and the ripple effect spreads out across the country, raising serious questions that demand our attention.

How much is an Aboriginal youth’s life worth compared to that of my ‘white’ sons? Is my Indigenous son somehow worth less than his brothers? If he was murdered, would that invite the assumption that he must have contributed in some way to his own death, and thereby diminish my right to demand justice?

"When Aboriginal people took their protest to the streets in late July, crying out in frustration and pain, were they heard?"

With so many groups in our society facing disadvantage and discrimination, it is more important than ever to insist on the application of substantive equality. So when Aboriginal people took their protest to the streets in late July, crying out in frustration and pain, were they heard?

They used ceremony to show us who they are, and the respect they afford their people and their sacred space. They told us about the betrayal they feel. They reminded us that this is their land.

When people feel invisible, sometimes it is necessary to stand in the way of the masses, to shout and scream and disrupt the flow of daily life to make themselves seen.

Our challenge as a society is to take the criticism on board and support them in their drive for change. For Elijah’s sake, and for everyone who deserves a fair go, we need to do better.


Celeste LiddleSandra Norsen has been a secondary school teacher for the past fifteen years. She lives in the Goldfields district of Victoria and is married with four children. She has a long-standing interest in social justice, particularly in how this intersects with the issues her family is dealing with directly, such as disability, mental illness and Indigenous identity.


Sandra Norsen


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Submitted comments

Excellent article Sandra. Well argued. Thank you.

Monica Phelan 08 August 2017

Thank you Sandra for your truthful article. Let us, as Australians, stand up for what is fair and just. I hope your article gets wide circulation especially to the people who can make a difference. Well done.

Kate McKinley 08 August 2017

Thank you Sandra. Elijah Doughty's death is a terrible tragedy. We can be so caught up in economics and property that we forget to seriously honour human life and ancient cultural richness and spirituality.

Kerry Holland 08 August 2017

More than a gay marriage

maria fatarella 08 August 2017

Yes, Sandra. Here is what being a christian means: You must love your neighbour as yourself. Love your enemy. Love the refugee in your midst for you were asylum seekers in Egypt. "Love one another as I have loved you." Act compassionately and justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God. These judeo-christian ethics overwhelmingly overshadow dogmas.

Kevin G Smith 08 August 2017

Thank you Sandra for your clearly written and challenging article ... Peace & All Good, Michael Campbell

Michael Campbell 08 August 2017

thank you Sandra for your perceptive insight into the truth about discrimination because of aboriginal heritage...... Hopefully a realistic agreement as to the equality of people of all origins and the acceptance of Aboriginals as the first inhabitants of this country will soon be part of our constitution.

roger baxendale 08 August 2017

I can understand the anger around the tragic death of Elijah, and sympathies with most of what you say in the article. But there is no evidence that the trial and sentencing to jail of the reckless and angry driver involved were inappropriate, or indeed that the justice system is "broken". Retributive lynch law will help no-one, least of all our Aboriginal citizens.

Eugene 08 August 2017

Dear Sandra, thank you for a lovely, accessible and touching article. You speak for all the relatives of those who are harmed: yours is a unique and especially important perspective. As Kate wrote, let's hope you are given wide coverage (ABC - howabout interviewing Sandra Norsen) so that as many people as possible hear your heart-felt anxieties. In 1994 we had to face the cruel and pointless death of an excellent young WakkaWakka musician. This caused a massive protest in Brisbane, reported in 'On Being' magazine 94 (2): 17-18 - "The Death of Daniel Yok: the Evils of the Past are Still With Us." There was a nasty reaction against the magazine and against the author, in part disclosing some raw genocidal racism. After years of thought and much research I've realized that a basic human sociobiological defect was selected during city living and empire building. Recognition of biological factors could be a step towards further research and successful treatment. There's more about this in a recent conference paper, free on line: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318447873_The_%27Anthropocene%27_Misnomer_and_an_Alternative_On_De-obfuscating_a_Discombobulating_Descriptor

Dr Marty Rice 08 August 2017

Dear Sandra, I do not think two sentences on the USA experience is fair to either the victims or the police. The Philandero Castille case last year in MN had the nation mourning. His girl friend, Diamond Reynolds live-streamed video as Philandro bled to death in the drivers seat. I watched the original video as well as the released police video to understand the jurors acquittal decision. My perception of this incident changed drastically after watching the police video. I was struck by the routine nature of the dialogue until the officer began to shout repeatedly , ordering Philandro NOT to take out his gun. The offending officer was Latino. He had no prior incident sheet. Diamond Reynolds was arrested in a separate incident some months later. She was charged with assault. It was alleged she had waited in ambush and struck another lady with a hammer. Diamond had a long sheet of prior arrests one of which included being a party to a man being tied up, duck taped and sodomised. I read and take interest in these incidents because of the diligence needed in fighting for the cause of social justice. Each shooting is a singular and complex event. Each case is rightly decided in the jurisdiction of the courts. If you have not watched the Philandro Castille videos, you should. Watch the face book post and the police video. They are both terribly distressing but they paint very opposite sides of an issue that continues to demand everyone's attention.

Patrick 09 August 2017

Dear Eugene, am sure you didn't mean to say "our" Aboriginal citizens. The scientific and historical facts would however support us non-Aborigines being known as "their newly arrived boat people". All the best from Marty

Dr Marty Rice 09 August 2017

Dear Patrick, from many years of closely observing incidents of violence against people of colour, one learns that: (a) as you said, the perpetrators are not inevitably racists; (b) as you don't seem to realise, police and other official tapes and testimonies are routinely technically-doctored. There are many cases such as that of Amadou Diallo, a very dark West African, stopped on the street and questioned by 4 white NYPD officers. To prove his identity he was getting out his papers, when they fired 41 shots into him. Patrick, you are research-minded and that's splendid; so, why not make friends with an Aboriginal person and walk in the city and go to social venues with them. You'd be shocked at some of what will be thrown at them and even at you for accompanying them. Is there a solution to inherent race hatred? Yes, it is to have more qualified Aboriginal people in all our work-places. Psychological data shows that getting to know and work with other races is a surefire way to eradicate inherent racial prejudice & misunderstanding. Believe me, Patrick, race hate is real but - praise God - there are real ways to overcome this.

Dr Marty Rice 09 August 2017

Where's the racially motivated violence here The driver seems to have received a heavy sentence for a momentary error of judgement. Why doesn't that bother you. That's the real injustice

Post 1789 Aussie 11 August 2017

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