On 30 September, The Australian ran a cover story titled ‘One island, eight grand finals and the Rioli legend’. It focused on Richmond Tigers player Daniel Rioli and his family of famous football-playing uncles and cousins who come from Pirlangimpi on Melville Island. Written by Chip Le Grand, it singled out one young player and made him highly visible on the game’s most important day of the year. It was The Australian’s most prominent football article all weekend. When read alongside other coverage, it may have seemed innocuous, even celebratory.
The same day the article was published, I went to the opening of a new exhibition called ‘Earth Matters’ at FORM gallery in Perth. It presented a series of works featuring white ochre from regions relatively close to the Riolis (Kimberley and Arnhem Land). I was there with my mother, who is brown, and an overwhelming number of (white) people stopped to ask if she was one of the artists. One woman came up, pointed her finger and said:
‘Where are you from?’
‘Wembley [a suburb in Perth]’, my mother replied.
‘No, before that.’
‘I grew up in Singapore.’
‘No, before that.’
‘My family is from Kerala in India.’
‘Ah, that’s it. Gorgeous.’
After this exchange, the woman promptly left, having gathered whatever information she was looking for. It was micro-aggressive at the very least, and a symptom of broader race politics in Australia. This exchange is eerily familiar to people of colour, and it shared with Le Grand’s article a kind of gaze that makes someone hypervisible.
Hypervisibility is a way of treating diverse people that is the opposite of another form of treatment commonly remarked upon – silencing. Collective silencing is, of course, the treatment that is most often noted by people of colour in Australia, Indigenous and not. It’s said over and over: ‘our stories need to be heard’; ‘we need to hear from the silenced’; ‘this is about finding our voices’. Silence has become the metaphor through which we come to know that someone is marginalised.
In many ways, this argument fails to acknowledge our collective forebears. Where would we be if our ancestors had not spoken up and back to their conditions? What tradition are we already part of, if not one that has already spoken back to Empire? What are we to make of the success of Sally Morgan, Rabbit Proof Fence, Anh Do, Waleed Aly? This is not to say that we have come far enough, but that we are already speaking. Of course, silence as a rhetorical trope has a long history in Australia. This is seen most explicitly in W. E. H. Stanner’s The Great Australian Silence from 1968, which argued that Australia could not hear (or see) the Aboriginal history in its midst.
This way of understanding race still holds, and so it should. But, as Le Grand’s article last weekend makes clear, it is not the only way that structuring devices of power operate and marginalise. Hypervisibility is the opposite of silencing, but it still boxes people in, still provides an iron cage of history. This is not normal, and normal wasn’t that great either. Hypervisibility is there in the designated diversity panel at festivals; in the over-compensatory validation of individual authors whose success would reflect back to us how tolerant we truly are; in the singling out of people for the simple reason they are different even if they are exceptional. This may be a type of happy othering, but it is othering nonetheless.
So, what would a more equitable culture look like? It would be one where the full spectrum of engagement was available to all people – where people could be experts on subjects other than their own experience, where the stats told the story, where it was not either silence or hypervisibility. This does not, of course, mean the end of affirmative action, but the end of the tokenised figure. We might hope that Rioli has the chance to become the first CEO of an AFL club or that my mother is not interpolated as being from anywhere other than here. The path to chart is not a middle ground but a changed set of circumstances that would mean we could choose when and how to see and be seen, rather than having our tongues cut out or our bodies lit up all at once.