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  • Writer's pictureAlix Lee

The whitewashing of this company’s Mahjong sets is akin to our (mis)treatment of ‘Australia Day’

Trigger warning: the following article contains details of cultural appropriation, Australia's racist history and the names and details of Indigenous people who have died.


Did you know that Mahjong, the Chinese tile-based game, has an even richer American history?

At least, three white women from Dallas, Texas think so.

Kate LaGere, Annie O’Grady and Bianca Watson enjoyed playing ‘American’ Mahjong so much that they created a company specifically to redesign the game tiles to reflect players’ ‘style and personality’ – just without the traditional Chinese characters. (The cheapest sets, however, do include both Chinese and English numbers.)

The company, The Mahjong Line, called it a ‘respectful refresh’ but their many critics respectfully disagreed.

Once The Mahjong Line's website and social media accounts were discovered, the women were swiftly called out for whitewashing the centuries-old Chinese game.

(While there is debate over the historical origin of the game, with most accounts suggesting it was invented in China in the 16th Century during the Qing Dynasty, it is widely accepted that the modern version of Mahjong was popularised and played throughout China by the mid-1800s.)

Their tone-deaf approach to design and exorbitant retail price, starting at $325 USD, completely missed the cultural significance of Mahjong – the way it brings people together, connects them to Chinese heritage and culture, and celebrates provenance through the tile design.

The Mahjong Line
The Mahjong Line's Mahjong sets retail for hundreds of US dollars

But it would be remiss to blindly criticise The Mahjong Line for their attempted cultural erasure when our country’s history – and national holiday – is built on the attempted erasure of Australia's Indigenous people, one of the world’s oldest continuing civilisations.

Celebrating Australia’s day of colonisation amid ongoing land dispossession, loss of language, disproportionately high incarceration rates and preventable deaths in custody of Indigenous Australians, is inexplicable. It’s our most brazen attempt to whitewash this nation’s Indigenous history.

Australia Day is a blip in history compared to at least 60,000 years of continuous Indigenous culture.

Only since 1994 has January 26 been officially designated a national public holiday, although states and territories have been reserving the Monday closest to the date as a public holiday since 1946.

Since 1938, Indigenous Australians have been protesting Australia Day with the Day of Mourning.

Celebrating Australia’s day of colonisation amid ongoing land dispossession, loss of language, disproportionately high incarceration rates and preventable deaths in custody of Indigenous Australians, is inexplicable.

It’s our most brazen attempt to whitewash this nation’s Indigenous history.

What started off as white settlement in 1788 quickly became Indigenous genocide, and the physical and cultural bloodshed has not stopped.

The University of Newcastle’s Centre for 21st Century Humanities documents that colonisers’ genocidal campaign against Indigenous Australians – known as the 'killing times' – occurred between 1788 to 1930.

Their research tallies victims where evidence shows six or more Indigenous people were killed in a massacre.

At least 8,400 Indigenous Australians were murdered during this era, however, statistics rely on evidence and, as such, the Indigenous death toll is undoubtedly underreported.

Colonisers and settlers went to great lengths to conceal evidence of massacres, including incineration and incinerating and then burying remains. According to the University of Newcastle’s findings, ‘in some cases in the 1920s in the Kimberley, burnt animal bones were buried above burnt human remains to further conceal the evidence’.

From the 1800s to the 1950s, Indigenous Australians also endured slavery. Though our own Prime Minister might deny its history down under, he is patently incorrect: slavery in Australia was real, and it occurred well after it was outlawed by the British empire.

North Queensland’s sugar industry was built off the back of the indentured labour of South Sea Islanders; Indigenous Australians were the ‘lifeblood’ of Western Australia’s pearling industry, and in the agricultural sector, Indigenous people were treated like ‘chattel’.

Genocide and slavery undoubtedly paved the way for the Stolen Generations, arguably Australia’s most grievous crime against First Nations communities in which children with both white and Indigenous parents were forcibly removed and assimilated into white society.

From 1910 to as recently as 1970, Aboriginal and Torres Strait children were stolen from their communities, denied their birth names and forced to bury their language and culture.

Upon colonisation, Australia was one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world: around 250 Indigenous languages were spoken.

Today, approximately 100 of those languages are ‘asleep’, critically endangered or even without living speakers. Worse still, only 13 traditional Indigenous languages are actively being spoken and learned by children.

As Laura Rademaker writes for The Conversation, it’s not just that these languages have fewer speakers: ‘they were actively silenced by governments, schools and missions’.

Rademaker cites linguist Arthur Capell, who in 1964 observed that ‘Government policy looks forward to the loss of Aboriginal languages so that the Aborigines may be “assimilated”’.

Indigenous Australians have also been denied their connection to Country, forced to witness the ongoing desecration of sacred site after sacred site.

For years, there were people walking on Uluru; Rio Tinto blew up 46,000 year-old Juukan Gorge caves, and now, the Victorian government is in the process of felling sacred birthing and directions trees on Djab Wurrung country for a highway upgrade.

In an article for The Monthly, author Sophie Cunningham explains how the cultural significance of the trees cannot be compensated for by simply replanting new ones:

“It remains common practice to offset vegetation lost by planting new vegetation. Let’s consider the Birthing Tree in that context. It is an old-growth river red gum that is up to 800 years old. It has a girth of more than seven metres and stands more than 30 metres tall. It has been culturally modified, with fire, creating a small room in the base of the trunk. Thousands of Djab Wurrung babies have been born, over multiple generations, within it. The placentas of those babies have been buried under the Directions Trees around it.

How do you offset that?”

That’s just it.

Sacred land is irreplaceable and its loss cannot be overstated.

For tens of thousands of years, Indigenous people have gathered on Country, celebrating culture and tradition, sharing history, and now that land has been stolen for iron ore, highway upgrades and sightseeing tours.

And, while Indigenous land has been stolen, so too have the lives of hundreds who are victims of a racist justice system.

There have been more than 450 Indigenous deaths in custody since The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths began counting in 1991.

The statistics laid bare in Aboriginal Deaths in Custody reports and Deaths Inside by The Guardian are certainly damning, but it only details the horrific outcome of a justice system that unfairly targets and criminalises Indigenous people.

Our Indigenous population comprises 3.3 percent of the national population, but represent over 28 percent of our national prisoner population.

Similarly to the largely non-violent (and overwhelmingly ineffective) police response to unlawful mobsters attempting an insurrection on the US Capitol earlier this month, non-Indigenous Australians are less likely to be targeted by our justice system.

Studies collated by The Guardian here show that Indigenous Australians are far more likely to be convicted and/or jailed for petty or minor crimes where non-Indigenous Australians are not, including for minor drug possession and unpaid fines.

Their overrepresentation in prison correlates to a higher proportion of Indigenous deaths.

The unjustifiably high number of Indigenous deaths in custody, however, is also due to systemic racism, resulting in the improper or negligent treatment of Indigenous prisoners.

Many Indigenous deaths in custody have been ruled largely preventable, and their treatment inside in several instances has been described as completely ‘inhumane’.

It was her arrest for unpaid fines that led to Miss Dhu’s death in 2014 at South Headland in Western Australia.

An article analysing her treatment while incarcerated details the deeply troubling circumstances in which she was arrested:

“Already ill with pneumonia and septicaemia caused by a broken rib inflicted by her partner two months earlier, she was arrested for unpaid fines and kept in custody to ‘work off’ the fine’”.

It is sickening to read the details of the lack of care (and, in fact, seeming contempt and utter disregard) Miss Dhu received at the hands of officers and staff who had a legal duty of care towards her.

While the coroner investigating her death found that the officers involved had negated their professional mandate to look after Miss Dhu and the medical staff did not treat her in accordance with due process, they offered no criminal prosecutions.

Malpractice was also the primary factor in David Dungay Jr’s death.

The 26-year-old Dunghutti man, a known diabetic, was ‘held face down and injected with a sedative’ after ‘guards rushed his cell to stop him eating biscuits’.

Dungay told officers he couldn’t breathe 12 times before the sedative was injected, after which he lost consciousness and died.

An inquest into Dungay’s death discovered that medical staff ‘failed for periods of up to eight minutes’ to perform even basic CPR.

The inquest also found a lack of adequate training – including the potentially fatal outcome of ‘positional asphyxia’ – ultimately led to Dungay’s death, and staff were still yet to receive that training nearly three years after his death.

I cannot imagine confronting the loss of a loved one who dies a senseless death in a jail cell or police custody because of systemic racism.

The reality is, I likely never will.

These are the reasons I cannot celebrate a day that marks the start of the subjugation of Australia’s first people, the proud and resilient Custodians of our country.


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