Joey Williams – The Pensive Pugilist

Joe Williams – The Pensive Pugilist

February 25, 2017

After spending a day in Wiradjuri Country with former NRL player turned professional boxer Joey Williams, we left feeling humbled by his journey to establish The Enemy Within; an ambassador charity with Suicide Prevention Australia that educates at-risk youths. For Williams, fighting for genuine national reconciliation is central to the success of his work with Indigenous Australians to bring about healing, solidarity and wellness for every citizen who has the privilege of calling Australia, home. For Williams, true reconciliation isn’t about ego; its about saving lives.

By Joanne Leila Smith

On Australia Day in 2016, Joey Williams, was honoured to receive the Wagga Wagga Citizen of the Year Award in NSW, for his works in mental health and suicide prevention through his foundation The Enemy Within. While Williams was thankful for the recognition, he made a conscientious decision to continue what he had done for years prior; to not stand for the National Anthem if he happened to be seated.

Public backlash was swift. Wagga Wagga Councillor Paul Funnell called the Daily Advertiser, arguing Williams’ decision to not stand was ‘disrespectful’ and called for Williams to return the award.

For Williams, it was a tragic irony; to stand would be disrespectful to his Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestors, whom for this same day, which Indigenous Aussies call Invasion Day, is a day of grief and solemn remembrance.

Independent Australia’s Indigenous affairs editor Natalie Cromb wrote in an impassioned argument on Australia Day 2017 outlining just why 26 January is a roadblock to reconciliation –

“Even after 229 years, Indigenous people are still dying in custody and being subjected to cruel punishments, including water being switched off, communities being closed and being forced into work programs that provide less than the minimum wage. And, moreover, we still have to justify why January 26 is so damn upsetting to us. Put simply, it is the day that life as it was known was destroyed…January 26 is the date where we are told, more than ever, to “get over it” and move on. Because Australia is a “great country” and we should be grateful that we are here…Having people celebrate on the date this land was invaded, after which Indigenous people were the subjects of forced and violent dispersals from their cultural lands. They were the victims of massacres and murders; rapes and retributory attacks to any resistance; there were genocidal policies based on pseudoscience of Indigenous inferiority…and there was (and arguably remains) the pervasive mindset that Indigenous people were sub-human. So to tell us to “get over it” is not going to cut it, especially because the prevailing circumstances of Indigenous people in Australia are worsening – not improving – and the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is widening because of a determined lack of empathy on the part of non-Indigenous people”.

To punctuate her point, Cromb cites a quote from the Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s orders during the Colony of News South Wales 1816 ‘War on Aboriginals’ – “All aborigines from Sydney onwards are to be made prisoners of war and if they resist they are to be shot and their bodies hung from trees in the most conspicuous places near where they fall, so as to strike terror in the hearts of the surviving natives”.

With this year’s mass rallies in the tens of thousands across the west and east coasts, collectively, a definitive conversation about identity for Indigenous Australians has finally shifted to both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.

Former Australian rugby player and world-champion WBA boxer Anthony Mundine also weighed in on the debate, with his decision to not stand for the National Anthem ahead of his recent bout with Danny Green in Adelaide, arguing that the anthem is ‘racist’ and ‘disrespectful’ to Indigenous Australians’. In an SBS interview in January 2017, Mundine said, “I don’t think it’s right…I don’t think it’s just for my people, I don’t think it’s just for myself, my ancestors, my grandmother, my grandfather. So I would not like to see it played”.

Perhaps it’s a conversation that’s been a long coming, but for Williams’s line of work, intellectual honesty, and emotional integrity are critical to wellbeing – even if having those conversations makes people uncomfortable.

“It was a strange paradox. I was given the award for helping people manage negative feelings, but publicly bullied for being truthful about my feelings. I was told that bringing issues to the surface creates a divide. Chock [Mundine] and I are very close. People say we are trying to divide the country, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. We are trying to unite us by having an honest conversation. I’m not bringing out racism. Racism brings out racism. When [Funnell] said I was doing a bad thing for reconciliation, my argument is reconciliation is a two way street. Why does it have to be on the white man’s terms? Reconciliation, for any human being, involves acknowledgement of hurt and empathy of the people who have been wronged, so healing can take place,” says Williams. “If it is confronting for people, and makes them feel uncomfortable, it should invite us to consider why – and the ‘why’ is a conversation that must take place”.

For Williams, and other prominent advocates for indigenous rights, argue that true reconciliation involves five major changes, including changing the Australia Day date, changing of the national anthem and flag, a treaty, and increased indigenous education with empathy.

Williams argues that politicians can play a major role in helping to change the tone around discussions concerning politics of identity, and finds terms such as ‘Australian’ and ‘Un-Australian’ unhelpful to the national dialogue in what is essentially, a very multi-cultural country.

Indeed, when the Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce waded into the debate on 2GB radio last month, his view was endemic of the kind of narrative that is often used to detract from the very real grievances surrounding the Australia Day debate. By positioning his objection to changing the date as “political correctness gone mad,” and “those pushing for change should bypass the public holiday and go to work” and “I’m tired of people weeping about Australia Day …I’m just sick of these people who every time they want to make us feel guilty about it. They don’t like Christmas, they don’t like Australia Day, they’re just miserable … and I wish they’d crawl under a rock and hide for a little bit”, it may be fair to assume that the take-home message for Indigenous Australian’s is, once again, a total negation of their past, present, and future humanity.

“When a politician says ‘this is our country’ well I ask, why is it your country? Why does someone have to look, speak, talk, dress and worship like you to be acceptable?” This total lack of empathy, where the tone is speak and behave on our terms or you don’t belong, is immature. We are better than this,” says Williams. “Racists learn racism. We’re not born that way. You learn it. So I feel empathetic towards racists and we have a duty to younger generations to break the cycle”.

With his work through the Enemy Within, Williams travels around Australia, and the world to deliver motivational workshops to disadvantaged, and/or at-risk youths in primary and secondary education. Williams says that engaging in honest discussions, regularly, through education, is needed now, more than ever – particularly with the suicide rate in 2015 for Aboriginal and or Torres Strait Islander People (25.0 per 100,000) is twice as high as non-indigenous people (12.5 per 100,000).

Data drawn from the ABS (2016a) Causes of Death, 2015 provides a snapshot of suicide in Indigenous communities; death by suicide rates are substantially higher in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, accounting for 5.2% of all indigenous deaths compared with non-Indigenous at 1.8% – with some very alarming statistics for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders who are aged 45 years and under:

  • In the five years from 2011 to 2015, suicide was the fifth leading cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people overall, and the leading cause of death for those aged between 15 and 34 years.
  • The median age at death by suicide for Torres Strait Islander people was 28.1 years compared with non-Indigenous people at 45.1 years.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander females had a lower median age at death by suicide than males; 26.9 years for females compared with 29.0 years for males.
  • Age specific suicide rates are particularly high among younger Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. Rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians between 15-44 years of age are between two to four times those of non-Indigenous Australians of the same age group.

In response to the latest data on death by suicide in Australia, Lifeline CEO Peter Shmigel said, “We as a sector and community are failing our most vulnerable and we must do more and do better. This means starting a national conversation about how we can respond differently…While we’re prescribing more medication for mental illness than ever before – including a doubling in the rate of antidepressant use since 2000 — we are not doing enough to combat social factors that lead so many to choose death over living”.

Williams agrees. Identifying as a ‘proud Wiradjuri, First Nations Aboriginal man’, Williams believes that connecting to, and being proud of, one’s cultural identity is a major factor in helping Indigenous youth have a sense of pride and belonging – which all contributes to mental wellness, and overall quality of life experience. For him, advocacy of reconciliation, belonging, and pride has been a deeply felt, personal journey of recovery from his own struggles with wellness.

When asked why he believes Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander males have the highest rates of death by suicide in the world, Williams goes straight to the heart.

“It’s due to systematic oppression from colonisation. Because our people can’t live the way they used to live. When a brother dies by suicide, it may say in the toxicology report that an aboriginal man died from alcohol or drugs, and an outsider will say, ‘well, he’s just another a drunk’. They don’t understand the systematic racism that human being endured, the ensuing depression from the bullying, to turn to drink and drugs as an escape from that. So how do we give pride back to a people who have had it beaten out of them? We can start by not judging skin colour, or labelling people. Anxiety is a result of fear of judgement and whether we like to admit it or not, our self-worth is tied up in others perceptions of us. Through the Enemy Within, we teach kids at risk about perception and self-worth. To recognise that you can’t control how others perceive you, how you can only strive to be the best version of you,” says Williams.

Williams argues that while strategies and tools to help improve mental wellness are useful, knowing your place in your community, and broader context is also a significant factor in recovering from mental illness. In recent years, Williams embarked on a journey to reconnect with his nation’s peoples, and describes his first right of passage ceremony in 2014 as not only transformative – but being a major factor in his own recovery from mental illness.

In light of this, Williams also advocates for Indigenous elders to educate and invite indigenous youths to reconnect with their culture, their nations, and their land, as a path for wellness, social cohesion and inclusion. In Dubbo, a youth movement is currently underway, called Thikkabilla Vibrations, and another in Cowra – Dhinawan Connections. These two initiatives centre on educating indigenous and non-indigenous youths about aboriginal culture, dance, song and values through story.

“We are on a mission to reclaim who we are. Kids learning about heritage. Be proud of their culture. Learning the importance of story. Since I started my work with the Enemy Within, I often get emails that say, Joe, hearing you speak today, stopped me from taking my life. I went to your session today as my last hope to not want to kill myself. I walked out of your session, convinced that I matter, with tools to help me stay well. That’s what I do it for,” says Williams. “The thing is, I speak around the world, and when people ask me where I’m from I say Wiradjuri, and they say where’s that? It’s my country. It’s where I’m from. We have over 350 different countries in the land we call Australia. So when we say ‘welcome to country’, we mean, ‘welcome to my nation’. In NSW we were forbidden from practising our culture. By being able to connect to my culture, on my terms, I can honestly say that it has been a major recovery factor from my mental illness. When I had my first ceremony, I put it on par with having kids. I cried. I came home to my fiancé, and I just couldn’t describe how beautiful that sense of deep connection was,” says Williams.

Hearing Williams emotional journey to self-actualisation, we are reminded of the moving words of Frantz Omar Fanon, a Martinique born Afro-Caribbean philosopher and revolutionary, famous for his critical theory in post-colonial studies, who wrote in Black Skin, White Masks (1952):

“I am black: I am the incarnation of a complete fusion with the world, an intuitive understanding of the earth, an abandonment of my ego in the heart of the cosmos, and no white man, no matter how intelligent he may be, can ever understand Louis Armstrong and the music of the Congo. If I am black, it is not the result of a curse, but it is because, having offered my skin, I have been able to absorb all the cosmic effluvia. I am truly a ray of sunlight under the earth…”

We asked Williams to share the values he learnt through his nation’s stories, and how it may help non-indigenous Australians be able to come to the table to discuss true reconciliation on equal terms.

“Aboriginals and Torres Straight Islanders have four core values that underpin everything we do – love, respect, humility and care. It’s these four ancient values that keep me safe every day. In our culture, everyone is treated as an equal. We have over 350 languages and in all of them, there is no equivalent for the words ‘please’ or ‘thankyou’ because all is expected to be held in common. The question I ask my fellow non-indigenous Australians is, why is the dominant culture so scared to learn from our people, when the ideals we live by are noble?” asked Williams.

Given Williams’s 15-year journey as a successful sportsperson in Australia, we have no doubt that Williams will emerge as a leading voice for the push towards genuine reconciliation for Indigenous Australians. Winning 12 out of 15 fights as a professional boxer since 2009, Williams is a natural born fighter, and we are pleased that Australia’s first people’s have someone like Williams standing in their corner of the ring. Again, invoking Fanon seems apt for what awaits Williams next chapter –

“The colonized man who writes for his people ought to use the past with the intention of opening the future, as an invitation to action and a basis for hope. But to ensure that hope and to give it form, he must take part in action and throw himself body and soul into the national struggle. You may speak about everything under the sun; but when you decide to speak of that unique thing in man’s life that is represented by the fact of opening up new horizons, by bringing light to your own country, and by raising yourself and your people to their feet, then you must collaborate on the physical plane. The responsibility of the native man of culture is not a responsibility vis-à-vis his national culture, but a global responsibility with regard to the totality of the nation, whose culture merely, after all, represents one aspect of that nation. The cultured native should not concern himself with choosing the level on which he wishes to fight or the sector where he decides to give battle for his nation. To fight for national culture means in the first place to fight for the liberation of the nation, that material keystone which makes the building of a culture possible. There is no other fight for culture which can develop apart from the popular struggle,” wrote Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth (1968).


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