INSTANCES of racism and discrimination are, when they happen, sad and dismal events to behold. It is not surprising then, perhaps, that people rarely speak about them afterwards, often brushing the memory under the carpet — try to pretend they didn't notice, or that what they just saw didn't really happen. That is why it is so refreshing to see Adam Goodes take a stand against being called an "ape" by a 13 year-old girl last week. Sadly, many Australians, such as the court declared racist Andrew Bolt, have reacted as if it was Goodes who has the problem and should have ignored the slight.
Only by speaking out and making a stand will we stamp out the blight that is racism, which should never be brushed under the carpet, because – as can be clearly seen – it is alive a well in this country.
Well, I deplore racism and I love the Indigenous people of this nation. Indeed, one of my main motivations for starting Independent Australia was to fight discrimination and racism and to play a small part in assisting the right and just cause of the traditional and spiritual owners of this ancient land.
To explain where I am coming from, and why Indigenous Australians are so important to me, let me tell you about my youth, growing up in the Central Queensland bush.
I was born in 1970 in Rockhampton and grew up on a cattle property on the Mackenzie River, north of Dingo — about a hundred miles, as the crow flies, due west from Rocky. My father, whom I have written about in another post, spoke so glowingly about Aboriginal people in his stories from his time in the Kimberley's during the 1950s that, as I grew up, I naturally thought fondly of them. Then, when I started at the small, 20 or so pupil, Alsace State School (now closed) near us, I found there was an Aboriginal family there. Looking back, they were better dressed, much more polite and far better behaved than any of us feral white country kids. We also played school sports carnivals against the kids up the road at the Woorabinda Aboriginal Community and everybody always got on fabulously well. Race never seemed to be an issue — at least not as far as I was aware. The fact is, I had nothing but good thoughts about Indigenous people before I started high school — children are simply not born racist.
There was no high school in Dingo, so in the early-to-mid-1980s I was packed up and sent away to board at the local Grammar School — one of the best (if not the best) private schools in the region. There were few dark-skinned children at this school and the ones that were all seemed to come from Papua New Guinea. Whether this was a policy then of the school, or whether Indigenous people in the area simply couldn’t afford the tuition fees, Aborigines were not a part of this elite school’s make-up. In retrospect, it seems obvious to me that some sort of programme should have been in place to redress this imbalance.
Gradually, I became aware that, in fact, a significant amount of discrimination towards Aborigines did exist in the local community.
In the city of Rockhampton, there did not seem to be many jobs for Aborigines in the 1980s. You would not see Indigenous Australians serving in shops or restaurants, or working in the streets. Instead, it seemed, on the face of it, that many were homeless — living near the river or in other squalid or semi-squalid conditions.
In the main, people did not publicly or openly discriminate against Indigenous people in the 1980s in Rockhampton, as this was – even then – seen to be unacceptable behaviour. But often, quietly, in private, you would hear otherwise respectable people describing Aboriginal people as being dishonest, unreliable, lazy, dirty, smelly, or stupid. Normally, Rockhampton people back then wouldn't call Indigenous people "Aboriginals" either, but rather “abos” or even occasionally some form of derogatory racial epithet more often associated with the American Deep South. And like the Deep South, Rockhampton had a strict segregation policy – enforced by the hoteliers themselves – of “white” and “black” pubs. I have not been back to Rockhampton for a long time and I fervently hope this sort of segregation no longer exists.
It is against, perhaps, a similar sort of background, experienced by Adam Goodes growing up in Werriwa in NSW, that may have made the highly derogatory "ape" comment resonate so deeply with him.
After school, but before going to university to study combined degrees in Business and Law, I did a week’s work experience at a Rockhampton law firm. One morning, the partner told me to attend the Magistrates Court and observe the cases there, just for my general edification. That morning, a depressing 95 per cent of the accused persons fronting the magistrate were Indigenous Australians. Most were in a dishevelled state and almost all were on minor charges stemming from alcohol abuse, such as public drunkenness, disturbing the peace, public nuisance, vandalism or minor assaults. Many seemed disoriented and some were angry and incoherent, yelling at the judge. And when you looked into their eyes, all you could see was hollow despair.
One of the longest novels ever written in the English language, Poor Fellow My Country
After the week was over, back at the family farm, I began to read Xavier Herbert’s Miles Franklin Award winning masterpiece Poor Fellow My Country, which he dedicated “To my poor destructed country”. I read of the story of the white man’s treatment of the First Australians since colonization: the casual callousness, the inhumane conditions, the way we have treated Aborigines as sub-human or non-human, the stealing of their children, the expectation or even desire for them to die out or be subsumed, the dispossession of their land, the diminishment and destruction of their culture; in all, a shocking tale of woe. The book, like my father’s stories, struck a chord with me so much I eventually named my son – with the assent of his mother – Xavier.
On the property, we had caves that contained Indigenous art and would stumble across artefacts now and again, but no Aboriginal people ever roamed our property in those days. Dad did go out of his way, it must be said, to employ Aboriginal fencers, though I recall they usually treated him – to his intense discomfort – with cringing subservience. I gradually became aware that, even with his good intentions, our family itself had played a part in the alienation of Aboriginal people from their heritage and sacred land and left them with next to nothing in return.
Into the present day, whilst I know the battle at home for Aboriginal people to gain recognition and respect has been a long and tortuous one, I am now filled with hope. The Aboriginal people I saw in the courthouse that day in 1987 – the ones the townspeople looked down upon and would never employ – were only ever a minority of the Indigenous population in Rockhampton (though I hope and trust there are fewer living in that state these days). They were just the ones that had lost all hope. When you feel you have nothing to live for, no prospects and even your way of life has been taken away from you, the only avenue left is abject despair. People drink to dull the pain. Despair does not discriminate by the colour of one’s skin.
This is one reason why, for instance, we must properly recognise the First Australians in our Constitution — Australia’s most important document. Even if the inclusion is mostly a symbolic gesture, this gesture is sure to have great power over time. Like the stories told by my father, our national story has the power to make our children learn the values we would wish them to hold.
It is also why it is vital that Indigenous role models like Adam Goodes, as well as all decent Australian men and women, speak out against racism — even casual private racism that maybe it would be more comfortable to ignore. The fact that a 13 year-old girl does not know calling an Indigenous man an ape is appalling racism says to me that racism is still being taught to our children. We have a long way to go before it is overcome.
The Aboriginal people of Australia have, since white people arrived on Australia’s shores, struggled to achieve fair treatment, compassion and equality. It is a struggle that is far from being over. We must support people like Adam Goodes, because every time we stand united as a people and honour our First Australians, we provide an example to our children that shortens Aboriginal Australians' journey from devastation to hope.
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