I wrote the essay “Armbands And Blindfolds’ in 2010. Today, late September 2011 I read of Andrew Bolt being found guilty of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act over two articles he wrote in 2009, ‘”It’s so hip to be black” and “White fellas in the black“. He hit a raw nerve for sure and I agree with his statement that this is indeed a sad day for freedom of speech in Australia. My view is that some people will seize whatever handle they can grab if it gives them a little more leverage when it comes to the money (public money in the main) available for grants and academic jobs. When it comes to using a tenuous genetic link then it complicates the debate considerably because of the egg shells we seem to have to walk on whenever we mention race. Not if we are non-white having a go at the white but always, it seems to me, the other way around. So be it. The white man has had it good for several centuries and despite being the main contributors to modern civilization as we know it today, the pendulum is swinging back and this is the consequence. Read Mr Bolt’s articles, read my essay and form your own opinion. Meanwhile I look forward to the day when we are so interbred cafe latte is the new pure breed skin tone and nobody gives it a second’s thought. Perhaps we should all read Robert A. Heinlein’s ‘The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress‘.
Armbands & Blindfolds
When I was a boy in England I had an imaginary friend. He was an Aborigine boy and we would go hunting for kangaroos and other marsupial game around the back of the Co-Op and sometimes in the lane beside the Chippy. This was all in preparation for our big move to Australia later that year. I spent the summer of 1971 with a home made spear down the beck, hunting sticklebacks and pretending they were barramundi. Norton-On-Tees was a bit short of barramundi, kangaroos and Aborigine boys my own age.
When we arrived in Sydney we were sent to the migrant hostel at East Hills, nestled in the bush adjacent to the Georges River and Holsworthy Army Camp. I spent many hours roaming the bush with my imaginary friend but still didn’t see a single kangaroo or anything resembling the barramundi I had seen on the documentaries about life in Australia before we had left England. It was to be several years before I even saw an indigenous Australian in the flesh and he became my best mate when I first joined the Army.
Steve was from Darwin and had survived Cyclone Tracey in 1974, a few years before we met. As happens in the forces we just seemed to bond and become best of mates. When we were sent on a survival training weekend Steve actually learnt more from me about bushcraft than I could possibly hope to learn from him. Afterall, he was from the city and was actually only half indigenous. This was 1978 and a lot of people back then were reluctant to admit to having native blood so his revelation to me that he was actually half Aboriginal was an act of trust and a sign of his respect for me as his best mate. Not that Steve really cared what others might say as he could out box just about anyone in the battalion.
In nearly a decade with the Colours I only ever met two or three indigenous Australian Diggers. One was a Thursday Islander I would follow into Hell and stay there for him. Bill U. was my Troop Sergeant, a Vietnam veteran and one of the men who found the Tunnels of Cu Chi outside Saigon. Bill used to climb down Viet Cong tunnels with a flashlight and a pistol. Back in those days his peers could crack jokes about the VC not seeing him unless he smiled and he’d come back with a retort that would have everyone rolling around laughing and the joke cracker knowing he had been owned by Bill. Bill didn’t take offense, he just took you out with intelligence and wit and gave back better than he got. But then there was never any malice on either side. He was black, it was a joke that wouldn’t work on a white fella’ and that was that. He was still the best troop sergeant in the squadron and we were so glad we were in his troop.
I arrested one of the other couple of Aboriginal soldiers I met during those years. He had gone AWOL, absent without leave. According to him he just went ‘walkabout’. One day he felt like he had to go and see some family and he just walked out the gate of the barracks and off he went. He was declared absent from place of parade and after the appropriate period, AWOL. That’s when the Military Police AWOL Investigation Section were tasked with finding, arresting and returning him. Which we did. In his mind he had done nothing wrong but answer his inner voice that said he had to go and visit some family. Luckily for him, even way back in 1983, his commanding officer allowed him a little cultural leeway and kept him out of the boob (army slang for gaol). It’s only writing this now that I remember there was a lot of press at the time about Aboriginal deaths in custody, perhaps his boss wasn’t as benevolent as we thought but rather more politically aware.
After I left the army I had little to do with Aborigines, by then being known more and more as ‘Koori’s’. From time to time I had to serve summonses on a few down Ebley Street, Redfern, the area known as ‘The Block’. In those days it resembled a cross between war torn Beirut and downtown Belfast. Rubble strewn streets, burnt out cars and front doors ripped off so you could see the holes made in the hallway walls joining terrace to terrace. You got in, served the document and got out again. In fact if you could stay in the car and call someone hanging around outside the house to the car you would make sure the respondent lived there, the person you were talking to was at least 16 and you gave it to them through the window of the car. Then you drove off feeling the relief surge over you as you dodged the nappy wearing two year olds still wandering barefoot and half naked at 9p.m. in the evening.
Some years later I would return to Ebley Street to talk to Mick Mundine and offer my services as a trainer at his boxing gym. He saw me walk in the door and immediately asked if I had a car parked on the street. I said I did and he rushed to the window in time to tell two lads to leave the Gemini alone, the owner was a friend. If he hadn’t, I would have returned to a shell on bricks, probably just in time to watch another crew nick the bricks.
Another job I had in those days that dovetailed with the process serving was debt collection and repossessing cars. I once had to go out to Wellington and work a street that was all indigenous housing. Set out of town in a little valley, this street had half the houses fenced off and locked up. The others were in varying states of demolition as the families moved from house to house, ripping up floor boards for firewood and generally treating the recently built homes as a nuisance to free camping.
I realized the problem lay not with the people inhabiting the housing but the bureaucrats who gave a tribal people nuclear family housing. Three bedroom homes are perfect for Mum, Dad and two point four kids but of little use to a ‘mob’, that extended family group that is so important to Aboriginal people. More important than most might realise if the repeated attempts to force them into housing arrangements designed for people of western origins would suggest. But make the houses built to last and, sadly, the concrete sofas and basic cooking and washing facilities scream ‘disadvantaged!’ and ‘racist stereotyping!’ to the well intentioned but not too well informed.
For a decade and a half I have lived in the local government area with the largest urban population of indigenous Australians. My children go to a school where 16% of the student body are Koori. Sixteen percent in a country that claims perhaps three or at best four percent of its citizens with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander blood. We used to have less but that wasn’t because they have suddenly bred more. Rather it was because of the stigma many felt and faced by being part or wholly indigenous. I never realized just how close the 1966 referendum giving our indigenous citizens a fairer shake was to my own meeting of my first, albeit it half caste, indigenous Australian. Can you say ‘half-caste’? Is it one of the terms on the… oops, I nearly said ‘black list’. Can you still say that too? Like so many of my generation and race, I want to be politically correct, in the nicest meaning of the term, but I am not sure what I can and can’t say as the rules don’t seem to be as… I did it again. Black and white. I was going to say ‘… as black and white as I once thought them to be. Now they seem to be more like shades of grey.’
The pendulum has indeed swung back as pendulums always do and that is how it should be. But sometimes the return swing can be as harmful and damaging as the original path it took was to the other side. Even if your intentions are pure, you can all too easily give offence in a society that seems to always be all too ready to take such. Along with counselling and compensation, apologies are always at the ready, it seems. Forget the fact Muslims have known Christians celebrate Christmas every December 25th and the majority of religious believers in this country are Christian, we can’t hold Nativity plays, processions or set up scenes in schools and public places in case they take offence. I have asked more Muslims than I can remember and not one of them expressed any outrage over Christians practising Christianity.
It seems we have to be forever apologising to today’s indigenous citizen’s for the transgressions of yesterday’s government and various church groups, the explorers who discovered the country for their King and those who came here and developed it into what it is today. Yet I no longer have any doubt that this land was taken from its rightful and original owners. It was often done with deceit, dishonesty and disease and where that was inappropriate, ineffective or ill-advised, brute force and firepower.
Reading the journals of the first Europeans to settle here shows they soon realized ‘Terra Nullus’ was a misnomer. They quickly identified the natives did have a concept of ownership of property and land and they did extend further than the notional ‘fifty miles inland’ Cook and Banks felt was the limit of human habitation on the continent.
Despite some claiming their intentions were honourable and even some of the children themselves acknowledging they have had a better chance at life for the intervention that has become known as ‘The Stolen Generations’, it is hard to defend what today is clearly considered the indefensible. While some may indeed have been given a better chance in life through their mission school education the fact remains they were taken from their families, against their will and kept away from their loved ones and homelands for years, sometimes for life.
We white people once shared the same bond with the land of our ancestor’s as our indigenous people do for this land. We also walked the forests and hills, valleys and vales and felt very much at one with the land, the flora and fauna. We too had our Creation Myths and so many of them resemble those of the Dreamtime because at the core of it all, we are all just human beings.
Yet our lands were taken from us by force, or we took them from others and life went on. Pict, Celt, Roman, Jute, Angle, Dane, Saxon, Norman; one after the other came, saw, conquered. We adapted or perished, assimilated or overthrew. We can’t return Sydney to the wilderness it was in 1788 when the First Fleet landed at Farm Cove. We would be thrown out of the UN and deservedly so if we were to strip all our indigenous citizens of their clothes, tools and every man made object and then left them as their ancestors were found, with only stone and wood for tools and skins and bark for coverings. We can’t turn back the clock.
When my wife and I attend school assemblies and events the first words spoken are always to remind us that our school stands upon land that was originally in the custody of the Dharug People. I look around the parents, carers and guardians and am hard pressed to find one face I would say is that of an indigenous Australian. Yet the face of Australia is no longer one that resembles mine, an Anglo-Saxon face. It hasn’t been so, at least in the major cities, for some years. The Australian face today can just as easily be Asiatic, African, Arabic or Arayan, even and especially, Aboriginal. That is the reality but is this new face accepted by society? The ‘establishment’? Sadly I think not.
My wife is from the Philippines, ethnically an Indo-Malay. She often feels ignored or left out by white Australians because she is not white. I find this difficult to believe because whenever I am with her she is always accepted and treated as I feel I am treated. But of course, that is when I am with her and I am a white Australian. If I felt I was being ignored or treated differently because of my skin colour I would be hurt, angry, upset and I have been because it has happened to me in her country and elsewhere. Bigots are everywhere. As a boy in England I was picked on for being a ‘nazi’, all because I had a German mother. When I came to Australia I was picked on because I was a ‘pommy’ yet the same Aussie kids were keen to have me on their side when it came to a playground fight against the ‘wog’ kids. The problem was those ‘wog’ kids were my friends because I played ‘wog ball’. Today it is called soccer and our national team represents all Australians in the FIFA World Cup but in 1971 playing the game marked you for extra attention.
Which only goes to prove times do indeed change and so they should. Attitudes change and attitudes are made up of thoughts. Thoughts come from the words we choose and the actions we perform when we turn those words from thoughts into deeds. As a writer, words are my stock in trade. One word I have no problem saying, even though I didn’t arrive here until 199 years after Cook ‘discovered’ the place, is ‘sorry’. I am truly sorry that so many indigenous Australians suffered at the hands of the white settlers. Or invaders if you prefer that word. Settler or invader, it doesn’t change anything. Invaders and their families died at the hands of the natives, aborigines, original inhabitants or whichever label was applied at the time just as they were killed by the white man. The numbers may have been disproportionate, the moral high ground might not always have been held by one side or the other but there is no denying the tragedy and suffering of those years on both sides. War is like that, always has been and always will be and I sadly feel always will be a part of the human condition.
I am also sorry to see the gangs of Koori youth hanging around the strip mall where one of my daughters goes for dance lessons. Others hang around the car park at the back or sit along the fence to the public school and smoke, drink and menace the rest of the community with malevolent stares and drunken demands for ‘a dollar, bro’. Too many get caught by the police breaking the law and then feel even more alienated when they return to the community than before they did their time in a juvenile facility or later, ‘big jail’.
Aunty May and Uncle Bill, community leaders who have hearts as wide as this land and always a place for a sleepy brown eyed head after a feed of egg and chips try their best. There are Aunty May’s and Uncle Bills in every indigenous community who try to instil a pride and sense of worth in the youth that too often is thrown away with the empty plastic bags once the petrol has all been sniffed out of it. Good intentions battling a cycle of substance abuse, child abuse and spousal abuse that while not specific to the indigenous community is all too endemic.
Why do the Koori kids come to school every other day and when they do come they too often turn up hours late? Why do so many of them come to school hungry, so hungry the teachers run their own breakfast program off their own initiative?
Why, in Sydney in 2010 do Koori kids have less chance of finishing school, getting decent jobs, owning their own homes or making it to retirement age? They are born in the same hospitals as my kids, with the same doctors, nurses and health care facilities. Remember this is Western Sydney, not remote outback Northern Territory. They have the same schools, the same teachers and the same opportunities if not perhaps more than what my kids can avail themselves of.
Their parents receive at least the same Centrelink benefits as I do and we have a mortgage, have private health insurance and contribute to superannuation. We did this even while I was a full time student or when I was in receipt of unemployment benefits. Yet they hold out their hand down the bottle shop and ask if we have a dollar for them. Why?
Why are some indigenous Australians well educated and in good employment, healthy and home owners? Why is there the gap and why aren’t we closing it?
Resolving the issue starts here, with each and every one of us who call ourselves Australian. The first thing we need to do is not be afraid to say a word for fear of being labelled ‘racist’. You are a racist only if your actions or words are the product of hatred. Mere ignorance should never be a crime or a social stigma. We need to think of ourselves as Australians. Not white Australians or indigenous Australians except for as far as we need to be able to analyse data. We can’t turn back the clock or change the past and while one side should stop apologizing and feeling guilty for what happened before they were around, the other needs to accept that the past is the past and move on.
One thing that divides us is the Aboriginal Flag. I found it ironically amusing at first that they choose a European object, a flag, to represent themselves. I felt it was divisive and makes a clear case of us and them. Then I thought a bit more and realized that our Australian Flag, the one I served proudly under as a soldier, is just as divisive. I accept one day we will cease to be the constitutional monarchy we are now and providing the new form of government is equal to or an improvement on the current system, no problems. I also accept that some people do take offence to the Union Flag in the top left corner. I don’t as I feel it symbolizes where modern Australia came from and that is a historical fact. But it is also divisive, is it not? Perhaps we do need a new flag but not for the old reasons?
Aboriginal people must step into the 21st century and they must westernise in their habits and lifestyle far more if they are to be content living in the world that is, the world they are a part of whether they like it or not.
Non-indigenous Australians have to accept 200 plus years of European influence is a drop in the ocean compared to 40,000 or more years of living their traditional lifestyle. And maybe we do need to say not just sorry, but perhaps acknowledge that while we all believe in equality, like Orwell’s Animal Farm inhabitants, some of us are ‘more equal than others’. By that I mean we need to try that little bit harder to understand, to empathise and to appreciate our indigenous brothers and sisters. Just as they need to accept the status quo and get in step. Happiness is all about expectations matching realities and that isn’t what we have in our society right this minute.
If you are not a part of the solution, at least try not to be part of the problem. What can you do to change this situation? I asked myself that question and the first thing I thought of was this essay. Get my own thoughts down on paper and perhaps it will help some of those reading it to start thinking their own thoughts. Remember, we don’t have to love each other, we don’t even have to like anyone. But we do all have to respect one another and each and every person’s right to exist. I’m not about to wander down to the shops and hug the first Koori I see hanging around but neither am I going to look at him or her distainfully or use invective expressions to vocalise my feelings. Instead I’m going to acknowledge their existence, their custodianship of this land and at the very least, not be a part of the problem.