Racism was on the agenda at the weekend. I was at an event where a First Nation lady, (they prefer that terminology rather than “indigenous“) spoke of her sad childhood. After being taken from her family and sent to a “mission home” in Western Australia. She was told that her family no longer existed, and it was many years before she learned the truth. She has had to endure the effects of racism for most of her life.
I was surprised to learn that she was taken in 1954, which I would have thought the practice had stopped. However, I do recollect that around 1959, when I was a Girl Guide, we did some volunteer work at Colebrook Home in Eden Hills, South Australia. It was my first contact with First Nation children. I can’t recall very much about it, but know that we were children as were they, though I think that they were somewhat afraid of us.
A few years later I was very busy gaining badges on my journey to be a Queen’s Guide, which was the highest honour for a Guide. On the journey, I completed the “Aboriginal Badge” – which I think required me to do some research on aboriginal culture. I met with a man near Oaklands Park and chatted to him, taking notes and later submitting my work. I would have been one of the first Guides to earn that badge and I still have it.
I don’t recall much contact with First Nations people until my children started school. In all my nursing career I don’t remember ever having a patient from that group of people.
My only “experience” was to discover that my father was terribly racist, but I do believe that it was all because, as he worked for the Housing Trust of South Australia and had to deal with the terrible damage to the houses in the south-east, where aboriginal families destroyed the good work of the builders and the government. He was terribly upset by what was happening. He was a man of great community spirit and I am sure his disgust was all about the treatment of the houses.
When my son was at primary school he made friends with a fellow classmate and I made friends with his mother. I knew she was perhaps of a different culture – her skin was a little darker than mine. Perhaps, I thought, she had some Indian background, but was to learn in a strange way, that she was a First Nation’s lady. Her sister, who was a blonde, didn’t help me identify her as “indigenous”. I soon learned that she had won an award for her work with aboriginal people, and then I learned the truth. In fact, we had some heated words at one stage at a school event where she claimed she had been discriminated against. The truth was that her son had “forgotten” to submit some paperwork!
I have endeavoured to make friends with other First Nations people, but without a great deal of success. While living at Beachmere, I did make friends with a lady, a wonderful artist, and we had a good friendship until she moved back to the city. I have not seen her for a while.
Way back in 2001
Around 2001, when living in Wynnum, I tried to organise a morning tea for women, with the view to getting “aboriginal” and other women to meet in an informal way. The idea was to make it very friendly and perhaps learn a little about their culture. Despite my best efforts, and those of Dr John Herron, who was the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, it didn’t happen. We could not get the “aboriginal” women to participate.
Ugly Racism while Travelling Australia
Fast forward to 2012/13 when I drove solo around Australia. I was to witness the racism and terrible behaviour of some indigenous people along the way. I recall driving into Wilcannia in New South Wales where some 30 or 40 aboriginal people were fighting on the road into the town. My heart rate increased, and I made an instant decision not to stop there. I was hoping to look around as our family had stayed there quite a few years ago.
My next experience was in Ceduna, South Australia where a drunken aboriginal man terrified me, but I was able to run to safety.
In Western Australia
It was Freemantle where I was accosted by three aboriginal men (perhaps they had been drinking) as I waited at a bus stop. They stood inches away from me hurling terrible insults and sexual abuse. I was terrified until the bus came and I could escape.
It was when I reached Broome that I had a very interesting experience with an aboriginal man. He was staying in the same caravan park. In fact, he was in a cabin beside the one I was in. We said hello to each other as we passed by until he invited me to sit on the verandah and chat with him. It was daylight, and I didn’t have any fear of him. We talked for ages about racism, the aboriginal and white culture. Somehow we agreed that one of the major issues was that the tribes were all individualist. There was no one respected leader of the whole aboriginal population, and there never would be.
He was a teacher at one of the adult education programs in Broome – and had just arrived in town, though he had family living there. Perhaps he had lived there before going to Perth to study. I can’t remember.
On the second afternoon, he called to me to ask for help. He had lost his drivers licence for drink driving and wanted to go to his aunt’s home a couple of kilometres away. Would I drive him? I agreed and shortly afterwards I took him into an area where mostly aboriginal people lived. The houses looked partly trashed, there was rubbish everywhere. He directed me to his aunt’s house, and as he was getting out of the car, he directed me to leave quickly, saying it was not safe for a white woman to be there. I fled to safety.
Over recent years I have met more First Nations men and women, and I have a strong sympathy for what has happened to their people. I do read a lot and I am appalled at the way the early settlers in Australia treated them and destroyed their families. It’s awful, but I won’t accept any personal guilt about it. I certainly acknowledge and believe the stories that I read and hear.
I often think that we judge the people of our early Australian history on current thoughts and ideas, rather than the rather poor knowledge and culture of the early days. I’d love to be able to right the wrongs, but I don’t think anyone knows how to do it. There are still faults on both sides of the divide, but we must continue to work so that we can all get on much better for the good of the country. Bad behaviour and racist animosity will not help the situation.