black/white (Frankie – 2011)
In Grade 4 a new girl was introduced to our class. She was Aboriginal. I’ll never forget how dramatic her skin looked against her yellow dress and matching socks. Our class sat stunned as she walked into the room. Most of us had never met an Indigenous person before. She looked like she had been crying and her expression was locked in fear. She slunk into her chair, lay her head down on the desk and buried it in her arms. She stayed like this for the rest of the class. Some boys up the back dubbed her “Emu”. The next day she was gone. We never saw her or another Aboriginal student again.
This took place in my home state of Tasmania, the birthplace of what is regarded by some historians as the first successful modern-day genocide of Indigenous people. After British colonisation in 1803, a combination of disease and violence wiped out the Palawa population of between 2 to 8,000, leaving the last remaining Aborigine, a woman named Truganini, in 1876. Debate continues to this day over who or what was responsible. In school we were told how the Tasmanian Aborigines had died out, but it was not explained how. We were familiar with Truganini and there was a street near my house named after her. Throughout my public schooling I was never offered any definitive teachings about Aboriginal people or their culture. This lay the foundations for a disconnected and bewildered relationship.
Sometime last year my brain began to trip on a conundrum that I couldn’t reconcile. Had I ever actually spoken to an Aboriginal person? I wasn’t counting the encounters outside Safeway in Collingwood, where hard-eyed women asked me for money. Once a chirpy, silver-bearded brother in a beanie enquired about the guitar I was carrying. My heart sped and I clumsily told him the brand before hurrying off, feeling awkward and suburban and lame with guilt.
Last year I watched Samson and Delilah. It crushed me with its quiet intensity. It was a good pain, the medium of film allowing me to grieve for the personal rather than the political. It felt better than the hotshots of confusion I get from news reports. A few days later I had an anxiety dream where two Aboriginal boys were chasing me down an alley, trying to steal my wallet. I woke up with a funny and awful feeling. Was my subconscious being racist?
In the ‘80s my hometown of Burnie in Tasmania was a cultural backwater with the token Chinese restaurant and one Asian student per school representing the rest of the world. There were certainly no Aboriginal people to be seen. Michael Mansell, a controversial Aboriginal activist in Tasmania, was always popping up on TV. While he looked white he claimed to be part Palawa on his mother’s side. My dear nan would shout him down every time. “Look at his blue eyes – he’s not even one bit Aboriginal.” My family didn’t seemed concerned about their requests for land rights. They were just being a nuisance.
Last year I went to Alice Springs for the first time. Alice Springs is a flat country town bordered by dramatic red dunes. Strolling out from my backpackers’, I was surprised to see a whole cluster of Indigenous youth hanging out at the bus stop. I was even more surprised by my own reaction. Fear. The town seemed heavily segregated, with white families going about their business while blackfellas sat silently on the fringes, laden with spirits. Perhaps the writer in me was filling in the gaps, but they seemed profoundly sad. At a grassy park an Aboriginal family was settling in and I studied their body language. The elders sat gracefully while their children buzzed about, awaiting instruction. Two police came clopping by on horses and I felt a twist in my chest. In some ways, we are a horrible country.
Later that night I was walking home from an exhibition and got lost. I began wandering the suburban backstreets in my flimsy singlet and Melbourne haircut. My friends’ warnings about Aboriginal gangs rang in my ears and I panicked. As each Jeep drove past I imagined it slowing and men with bats getting out. I began to lightly jog until I saw a group of Indigenous men yelling in the distance. I crossed the road and hoped I was close enough to the city to be considered safe. They passed me by and I was again left feeling sheepish and manipulated. I was just like the mainstream people I judge – media-schooled and defensive.
I was eating lunch recently in front of a story about Aborigines on the ABC. It made a point of how opposite their way of thinking is to the rest of the country. They are a community-focussed people, where food and possessions are shared and every action is for the good of the tribe. They are thoughtful and slow to talk, spending most of their time in reflective silence. They make very little eye contact, and consider it overly assertive. They have a blood-deep connection with the land and see themselves as guests who are obliged to care for it rather than own it. They are a sweet and gentle people with a playful sense of humour from whom we could learn so much, if only there were a space for it. It is a damaged friendship we have with the Indigenous people. We are unable to make peace with ourselves for the past, frozen in a limbo of frustrated guilt.
There was such promise when Kevin Rudd apologised but since then the conversation has stalled, like a couple after a bitter fight. My generation seems trapped in a muzzle of political correctness, assuming there’s nothing offensive about silence. I’ve been trying to lighten the mood in my recent comedy gigs by challenging myself and the audience to find some much needed humour in the situation. I compare Sorry Day to a sharehouse meeting. “I’m surprised we didn’t just write them a note, passive aggressive style, with a sky-writing bi-plane: SORRY WE DRANK ALL THE MILK OF HUMAN KINDNESS!”
In this multicultural society, much of our attention seems focussed on welcoming refugees and a sense of ‘new beginnings’. Paul Kelly sang ‘from little things big things grow,’ yet our Indigenous population seem stuck in an interminable ‘middle’ unable to find a resolution or a glimmer of hope. It’s been 20 years since Yothu Yindi cracked the mainstream with “Treaty” and I watch the Rage conveyer belt, wishing they could return. It showed Aboriginal people standing tall and proud – at play, confident and youthful. This is how I want them to be seen, not always in bleak documentaries and reports. I still think of that girl in the yellow dress. If only she’d stayed in school long enough, who knows, perhaps we could have been friends.