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RosieG
strange1

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On the Experience of Racism

  • My experience is zero in comparison to the realities for Aborigines.
    To understand the realities they must live with among their friends and relatives,
    please watch this podcast:
    https://soundcloud.com/byronwf/black-lives-matter-the-2020-thea-astley-address-delivered-by-professor-marcia-langton


    For the benefit of Muggers, this is written from an Australian perspective.

    I was born white and from at least five generations of class privilege. It would be easy to imagine I’d never experienced being on the butt end of racism, but I have, a few times. By the standards of the racist crimes committed every day in this world, what I experienced was minuscule, some might say trivial, and yet it hurt unforgettably.

     

    The first time was when I was 19, travelling as an all-purpose aide to a crew that was filming a promotional for tourism in Malaysia. My then boyfriend was the crew’s manager. He and I walked down the main street of a tiny fishing village on the east coast. We saw poverty everywhere, which the Malaysian government had forbidden us to film. One fisherman had a large, black hole where his nose should have been — leprosy probably. Numerous others had stumps for feet or hands, or missing limbs. The village had no access to any kind of medicine. The people came out and stared at us. Old women pointed, shouted in tones of abuse. One cackled. Children came behind and threw stones at us. We were white, not too long after Malaysia had won its independence; to them white meant British colonial occupiers. We got on our bus and sped away as fast as we could — that vehicle, a privilege that gave us protection.

     

    The second time was in France. My parents had close friends who were Jewish. When it had been decided that I was to study art in Paris, the friends gave me an introduction to their first cousin who lived there. It turned out that the relative occupied the whole top floor of a six-story Napoleonic-era apartment block in Neuilly (the exclusive suburb near the Bois de Boulogne). Imagine the Limoges porcelain cups filled with golden tea and a squeeze of lemon. Imagine the wax-polished parquetry floors, the gilded Louise XV antiques and exquisitely framed Hebrew calligraphy, with no art anywhere and no TV. We sat like ladies in a Jane Austen novel while she investigated me. 

    Upon hearing that my surname was Harcourt (she already knew; she had asked the question for just this purpose), she froze, put down her cup, and asked (in French), "You do realise, don’t you, that the Duc d’Harcourt is a member of the Academy Française, the aristocracy of the sword, and a Catholic?"

    "Yes," I answered, "but our family lines separated in 1066. I could hardly be called a relative."

    "Nevertheless," she responded, "Christians have persecuted Jews for hundreds of years in Europe. I had to live through the Nazi occupation in hiding. My son is the Chief Rabbi of France; I cannot possibly be seen to have anything to do you with you. I must ask you to leave now, please." 

    She escorted me to the door and closed it behind me without saying good-bye. 

    Later, I bought her a pair of tickets to the Paris opera and slid them under her door with a note of apology for inadvertently causing her distress. 

    On one level, it wasn’t so important; I’d merely been going through the ritual of pleasing my parents’ closest friends. She lived a life so far removed from the study of art that our conversation would probably soon have run dry. 

    But on another level, it was a shock that really hurt. I’d just been snubbed for the accident of a non-Jewish surname which had nothing to do with my character, values or interests, nothing to do with who I was as a human being. 

     

    The third, fourth times were here in Australia.

    In the early 80s, the Kelly Street Kollective was a non-profit gallery for young artists in Glebe, Sydney. I was a member along with about 25 others, one of whom was an Aboriginal woman from Redfern. One day, I asked her how I could meet, get to know and make friends with more Aborigines. She told me all I needed to do was go and have a few drinks in a certain pub in Redfern, but that I should expect to end up bruised and unconscious out on the street. I confess, I wasn’t brave enough to do as she suggested.

    The next instance was at the Sydney Institute of Education, where I was studying to become an art teacher. Part of the curriculum was a six month course in Aboriginal Studies. It was back in the days of Metheril as NSW Minister for Education. In many ways he set our schools on a path to long-term deterioration. But there was one good thing he set in place; Aboriginal issues and points of view had to be incorporated into every subject subject taught in NSW high schools. It was also back before the Mabbo decision, back in a time when indigenous issues were rarely mentioned in the news, except in ways that caste an ill light on Aborigines. 

    This introductory course was when I first learned about the Myall Creek Massacre, the Eora people of the Sydney region, the warrior Pemulwuy, Pitjantjatjara art and the system of knowledge transmission, the vital importance of country and language, the Gap, the health and longevity issues, and the black deaths in custody before they’d become headline news. The activist, Gary Foley, had designed the course — and I’d say he did a brilliant job of it. He grabbed all of us on that first day.

    There we were, five hundred of us in a huge, modern, purpose-built lecture theatre, looking at him far away down there on the stage. Oddly for a multicultural country like ours, with one third from overseas and more than 40% the first generation offspring of migrants, all of us in that audience were of Anglo-European descent. How did that happen? 3% of Australians are Aboriginal; there should have been at least 15 Aboriginal student-teachers among us, but there was not one. How did that happen?

    Foley stood proud in his black jeans and a red-earth, black-sky and yellow-sun tee shirt. He spoke softly, sadly into the microphone, spoke a litany of the horrors experienced by his people since colonisation. Near the end of his course introduction, he switched to shouting. He separated each word and stabbed the air with it. He looked us in the eye and pointed to us. The floor shook, our bodies shook, our blood jumped. 

    "I HATE YOU! I HATE EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOU. I HATE ALL WHITES."

     

    I felt terrified. 

    I knew that on both my mother’s and father’s sides, my ancestors had done those things to his. I knew I was part of the problem. And I felt as small, miserable, guilty and hopeless as it is possible to feel. What in hell’s name can a whitey do in a situation like that? Except listen to the hard truth. That’s a start.

    At that stage, Foley told us the best thing we could do was to stop trying to be do-gooders, stop trying to assume that we knew best how to fix Aboriginal problems, step back, get out of the way, and allow Aborigines to have self-determinations and liberate themselves.

    I got it in that moment. My parents had both been alcoholics. Despite money, class and privilege, they drank themselves into a cesspit of incest of which I’d been the target. I’d seen Dad bash and attempt to drown Mum in the swimming pool. I’d had to do years of therapy to recover from depression and suicidal urges. I’d learned that an expert counsellor can help, but others cannot fix the trauma within; one has to heal and liberate oneself.

     

    But all that was more than thirty years ago.

    I’ve learned since then that more Aborigines are peaceful and loving than full of hate; most whom I’ve met have an almost saintly capacity to forgive without condoning — and to wait and see how a whitey really is before passing judgment. 

    Let’s remember that post-traumatic syndrome disorder transmits down through generations. Many Jews of today, like my husband, have unconsciously inherited the trauma of their parents’ experiences of the Holocaust. The Black Americans of today have inherited trauma from the days of slavery, still unhealed because the social structures and systems keep re-opening and re-infecting the wounds. Our Aborigines and Torres Straight Islanders also inherit this trauma.

     

    If I was so affected by so few and such small incidents, what would it be like to grow up  experiencing such racism several times every day? 

    One white racist might think it doesn’t matter to sling an abusive phrase, ask an ignorant question, or passively remain uninvolved when abuses and crimes against Aborigines occur. But every small instance is like a mosquito that carries Ross River Virus; every bite leaves a permanent and debilitating effect. It has to stop.

     

    Whites who think their lives are so far removed from Aboriginal worlds must realise that to be passive is to be a part of what supports the on-going systems of abuse.

    We need to write to our members of parliament, our premiers, ministers and prime minister. We need to write to judges and police stations. We need to tell them that we want change, we want Aborigines to have a Voice in Parliament. We want a process of story-telling and reconciliation.

    We want Aborigines to have the practical and legal means to support their right to self-determination and healing. We want them to have free access to every educational opportunity, medicine and a social-safety net that gives them help in the forms they ask for. They need their sacred sites and languages protected, and their cultural traditions respected. And they need safety from the unjust behaviours of police and the justice system.

     

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