It was less than 5 years ago in Melbourne; the last time someone put their head out of a moving vehicle on a busy road just to scream at me “Go Home, you Black Bitch”. When I lived in Qld during 1996-1998 it was more of a regular weekly occurrence. Is there racism in Australia?
Here is some of my story.
I was born in Melbourne almost 45 years ago, I am told that my father was an African student and I have a newspaper article as evidence that such a man existed in Australia at the time.
I am also told that my mother was a 19 year old white Aboriginal girl from Tasmania who was sent to Melbourne to dispose of the impending “black child” that could not be kept in the family for the disgrace it would bring. My mother’s words, not mine.
Apparently my mother and father were engaged to be married and had been going out together for almost 2 years before I was born. Her family were of the belief that their courtship would result in a conversion to Christianity for my father.
My mother’s family refused when my father requested her hand in marriage and threatened to undertake court proceedings to have him removed from Australia if he attempted to see my mother again.
My father’s name was not recorded on the birth certificate to ensure he could have no say in my future (my understanding is he preferred me to be brought up by family in Africa rather than strangers).
I was adopted out to a working-class white family where I lived until I was sixteen – after which I was left to find a full-time job and somewhere to live because my adoptive parents had divorced and the family home was sold. Except for a couple of brief years in a relationship, I have been pretty much on my own since then.
Eventually I was officially disowned by my adoptive family following the death of my father 15 years after leaving, allegedly to ensure I would not receive any inheritance. This came in the form of a Statutory Declaration signed and witnessed at the local Police Station, from my adoptive mother stating that I was no longer her adoptive daughter and that I had no legal entitlement as a family member. I can’t remember the exact words plus I think I filed the actual document in the round file. 🙂 And just to make things completely clear here – my adoptive father was an unconvicted paedophile, but that’s another story. Thus you can probably see how I ended up disowned – telling the truth when people want me to agree to a lie gets me into all sorts of trouble with people no matter what colour they are.
Primary school was horrific. Of course, it wasn’t all bad and I survived it ok; luckily I started reading when I was three. I was so far ahead by the time I started school all the other issues couldn’t affect my ability to receive education (if you can get access to the library, you can learn). In amongst discovering I was a genius (my tongue is planted firmly in my cheek here – how could I know you’re not supposed to complete and answer correctly EVERY question in the aptitude test?) going to school was when I first discovered I was black and that, apparently, was a bad thing.
Not only did I have to fight my way through primary school – all the children in our street (including my older sister) that I used to play with before I started school were ashamed to be seen with me and were often initiators or participants in the name-calling and beatings in the schoolyard. In grade 5 my teacher punched me because I refused to accept the blame for something that I didn’t do. Even after the real offender had admitted it was him, she still wouldn’t believe me – one of the few times I remember my adoptive mother acknowledging there might be an issue, preferring to believe, like most aussies, that the issue originates with the victim of racism. She acknowledged this mainly because the teacher had openly expressed her disgust at the colour of my skin in front of my mother when discussing the incident, plus the fact that I was half her size and corporal punishment in schools was already banned. I was transferred out of that teacher’s class for the rest of the year.
Just to add a bit more perspective, for the first 20 years of my life I had only seen two or three black people in the flesh (I’ve seen at least ten more since then). One of those was my, also adopted, little brother who is part Yorta Yorta (indigenous people from Victoria, Australia). Some of the side-effects of growing up so isolated from your heritage are the physical issues. I am so grateful to the lady that berated my adoptive mother one day when she saw my very painful skin reactions to the harsh soaps we used – the sheer relief when oil was rubbed onto my young face and for the first time I had no pain or tightness. I am not even going to talk about my afro hair and the weekly fine-toothed comb ordeal which went on for almost an hour – I would cry silently most of the way through.
In grade 6 I decided to forego the violence and could no longer be easily drawn into any physical altercations – I had reached the point where I realised the cycle wouldn’t stop and I couldn’t beat it, plus I felt a little guilty. I had so much rage inside of me and the kids who were picking on me were just playing a power game, but for me it was survival because I was so outnumbered and afraid most of the time. At the time I was training in dance classes seven days per week, so I was pretty fit and my thoughts were on ballet, not fighting. I stopped before I actually hurt anyone and I stopped because I realised that I could hurt someone. On the curious side the reputation I developed during my primary school years (for being a good fighter – practice makes perfect you know) helped to provide a buffer for high school. For most of the time in high school, I was not considered an easy mark for violence, so the kid’s attention turned to the concepts of slavery and sexual harassment as ways to degrade me.
Alex Haley’s Roots being screened on TV undid all my previous coping mechanisms and put me into a whole new world of shite. For some reason I was transferred from a normal high school to a technical high school (for people planning to enter trade apprenticeships such as plumbing, carpentry, motor mechanics, that kind of thing) – you couldn’t get sufficient qualifications to attend university from one of these schools no matter how well you performed. I don’t think these types of schools exist any longer. The year prior to me attending, it was a “boys only” school, so I was the only female in my entire year level, out of around 30 female students in the entire school that first year. It grew to a peak of 5 female students in my year level (for one month) during my last year at the school.
Within a reasonably short time of arriving at the new school, Roots was screened on TV over many weeks. Everyone at school watched it and people who had taken no interest in me previously were all of a sudden going out of their way to ridicule, harass and accuse me of being a slave; my parents bought me, they wanted to inspect me for trading and have bidding wars, and countless attempts at sexual assault. What I find particularly weird is how often the boys told me “you are uglier than the ugliest white girl because you are black”. After a while I believed them – there were no other people with differing opinions to counter that input. Kind of “these are the people I have to associate with, they aren’t going to change their minds if I ask nicely, therefore what they believe is true”. Needless to say I didn’t have a boyfriend in high school. By the end of high school I had gained a sort of quasi-acceptance where school life was bearable but she weren’t no picnic.
I remember once when I was 15, I was walking home and there were around 80-90 students from my school all waiting for a fight in the soccer field near my house. No, I’m not exaggerating. One of the four girls from my year level had challenged me in class earlier that day trying to bully me into changing from my usual seat. She made such a scene that I gave her the seat and quietly swore at her for being such a pain. Anyway, she confronted me; I was boxed in so I had to face it. She asked me to take back what I said a couple of times, I refused and told her it was actually true as far as I’m concerned. She threatened to hit me, I told her it wouldn’t make any difference, she tried to get me to hit her, I said there was no reason to hit her… The false bravado I showed was the best defence I could muster against all the onlookers carrying on like a bunch of British Soccer Fans howling for my demise. In the end, she punched me in the face, I yelled out that she was still a bleep bleep then I went home without ever raising my fists.
As a footnote, justice was eventually served for that particular event. One of the kids in my street realised things had gone too far and got things balanced out at another time, in another place, without my knowledge until much, much later.
Out on the town
Fast forward to 1992 and we have a cultural shift in Melbourne. The hot band on the Australian music charts was Yothu Yindi an indigenous Aussie band. Then we have the Catani Bar incident where Mandawuy Yunipingu (the lead singer and “Australian of the Year” for 1992) was refused service purely because he was indigenous. The ensuing outcry resulted in an almost “pro-black prejudice” in Melbourne as people fell over themselves trying to ensure they wouldn’t be labelled racist. Mind you, few people went so far as to actually treat me with respect but they did seem to want my agreement that they weren’t being racist. I was very popular during that time – a walking talking party accessory!
Around a similar time I met a professional woman who had some chronic health issues and I was deeply involved in some physical therapy work/study. During the course of our friendship she was able to achieve considerable pain relief and stability in her condition, but more importantly, peace with the circumstances that we find ourselves in. This woman referred me to a potential employer who was also a friend of hers. The company director and I got along fantastically over the phone and arranged a face to face interview for an Office Manager role. Within a minute of seeing my face, she had changed the role on offer to a casual data entry position (even gave me a couple of tests which was silly – I’m good at tests), reduced the hourly rate by a third and was speaking to me as though I was mentally retarded. I was feeling so terrible I didn’t actually realise what had happened.
My friend contacted me a half-hour after I left the interview and in a very stressed voice asked me what I did/said at the interview. I replied that nothing much happened, but the job role changed considerably and I didn’t know what went wrong. My friend asked me to prepare myself then told me that she had just received a call from the company director and the first thing this person had to say was, “Why didn’t you tell me she was black?” Apparently this person was quite upset with my friend for referring me, a black woman of all things, the cheek of it! The behaviour of that person as a potential employer was in contradiction to the laws of the land, as is most of the serious racism I have experienced. So Australia may not be a racist country, but I have still managed to cross paths with a hell of a lot of racist people.
Birth family and the ongoing search for acceptance
I also want to mention that I met my birth mother more than 20 years ago. Currently our relationship is in dire straits. It started to deteriorate around the time she realised that I was never going to stop searching for information on, or asking her about, my father – he is the reason I am black after all.
In 20 years she has imparted this much information: he was from Africa, he came to Australia as part of the SCAAS, he and my mother met at the university, they went out for a couple of years until I showed up. He immediately wanted an abortion (she thinks I should hate him for that, but I don’t care at all), she refused. They may have already secretly become engaged prior to me showing up – there are a few versions on that one so I can’t be sure. They dreamed of how their life together in Africa would be with the promise of building a new country. When my mother was shipped off to Melbourne to dispose of me, my father sold his car to follow her and try and convince her of a different course of action. His last words to her in the hospital when she refused to allow him any say in my future were something like “Now I have my revenge on the white race”. Remembering this statement makes my mother very angry; I can’t really say that I truly understand why. It’s obviously not an accurate statement of the facts. It is me who is living out the consequences of their decisions.
My birth mother was only 19 when I was born and the threat of losing her family was unbearable to her. I do understand that, but not intimately, I have lived through the alternative and I am no better or worse for it. What gets me is that for the past 20 years she hasn’t been able to remember which city or village my father was from even though she wrote to his sister regularly for more than a year, she has no pictures, no useful information for me, she can’t tell me what he was like as a person, just his name. I have my adoption records which show that at the time, she told the authorities that she thought he was less intelligent than her because he had to work so hard at his studies (getting a uni degree in a foreign language is apparently dead easy so why don’t we all have one).
Eventually I wrote to the consulate here in Australia, thank goodness we are busy digitising the national archive, because I found the newspaper photo from almost 40 years ago that enabled them to trace some information on him. He had already passed away and apparently he retired as a government minister. I am still awed by the kindness of strangers sometimes – it took several months to receive a response and it shows that a colleague from another consulate had gone home for the holidays and looked up the information. So now I know everything I should ever want to know so just drop it, right?
My half-sister on my mother’s side accused me of racism against her mid last-year because I called her “mate”. This is a woman who is a fair-skinned, part-indigenous, AB (Able Seaman) who has spent most of her life working in a situation where she is the only female on crew. When I am relaxed I call everyone “mate”, I thought the whole world knew that about Aussies, but she asked me who the hell I thought I was? She also offered to “punch me out” for taking such liberties. That was the last time I saw anyone in that family. I have asked my mother not to contact me at all; there was so much blame and accusation directed at me for the circumstances of my sister’s outburst – “If you hadn’t come to visit, none of this would have happened,” which initially did not get a very calm response from me. But now it’s ok mum, relax, I get the message. In the 20 years I have known her I have not been able to get to know her any better than when I first met her, she has nothing to say about my father except “why don’t you change your surname to match his if you want him so much.” She cannot hear me say that all I want is the feeling of belonging; to a race, a people, a family, a person – humans, anyone! When someone tells me to go home because I am black – I actually want to go home – but there is no such place.
My mother lost a little brown baby and a dream of the future, not this defiant warrior woman who will do anything for those she loves, even staying out of the way so she won’t trigger those uncomfortable feelings from the past. My presence makes her unhappy; maybe my absence will bring her peace. I don’t think this is honourable just pragmatic. I need to survive emotionally too, and I have limits. None of my [white] mothers have acknowledged my search for a cultural identity as being a relevant part of my existence.
So the point is this…
- Don’t let people mess with your peace!
- Ask yourself why do you need to give your energy to an idea, a thought or an emotion that is making you unhappy?
- Do whatever it takes to achieve balance.
- Do not waste energy crying out that you are a victim, because the world of victims contains bullies and oppressors – one cannot exist without the other.
- Expect to get it wrong, expect to get it right. The most useful tool in my back pocket has often proven to be “the unexpected”.
- If you don’t want to deal with someone who is behaving in a racist fashion – don’t!
- Be willing to accept that sometimes you want something else more than you want to fight ignorance, so ignore or find another way past the distractions.
- If sometimes you want to stand up for yourself and demand respect – go ahead, you might get it and you might not.
- Be whoever you want to be and accept the consequences.
I have never met a victim of anything who has experienced worse than what the earth has had to put up with and it is still sustaining us. That might be a silly thing to say, but I mention it because thinking like that personally helps me to desensitise myself when I’ve had a rough day and reminds me to think about how I am going to get through the next day if I let myself crash and burn on emotions today.
To date, those who have spoken to me of their experiences with racism have unilaterally responded to the problem with some kind of self-denial, when the obviously sensible response would be to do something self-affirming.
Seriously, try something, develop your own responses, the more unique the better, but…
…don’t waste a single second trying to prove there is racism in the world, it exists.
You don’t need to give it legs and watch it run rings around you.
…else you might miss out on all the wonderful Australians of which there are plenty to go around.
With peace to you all.