There are stories of Indigenous Australian people I've worked with, that are not mine to tell. But we'll get to that...
Growing up in the nineties in suburban Australia, I was very influenced by Hip Hop culture, and became very interested in the American history of racial struggle. From Chuck D to Muhammad Ali, to Malcolm X and so on. Because for a teenager- in comparison to Australia the USA has always been cool, with a great soundtrack, and it's always been very, very far away.
So, looking back on it now, even if I didn't want to inherit cultural shame from my forebears, I have plenty to be embarrassed about personally. Though Australia's history is every bit as rich, brutal, dreadful and absurd as American history, I never took much interest in it until I started thinking about see more of the country.
I don't think I'm alone. I think a lot of Australians don't know a lot about Australian history. I think that a lot of times when white Australians meet First Australians, it's under bad circumstances. Like the dudes in the caravan park in Ceduna SA last year, who kept me up all night having drunken fights outside my tent and tried to steal my stuff in the morning. Men and women surviving as best they can within a society that shuns them, ridicules their heritage, interferes with their families, steals their money, their land and property. A society that threatens and often their lives.
No, didn't much like those people I met that time in Ceduna. I was scared of them, wanted them and all their worldly problems and misery to piss off so I could just maybe get some sleep. That's where I was at.
- - -
Six months later I'm back home in Melbourne, doing outreach social work, trying to help people being released from prison to reintegrate back into society, and avoid re-offending. I'm driving around Thornbury, trying to find one of my clients, an Indigenous man who’s disappeared off our radar weeks ago. This isn't all that unusual, a lot of people slip through the cracks and disappear after incarceration.
In this case, there's no community corrections/parole officer keeping tabs on him, there was no stable/private housing arranged for him post-release, he has ongoing medical and mental health problems, he's trying to quit heroine and had trouble keeping appointments because his phone was constantly getting lost or stolen. We had organised a series of free driving lessons for him, he was more interested in where he was going to sleep each night. He doesn't tell me too much because he thinks I'll tell the cops everything he's up to. As I said before, his story is not mine to tell.
I go back to his last known address, purportedly where he'd stayed a few nights with a cousin. I'd been there before. Quiet street, dead car in the driveway, with a friendly cat that always came strutting out from under it, neat lawn, all curtains and blinds closed. Pretty sure someone watching me the whole time I'm there but no one answers the door.
This time though I can just make out through the thick security screen, that the front door is actually open. I call out his name and mine the way I usually do, but add that I'm just here to help, and ask is anyone else there.
A woman comes to the door, arms folded, she looks defensive, apprehensive and scared. Maybe the way I looked inside my tent that night, many months and a whole lifetime ago. She says he hadn't been here in months, she doesn't know where he went, where he is, how I can contact him, nothing. Basically she just wants me to fuck off. Because no matter what I say or how it's dressed up, I'm still part of the system, ultimately we do report to Corrections Victoria.
Want to tell you how horrible it felt, knowing what I know and standing on this lady's doorstep, painfully aware of what and who I was representing. White man trying to hunt down a blackfella, because it's my job. And I did, I do really want to help. I just didn't know how.
There's got to be more you can do than reshare Facebook posts and watch the First Australians doco (but that, incidentally, would be a good start if you haven't yet).
- - -
Seven years ago I was working in youth activity programs, one of which in the Koori Cultural Secondary school in Glenroy. It was a tough gig. A small and incredibly culturally diverse school, but also a dumping ground for troubled kids not fitting into to regular schools in the area.
I was there in February 2008, when the Australian Prime Minister made a formal apology in Federal Parliament to the stolen generations. I switched my schedule around so I could be at the school that day and watch the speech live in the library with the kids and the staff.
For forty-three minutes this collection of sixty-odd rowdy kids, who would usually never let you get a whole sentence out, whom I could never get to focus on any task for more than minutes at a time, sat in utter silence, listening to Kevin Rudd. We were all watching together in solidarity, for the first and only time in my life that I felt like the government over me actually represented the moral authority I believed in. Australia was actually doing something... right.
Some teachers started crying, then some more, then I did, all that pain, all that systematic structural brutality finally being fucking named. Even as I'm writing this now it's choking me up. Anyone who is cynical about what good formal or gestural acts like that apology make wasn't at that school that morning.
In the present, I don't know what's happened to the young man I was last trying to find in Thornbury.
I don't know that sharing and resharing rhetoric online really helps us. I don't know if I should be telling you about these things I've seen, the school, the people in Ceduna, the missing man. Truly these are not my stories to tell.
I don't know what we do with all that virulent racism, occidental fear and deflected responsibility, attitudes of exclusion and inflated pride that days like Australia day expose.
I only know that, back in 2008 we had one day, a single day that one could rightfully feel proud to be an Australian.
Maybe we can still build on that.
- Randall Stephens / Steven Taylor, January 26th, 2016