This was Chris Clarke’s idea, inspired by some debate about racism on his blog and the death of American civil rights activist Rosa Parks. It is 50 years since Mrs Parks took a stand(or rather, refused to) on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama: a dignified insistence that echoed around the world and made many Whites look more closely at privilege taken for granted.
As an urban White Anglo-Celtic in Oz, it is easy to forget how pervasive racism is in this country. Unlike the States, where urban is code for black, the urban population in Australia, which is 85% of the people due to our huge tracts of non-arable land, is overwhelming pale.
In the Southeast, where most Aboriginals are of mixed descent and generally identify as Kooris, most do actually live in cities: as aboriginals are only 1.7% of the population, it is easy for the middle class gaze to slide right by except in the few country towns where there is a large Koori community. In the north, west and centre of the country, tribal groupings are more distinct and mostly live in remote communites which are largely invisible to the rest of the country.
Although each large city has some more cosmopolitan areas which are true melting pots, there are still many suburbs where one can drive miles without seeing a single black face. It is easy to believe one is not racist when one never even sees the aboriginal underclass.
When I was born in 1963, Aboriginals were considered unpersons: not counted on the Census, not enfranchised to vote, simply not part of “our” world. My first seven years were spent in the lower Blue Mountains west of Sydney, a supremely WASP place. The first brown-skinned person I remember seeing was a Sikh who was a professional colleague of my father, and I was much more impressed with his drying ankle-length hair than his skin colour (besides, educated Indians were honorary members of “us” anyway, particularly with a White British lawyer for a wife – not that this ever had to be said aloud).
Post-war European immigration meant that as my schooling progressed, my classmates became less overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic. My friends and boyfriends had surnames like Zavitsaanos, Raftos and Roncolato as well as Watts, Fahey and Douglas (the Douglas family was actually Greek). Australia was still White enough that Mediterranean black hair stood out like dog’s bollocks, and the lone S.E.Asian family at my high school were considered very exotic indeed. The few Kooris (although we all called them abos then – a word I now wince to type) were hardly noticed by me, as I was in all the top classes and they never were – a de facto segregation, despite the fact that now aboriginals had the vote.
A few years ago I was looking at my old high school year-books. And I suddenly noticed something. A boy I remembered well, a bright funny boy who did well at school although not one of the top swots, and was popular due to his athleticism as well – that boy’s face looking out at me 25 years later was clearly a Koori face.
Why did I never realise that at school?
He didn’t fit the stereotype, that’s why. His Strine was just as grammatical as any of the other teenage boys, he had no trouble learning, and his skin wasn’t much darker than many of my Mediterranean-descended friends. He had a British surname, but so did most of the other Kooris. He didn’t hang around in the self-effacing but perceived as menacing groups of Koori kids. He seemed entirely confident that he was part of “our” middle-class Aussie world, so he was.
We moved away, and I don’t keep in touch with anyone from that school anymore, so I don’t know whether other people in my year realised he was a Koori and didn’t care (i.e. I was unusually self-involved and unobservant), or whether we all were obtuse, incapable of perceiving someone who could cope with education so well as an abo. It’s also entirely possible that he was one of the Stolen Generation, and raised by Whites without reference to his ancestral culture, which would explain why he seemed so much part of our world rather than theirs. I just don’t know, all I know is that then I didn’t see him as Black, yet now it’s just so obvious.
[EDIT DEC 2: I missed the blindingly obvious above as to why I didn’t recognise my classmate as an aboriginal back in the mid-70s – the only aboriginal faces on movies/TV were very dark Central Australians such as David Gulpilil. Unless one lived alongside indigenous Australians of mixed race one didn’t know what they looked like. Even a very successful TV series about a half-caste Aboriginal police detective had a white New Zealand actor in dark makeup playing the central role. And of course, when one is speaking of “mixed-race”, it is the vagaries of inheritance which determines how white or how black a child will look – there are many cases of mixed-race siblings where one will “pass” as white and the other will not. I also wonder whether me being blind to his aboriginality back then because he was relatively light skinned is better or worse than me being immediately aware of his aboriginality because of physiognomic markers now.]
I’m not entirely sure what this story says, but there is something in there about the structure of race in Australia then. It is different now, at least in the inner cities. There are several Koori kids at my kids’ school, and also some Arnhem Landers, but amidst the diverse faces of kids from Asia, India/Pakistan, Africa, the Middle East who form the bulk of the school population (Europeans would be 1/4 to 1/3 only of the kids) their particular shades of brown and cast of features are not a stigma. At our school there is very little correlation between skin colour and car model, for instance. But that’s here in latte-sipping leftist-ville.
A Tale of Two Australias.
My daughter’s friend is one of the Arnhem Land girls mentioned above: her mother is Aussie Anglo-Celtic, her dad has gone back to Arnhem Land, and mum’s new man is of British Afro-Caribbean descent. Mum is a dancer, so are the girls, Stepdad has modelled: they are a strikingly handsome family.
A few months ago they went on holiday to Coffs Harbour, in the Northern Rivers district of NSW. One day they went on a country drive. When they walked down the streets of Grafton all the Aussies stared: they weren’t used to the more purply hues of African skin, and the girls’ Arnhem Land features are quite distinct from their local Kooris, who mostly live in smaller towns downriver and rarely come into town. People with glossily healthy dark skin driving a nice car and wearing nice clothes were outside Grafton’s experience, it seems.
And despite the fact that the lower Blue Mountains is much more diverse than it was in 1968, and people there are less likely to stare so blatantly as in Grafton, this family would arouse a watchful alertness there too. Because although in my particular Sydney inner-city community Aboriginals are just as likely to be middle-class as the rest of us, thus their kids “belong”, that’s still far from true even a few postal districts away, let alone outside the city.
The middle class is always nervous about those who don’t belong, and in most of Australia dark faces simply do not belong unless they’re non-indigenous. I know I catch myself reverting to middle-class suspicion when outside the milieu of the black families I know socially, and I wish it wasn’t so.
Australia’s got a long way to go yet.