Growing up on Isolation Day

0 Posted by - 26/01/2014 - Featured, Opinion, Short

Between the ages of eight to about 11, I hated the fact I have Aboriginal heritage. Those were years lived in Darwin, when I attended a primary school with some kids who had ‘Aussie Pride’ heavily instilled in them from a young age.  My first encounter with racism, innocent as it was, is a vivid memory I’ve replayed countlessly over the years.

I asked a boy in my grade three class what his favourite colour was—a standard technique for trying to make friends with the class cutie. His reply came quick and cold.

“White,” he said. I didn’t bat an eyelid, but he wasn’t finished. “Because it’s the opposite of black, and I hate anything black.” I remember everything about the way he said it, he was looking me dead in the eye.

I laughed it off and turned around in my seat. On the inside my stomach was churning.

“I’m only a quarter,” I told myself.

At lunchtime the same boy walked past me and something took over. I walked up to him and said, “Hey!” I then kicked him in the leg and ran away. I left an impressive bruise and was later told off by a teacher with the memorable line: “Horses kick, not little girls.” I was not asked if I was provoked, nor did I have any intention of sharing my side of the story. I was ashamed, but also—surprisingly—enraged. What scared me was I had no idea why I was angry, I had no concept of racism or the fact that I’d been a victim of it. Later that day I told my friends I did it because he’d poked his tongue out at me.

Twelve years later the same anger grips me when I witness any form of racial abuse, and every Australia Day my body shakes with it.

I am an Australian with Aboriginal and mixed European heritage. I am educated and privileged in ways so many people are not, because, by pure luck, I was born here into a loving family. I love Australia for many reasons. Australia Day, sadly, is not one of them.

I’ll go back to the memory I painted. Those feelings of anger and sadness that are so strong in me today, did not overrule an underlying shame I felt at such a young age any time it was announced in public that I was Aboriginal. While part of my upbringing had been in my Aboriginal community, Lajamanu, and my parents always encouraged my siblings and myself to be a part of Indigenous events at school and elsewhere, I could not emphasise enough my European roots when it came to hanging with my white Australian friends. Growing up, Australia Day was yet another reminder that I didn’t quite fit the narrow parameters of the born-and-bred Anglo-Saxon Australian.

I have seen the same feelings of shame and embarrassment in my Nepalese colleagues, who have made a life for themselves in this country but are still told to “Speak English, puh-lease” for speaking in an accent they have grown up with. Isolation is a powerful thing. It can strip a person of their reasonable understanding of self and empowerment and forge envy where it’s not due.  26 January, in its arrogance and indifference, has the unnerving ability to make human beings feel like they don’t belong.

Australia’s ‘day’, in my mind, should be a cohesive celebration of the roots of this land, its indigeneity, and the contributions of people from all backgrounds since. It should also be a day for acknowledging a terrible history of massacre and disposition of our native people, and learning from it. Australia is only Australia because of all these things. We are not perfect, and we need to acknowledge that so we can be better.

Whatever day we choose to celebrate as our national day will carry with it offence for groups that have been marginalised both past and present; through Terra Nullius, the White Australia Policy, through our government’s current treatment of asylum seekers. Until Australians and the government are able to incorporate our beautiful, damning and controversial history—Indigenous, European and otherwise—into a celebration of our nation’s identity, then I will not be ready to commemorate any so-called Australia Day.

I will ask you, then, that if you are rejoicing on the 26th, please do so respectfully. Try to understand why there will be Invasion Day and Survival Day marches and festivals, why there will be charity concerts with all proceeds going to Oxfam and refugees. Or better yet, attend one of them. Ask questions, and do not blindly accept that because the government decreed it, you should be shouting “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!” when so many people who are trying to reach our shores are being treated like animals, and when so many of our country’s traditional owners are being reminded of a broken past.

Today, I will be thinking of all the young Indigenous boys and girls who are too scared to admit to and know their heritage, and who desperately need Australians to remind them of everything they should be proud of. Because, as a descendant of Australia’s first people, I do have so, so much to celebrate.  And I eagerly await the day when more Australians will revel in each other’s unique make-up, on this land that feeds us all.

By Rachael Hocking

Photograph via Flickr.

7 Comments

  • Jess 27/01/2014 - 1:38 am

    I think this is one of the best responses to Australia Day that I’ve seen. Thankyou for sharing… and I’m so sorry that you were subjected to what you were as a kid. I wish it was more about a celebration of what makes this country awesome: LIKE the diversity we have– and our indigenous population– rather than an excuse for yobbos to drink lots and be racist dickheads.

  • Don 27/01/2014 - 11:40 am

    Thanks Rachel. I was touched by your experience. I had similar experiences in the 1960 being called wog/dago etc. I became ashamed of my heritage and it took me a while to embrace it. Growing up I felt neither Australian or Italian – it was a weird world. Now, I am very happy and thankful to consider myself both. Actually , I see myself at my core as neither but freely acknowledge and enjoy the icing both cultures have made to the cake. In fact growing up made me very aware of the good and bad sides of both cultures and force me to think and chooses as I saw fit. Rather better, I think, than being unaware of the affect of the culture one finds themselves in.

  • virginia jarvis 27/01/2014 - 9:10 pm

    WE present day inheritors of this culture of good and bad are responsible for cleaning out the crap anf enhancing the good. For all children’s sakes so they do not have to beat the shame of false standards, nor make up lies or pretend to be better than others.
    It is our duty to our own kids as well as others kids.

  • Kirsty 28/01/2014 - 11:54 am

    I loved your article. I think it adds real value and will help those who are willing to listen, to understand the resistance indiginous Australians and migrant Australians feel toward celebrating Australia Day. I am from a strong Anglo-Saxan (3 generation strong) family. I have only known positive discrimination in my life. However, I am now married to a Korean man and have a bilingual child. And for the first time, I worry about the negative experiences my daughter is likely to face growing up in Australia. There are many things I love about Australia and it’s people, but I do not understand how we can continue to behave in attitude and action so basely toward our indiginous population and migrant refugees who are in such need of acceptance and support. I wish you all the best and hope you can have more opportunities to use your words again to share an important message.
    Cheers
    Kirsty

  • Freda 28/01/2014 - 7:13 pm

    I remember clearly in the 1950’s going into a Delicatessen and the woman behind the counter saying “Serve that little wog last” even though it was my turn. I was 7 years old and the hurt and anger that I felt then still rises up when I think about it. – I remember being spat on at the local swimming pool by the white Aussie kids who did not know me and being called names – Dago, wog, etc. Good! Because it has taught me empathy and what it feels like to be discriminated against because I wasn’t all peaches and cream. 🙂 I was born to an English Mother and a Lebanese father. [Who was an abusive bastard – but that’s another story] I remember for years being proud that my Mother had blue eyes and blond hair. Sad isn’t it? On the positive side I have influence now on teaching about the impact of discrimination; I fight for peoples’ rights and am passionate about it. Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful post. I am ashamed to be Australian at the moment because of the way we discriminate and treat asylum seekers. Sad times. Thank you for sharing.

  • Rachael 29/01/2014 - 12:42 pm

    Thank you for you commenting, everyone. I’m moved by all your stories- you are the reason I felt so motivated to write this piece, as I know my experience was not an isolated one. This discrimination happens every day, and for children it can be so damaging.
    However, we can learn and move forward, which is what we are all doing by sharing and discussing painful memories. I hope more people like you will teach future children how to deal in these situations, and better yet, how to treat fellow human beings with dignity and respect.

    I hope you all had a happy and safe Survival Day 🙂

  • Djubba 11/03/2014 - 1:35 pm

    Hi Rachel … Just wanting say, thanks for sharing your views/article and experiences expressed succinctly and assertively … read the article in the Koori Mail … bravo