‘The Aboriginal Equation’, Reflection on Tamika Worrell’s piece in ‘Growing up Aboriginal in Australia’
This literary analysis was written in my first semester during my time in ‘Contemporary Australian Writing’. Upon seeing ‘Growing up Aboriginal in Australia’ on the bookshelves of the Daylesford bookstore I reflected upon this piece as a learning curve for my self awareness of aboriginal heritage and white invisibility when I was eighteen.
For privacy purposes some words are changed with a double asterick.
‘What percentage of Aboriginal are you?’ ‘A quarter?’ ‘Eighth?’ ‘Do you support Adam Goodes?’ ‘Can you play the didgeridoo?’ ‘Can you throw a spear?’ ‘So, you’re the one taking our money!’ ‘Do you take handouts?’ ‘Don’t blame me for what happened 200 years ago!’ ‘Look at this pattern, it looks aboriginal.’ ‘Have you heard my aboriginal accent?’ ‘I met an Aboriginal once, they used welfare on throwaway cars.’ ‘I don’t believe you, can I see your paperwork?’ ‘Prove it.’
Tamika Worrell is a Kamilaroi woman who studied on Dharug country on the grounds of Macquarie University. Worrell is a learner by nature with a passion for closing the educational gap between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous students to support access to a stable role in society. A life dedicated to paving stone roads to the next generation of Indigenous children. The position of Indigenous people is diverse with a collective consciousness of a shared experience of intergenerational trauma, community, country and culture. A mutual understanding. ‘The Aboriginal Equation’ is one passage from a 2018 anthology ‘Growing up Aboriginal in Australia’ including the early voices of 51 indigenous people. From this, down to the individual passage by Worrell it is apparent that common threads weave through the minds of First Nations people.
The Fifty Percent
Worrell’s words are insightful yet confronting, into the looking glass of the casual racist rhetoric of the common Australian, from the Murdoch monopoly of media to drinking in the backyard with a jerry can and an accent. The opening question echoes with early 1900’s Social Darwinism theory, reeking of terms such as full blood, half-caste and pure to categorise people into sections. It has always struck a chord with me when I hear the term percentage, as if a Schutzstaffel from French Occupied Germany is spitting the Nuremberg Laws into my face.
These words ring through the ears of indigenous people as an ignorant question is asked as if they are inspecting a human skull with that of the great apes to find a connection between white and blak. Worrell extends this, into a confronting common experience of Australia’s ‘token culture‘, a culture that only exists when the larger population need it to virtue signal. A community of people expected to know the name of an indigenous plant when a fellow white peer would only be asked if they studied horticulture and were an expert in the field. These questions that Worrell writes in the opening are a common experience of all people of colour, yet they are unique to Indigenous Australians.
My black tea, appears to be coffee. But it is still in fact tea, with sugar, milk, it is still tea. It may be milk tea to some, but it is definitely not coffee but tea. Worrell touches on this concept, she herself as a proud Kamilaroi woman, notes the feeling of needing to “defend” her identity from a young age as someone “fair-skinned, or white-passing”, where the sharing of culture becomes a “vulnerability” as someone who has to walk through “two worlds”.
The Education Machine
In Worrell’s career as an educator in English and Society and Culture her identity as an indigenous person is challenged by her peers that have a responsibility to uphold Australian education. Worrell ponders on questions asked to her such as “Are you really Aboriginal?” and “Like, what percentage are you?” with the disheartening feeling that an explanation will still leave them ignorant, as if they really didn’t need to ask the question at all. As an educator Worrell lays a commitment to not allow any of her indigenous students to experience her struggles in youth. Her being raised in an environment where being indigenous was a “bad thing”. In the authors youth she felt displaced from others as she was offered support just for her identity as a Koori Girl, being treated as “dumb” with her school intending to force a tutor into her education for support she didn’t require. In my education experience, the indigenous support was choppy, with annual gaps of no government support except a new.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flag to sit on the flag pole and get ignored during NAIDOC week. My** College was largely homogenous, with the Wikipedia page clearly stating ‘My suburb** has a high Caucasian population.’ As though that sentence will defend its bland culture. I reminisce on begging the the school’s welfare team to celebrate NAIDOC week instead of funding programs that wasted money, but was left with a welcome to country on the loud speaker and a recess of bullying followed by a tutoring session that no one went too.
I’m haunted by the clenching of my fist when my Year 8 history teacher told the class that every Tasmanian Aboriginal was dead, or getting in trouble in Primary School for flashing my NAPLAN front page to another student to prove that their was a tick on the ATIS box to say I was indigenous after a year of being ignored for a culture I was proud of. A school where ‘Aboriginal Dot Painting’ was an afterschool activity.
It felt like virtue signaling, the school’s social media loved to promote indigenous activities even though it happened once a year. My only legacy left was two murals painted in traditional aboriginal painting because the next generation of students wouldn’t be able to figure out it was made by us without dots, lines and symbols.
“I’ll continue to be an angry Koori…”
The Aboriginal identity is treated like a wild animal being poked by a stick; the abuser would blame the kangaroo for kicking it while denying the stick was ever used to taunt it. However, Worrell subverts this ideology by using the stereotype as empowerment. Stating that “I’ll continue to be an angry Koori woman”, with a sense that Aboriginality is a “journey” that transcends the culture.
The culture is powerful and the experience is unique beyond traditional cultural norms. It is an experience and a journey still on going to full recognition and representation in the system. Worrell’s ‘The Aboriginal Equation’ encompasses this resilience and the ‘thick skin’ of Australian Aboriginal people.
‘[We are] …not an equation or percentage for you to work out.’
When I wrote this piece, I was very connected to the turmoil Worrell faces as a ‘white-passing’ indigenous woman. This piece is reflective, and notes on the quotes of the text within my own cultural heritage.
Analysis Written by Jasper Cohen-Hunter, 2020
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