My country, my place, my people
THREE years ago, I was sitting in a little roadside café in regional Nepal – taking a few days’ downtime after a fairly intense five weeks visiting and working on Rotary projects in Cambodia and India before heading home.
I was nursing the first stirrings of a ‘flu and feeling pretty sooky, despite the backdrop of the magnificent Himalaya and one of the most spectacular vistas on the planet.
I was tired, emotional and ready to come home when, taking advantage of the free if patchy Wifi, I happened on a Youtube clip that included the familiar strains of the didgeridoo… and promptly burst into tears of homesickness.
That sound – unique and viscerally powerful – is the sound of home. I think of it as part of my heritage, my country, my culture, my story, my people. I’m not Aboriginal, but I am Australian. I feel the same when I hear words spoken in traditional language – and here in our country, we hear it far too seldom, sadly. I feel it when local Wiradjuri woman Di Mcnaboe sings her incredibly powerful Welcome to Country.
I feel it when I stand at the foot of Uluru and a wave of unfamiliar spirituality washes over me; and when traditional art and artefacts and dance and song and people tell my country’s ancient stories.
All these things and more – things we’d think of as peculiar to indigenous or Aboriginal people – they’re as much a part of my sense of place as anything my European heritage or my country’s past 200 years contributes.
I’m as proud as punch that my country is home to the oldest surviving cultures on earth. It irks me deeply that our national anthem – which I otherwise love – speaks of us being “young and free”, with no acknowledgement of the 40-odd thousand years that went before that first Union Jack was jammed in the ground.
(I find it similarly irksome that we sing with gusto about our “boundless plains to share” with “those who’ve come across the seas” when so many of us are reluctant to do so – but that’s another tale for another time.)
I enjoy celebrating Australia Day, but I feel a twinge of guilt each year about doing so – and I honestly don’t think that’s fair, either.
Surely we can rejoice in all the good things about Australia without being blind or insensitive to its failings.
The claim that we’re not responsible for what happened 200 years ago is a gargantuan copout. We could perhaps reasonably make that declaration if Aboriginal people as a whole weren’t still bearing the scars – emotional, physical, social, economic, educational – of the marginalisation that began with white settlement. They are. We see it every day, and it’s a national disgrace that we seem to think throwing billions of dollars into the gap will somehow close it.
Our ugly past (and present) is part of our national story – but it’s not our entire story and while Australia Day is the perfect time to reflect on ALL the pages of that yarn so far, we risk driving a further wedge into the yawning gap if it continues to be an “us and them” prospect.
If you’re thinking of telling me to “check my privilege”, don’t. I know I’m privileged. I know that simply being born white in Australia gave me a head-start.
It’s what I choose to do with that privilege that counts, and I’m trying as hard as I know how to use it wisely.
“If you’re thinking of telling me to “check my privilege”, don’t. I know I’m privileged. I know that simply being born white in Australia gave me a head-start.
I can’t and won’t claim to know what it feels like to be Aboriginal in this country. I don’t know the residual hurt and anger from generations of disadvantage. And I can wring my hands from the sidelines without actually having to play on the team, as it were.
But I have Aboriginal friends and colleagues whose struggle I see; with whose hurt I empathise. I see them as among “my people” – part of my story – and I’d genuinely like to know what more I can do to help other Australians, black and white, to see and refer to each other as “my people”.
So here’s the thing: what exactly are we doing to shift that divide? And when I say “we”, I mean ALL of us – black and white and in-between – ALL Australians.
We can start by acknowledging the dark pages of history – own them, if you’d like to use a buzzword – and recognise that the grim and tragic deeds and consequences of the past are far reaching and as much a part of our nation’s story as its more palatable identity.
We can also acknowledge that there are many good people who are genuinely trying to find a way through to a more equitable future.
And I’ll continue to think of Australia’s first people as among “my people” – whether or not the feeling is mutual.