Archive for indigenous

Guiding Stories

There comes a moment when the old stories start to lose their power.

This happens when an event, or series of them, disrupts the narrative that is our life by inserting an alternate story into that narrative.

That happened for me as I worked in off-shore processing in Nauru. With a front-row seat to changes in government policy, and the impact of those policies on people without power, I began to question the ‘white Australian story’ that I’d grown up with.

As I began to step away from that story, I began to really listen to the stories of indigenous Australians, which made me reassess my place in Australia and its history. As my perspective changed, those who were close to me did one of two things: they allowed this alternate story to change their own outlook or they held more tightly to the old story.

Those around me who held on to the narratives of white privilege felt threatened by the growth in influence of narratives other than their own. This sense of threat sprang from an unacknowledged fear that their comfortable way of looking at life and living in this society was in losing its power.

This ‘white Australian story’ that I’d grown up with, having been raised in a white, middle-class, conservative, Bible-belt area of Sydney, had been a comforting narrative for much of my then 50+ years. It was comforting for those who were ‘in’ because it upheld the status quo of white privilege.

However, this narrative is no longer my ‘guiding story’, nor is it the guiding story for life in 21st century Australia. I am thankful to my good friend Bruce Adams for this insight.

Although white privilege is alive and well in Australia, although indigenous Australians are still disadvantaged and suffer systemic discrimination, although racism remains an ugly issue, it is becoming clear that these ways of looking at life are much less tolerated.

There is a new guiding story being written for Australia and many authors can, and are, contributing.

Its chief authors must be indigenous Australians, whose story has for too long been shunned, ignored and silenced. Other authors are those who have made Australia home, having arrived as international students, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.

White Australians are authors too – this is our home – but we must be more aware of how dominant and destructive our version of the story has been and be prepared to listen to and embrace other versions of the story.

As we build this new narrative, perhaps Australia could return to its indigenous roots and become what it once was, tens of thousands of years ago – a true home to many nations.

Hearing and telling…differently

In 2013, I was the religious liaison officer in the off-shore processing centres on Nauru.

My role was to provide for the religious needs of the asylum seekers – mostly Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and Hindu. That meant distributing prayer mats and beads, Qurans, Bibles, and rosary beads. That meant ensuring the Buddhists’ request for a timber shrine was fulfilled, or that the Hindus had copies of their deities – Ganesh, Brahma, Vishnu.

To quote Charles Dickens, ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times’. Best, because I felt alive, working in a front-line position, using all my skills. Worst, because I did not, and still don’t, agree that mandatory detention is an appropriate way to address the issue of refugees and asylum seekers.

During a community meeting with the asylum seekers, one man asked when their processing would be complete. The representative from the Australian immigration department stated that this was not the responsibility of the Australian government, but rather of the Nauruan.

After returning to Australia full-time, I blogged about this, noting the shame I felt, during this meeting, to be an Australian.

For admitting to feeling ashamed, I was castigated by a friend. How could I call myself an Australian and say such things?

For my friend, the backstory of being an Australian was one of being a flag-waving, digger-loving, Anzac-bickie-eating, BBQ-loving, green-and-gold-glorifying, dinky-di, true-blue Aussie mate.

For me, the backstory of being an Australian was one of mateship, barracking for the underdog, being all-in-this-together, and a fair-go for all. I just couldn’t see the Australia I knew being played out in these government immigration policies.

The Australia I thought I knew wouldn’t wash its hands of people, wouldn’t turn a blind eye, wouldn’t privilege policy over people – or would it? The longer I worked in off-shore detention the more I saw that, yes, actually, Australia would do all those things.

It was then that I started to look differently at the backstory of Australia that I’d accepted as true. It was then that I began to realise that there was another story to my country, another story that I’d been vaguely aware of, but really hadn’t given much notice to.

As I watched how Australia dealt with asylum seekers, I began to really see how Australia had dealt with its indigenous peoples.

I saw another story; I heard another story and I began to look at my own part in this story, a part I didn’t like much.

I began to see that the story of Australia I’d been told, this story that I’d heard could be told and heard in quite another way.

The stories we tell and the stories we hear

Much has been said about Fremantle Council’s recent decision to cancel the fireworks at Australia Day celebrations out of respect for indigenous Australians.

An editorial in a well-known paper, after outlining the writer’s stance on Australia Day as a day to both celebrate and think, then referred to ‘the isolated moments of darkness in our dealings with Aboriginal Australians’. The writer then described January 26, 1788 as a ‘nasty surprise’ for ‘our indigenous mates’.

This writer was telling the story of the landing of British troops and convicts in Australia and the ongoing implications and consequences.

However, the story I heard was one of white entitlement to a land that was already occupied.

What I heard was an attempt to reduce the impact of white settlement to a ‘nasty surprise’ – in much the same way as a spider in your shoe is a nasty surprise. What I heard was a white Australian conflating 200+ years of discrimination, forced removal of children, rape, murder and disenfranchising to ‘isolated moments’.

However, I’m also sure that other readers heard a corroboration of their stance that Australia Day should be left alone and that indigenous Australians need to just stop whingeing and let bye-gones be bye-gones – after all, we’ve said ‘sorry’.

Now I get this. I’m a white Australian who loves this country dearly.

For years, I couldn’t understand why indigenous Australians banged on so much about their connection to the land; I didn’t understand why Mabo was so important; I didn’t understand why we couldn’t all just be Aussies together.

But what I really didn’t understand was that indigenous Australians were only considered Australian citizens during my lifetime. I didn’t understand that indigenous Australians had been classified as flora and fauna.

I didn’t understand that what I’d been taught in school about European settlement of Australia had a very different perspective if you were indigenous. I didn’t understand that the stories we tell can be heard very differently depending on who you are and what your background is.

It took an experience working in off-shore processing with asylum seekers to open my eyes to a new perspective.

White settlement or white invasion is the backstory of my nation. The intentional attempt to decimate a whole people or the intentional attempt to build a new country is the backstory of my nation.

How this story is heard depends on where you stand.