Within two days of my arrival in Australia, more than one person warned me about the Aboriginals. Specifically, they told me not to walk through the parks, particularly alone, particularly at night. Horror stories were shared of people getting robbed or physically assaulted, with a smug sense of “see? my racism is well founded”.
I went to the Aboriginal exhibit in the Western Australian Museum in Perth, and learned about the Stolen Generation. Up until the 1960s, an estimated 100,000 children were forcibly removed from their homes and families and raised by white families; a misguided concept of assimilating the Aboriginal children into white culture. The aftermath is devastating. The Stolen Children are now a displaced group of people who do not fit into either culture.
One of the articles on display in the museum brought tears to my eyes. The writer said that people shouldn’t worry about the effects of dragging these children away from their mothers because, while they would be emotional at the time, they don’t have feelings like we do, and they’d quickly forget about that child.
We had a barbecue after work a few days ago, to welcome the new arrival. It started off like any other barbecue we’ve had: the pleasant ritual of gathering wood and kindling, and building the fire, hungrily watching the steak sizzle, and cursing the flies.
When we sat down to eat, one of our own began one of the worst racist diatribes against Aboriginals that I have ever heard. And that’s saying something in a country where racism towards Aboriginals is generally and horribly socially acceptable. The atmosphere shifted from jovial to deeply uncomfortable and upsetting. I was struck by my own naivete: I had been operating in a bubble of assumption, that because we worked so closely with the surrounding Aboriginal communities, we had moved past stereotyping and into taking people on an individual basis. Rocket science, it ain’t. Whether it’s hipsters in Melbourne or Bedouin nomads: some people are great, some are assholes and the rest fall somewhere in between.
Efforts to change the subject were resolutely ignored and talked over. At one point *Name Withheld* began blasting the people for being dirty and not having nice things. Lincoln whispered, “I don’t see you drinking out of a wine glass, honey.” We dissolved into hushed, incredulous laughter. “Fucking glass houses,” I said. She had ratcheted up into the level of the patently absurd. By the time she started in on the kids, our reticence to argue (because she’s the boss’ girlfriend; we are all at the mercy of power imbalances) evaporated and Rainer bellowed, “Oh please, you just hate kids, doesn’t matter what color they are.”
One of our customers, a man called Jono, was in the store the other day with his three kids. He pointed at the eldest boy and said, with a wide, proud Dad grin, “P—: his bush name!” The boy shot him that teenager look: “Ack, Dad, would you stop embarrassing me already.”
The Aboriginals are dual named. They have official government names, English ones like John and Mary. They also have bush names that, for the most part, we are not privy to. It is one of those things that is closely guarded; many things about their culture are not allowed to be shared with outsiders.
In a concerted effort to shift the focus from him, Jono’s son started to tell us his sister’s bush name, and Jono shushed him immediately and forcefully. I don’t know why we’re allowed to know the boy’s name but not hers. It felt inappropriate to ask.
In the days following the barbecue, I was mired in outrage and a deep overwhelming sadness: disgust and revulsion are heavy emotions, as Lincoln sagely pointed out to me. The two of us had a long conversation afterward, to decompress, and I will forever be grateful to him for being there and sharing the outrage.
I am sad that my bubble was burst. And I’m sad that I bore witness to such bald, virulent hatred and didn’t defend the Aboriginals, my customers and community in the outback, more vehemently. But above all, I am sad that I will never know Jono’s daughter’s bush name.