In a moment of naivety, she wishes she was black. To be a part of the collective consciousness that existed in this land long before it became ahistorical. To claim affinity with the land, to feel that she has an excuse, a justification, a legitimisation for her own feeling of belonging here. But she doesn’t want to be the object of the disavowal, the blind hatred, the ignorance, the dispossession. She doesn’t want to die seventeen years before the twenty-one million, three-hundred and eighty-one thousand and five hundred and ten non-aboriginal occupants of this country.
I wrote this as a part of a short story for a HSC major work in 2009. I was a white girl, German by birth, an invader in this country. I lived in the beautiful Northern Rivers region of NSW, and I felt a very significant sense of connection to that place. I still do. And I wanted to write about it, even if it would only ever be read by the markers.
I remember being taught about the Stolen Generations at my high school, about Aboriginal people removed from their culture and families, dispossessed, disarticulated, identities torn apart. I remember feeling guilt, a lot of guilt. I remember skipping class – the only time I ever dared to – to watch Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations on a tiny TV in the library, about fifteen of us white kids huddled around. I remember studying the statistics – life expectancy, poverty, abuse, employment, education.
When I wrote about my own belonging to the place I had grown up in a lot of this was always at the forefront of my mind. I felt guilty because I knew that even if it wasn’t me personally, I was part of the group of oppressors. And there I was writing about feeling connected to a land that wasn’t even mine. That had been stolen. I dared to write:
She can feel the land breathe and pulse beneath her feet. She respects it, the stories that shaped it, and the people who watched over it for an hundred years. Perhaps, she thinks, the land does not distinguish black and white as its people do.
I do not know if I was right in daring to say that. But I admire the way that Aboriginal discourses aren’t (as far as I have had it explained to me) formulated around ownership of space, but custodianship. Ownership speaks of dominance, control, defensiveness. Custodianship, to me, speaks of relationships, responsibility, and respect. I think that it would benefit Australia if white people began to think about these three aspects rather than those associated with ownership.
Thinking about relationships, we (non-Aboriginal Australians) need to acknowledge (as individuals and as a society) that different layers of disadvantage intersect each other. We need to understand how being Aboriginal is influenced by the cycle of poverty, by trauma, by a history of physical and cultural dispossession, by living in a rural or regional community, by any number of disadvantages.
Thinking about responsibility, we need to realise the full implications of past policies, discrimination and dispossession without sweeping it under the carpet. And we need to then take responsibility for those actions. That involves recognising the impact that those actions still have, and that Aboriginal people are still oppressed, managed and judged. This isn’t just a thing of the past.
And thinking about respect, we need to realise that our dominant perception of Aboriginal people as lazy, alcoholic, abusive and violent is wrong. We need to respect Aboriginal people’s right to speak and to be heard. We need to respect that this country has a history before 1788. (And hey, as an archaeology student I’ve studied some great Aboriginal sites!) And I think that we also need to respect Aboriginal people’s anger and pain without trying to put it aside.
Please leave a comment if you enjoyed this post, or if it made you angry, or if you disagree with something I have said. There may be something I have gotten wrong – and I won’t know if you don’t tell me.