Features Australia

Hard luck stories

Tales of childhood misery and misfortune are the entry price of joining the Aboriginal debate, apparently

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

It seems as though every successful, prominent Aborigine is the product of a childhood blighted by racism. Media profiles of public Aboriginals routinely summarise the hardships and humiliations suffered by the defenceless younger incarnation of the grizzled campaigner, sleek glamour-puss or dapper Aboriginal statesman in the spotlight. Perhaps, in an era where Aboriginality can be difficult to determine from a person’s appearance, language, daily routines or any other observable characteristics, a sob story and a ‘sense of identity’ is all that can really distinguish the modern, urban Aborigine from the ordinary, garden-variety Australian. It is understood that to be Aboriginal is to have a lament, and to lament is to establish one’s credentials as an authentic Aboriginal.

One Aboriginal political middleweight recently informed me that I had ‘no right’ to participate in debate on Aboriginal politics without offering up a lament of my own. At the time I successfully fought the urge to jump through the hoop and blurt out a potted personal history, but I was troubled nonetheless. Did she have a point? Was I trying to slip through the gates to join a debate without paying the entry fee of handing over my own hard-luck story?

I soon came to my senses and decided that nobody is going to strong-arm a ‘poor-bugger-me’ story out of me, for several reasons. It’s a tacky way to score political points, it is almost always irrelevant to the issue at hand, and it legitimises the self-appointed gatekeepers of the debate.

Furthermore, to bemoan my childhood of relative privilege in the face of the genuine horrors that some Aboriginal children are enduring in the here and now would display a narcissism and callous indifference of truly aristocratic proportions. I am a literate, educated, Australian citizen; people from less fortunate parts of the world are literally dying for a chance to live the way I do. In the grand scheme of things, I simply don’t have a hard-luck story to tell.

That is not to say that interest in the personal history of successful Aboriginal people is unwarranted. When somebody says something interesting, I become interested in how they came to think the way they do, and a précis of their formative experiences allows me to play the amateur psychoanalyst. Also, nobody likes to be played for a fool. There is an audience out there that positively aches to be touched, moved and emotionally stirred by charismatic Aboriginal speakers, but even they need a little reassurance that they are getting the real deal. They need a bit of the old ‘I was born a poor black child…’ before they can completely relax and set aside all sense and reason.

Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane recently opined that racist remarks can ‘make you feel like a smaller person, it can go to the core of your being’. (It is admirable that a person so exquisitely susceptible to racism-induced emotional distress would take on the role of Race Discrimination Commissioner, exposing the core of his being to violation on a daily basis.)

That has never been my experience, and perhaps that merely demonstrates that my racial identity doesn’t go all the way through to my ‘core’. Or perhaps such detachment suggests that context matters.

As a child I experienced the occasional taunt about being an ‘Abo’, which was to imply that I was congenitally dirty, poor and lackadaisically parented. While it sounds nasty, the insult stung but little because it was generally thrown by hillbilly delinquents who were just as grubby as me and who lived in shabbier houses than mine. I have some memories of kids being horrible, but I wasn’t exactly a model citizen myself. I recall some odd remarks from some adults, but who knows what was going on in their minds?

Thankfully, a child who reports an incident of abuse is much more likely to be believed these days than in times past. We are inclined to trust that a child knows when they have been treated badly, however we do not expect the child to form a theory of the abuser’s mindset and motivations, or to explain why they were singled out for mistreatment. The child can easily perceive stern discipline as arbitrary cruelty, for example, which the adult may then attribute to nothing other than racism. Many educated, upwardly-mobile Aboriginal professionals inhabit a culture that strongly encourages them to apply this interpretation to any incidents of childhood misery and misfortune that they can recall. There is little encouragement to remember any similar incidents of misery and misfortune they may have observed amongst their non-Aboriginal peers, however.

The stories of children who were merely poor, plain, obese, slow, strange, or of indeterminate sexual orientation do not fit the ‘racism’ narrative and are therefore invisible – although I am certain that many such children experienced injustices and torments that, as Dr Soutphommasane puts it, made them feel like a smaller person, and that went to the core of their being.

The formative experiences of articulate and powerful Aboriginal public figures inform the popular view of what is ‘true’ about race relations in this country. Successful, middle-class Aboriginal professionals are proficient speakers of the poignant language that their audiences crave. They are more visible in the media landscape than the blue-collar Aboriginal people who are just getting on with their lives, and far more accessible than public-housing-dwelling, Centrelink-frequenting Aboriginal people who may be too shy, inarticulate, sweary, scary, or just too off-message for a mainstream audience to cope with. And then there are the far-flung Aboriginal folk who are too preoccupied with their own affairs to bother explaining themselves in English to a bunch of preposterous white people. And so it is left to those Aboriginal people who feel most acutely the myriad slights and indignities of the aspirational struggle to enlighten their fellow Australians on what it feels like to be Aboriginal.

The problem is, like everyone, they don’t know what it feels like to be anybody else.

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Kerryn Pholi is a regular contributor to The Spectator Australia

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