History splintered into two rivers/ in one riverbed/ your blood, my blood, our blood/ washed clear, but not clean//
Photo supplied by Warrick Clinch
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established in 1972 on the steps of Old Parliament House to demand sovereignty for Aboriginal people. It’s a protest that’s been happening for over forty years. Since well before I was born.
And it’s a protest I’d never heard of it until well after my 25th year.
In school, my ‘formal’ exposure to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and contemporary issues can be summed up by ‘Aboriginal people were here when white people got here,’ no context, no follow up, no detail.
I don’t think my experience was particularly unique. Ask a handful of people who went to school during the same time period and I expect they could list off more facts about Ancient Egypt than they could about the history of First Nations people in this county.
Off the top of my head, some of the things I remember being taught during my formal schooling experience:
- To sing Frère Jacques – I still know the words (no idea what they mean) and the tune
- Pythagoras theorem
- How rain is made – evaporation, precipitation
- Basic grammar
- Persuasive writing
- Hello and goodbye in Spanish and Japanese
- The first fleet
- Burke and Wills
- Indoor Hockey
- The words to Advance Australia Fair
Things I was not taught:
- How to say hello in any First Nations language
- What an acknowledgement of country is/is for
- The history of the tent embassy
- The history of black theatre
- The frontier wars
- How to recognize and respond to racism (my own and others)
- Genocide/stolen generations
- Treaty/sovereignty/constitutional recognition
- Anything about First Nations people’s culture, language groups, history, dreaming, science, nutrition, political issues
My formal schooling experience taught me only that Aboriginal people were here before white people were. My ‘informal’ experience during primary school taught me that Aboriginal people were usually poor and not in positions of power and that Aboriginal men were usually scary (and drunk) and that Aboriginal women were mostly non existent. The only Aboriginal person I remember seeing on TV when I was growing up was Ernie Dingo.
Hopefully I don’t need to break down for you how fucked all of that is.
I shared a number of articles on ‘Australia’ Day about changing the date.
I saw some incredibly racist, offensive and poorly informed comments on those articles.
I felt furious.
But not at them. Or at least, not directly and only at them as individuals.
I felt furious at all of us.
For staying ignorant. For keeping others ignorant. For choosing to benefit from and hold on to our own privilege. For staying safely in our own corners and clinging to what we know. For accepting, believing and perpetuating all the single stories told to us*.
My husband and I watched the youtube video a Harry Potter fan (kcawesome13) made which cuts together all of Snape’s scenes from the movies in chronological order.
My point – in case it’s not bleedingly obvious – is that the lens we view a story through changes our experience of that story. Who we empathise with. What we understand and what we don’t. When our formal and informal education is entirely through a white lens, we continue to empathise with and think from a white perspective. If you don’t understand why this is a problem, I would recommend heading over to read some of Celeste Liddle’s work as a start (but don’t stop there).
I’d like to think that the situation is improving. That our formal and informal education is exposing us to more perspectives and stories. My children have access to NITV and some amazing presenters and stars on mainstream channels (case in point – Deborah Mailman #totalgirlcrush). The National Curriculum identifies Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures as a cross-curricular priority (though there’s controversy around that of course * sigh *).
Yet, I still don’t think it’s enough. Not nearly enough.
My son is learning about the things I didn’t learn about because I care about them, because I’ve made them a priority and we seek opportunities to engage, learn and support outside of formal education. But what about everyone who doesn’t have a personal stake or interest?
Where are they learning and being exposed to anything other than their own experience? We’re risking more than just ignorance. More then just racism.
We’re risking losing whatever lessons the past has to teach us. Dooming ourselves to repeat the mistakes of the past. Over and over and over again.
We’re risking our potential.
I’m more than worried. I’m scared.
*for an introduction to the idea of single stories, check out Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk here.
I met Warrick through Youth Parliament. I was a taskforce support officer supervising participants for the South Australian Youth Parliament program. Warrick was a participant of the South Australian team of the national Indigenous Youth Parliament, their team was sharing accommodation with our regional participants for training weekend. I think it was 2011? Maybe 2012.
Warrick and I ended up facebook friends, as often happens from these kinds of networks/events. I don’t want to embarrass him or anything, but he’s one of those men who has so much more potential and awesome than he gives himself credit for. He’s a good lad. More than that, I’d vote for him.
Love Celeste Liddle. Love Chimamanda; her book Half of a Yellow Sun is one of my all time favorites!
Nice piece. I came to Australia in 93, just before I turned 9. In my education, which took place in Melbourne and Brisbane public schools there was no room for any story but the story of modern Australia with many crucial parts missing. It’s a disgrace. There was nothing from the state to counter what I was learning about indigenous Australia from the dominant culture! I feel ashamed!
She’s pretty rad. (Also I am so slow at replying to my comments!)
I haven’t read Half of a Yellow Sun, I shall have to look it up. x