The Authority of Colour

I have been moved by the wonderful Toni Morrison, one of my thought mothers, to consider racism from the oppressors point of view. I am a white man, tall, middle class and educated. I work as a doctor of medicine, a powerful role in our country. I have been rewarded with an Order of Australia Medal, probably by people a lot like me (but I do not know). I am ‘in the driving seat’, so to speak, but I have chosen, with the relentless encouragement of Mimi, my ‘specialist in life’, to drive off the track.

I find myself in a position where Aboriginal people employ me. I have two levels of Aboriginal executive above me (who are both women) and the organisation is controlled by an Aboriginal board. I mention this as it is not a common environment for someone like me to work within. It is a very well run organisation, the best I have experienced, very motivating and with great working relationships. It is challenging and I feel good about it.

So Toni has asked for people ‘on the other side’ to describe what racism is. My first piece on this difficult topic was with Waiting for the world to change. I am interested in how the presence of white people changes things in my setting and if this is how institutional racism works. This is not about how redneck we are, or how vile. Rather, how there is an accepted code that gives white people more authority in social settings. There are a couple of subtle ways I have seen this being played out.

Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory use words in everyday discussion that are not so common or acceptable in mainstream culture. I did not notice this when I first came to work in Central Australia but now I do. I have used the ubiquitous terms ‘gammon’ and ‘budju’ for sometime having raised a family in the NT. I now use swear words a lot more at work than I did. I have become reasonably comfortable with the work “cunt”, not when it is used in hate, but in many contexts. Budju is also a word for vagina but is now used by all Territorians to describe very attractive people of both sexes. I am sure this word is acceptable in any setting.

Like my Aboriginal friends and colleagues, I do not say things that might offend when there are too many white fellas about. I wondered about this; about why Aboriginal people change their language when talking to non-Aboriginal people? Why Aboriginal people might stop being Aboriginal when a white person comes close?

Toni Morrison wrote:

I have always myself felt most alive, most alert, and most sterling among my own people. All of my creative energy comes from there. My stimulation for any artistic effort at all originates there. The compulsion to write, even to be, begins with my consciousness of, experience with, and even my awe of black people and the quality of our lives as lived (not as perceived). And all of my instincts tell me that both as a writer and as a person any total surrender to another culture would destroy me. And the danger is not always from indifference; it is also from acceptance. It is sometimes called the fear of absorption, the horror of cultural embrace. But at the heart of the horror for me is what I know about what the history of the culture that pervades this country have been.”

Toni Morrison “Hard, True and Lasting” in A Mouth Full of Blood.

Lukas Williams, the wonderful young change advocate from Gan’na Healing, told me a story about one meeting he attended in a desert community where he was living. He was talking and projecting slides onto a make-do chipboard screen nailed to a post. The large group of local men who attended these meetings were chatting around the fires for warmth. Lukas put up a drawing of Captain Cook landing on Australia’s shore and waited until people grew silent. He started to talk about sovereignty. As the talking slowed to quiet, a large rock came flying through the air and smashed through the screen leaving a dark hole.

There was an immediate hush: uncomfortable silence. A snigger echoed in the far back of the group. Then more, some now laughing. Then, with the explosive urgency of freedom, a massive outburst of laughter filled the air. It rang and rang and echoed off the nearby mountains.

Waiting for the World to Change

I was waiting to board the plane from a community back to Alice Springs and a young client who I had seen the day before  was in the queue. It was great to see she had decided to move on. She had a pillow and a lot of hand luggage as well as her chubby young baby. I offered to carry something and she held out her pillow. I took it. We walked to the plane together sharing a little history and contemplating the new life she was heading towards. She beamed hope and liberation from a very tough time in her life.

On the plane she went to the back, row 23 and I stopped at row 1. I told her I would ask a hostess to bring the pillow down when she was settled in. I put on my headphones and started to listen to John Mayer. Once the door was shut, I asked a lively young, very blonde and Aussie hostess who came from the back of the  plane if she could give the pillow to the tall young woman in row 23 with a baby. She looked at me quizzically, turned her head to one side, pursed her lips, but took the pillow. I was puzzled that she hadn’t noticed the striking appearance of the woman, and I wondered if there were a lot of babies in row 23.

She came back and checked, “You mean the dark one?”

“Yes”, I said.

I worried for that young woman from the bush who will be trying to make her way in mainstream Australia. It is tempting to try and understand what was going on in the young hostess’s mind. She was clearly a caring and well intentioned young person. I think we need to own the state of the young hostess’s mind as a nation and realise how far we have to go to educate ourselves and embrace our Indigenous peoples and cultures. When it comes down to it, the complex cultures of our ancient forebears define our space in an increasingly global cultural ‘mash-up’. The alternative is that our collective ignorance defines us.