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The front row of Australian race relations …

It could have just been a normal weekend. But it wasn’t. A friend invited me down to Brisbane to see the one woman show called My Urrwai by Ghenoa Gela. It all unfolded from there.

(Show Blurb: My Urrwai is a revealing window into culture, and an unflinching comment on race relations in Australia. As a contemporary comic, dancer, mainland Torres Strait Islander woman, Ghenoa reflects on and celebrates her cultural and familial inheritance and invites audiences into her world to experience the interplay of the political, social and colonial expectations she dances with every day).

The show confronted me on many levels. Ghenoa was funny, bitingly intelligent, and gently caring of the front row fodder that she hauled up onto the stage to participate in various parts of the show. She talked about many things: the culture-killing affects of missionary zeal, the pressure from police to ‘keep your Indigenous mouth shut’, the treatment of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people in Australian commercial retail outlets, and beyond the issue of race itself, the way we all, as human beings, treat each other.

Front row fodder. That’s an interesting one. My friend didn’t think twice about sitting in the front row, better view and all that, but I died a million deaths of agoraphobic induced anxiety as I plonked my butt in the comedic danger zone. Long story short, if you have read My Testimony you’ll get my drift. Happy ending however, we were not singled out or stage-fronted, though it might have proved interesting.

I couldn’t see the leadership group of the One Nation Party from where I was sitting. Perhaps they were avidly enjoying this show against overt racism from somewhere up in the back row?

So here am I, with my story, in the front row listening to the life story of a mainland Torres Strait Islander woman, sitting next to my friend who has her own story, and surrounded by an audience of people who all have their own individual stories. If you look at it this way, which I did, that room was full of stories, with most of them perhaps, left unsaid. But it was Ghenoa’s day, and she carried it magnificently.

It also made me think about race relations here in Australia. And it made me think about raw meat. Huh … you might think, what’s the connection there?

Well, apart from attending Ghenoa’s show, my friend and I pretended that we were very rich people and we attended a couple of restaurants in the two evenings we were in Brisbane. One was the venerable Greek Club in West End, and let’s face it, Greek cooking with bouzouki music trilling in the background is nothing short of nirvanic.

The other restaurant was French. I had Tartare de Boef. As a person well known to be a tad slow on the spontaneity uptake, I decided to break the mould, go for broke, and dive willingly into a plate of what was essentially a mound of raw minced beef with a raw egg dribbled all over it. It was delicious. But, again, it made me think about race relations here in Australia.

What are we all if nothing but a sack of bones and raw meat with a brain pan wobbling precariously on the top. We are all the raw meat of the human race. The only species of human on this planet.

Some will beg to differ with that opinion, and they will point out that if you can stomach listening to some of the pronouncements coming out of our current government then you are hearing living proof that Neanderthals are still amongst us. I get a sense of the truth of all that, but I can imagine Neanderthals rightly saying … hey, how dare you drag the memory of us down to the low levels of wallowdom where those government bods lurk … so apologies to the Neanderthals.

The weekend wasn’t all food fest and show, however. We also went to the markets. We had a couple of conversations there with stall holders. One stall holder was of Taiwanese origin. The other stall holders were an Indigenous couple.

The young Australian Taiwanese man was probably the happiest person I have ever met. He made jewellery. He visited Taiwan annually and stocked up on raw gemstones and then came back to Australia and polished them up and made his jewellery to sell at the markets. He loved living in this country, and when he described how it felt to be an Australian living in Queensland his grin was infectiously wider than the Grand Canyon.

He obviously loved people and he treated both of us as randomly and happily well-met fellow human beings. I got the sense that he didn’t see himself as Asian, and he didn’t see us as Anglo-Celts, all he saw were two human beings. Other people in Australia are not as advanced as that young man.

We were then attracted to an art stall run by an Indigenous couple. Yes, we bought some of their art, but then the conversation started. We talked for over an hour. Recognition, The Voice, race relations, historical wrongs, how human beings treat each other through the veil of race, were all discussed over that market stall table.

Remember earlier where I mentioned that everybody has their own story. Well, though I pitched in to the conversation with my own thoughts on the matter of Australian race relations, largely I listened. Because that Aboriginal couple wanted to share their story. They wanted to be heard. They had a lot to say.

In that one hour they talked about the beauty of being part of the oldest contiguous culture on this planet. They were both artists and they expressed their joy at having the artistic ability to express the stories of their culture in drawn and painted form. And they talked about the weight of sorrows that they and other Indigenous Australians carry each and every single day.

Not once did they attack us personally. Not once did they say it was our fault. Not once did they treat us as anything other than well-met fellow human beings. They saw two human beings willing to listen and they were prepared to tell us their story.

How can you distil the raw meat of a conversation? Not all of the following words were said, some were implied, but they are certainly all of the words of the story and of the message that I heard, and they get down to the nub of it all … those with the muskets didn’t listen to us then, they shot and they poisoned and they killed us as they grabbed our land, and they still aren’t listening to us now, and they still carry their musket of suppression with pride.

Perhaps all of that shows how little things have really changed over the last couple of centuries here in Australia.

Is Australia a racist country? The following questions have an answer that begins with a Y too. Is the Pope a Catholic? Does the sun rise every morning? Is snow cold? Does the earth spin?

Racism is not unique to Australia, racism is global, but it is Australia that is being discussed here. Australia is peopled by human beings from all over the world. Some come from Asia, some from Europe, some from Africa, some from South America, some from all points in between, and some have been here 60,000 years longer than all of the rest of us. But human beings all.

It is easy to fall into the trap of moralising when you discuss matters as huge as racism, so it pays to keep your succinct opinion succinct. So here, in short version, is what I think …

There is only one race on this planet. The human race. So it is disturbing that some members of the human race vent hatred on others who are exactly the same as themselves. Self-hatred is never a good thing.

Also, we generally don’t learn much by talking, we learn far more by listening. In Australia, the Indigenous voice is largely not yet screaming at us in anger, it is still at the polite stage of asking us to respectfully listen to the story. But like anything else, patience eventually runs out.

It could have been a normal weekend. But it wasn’t.

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6 comments

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  1. Phil

    Great read Keith.

    Are we racist? You had better believe it. A little anecdotal story of my own, this one however being true.

    When one considers what was done to the first owners of this land, it is one of those enigma’s, to me baffling, that they haven’t taken up arms against us, in a full on blooded assault. Well not yet as you say, anyway. In another life I knew several Aboriginal police officers, they were hounded out of the force by racism. One of which was the story that featured on the 7.30 report. I knew another one unless you knew him, you wouldn’t know he was an Aboriginal. He is a member of the Liberal party, the irony of that would fill enough books to stock a library. My only point here is, racism is driven by the elites of society. It kills two birds with one stone. It keeps the riff raffs minds on other things, whilst the elites with their private army the police, clean out the larder. The police don’t like’ Aboriginal Agent Provateurs ‘ in their ranks. Leftists or Marxists are not that welcome either.

    Racism is only going to get worse.

    We now have the Trifecta, we have game, set, and match. We have the ‘ Three Stooges ‘ running the supposed parts of the free world, two of which are known, proven, red necked racists. In our own case, one of the Stooges who thinks he is ‘ Constantine the Great ‘ Any Aboriginals who think, because of Ken Wyatt in the parliament there is going to be any further recognition of them and their culture had better think again. Batton down the hatches my brothers, we are about to enter unchartered waters. We will be lucky if we get out of the next few years alive, much less anything else.

  2. Carol Taylor

    Wonderful read Keith. I love this story as it is without blaming or finger pointing. With such positivity, we can, not only acknowledge the past but accept it and hopefully move towards making things better for all people – I say all because while there is any part of our nation treated as less than others, then nothing will be ‘harmonious’ (can’t think of a descriptor..maybe ‘at peace within itself, as a nation).

  3. wam

    I challenge your assertion:
    “Racism is not unique to Australia, racism is global”
    For me the words of a frequent contributor explain why our concept of racism is unique.
    He said when he was growing up he never saw Aborigines on the streets. But he does notice the shiny black Africans.

    Aborigines have not been seen nor counted because they were not like the ‘real shiny’ blacks.
    As there were no ‘throw backs’ like American Negroes, they would eventually die out, was and still is the Australian belief of Aborigines.
    The Xavier Herbert’s Kahlin Compound experiences with stolen generation Aborigines shows the kids being educated to grade three standard and suitable for menial tasks. The current minimum standard to qualify for a grade 12 certificate of education is grade 3 standard with Aboriginal people being able negotiate a lower standard. When that expectation it is unlikely Aborigines will be schooled??

    The real sadness is the fact that our racism is continually reinforced by people ignorant of their racism. The front desks, shop counters, the security system are all manned by the least educated in the company. These are the people whom Aborigines and non-Aborigines deal with every day. Think of the numerous times you have concluded an employee, to put it politely, needed training?
    To combat racism takes a long time because the stereotype slogans that drive racism are continually being reinforced in the media, classrooms and homes of Australia and active de-racism training is almost non-existant. Traumas like Adam Goodes booing showed how hundreds of thousands thought is acceptable to boo a player. The majority declaring it was not a racist act. My interpretation of the film showed eddie maguire as an example of racism Australia. His on air mouthings were
    so inaccurate as to be deliberate. He is a villain that should have been called out years ago.
    There are other stupid Australians like the sam on sunrise and the sam on football to go with the rest of the Australians who are no longer racist to shiny black but are still deeply racist towards the Australians Aborigines.
    It will take many more films like the Adam goodes story before we reach ‘the final quarter’ in the Australian unique racism

    ps
    American negroes gets a reminding line to put a capital N but Australian aborigines no such instruction???
    pps
    How many vics know who johnny mullagh was? How many Australians care?

  4. New England Cocky

    How can Australia have a Racial Discrimination Act (Cth) that contradicts the Australian Constitution?

  5. Karyn Meaker

    I think many Australian’s do not see the deeply ingrained institutionalised racism for two main reasons. First is a perception that racism is about hate or discrimination. It is not. It is about believing that one race is superior. From this, hate and discrimination may follow, but it is possible to be non hateful and non discriminatory and still harbour racist beliefs. Simply put, colonisation involved a belief that superior fire power meant superior culture, and Christianity the one true religion making superior morality. Mainstream Australians uphold a belief that colonisation bought civilisation and technological advancement. There are those who believe they are not racist because they are happy to share that civilisation and technological advancement as equality with Aboriginal people. However underlying is a perception that Aboriginal culture is inferior as evidenced by entrenched paternalism. Aboriginal voices are not heard because non Aboriginal people think they can speak for them. Secondly the use of the term racism hides the depth of the real problem which is oppression. Mainstream Australia does not experience itself as racist because they are rarely confronted with it in their daily lives. The majority of Aboriginal people do not confront racism and discrimination when they experience it. They remain polite, respectful and non complaining. This is how they survive. Adam Goodes treatment was not about racism it was about oppression. He broke the rules of survival. The media, the AFL, the fans allowed the booing of Adam Goodes to play out not because of racism but because of oppression. Adam Goodes broke the rules, he called out racism and spoke out about John Piliger’s documentary Utopia. The booing was a message to every Aboriginal man woman and child, ‘we will accept you as long as you never point out inequality.’ So a whole new dialogue needs to be opened, not just about racism but about why as a nation we can not accept the attributes of Aboriginal culture that might be superior to the dominant culture; why we think 98% can vote for constitutional recognition or a treaty without giving the 2% a stronger voice; and acknowledging the oppression that continues to exist.

  6. Aortic

    And Pauline Hanson is accusing Twitter users of trying to have her ” deplatformed.” Is that a Queensland thing? The more I see and read of the patriarchal colonialist treatment of the Aboriginal peoples by our ” superior” culture and religion the more I am amazed there has not been a more explosive uprising demanding what is surely their undeniable right to justice. Pity Tones is not still the Envoy as I am sure his input would have improved the situation immeasurably.

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