My partner and I walked into the mechanical repairs shop in Kununurra. The man behind the counter recognised him immediately.
‘Mate, what have you been up to?’
The man smirked, ‘Isn’t that the usual?’
In other words, ‘all Aboriginals are lazy cunts.’ My partner and I both knew what he meant, we spoke about it later, but at the time neither of us said a thing. Instead, we both kind of shrank. Sometimes it’s hard to call a spade a spade.
If only the guy in the mechanical repairs shop knew what was really going on.
After centuries of long struggle over stolen land, once again the government is trying to acquire one of the most important places for Aboriginal men for Ord Stage III.
It’s an uphill battle, one my partner can’t afford to lose. He’s just returned from another set of ‘training and development’ for a culture centre that is still nonexistent; a week away from work, unpaid. His father has had a major heart operation. There have been more meetings for joint management of a national park that has been pending government approval for over a decade. We’re travelling overseas in two months’ time. His son is breaking up with his girlfriend. My partner also works a full-time job. And plays football. And is part of two major Kimberley-wide exhibitions coming up, which means multiple performances, the writing of an essay, editing a video and media interviews. All this is just in the space of two months.
I don’t live in Kununurra. I come here every month or so for shopping. I’m not Aboriginal but I live in an Aboriginal community. Aboriginal people are my community.
I’m always a bit shocked when I come to Kununurra. This place is shaped by a disconnect that exists between two communities: we live beside each other with so little understanding of one another. The gap is a product of massive disparities of experience, power and understanding. It’s everywhere, of course, but it is starker here.
And last Friday it felt like things were getting worse.
After my partner left the room, the man in the mechanical repairs shop went on to tell me that one particular machine was ‘idiot and blackfella-proof – you can’t break this baby’.
He had no idea I was the partner of the Aboriginal man he had just been speaking to. And why would he: in Kununurra in 2014, how many people are in interracial relationships? We turn heads when we hold hands in the street.
I didn’t say anything to the man in the mechanical repairs shop, whose main selling point was the fact his product was apparently ‘blackfella-proof’.
And that is why I am writing this. I need to call a spade a spade.
In the bank on that same day I saw a young teller scream at an intoxicated woman who had pissed on the floor fully clothed. The Aboriginal lady was so horribly out of it she had no conception of what she’d done, despite the fact her pants were wet. The teller tried to tell her. ‘I just saw you! You’re on camera!’ As though the camera was her defence. She yelled further ‘You just pissed on the floor. Everyone can see you. You’re on camera. Get out of here!’
I can sympathise with the teller, who appeared shocked and scared. Black or white, it’s disgusting. But she also lacked compassion. And she lacked an understanding of the world that makes that lady drink herself into such a state.
Undoubtedly, both the young teller and the lady who pissed on the floor would love for things to be very different than they are.
But all this is much bigger than any individual, even if individual actions are what seem to matter.
Not long after that incident, inside Coles, a young Aboriginal man tried to drag an even younger Aboriginal girl by the hair, beating her. A few bystanders stepped in and forced him to let go. Many, many others stood by looking. Security came and the police were called.
Many of us, black and white, would have gone home and told a story about what happened, and through those stories we would form our opinions.
But how many of us honestly face the violence of the East Kimberley’s very recent past – massacres and indentured labour, dispossession and a near-complete breakdown of social structure? Or honestly confront the violence of the East Kimberley today, a world in which Aboriginal people have the highest rates of imprisonment and the lowest life expectancy? How many of us recognise our own complicity in this world, and our own responsibilities as community members to one another?
There is a new sign that has been placed up outside of Coles:
No standing around
It says just about everything except what it would have said in the not-too-distant past:
And all the while Coles continues to make a profit selling grog. They’re happy to keep the money, they just don’t want the consequences on their front door.
No one likes humbug – it doesn’t matter what colour your skin is. These signs are put up on the pretence of making some people feel safe. In practice, they work to make some people feel more unwelcome than they already are.
This is so strange in a country that puts so much emphasis on welcoming strangers so that nothing bad will come of them. I’m talking about Miriwoong country, Gija country, Ngariman country, Jaru country …
The country I am not talking about is Australia. In that country, we police our ocean borders as we police the footpaths of Coles.
In that country, we’re losing touch with our ability to make people feel welcome. It’s odd because feeling welcome – finding ways to connect in spite of the disconnect – is probably what we all need most.
We drove home from Kununurra on Friday night under the light of an almost full moon. Six of us squashed into the troupie amid chairs, a bale of hay, loads of food shopping, hardware supplies and two small passionfruit seedlings. I drove for a while and then retired to the back seat. One of the oldest ladies in our community made a pillow and I rested my head on her lap while she mumbled songs in her language. My partner’s son fell asleep on my lap. He sung Mary G’s song Poorbala Porrbala Me, until his words turned to a jumble and his eyes shut tight.
Kununurra. The East Kimberley. Australia. We’re living on stolen land. People are suffering and struggling today because of it. And people are living in beautiful ways in spite of it.
It needn’t be complicated. I just want to start by learning to call a spade a spade.