Speaking of ‘them’…

As 2010 was wrapping itself up in Christmas paper and curled ribbon, my sister-girls Cadie and Kimberlee came to stay with me for a few days. They live in Queensland and it had been months since I’d seen them, so we decided to go out for a couple of drinks. The cute little bar down the road was closed but the local pubs were making the most of seasonal alcoholism, so we walked a couple of extra blocks to the hotel by the railway station.

I knew this particular establishment it for its trashy music and not-so-subtle clientele, and I warned the girls before we went that it wasn’t the classiest of places. Sure enough, we hadn’t even been there for ten minutes before some blokes sauntered up and asked if they could sit with us.

Too polite (or perhaps not drunk enough) to tell them to get lost, we assented. The conversation that followed was that kind of awkward, reluctant exchange that is always made more ridiculous by the fact that you have to speak louder than usual to be heard over Rihanna and Eminem – and to compensate for the fact that the people you’re talking to are actually quite drunk. There were three of them and they were in their late twenties. It was their office Christmas party and they were at the pub with a larger group of people, most of whom were milling around some tables about 10ft away, heads together, throwing us occasional glances. It wasn’t long before a couple more blokes wandered over, one of them receiving more of a welcome than the other as the guy directly across from me threw his arm around his friend and slapped him on the chest.

‘This is our mate,’ he said, in the tone of someone about to say something that he thinks is really funny. ‘We call him “Abo” because he’s got a little bit of Aboriginal blood in him!’
Cadie, Kimberlee and I exchanged glances. ‘We’d prefer you didn’t call him that around us, thanks.’
‘Why not?’
‘Because we find it offensive.’
‘Yeah, but he doesn’t care!’
‘We do, though.’
Cadie: ‘Because it’s a racist term. It’s derogatory.’
Me: ‘It’s used by white people to belittle and abuse Indigenous people.’
Kimberlee: ‘We just don’t want to hear it, okay? That should be enough for you.’
‘Yeah, but he’s not offended, so why are you offended?’

This went on for a couple more minutes. By the time Cadie busted out with ‘Let me drop some knowledge on you,’ the tone of the exchange had gone from tense to heated, and people at tables nearby were turning to look at us. The bloke upon whom they’d bestowed the nickname held up his hands, said ‘I’m out of here,’ and returned to the other group. About 30 seconds later I felt something crack against my collarbone, breaking the skin. The rest of the group was throwing ice at us from across the room.

One way of telling this story would be to describe my friends’ physical features in order to justify why these men didn’t realise they were sitting with two Aboriginal women, except that to do so would be beside the point. These men didn’t even consider that they might be in the company of Aboriginal people, and telling them that they were didn’t mitigate their behaviour. They were offended that we were offended by them doing something that they knew was offensive. When I came back from the bar with the manager they were launching a full-scale attack, first on Cadie and Kimberlee for being so ‘soft’, and then on me for being offended when I was ‘obviously’ white. We’d ruined their ‘fun’. It was ruined even more when we got the whole lot of them kicked out of the pub for ‘racially motivated violence’. (That was, admittedly, a sweet moment.)

It’s times like this, though, when I think the biggest obstacle to Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations is the mentality that Indigenous Australia is elsewhere. It’s always absent, out of the room, talked about but rarely talked to and certainly not talked with. It’s a classic symptom of Othering, of condescension, of dehumanisation.

This passage by Stephen Muecke always springs to mind:

You are a white Australian. Aborigines first appear in your discourse in pronouns of the third person plural and according to a politics of case-marking: You talk about them (not with them); the third person plural is here both objective (accusative) and beneficiary: you do things to them, and for them. This is not a pronoun of passive action (by them) or location (to them, or with, next to, beside them); you might be vigilant over them and you are never under them in any metaphoric displacement of your position.

As does this, from the late W.E.H. Stanner:

The ‘Aboriginal problem’ is, indeed, very far away and unreal to the urban and near-urban populations of Australia, and to their leaders. Few of them have ever seen a blackfellow. The disappearance of the tribes is not commonly regarded as a present and continuing tragedy, but (for some curious reason) rather as something which took place a long time ago, in the very early days, and so is no longer a real complication.

Stanner was writing in 1938, but how many of us could say in good conscience that there is much difference in attitude today? And yet Indigenous dispossession is not merely a historical fact, it’s a continuing, continually-performed act.

Even though for some people (as evidenced above) it won’t change anything, I think it’s a good rule of thumb to assume that there is an Indigenous person (or an Islamic person, a Sudanese person – pick your marginalised minority) present in every conversation. Because if racial slurs still slip out easily, or using terms like ‘Invasion Day’ still jars, it’s because Anglo-Australian sensibility doesn’t incorporate Indigenous perspectives – it doesn’t even provide space for them. To be expected to do so offends the tenets around which white Western privilege is built, and the ingrained assumption that the ideal cultural landscape is one that has the appearance of Anglo-Judeo-Christianity, even if it lacks the substance. And when journalists are still painting white-out pictures of black Australia that appear to be little more than attempts to further their partner’s political objectives, when radio stations hire a swathe of right-wing polemics in anticipation of a community changing ‘ethnically’, when we’re debating the cost of compassion or when out-and-out bigots are given platforms on nationally televised debates, it just legitimises xenophobia and racism as a political nexus all over again.

Finally, I think of this, an image of which was floating around Twitter the other day:

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

You know you’re still thinking in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’ if it stings.

Stephen Muecke, Textual Spaces: Aboriginality and Cultural Studies (Sydney: NSW University Press, 1992). p. 23

W. E. H. Stanner, White Man Got No Dreaming: Essays 1938-1973 (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1979). p. 4

Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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  1. Nice write, Stephanie. This article needs a much wider (and perhaps less enlightened) audience.

    Oddly though, it brings to mind President Bush’s ‘if you are not WITH us, then you are AGAINST us’ rhetoric.

    It’s not quite the same, but then it is.

  2. I’m glad you wrote this up and placed it in such illuminating context. I also think of Hage’s white people – happy to accept, happy to tolerate, happy to play host and welcome, never problematising this placing of themselves at the centre, never realising how offensive it is when the powerful are oblivious to their own arrogance. Us and them – it’s a hell of a divide. But you’re working on it.

  3. Sorry about the association:( I guess I just wanted to point out how the same rhetoric can be turned on it’s head for evil – not to say you’re wrong in using it. Anything can (and probably has been) be used for evil.

  4. IMO, this is kinda connected to the propensity of the Australian Right to feel perpetually aggrieved. It’s a weird phenomenon: on the one hand, the tabloids and the shock jocks perpetually tell oppressed groups to harden up, to stop whining, and to accept that this slur or that insult is ‘all in fun’ or no big deal; on the other hand (and at the same time), they become enormously offended by accusations of racism, and then throw an enormous pity party for themselves about how unjustly they’re treated.
    Remember the Hey Hey row? The response of the populist Right morphed seamlessly from incredulity that anyone might find blackface offensive (‘Oh, it’s just a skit!’) to a prolonged whine about how white Australians were having mean things said about them in the overseas press.
    Once you start looking out for it, the phenomenon is everywhere. Most of right-wing talk back is based almost exclusively on old white people booh-hooing to each other like whiny children about how badly they’ve been treated. Likewise, with the Tea Party in the US: all self-pity, all the time.
    Which, of course, then mandates hysterical attacks upon others, as in Steph’s story: you made us feel bad about ourselves and now you’re going to suffer!
    White people, hey! It’s a dysfunctional culture and requires an intervention.

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