When I was 12 years old, I went to boarding school. A girl shared my dressing room. She was Torres Strait Islander from Badu Island. One day she picked up my acne cream, read the label, and asked me about it.
My first surprised thought was, “She can read!” My very next thought was, “Of course she can read. What would make me think she couldn’t read?”
The question still remains, decades later. What causes a 12-year-old child to believe that a person, because she is brown and has tight curly hair, is less smart?
So I have to rewind to the first twelve years of my life. I belonged to a farming family, in a community of predominately German descendants. If there were Aboriginal kids at my school, they didn’t tell us about it. I remember nothing rampantly and obviously bigoted. Yet somehow, like osmosis, I absorbed unsettling stereotypes.
What was my 1970’s education telling me? It told me Captain Cook ‘discovered’ Australia, and the ‘first settlers’ struggled to tame a wilderness. It told me, almost in these exact words, the Aboriginal people did not fight back. Underneath these untruths was a subtle message. It said the Aboriginal people were not capable of fighting back, they didn’t try hard enough, they didn’t deserve to ‘keep’ this country.
What did 1970’s television tell me about Aboriginal people? Most likely it said they were absent and invisible. I don’t remember any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander faces on The Sullivans or Young Talent Time.
The Department of Education sent some Aboriginal dancers to our school. The boy sitting next to me said, “They are not real Aboriginals – look their palms are white.” I looked at my palms, I looked at their palms, and I could see his point. But it made no sense that they would send out pretenders.
By the time I got to university, my friends and I were going to Land Rights marches. Sadly, at the end of the day we went back to our own lives. We did not really connect. But we were questioning what we had been ‘taught’ as children.
When my daughter was 6 years old, she said, “Mum, I always wanted to meet and Aboriginal person.” It is a step up from the boy who denied those dancers their aboriginality. It said to me she was curious, perhaps respectful, seemingly lacking any negativity. But it also says to me, there is still a divide in our community.