First impressions of Black Australia (1)

“I can claim to know only one Aboriginal person. Indeed, I have met very few Aboriginal people over half a century in Australia. How am I to meet them? Our paths are so far apart. When a meeting does take place, there might be little of that communication that one might expect from people sharing the same stage. Are they keeping themselves apart, because they have been rejected by white society?

The first Aborigine I sighted was inebriated. I saw him hit on the head (yes, the head), and chucked (yes, chucked) into a paddy wagon. This was in Melbourne more than fifty years ago. In Brisbane and Perth in the following years, I saw Aborigines being harassed by the police. Since I was with an inter-varsity hockey team in Brisbane, I should have been safe. Yet, one night, walking back to the campus alone, I was scrutinised by the police in a way which I found uncomfortable.

Regrettably, in the early 1990s, I saw young Aborigines, well dressed and behaving themselves, and in the company of young whites, being harassed by the police. In the late 1990s, I was followed by a motorcycle cop, on an Easter Sunday, for many kilometres before being stopped. I fear that he had assumed that a brown fellow driving an old car sedately had to be a ‘coastal blackfellow’, with all the implications of that for the latter.

In a small seaside town north of Perth, nearly fifty years ago, I was in the company of a dark Indian, with the even features found in South India, and a pinkish Eurasian. The latter claimed proudly that he had a Malay grandmother, although this was not discernible. We had got off a small boat and, at the bar of the nearest pub, were asked if we were Aborigines. Surprised (how on earth could we be, given our appearance?), we said no — and were permitted to drink on the premises. The barmaid explained that Aborigines were not allowed to be served. Further up the West Australian coast, adjacent to the cattle country, we saw Aborigines, dressed as stockmen, walking in the distance.  There seemed to be none in town. The exception was a street walker that night.

A few years later, a tall Chinese Malaysian, an even-featured Sri Lankan, a tall Indian Malaysian and I (with Sri Lankan Tamil ancestors) happened to find ourselves in a bar in a country town. Our car had broken down, and we were lost. A group of men at the far end of the bar showed a great deal of interest in us. Then the largest fellow in the group came up to us and said something strange, and in a gruff voice: “Where are you boys from?” Seeing that this was none of his business, and taking a punt, I responded with “What’s it to you, mate?” in what my Aussie friends describe as a British accent.

He stared at me, then relaxed. Sticking out a bloody great big paw, he introduced himself by first name. We got on well. I realised later that we had been in ‘boong’ (blackfellow) country, and that the big lad must have been the local sergeant of police. He must have assumed that we were a band of ‘citified’ (ie. sophisticated), possibly uppity, indigenes. In recent years, I have come across a number of Aborigines who clearly have some Chinese or Indian ancestry. Yet, once accepted by the big lad and his mates, my friends and I were OK. We all chatted together for a while, and obtained directions to our intended destination. That is what I, and other Asians I have known, like about the ordinary Aussie.”

This is an extract from my book ‘Hidden Footprints of Unity.’  The probably self-selected spokesmen for newly-arrived Asian immigrants who complain about ‘racial’ discrimination today could have no idea about the level of overt discrimination faced by Australia’s Aborigines, or those Asian student arrivals in the 1950s and 1960s.

Overt discrimination, which may exist even today, is hurtful. Prejudice, manifest in a displayed attitude, or spoken words, should not hurt, humiliate, or whatever, were the target to have self-confidence. Of course, there will always be someone who whinges about imagined hurt. These may be compared with those asylum seekers claiming to have been (according to their supporters in Australia) subject to trauma and torture back home (without producing any evidence).