First impressions of Black Australia (3)

“When I worked, after retirement, as a lowly service station attendant, providing driveway service late at night, I met a wide range of Aborigines, a few seemingly full-blooded. There were those who were apparently well paid, driving expensive cars, and employed by Aboriginal organisations. I was told by a couple of them that, in spite of their academic or professional qualifications, there were no jobs available to them in the private sector.

At about the same time, the federal government was talking about unemployed Aboriginal people learning to conduct their own businesses. Why weren’t the unemployed whites asked to do this too? One would also need to ask whether many whites would accept Aboriginal professional, quasi-professional or trades people. The antipathy against Aborigines seems to me to be very substantial.

Other Aborigines I met ranged from a couple who worked for the state government, to a goodly number living on welfare. From time to time, a dilapidated car full of apparently inebriated not-so-young Aborigines would arrive at the service station, noisily arguing, often using the filthiest language. On seeing me (perhaps it was my grey hair), they would become silent and be most polite. In the streets, I might be bumped accidentally by an Aborigine, and the apology addressed to me as Bro or Brother was prompt. I could never fault the behaviour of an Aborigine in my presence.

The most impressive Aborigine I have met to date is a young lady, who developed her Aboriginal heritage only after reaching adulthood. Today she is an elder, busily guiding her people, as well as building bridges between black and white. I sense, with regret, that only a minority of whites are interested in reconciliation, and in assisting the Aboriginal people to develop themselves. In the light of the country’s history, any effort to reach out to the Australian indigene in an un-patronising manner is surely a most progressive step. However, when I attended, as a member of a local adult education committee, a reconciliation study, I was impressed with the understanding and goodwill displayed by the whites participating, and the way local Aboriginal women guided the group.

Yet, I am saddened by the sight of Aboriginal people who are, by build and features, essentially European. However, because they sport a nice tan, they are not part of the mainstream populace. I see so many healthy and happy looking indigenous people, with nicely behaved kids, just wandering around, presumably living on welfare. Others, most employed in Aboriginal organisations, are rarely seen in public.

Obviously, class differences exist amongst the indigenes, as with the rest of us. Collectively, though, they seem a separate caste — the Australian untouchable. Something, surely, has to be done to break this logjam of Aboriginal marginalisation. By providing jobs and skills training, governments and the private sector might induce some of the indigenes to integrate (but not necessarily assimilate) into the mainstream — ie to join the immigrants being integrated. Just as the immigrant ethnic communities are encouraged and enabled to retain those aspects of their tribal cultures which are not incompatible with the institutions and public mores of Australia, the indigene should be free to hold onto his Dreamtime or other cultural traditions, whilst integrated.

Integrating with the mainstream population should not require the indigene to reject, or disengage from, any Aboriginal self-determination service structures that exist or that might be introduced. After all, ethnic communities are free to have parallel settlement service structures (often funded or subsidised by governments), which are generally ethno-specific.”

The above are extracts from my book ‘Hidden Footprints of Unity,’ which was published in 2004. Hopefully, there have been increased opportunities made available since then to Australia’s indigenes to reach parity, in both economic and social terms, with mainstream Australians, without losing their status as the First Peoples of Australia.

The good news is that in dance, drama and art, our indigenes have made their mark. Have they had equal exposure in access to the public? Public exposure has, however, highlighted their great sporting skills. As well, a handful seem to have reached great heights in politics, the law, and academe, presumably through personal effort.