On Being Nice: how racism thrives in the polite society of rural Australia

2년 전

Kata Tjuta Sunset, Outback Australia, Northern Territory

Not much has changed in Cobar since settlement. The main street is an avenue of colonial architecture, wide enough to land a small plane. Empty except for the occasional dusty ute. Locals smile and nod as I pass. They’re a hospitable bunch, having provided a free camp at the reservoir close to town. Their warmth is welcome after nights of isolation in Outback campsites. I am charmed by Cobar’s meandering ways and wrapped in its similarities to the town I grew up in. I know this societal politeness. After decades of city living it still runs through my country bones. I feel my body recognise home and settle in to its rhythm. I have come to resupply and get back on the road. Half a day of smiling and nodding later I force myself out of the pages of Jasper Jones and get to work.

The hardware store shelves are empty if you don’t count the dust. The rusted bell echoes behind me as I search for signs of life. An assistant appears, happy to address my confusion as to where the hardware is kept. After I reel off my list she vanishes without explanation. Emerging some time later from the swirling particles, my needs wrapped in her arms. We get to chatting. I have learned that city pace is not appreciated much past Sydney’s boundaries. I factor in a half hour at each store for amicable conversation and extend my stay in Cobar by a night. She asks where I’m off to next on my travels.

“Wilcannia,” I reply. Her lips purse.

“You don’t want to stay there,” she tells me, “the Aboriginals are all on Ice.” I don’t think she means the frozen kind.

The litany of what the Aboriginals will do to me is alarming. Throw bottles, smash my car, lie on the road and force me to drive over them. I smile politely as her face contorts. I wonder if it is the flavour of the words twisting it. I freeze into silence. How it is possible that in 2017 a person could think it was acceptable to mouth these things? Yet here she is, a real person, in full swing. I thank her, hand her my money and run for the door.

The afternoon heat strikes as I stumble past the clattering bell. I am halfway down the block when I realise that the burn in my cheeks in not from the Australian summer sun. My mind repeats the events and focuses on this: I thanked her and gave her my money. Why did I do that? Shame crawls into my stomach and starts running loops.

Newey Reserve free campground at Cobar


It is impossible to grow up in country New South Wales during the seventies and eighties without having heard this kind of talk. The ice addiction is a new twist on an old tale. Aboriginals are no good. By the time I was twelve years old I knew two things. One, it isn’t right to talk about people like this. Two, white people don’t much like it when you point that out. They become less polite. That lesson stuck like a chewed up wad of paper spat at a wall and left to dry. I learned to shut up.

My compliance through silence in that hardware store is from a lifetime of learning that not offending is as fundamental to being Australian as flip-flops. It is worse to offend a racist than to be one. Australian's like their peace to be kept. I learned to swallow the shame of bearing witness to vitriol and bury it inside where it squirms as my own.

The road to Uluru is paved with racism. The rest of my trip offers a sad collection of opportunities to do better. Beyond Cobar I reach a cattle station one hundred kilometres from anywhere. Deep in red dirt and desolation. The sun sets across the plains while sheep and roos roam the horizon. The curve of the earth visible in the expanse. I crack open a beer after a long day on the road, ready for the company of a chat with the station owner. He launches into words I do not wish to hear. His prejudices reserve a nasty bite for our Indigenous people. He has assumed that our shared whiteness includes shared opinion and looks at me expectantly. My silence falls on deaf ears as he veers off on another tangent regarding the problem with Aboriginals.

Sunset over Mundi Mundi PlainsThe expanse of Mundi Mundi Plains, Outback Australia, New South Wales


I retreat to the camper where my silence whispers insults. Why did I not unleash my voice across those plains in protest?

The Outback is no place for a solo woman to be kicked out of her accommodation as night falls. In a strange land I chose not to rock the boat, to follow the set guidelines. Now the boat rocks me as self-hatred runs riot through the night. I churn over the fact that this man will pocket my money for the night’s accommodation.

Again and again I bear witness and stay silent. I have been well trained to fear the retaliation of an offended offender. As I reach Uluru I am standing at a lookout watching the last light shoot rays out of Kata Tjuṯa. A sadness has settled over me as I look at this sacred land. I do not notice the approach of a man who is now all but next to me. He offers a bouquet of wildflowers with a smile that has seen better days.

“But it is a national park,” I say, backing away from his sudden appearance. He tells me the flowers are from just outside the park, therefor legal to have picked them.

“That is Aboriginal freehold land,” I reply, waving the flowers away.

His smile turns to a snarl. The words that come from it lined with poison. He is ranting things I will not repeat. Their clear message is that he is a superior white man and can take as he pleases.

When there is space enough between us for me to run I feel something inside crack. From this crevice comes a voice that has been silenced since childhood. I tell him that taking those flowers is like jumping his neighbour’s fence and helping himself to their garden.

“Fucking bitch,” he replies walking toward me, shoving the bouquet forward. His body an accusation. I am breaching the white-on-white script. I am supposed to take the flowers. I am supposed to nod and smile. I am supposed to choke on the shame that should be his.

I run to the car and notice my hands shaking as I take the wheel. He strides down the path, flowers still in hand. I tear off sending a stream of red dust in to his face. There is fifty kilometres between me and safety. It is almost dark. The roos and dingoes are waking. I drive to camp too fast for the conditions, the only goal to stay ahead of his lights. To get back to a camp full of people and staff.

I reach the campground still shaking as night pulls its veil firmly over Uluru. I pause and turn to look at that beautiful big red rock under a purple sky. And I begin to cry. It is not fear that brings the tears. I am wrapped in safety now. After weeks of waging war with myself I howl a release. I spoke up. It was meek, it was not profound. It was probably a very stupid thing to do given the circumstances. But it was not silence. I feel Uluru look at me from under its cap of stars and wink. I offer a nod in return and wander to my tent.


Watching the changing colours of Uluru


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Again, beautifully written and how sad after all the years the Aboriginal aren't recognized for all the wealth of information and culture that they have. Thank you, I felt as if I was right there.

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Thank you that is such meaningful feedback for me. I appreciate you taking the time.

You have a beautiful way with words. I love your writing style. Following your blog now. I am going to Uluru in mid-January. I wonder what it will be like for me as an Asian person there.

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Thank you so much. I appreciate your kind words. I hope that you have a positive experience. It will be hot in January! Make sure you've got heaps of sunscreen and a hat :)

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Yes, I have lots of sunscreen and big hat

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Excellent. Slip slop slap!

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Thank you beautiful world mappers :)

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I love your storytelling so much. You always write such interesting travel posts.

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Thank you so much. I appreciate your support very much @choogirl

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Supporting you is easy. I think you're one of the best writers on this platform and that your posts are really undervalued.

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You just made my day. Thank you <3

Very well written, I was captivated throughout the story. I must say, I hope there are more people like you out there. So many mis -informed people. I guess this is why they are so racist and generalise people. They just arnt intelligent enough to understand aboriginal culture and the long history. I guess you could say they are brainwashed into believing that white are superior. Sadly they have believed they are superior to the land and destory everything. Aboriginal people are the most sophisticated. Aboriginal people understood that the land was superior as they could not survive without it. The land is sacred and of utmost importance. I believe these people could learn a lot from how they originally survived with the land. I guess some cannot see the light and escape the cave ;) My gf and best friend are 1\2 aboriginal. I am one that speaks up straight away, I don't mind a joke, but racism needs to stop. I am proud you spoke up. I just visualised the guy eating all the red dirt as you took off. Lol

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Thank you. I appreciate this feedback. I don't think I'm particularly special. Most of the trip I was ashamed by my silence. When I did speak up it was nothing profound. It was a beginning. Lots more work to be done.

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I have been silent too. Sometimes it just happens so fast or you don't realise you should have said something till later. I think sometimes just understanding it's wrong is plenty ;) I remember when we were kids the police would search my aboriginal friend and not myself as I was white. I never spoke up and just stood while people walked passed judging my friend. It was upsetting for him as he felt humiliated, it was in his local suburb where people knew him. luckily my friend was able to move on and forget about it.

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I think that is very true. I often realise afterward that I should have said something. But I also think Australian culture trains us to be that way. That whole politeness thing. It creates a very passive aggressive society.

Thank you so much for being so honest about your experience. Only recently I encountered a very racist post on Steemit talking about how immigrants are more likely to commit crime quoting statistics which provided little proof to back it up. When I tried to voice my opinion on the matter in a civilized manner, I felt attacked by the so called right wing steemians. I was baffled how we can be so progressive on one hand and so ignorant at the same time. It is difficult to reason with people who have these deep rooted prejudices. I feel they have other fears which they
are projecting on people who may look different from themselves as a group. In the end I decided to just unfollow that person. The experience rattled me as I didn't know there were people who felt so angry towards someone they don't know but I felt I would not be able to change their views and my voice will only cause them to dig their heels in.

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I think that is part of the tactic that keeps people silent. The turning of that energy on you and the anger that comes your way can actually be frightening. That's what this post is about. The irony that the person speaking up against racism is treated as the asshole and attacked. If you are going to raise your voice you have to be ready for that. You have to be able to weather that storm. Good for you for speaking, it is not an easy thing to do.

Wonderful pictures @onethousandwords

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Thank you for writing this article@onethousandwords, I spend three years in Australia and found it very racist. It really made me very anger how settled Australians talked about the natives there, so much hatred and disrespect. And how they are treated. Native Australia people or Aboriginals have been persecuted for so long and their is still a huge divide.
I got involved in some activism over there. Check out Stand up for the Burrup for a start, it is a group protecting very ancient rock art from being destroyed by mining companies. There are many more though.There are of course good people over there too, but just much fewer unfortunately. Resteemed.

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Thank you for posting such an honest comment. It is so important to talk about this. There are good people here yes but our societal way means we don't speak up and people who say these things don't get pulled up. Which is what I noticed when I was travelling the Outback. There was a lot of racism, I was shocked at how much. But there was so much silence.

I went to a cultural awareness course once and the woman that ran it was amazing. At the end she asked us to start speaking up. She said (not a direct quote) "we've been doing this for over 200 years. We need you. We're tired."

White Australian's need to speak up when we hear it and let each other know it is unacceptable.

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Thats so true, native Australians have such an amazing culture and deserve alot of respect for how they have lived in harmony with nature, I realize that that has been disrupted now, what a shame when they have so much they can teach us.

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That is one of the things that kept occurring to me as I traveled the region. That it is such terrible shame that white settlers did not see how well the land was cared for and see if they could learn a thing or two.

This post has received a 0.17 % upvote from @drotto thanks to: @banjo.

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Those photos are hypnotizing, I could stare all day! This was a beautiful, albiet heart-wrenching piece. As an American I can empathize with you about having to listen to ignorance and racism. I live in a region where racists misconceptions about the local tribes living on the reservations are circulated like wildfire (actually racist comments about literally all non-whites tend to be spat about).

Even if you didn't speak out in protest in the moment, at least you had the self awareness that you counter parts in this story lacked. You spoke out here and where hundreds of people can gain awareness of what's happening. For that, I salute you.

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Thank you. Australia is pretty much the same. Anyone non-white is a target. It isn't something we talk about or acknowledge with our international persona of being 'nice and friendly'. Thanks again for the encouragement. I really appreciate it.

That magical journey, beautiful photo.