Coon… It’s a dirty word isn’t. Much like that other word starting with the letter C, it just has a certain air of vulgarity surrounding it. We all know it’s wrong, yet it is still commonly spoken in the safety of circles. Heck some of us have no hesitation in screaming it atop the social media mountains, fearless of any repercussion of ‘political correctness.’ In Australia it is a four letter word that conjures up every single derogatory indigenous stereotype from the past 220 years in one single syllable. It’s a word that I’ve grown up with. I’ve heard it at home, on the school yard in the workplace and down at the local pub. ‘I wish I could take my dog with me and feed him coon for lunch.’ That is an actual sentence I witnessed just two weeks ago. In 2017 that is the mentality of some Australians. Shocking isn’t it. I say some, but I fear it may probably be greater than we’d like to admit. Coon… It’s kind of uncomfortable isn’t it… It used to wash over me like any other common slip of the tongue or cuss but I hear it now and it is a trigger. An alarm to an ignorance perpetuated by a system to ensure Aboriginal Australia remain below the bottom rung. A system some have labelled broken, yet on closer inspection I reckon it’s working perfectly well. Its doing exactly what it was designed to do.
Now none of what I say here is in any way new and I can already feel the rolling of eyes in exhaustion. I can also understand that for some people, despite best intentions, will just choose to look away. I get it. It’s a tough subject. Its confronting and sometimes at the end of the day our lives are hectic enough without the prospect of an open discussion on actual real life racism. But see for me it is important. It is important for me to put my hand up and show the rest of the world that this is how I feel. That this is what I believe to be true in my heart. That it does NOT sit right with me. That it DOES offend me. But most importantly I need to stand up to show my friends and extended family of brothers, sisters, cousins, aunties and uncles that I stand beside them. That I am prepared to get my hands dirty and face the hurt and hate they have worn their entire lives. To be sure, as a white Australian male, I will never get to experience or even comprehend the mere tip of the iceberg of what has been a reality their whole lives, but I need to at least try. I’ve woken up and can’t go back to sleep, and to ignore it now would make me just as guilty as anyone else. Part of my privilege has been the ability to read and access to basic resources like a library and the internet. The information is there and yes it is confronting, but you are not going to get it from the history you are taught at school and you are certainly not going to get it from mainstream news services and herein lies the very problem.
For the majority of Australians, the past 220 years have been just fine. Jim Dandy. Sunshine and lollipops. We showed up, saved the savages from an imminent extinction and generally speaking made life better all round. Generally speaking. I mean there will always be casualties for a greater good. There have been a few slip ups along the way, but hey, theres been slip ups littered throughout world history. Lives have been lost and people have been hurt, but without us they wouldn’t have electricity or television or any of that good stuff and most of them live on my tax dollar anyway so it all evens out. What are they whinging about? They just need to get over it….. And this is the story that has been embedded in the Australian psyche the very moment we were born. This is the story that helps us sleep at night and it is this same story that keeps the real issues at arms length, hidden far enough out of sight so that when they pop up, we’re not empathetic or concerned, just annoyed. Every time the issues rear their head we’re aggravated because the story we know tells us that Indigenous Australia is a lost cause. Indigenous Australia holds no value or significance to our way of life so why should we care? And so the wedge is driven in, splitting us further and further apart. The thing that gets me is that our leaders have no qualms in letting the story ride. What is so bad about admitting we messed up? Why are we so reluctant to share the REAL story? After all most Australians are civil human beings who are capable of empathy and respect and I can’t help to think that if the truth was taught and shared we’d be in a better place.
Perhaps we stick to the story we know because its easier. Perhaps we sense that before we even sit down to comprehend the REAL story, we know its going to be heavy and keep it in the too hard basket. Although the REAL story is hard and far too complex to discuss in a single blog post, the root of the problem is this. It is a fact, that the greater population of Australia has prospered from the dispossession of Aboriginal land. That is not an opinion, nor does it contain any grey area. It is a hard, stone cold fact, yet we debate it. It’s like saying water isn’t wet. A completely redundant argument, yet here we are. Also consider this. From time of dispossession in 1788 until 1967, only 50 years ago, Aboriginal people were NOT considered citizens of this country. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine you are standing here, in your own country, a country that has been your family’s home for 60,000+ years and these strangers arrive to tell you not only does this land no longer belong to you, but you are no longer considered fit to take part in it. Now imagine the rape, murder, torture, humiliation and degradation of your family and friends, the denial and obliteration of the right to your own culture and belief system along with the denial to parent your child or receive the love and care of your parents… Only 50 years ago… Tell someone they’re no good for long enough and they’ll start to believe it, and I reckon 150 years was long enough to drive the message home. Today Indigenous Australians can expect to live 10 years less than non indigenous Australians. They are at greater risk of heart, respiratory, eye and dental conditions. Suffer more incidences of diabetes, mental health and suicide, are more likely to be incarcerated and more likely to die while in incarceration and the wrap sheet goes on and on and on. For the same reasons white Australia has the only story it has ever known, Indigenous Australia has the only story it’s ever known and it reads somewhat different.
We have only ever known the stereotypes and only ever praised assimilation. ‘He’s not bad for a black fella,’ or ‘She’s one of the good ones.’ We say it without even realising. It is ingrained in us. Growing up we never saw an Aboriginal doctor on Neighbours. We never saw an Aboriginal solicitor on Home & Away. We never saw an Aboriginal politician on A Country Practice. What a preposterous idea, to think that a black fella could achieve such success – it just doesn’t make sense. Let me be clear here, it is in no way my intent to deny those, that despite all obstacles have achieved greatness, but unfortunately these are exceptions not the rule. Generally speaking, the mainstream arts have been whitewashed. What do you think goes through an Indigenous kid’s head growing up watching television with only a few token roles held? They form the same belief that there is no place in society for black doctors, solicitors or politicians. Again, tell a kid for long enough they’re no good and they’ll believe it. On the flip side of this, why do we discount and discourage Aboriginality? Adam Goodes is the classic example. We praise him for assimilating well and we’re happy to have him win footy games, yet as soon as he gets a little too Aboriginal we feel we need to pull him back down and remind him and every black person watching, just in case they get any ideas, that we are most definitely still in a white man’s world. Why should a 60,000+ year old culture conform to the ideals of white Australia? And in turn why wouldn’t we celebrate that culture, and worse still why would we deny it? According to the australia.gov.au website there are 12 nationally recognised public holidays and not one of them of any significance to Aboriginal history or culture. Thats not even counting show days or a bloody horse race. No day for the thousands of lives lost defending the only war on Australian soil, no day to stop and remember the stolen generations and not even a day to commemorate what I believe to be the proudest moment in our history, the 1967 referendum, one of the few times as a nation we actually got it right, and here we are bent out of shape about moving the date of just one of them.
The REAL story also teaches us of evidence that prior to European settlement, this country was actually the home to a sophisticated civilisation of trade, agriculture and democracy. Of sophisticated architecture, textile manufacture and astronomy, evidence of which sits in the accounts of our very own European explorers. Thats right, the very concept of the hunter and gatherer has been exaggerated to make dispossession a little easier on the stomach. Not only have we gone out of our way to all but destroy the evidence to make sure the masses don’t catch wind of it, but we suppress and ignore the evidence that still exists. Imagine a child assuming he or she could never achieve greatness because that is the only story they have ever known, when all along the history was right there to show them they could. It is absolutely criminal.
Why won’t I be celebrating ‘Australia Day?’ Exclusivity – not INCLUSIVITY, thats why. In 1988, as a 7 year old kid, I remember travelling with my family to Sydney to witness the bicentenary. We caught the Manly Ferry into Circular Quay to float amongst the tall ships and celebrate the arrival of the First Fleet. I remember it so vividly but I can’t remember coming away with an idea that Indigenous culture played any part in it. Until we have a day with sentiment that is inclusive of all Australian’s I cannot partake in any sort of celebration. Yes I am absolutely grateful for the country that has given me all I have and those that have given their lives to protect it. The nice postcode, the great view, the decent paying job, the health care, all the luxuries and the plethora of opportunities to access basically whatever I want if I choose to want it, but the simple fact remains that I have none of it, not a single whiff, without the dispossession of Aboriginal land. No I didn’t commit the crime, but it doesn’t change the fact that it was committed. No I wasn’t there to take part in the murder, rape and degradation, but I’m sure as hell ashamed of my predecessors that did and I’m even more ashamed of a government, both left and right that has perpetually denied Australia it’s right to truth. The right to it’s REAL history. I’m a 35 year old white male. I’m fine. I will be fine, but there are many Australians who will never experience the same day to day privileges that I take as my god given right and by that same token I will never have to face the same disadvantages and hardships that many Australians have faced and will face for as long as they live. They didn’t get the same start that I got, they haven’t had the same help that I got along the way and I haven’t had to overcome the same obstacles. Indigenous Australians have carried the weight of a long, heavy history from the day they were born. It resides on their shoulders. A weight fixed around their neck and shackled around their feet holding them down. The weight of a reality that is the only reality they have ever known, yet we continue to tell them it doesn’t exist. Get over it. In any other context we’d call this insensitive or ignorant, arrogant or hypocritical even, but here we call it Australian.
I can’t be the Australian I was taught to be proud of without acknowledging the crimes committed against the original owners of this country. I just can’t. So I can bury all I’ve learned and hope that something will change or I can share it and help to make that change. And so if I am indeed an Australian I will choose not to define myself with pride in history, but pride in our power to forge it. The Warmupi Band once asked, ‘Are you the one who’s gonna stand up and be counted?…..’ Yes. Yes I am. I hope you’ll join me.
If I have your attention, don’t take my word for it. Please go out and seek your own truth. Seek out the stories from those living it first hand. Below are a few links to get you started.