Thursday, 7 March 2019

Anita Heiss' Growing up Aboriginal in Australia

This challenging book highlights the racism prevalent in Australia both in the past and the present. It is the stories of 50 people who have had it ‘tough’ by non-Indigenous standards.  The writings are by young and old as well as males and females from all across Australia. Some of the writers are well known but many are not. It includes anecdotes, experiences, childhood fears and a few happy times. It also includes the story of a young woman, Alice Either (only 29), who suicided. The book is dedicated to her and others ‘who were lost too soon’.

Many of the stories talk about identity and not fitting into Australian society; they also talk about education and recognition of their otherness and their Aboriginality. They share a great pride in being Indigenous and having access to such a long lasting culture.

As always, we started with …

First impressions

  • Lots of themes, but feelings of sadness and grief
  • Very glad to have read it.
  • Repetitive stories, and even boring at times
  • Feelings of positive strength expressed by many contributors.
  • Triumph against the odds.
  • Questions of whether you are Indigenous or Australian – too white in some circumstances and too dark at other times or venues – frequent mention of this problem
  • Comments made about colour by both non-Indigenous people and Indigenous people themselves.
  • Genuine humility felt by some.
  • Not everything that happens relates to someone’s race, sometimes it is just ‘stuff’ about kids growing up and especially through their teenage years – it can be good and bad for any child, eg parents passing, domestic violence or poverty.
  • Some stories very ‘touching’.
  • Certain earnestness to many of the stories.
  • ‘I melted’ when the author talked about country and how they appreciated their custodianship of country rather than ownership.
  • Quite a small group of people contributed – all highly articulate and these were selected from 120 submissions sent in – only a small selection of views but lots of common elements.
  • Stolen generation stories particularly sad and challenging
  • Happy childhoods relatively eg Adam Goodes and Patrick Johnson

General discussion

There was a lot of discussion of colour. During their childhoods some writers were accused of being too white to be Aboriginal. These people felt hurt by comments like that.  Many of the writers have one parent non-Indigenous and one Indigenous.  Interestingly, many of the white parents were Irish. There is a lovely story by Miranda Tapsell about being a Spice girl fan. She was designated by others to be Scary Spice for a dress up party but her favourite was Baby Spice.  However Miranda is amazingly tolerant by saying :

‘Poor Sissy, she was conditioned like all of us to believe brown people could only be Scary’. (page 235)

Tolerance is a common thread through these texts.

We were saddened by the poem by Alice Eather. It is so sad that she died.

We were impressed that many contributors were willing to share their stories, trying to overcome stereotyping of Aboriginal people who have to contend with drugs and domestic violence. There is a realisation that they are similar people to us but they often have to make a conscious effort to find out where they come from. Dislocation was a common theme and it has had a very physical and emotional toll upon many of the writers. The question of handouts received by these people was often very insensitive. They are Australians but they have complicated lives. We questioned ourselves and other non-Indigenous people about our reactions to these stories. Ignorance and lack of empathy is behind much of the racism. Also people not choosing to find out more. 

There are stories of some positive discrimination too. A few writers were awarded scholarships to schools, universities and a sporting academy.

There is a terrifying story by Kerry Reed-Gilbert entitled: "The little town on the railway track". The crux of the story is quite horrific. At night a group of non-Indigenous men try to frighten and intimidate Kerry’s mother and siblings, but the town policeman is about the most racist person present. Fortunately, Kerry’s Mum is strong and forthright; she contacts the policeman’s boss and he is sent elsewhere.

The stories by stolen generation people or their descendants were very sad and very moving. So we relished the good stories such as that told by Adam Goodes highlighting simple pleasures such as trying out different types of sport. He is a marvellous role model, in mentioning hard work and a good work ethic, as well as loving what you do and having fun. (p103)

Pride in being Aboriginal is a strength of this book. Much pride is shown of parents and grandparents in many families who were leaders in their communities. Many also value highly their mothers and grandmothers who often were their sole parent. These women were wonderful role models.

We were impressed by the different perspectives as they came from many backgrounds including those of domestic abuse, drugs and violence. The writers' willingness to share their perspective is admirable.  Some of their backgrounds were disjointed but this also happens in the non-Indigenous community. White society is still too ready to rely on stereotyping Indigenous people.

Overall it seems that for younger Indigenous people, life is getting better than it was for their forbears. 

Deborah Cheetham’s story was fascinating. She was brought up in a white family. We really liked her story about trying to make the national anthem more applicable to all Australians.

Another common theme is resilience. It is a character feature that writers felt was essential for living in Australia. The parents often stressed it and emphasised that you just have to keep going and be brave. Developing a ‘shell’ helps.   

Another thread was knowing you are Indigenous but hiding it because it is embarrassing, but as you age accepting it so maturity helps. This is happens in migrant lives in Australia too.

There was one ‘story’ many of us found very difficult to understand – Alison Whittacker’s  Aboriginemo. Alison is a Gomeroi poet and lawyer from the Tamworth Gunnedah region of NSW. She writes in this manner as she wants readers to ponder her words. See her interview by Suburban review, April 28, 2016.

A couple of members had Aboriginal children in their classes at school, in Mt Isa and in country Victoria.  One member has worked with groups assisting Indigenous people with their financial issues. But the majority of us have had little contact.

This book was suggested by a member who wanted to read it. We were all pleased that we had read it too.

There is an audible version of this book newly available.

Present: 9 members