First published 2012 by Bantam.
I wasn’t going to review this book. Mainly because almost everyone already did when it came out and I didn’t expect to have anything new to say about it. But I knew I wanted to read it, and once I got started I began reflecting on the subject of racism, and how I have tried to keep it out of my life. Sort of.
When I was a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s, the same era that Heiss grew up in, I was blessed with a few teachers who taught me to respect the ways of the original inhabitants of this wide brown land, but at the same time, Aboriginal jokes were still told (as were Irish jokes etc, although we didn’t touch Jewish jokes after what they’d been through) and names such as abo, coon and boong were also in use. Another word I heard was nunga, which I assumed was another of these derogatory words – it was years before I worked out it was a word Nungas (from southern SA) like to call themselves. I also lived in a very white part of Adelaide, and the only Aboriginal people I came across were the ones who liked to sit drinking in Victoria Square.
After a trip to PNG, where I saw brown skinned people living as they always had, and the NT, I decided that I would like nothing more than to head bush and ‘help’ Aborigines, which I did 6-7 years later. In the meantime I took off to South America and met my future husband, an indigenous Bolivian of Quechua heritage.
Now while abo jokes might be relatively easy to stamp out, it is the inadvertent and inherent racism that is much harder to get rid of. The racism that is paved with good intentions.
For me this is in the form of impure thoughts, such as:
• being impressed when an Aboriginal person has a job (let alone a doctorate!)
• being surprised to find out that Aboriginal people discriminate against white people too
• wandering why a person who is 75% white calls themself “black”
• being pleased when a black person makes it to old age like the rabbit proof fence girls did, or who isn’t a grandparent by 35 or dead by 60.
• being proud when my kids have an Aboriginal friend
• being surprised when my non-Aboriginal daughters have to show their Aboriginal friends bush tucker plants
• being surprised or impressed when blacks have a better hold of government department jargon or other things in white culture.
A pivotal moment for me happened soon after I moved to Alice Springs (to ‘help’ Aboriginal people). Bicycling to work, an Aboriginal man told me off for putting my child at risk. I had waited in the middle of the road for a car to pass, only the car was going much slowly than expected and I was stuck there longer than I was supposed to be. It was the driver of this slow car who told me off. At the time I was shocked because a black person had told me, a white person, off, but I was also shocked that I was shocked by this little incident. But I think it came from only seeing Aboriginal people around when they had been drinking.
In my marriage to Edi I constantly struggled with those insidious ‘wow he’s really smart (for a Bolivian)’ thoughts. And he would struggle with his expectations that I should know everything because I was a westerner. While cultural differences caused some misunderstandings, actual arguments were caused by the same things as any other marriage, such as money for example. This hubby incidentally, was frequently welcomed to Australia by Aboriginal people, a welcome I have never received except in the official way at events etc.
Heiss covers these sorts of thoughts and incidents all through her book which is a wonderfully accessible one, for an academic! I enjoyed reading her story, especially of her family life, and I was inspired by the career path she has taken and the things she has achieved. “You go girl” I would think before wondering if that latent racism was rearing its ugly head again. I also enjoyed learning about things we don’t always realize we are doing, although I was aware of most of them before reading the book, and thought it would be a good one for all Australians to read, even if you use it simply to go through a mental checklist of your own prejudices.
I also really liked that she included stories of being discriminated against by her own people because that helped me ‘unpack’ my guilt for being white and being ‘sorry’.
But about two thirds of the way through the book the following questions began to circle my brain, why does she capitalize Black and not white? Does she think I’m some kind of rubbish person who doesn’t deserve a capital letter? Can I sue? If I wrote a similar book with black in little letters and White capitalized, would Heiss and her mates sue? Can she sue me for whinging about the lack of big Ws in white? Why is it okay for her to belittle me for not being Black when I’ve already spent half my life feeling guilty for being White (or as she puts it, white)? And how come she doesn’t have to apologise to anyone? If words can lead to violence then let’s start with getting our letters or Letters sorted out, please!
I expect that should Anita Heiss ever read the last paragraph, she would be rolling her eyes, so I thought I’d quote another female black writer, the recently departed Maya Angelou who said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And that was somewhat belittled. [Heiss contacted me shortly after I put out this post to explain that she capitalized Black because it was simply replacing Aboriginal which is capped. So thanks Anita for clearing that up.]
Before I finish up I would also like to quote a white female, who liked to ‘help’ black people, Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can ever make you feel inferior without your consent”. Let’s be aware but let’s not get hysterical or overly offended should someone accidently put a foot wrong. In a recent blog post, Kristen Lamb wrote that we are missing out on friendships because we are so fearful of offending someone we’ve given up even trying to talk to someone of a different culture, this is in the US anyway. An episode of Seinfeld going back 20 years, The Cigar Store Indian, also covered the topic well.
I have the feeling that Andrew Bolt took advantage of the confusion that has been a result of our current social climate of political correctness, and that his bosses were too confused to stop it going to print. Anyway, hope he’s learnt a lesson!