Australia, it's time to talk about our racism

It feels like this is a conversation I'm only beginning to have; a conversation I’ve somehow been in the middle of ever since I was eleven years old. I was in a social studies class sitting on the floor of an air-conditioned classroom watching a documentary. An Aboriginal woman was weeping about the children that were taken. There was a strange salty ball knotted in my belly. When the program finished and the lights were turned back up a kid next to me said that ‘All Abos are drunks anyway, they can’t look after their children.’ A chorus of agreement rose in the room.

Mostly I remember the shock; still soaked in the woman’s tears I stared around my class of upper middle class white kids. It was the first time I noticed racism.

I still don’t really understand it. Mostly because our nation is busy avoiding the topic. We’re  a happy-go-lucky country of friendly mates giving everybody a fair-go. We are most certainly not racist.

Which makes what I’m experiencing in the Northern Territory even harder to understand. After my colleague's first trip out to a remote Aboriginal community she came home outraged. ’What the hell is going on here?' she said, 'why isn't the rest of the country talking about this?'

We are both health professionals working in remote Aboriginal communities and most days it feels like a pretty tough job.

What makes our job hard isn't the Aboriginal people we work with. The Aboriginal people we work with surprise and delight us daily. Children run hands through our long hair to draw it further out and wrinkled dark faces crack open into warm smiles casting a gaze wide over red horizons. They generously share their stories about catching fresh water crocodiles in the river, of Dreaming spirits who came to rest in waterholes and stories of preaching early Christianity in the dirt bush corners of this country.

What really makes this job hard is that the rest of Australia is busy pretending this part of the country doesn't exist. Pretends that it wasn't once the ruling Law and nature of our great large land. Pretends that we didn't massacre, displace, steal wages and worse, children, from this once great people whose gentle wisdom still miraculously burbles through this desert of empathy like a river from some deep wellspring.

It is difficult that the people who stand firmly by their own land live in conditions that we send money to Africa and Asia to relieve. It is difficult that half the people I meet under forty are missing their teeth. It is difficult that the child I meet with a brain injury will not receive any therapy because he happens to live in a corner of the country without regular Allied Health services. It is difficult that I’m working with mothers who are only fourteen.

It is difficult that the rest of country is still asking why Aboriginal Australia won't forget the past that the rest of the country hasn't even got around to remembering; to acknowledging that in fact we massacred a great number of the Aboriginal population. That 80% of the Aboriginal population were killed in NSW in the first decade of colonisation. That the PRESENT DAY government of Western Australian managed to bury an independent report they themselves commissioned which found evidence of $78 000 per person owed in stolen wages to Aboriginal people.

We get angry at prominent Aboriginal Australians like Adam Goodes who dare outrageously to point out that racism is still alive and well. How dare he. Whilst the white workers in an Aboriginal community get to bring grog into a dry community that has recognised the harm it brings. Because that's not at all racist.

As a non-Aboriginal Australian what I want to know is where is my right to hear the true cost of my privilege? To know that whilst I enjoy a comfortable wage, a smooth ride through education, the stability of a few generations behind me of tertiary education and adequate wealth, that it came on the lands of people who died trying to protect it? That even now their decedents pay their cost for their displacement? That in my very own country whilst I enjoy the prosperity of this so called developed nation, others are still living with scabies, dying of measles and failing to achieve basic literacy? That whilst we further the lofty arts of urban centres of Sydney and Melbourne, some of the internationally famous Aboriginal artists are in fact going hungry?

Don't tell me this isn't happening because I have just spent the week in the forty degree heat, in the blowing red dust, eyeing off the feral dogs wondering if they are cheeky. I have found the old man whose children have vanished off drinking and whose government funded groceries are going missing. I've met the children of children, those whose brains have been damaged in utero by alcohol, later by encephalitis, by trauma and assault. Whole communities living with such an incredible rate of injury and disease that it is amazing that they keep on staggering.

Which they do, with dignity and strength. With indefatigable humanity. With faces that melt and laugh and sing and yarn, and carry for me all the magic of this fragile earth. Perhaps nothing teaches humanity like suffering, and if that is the case then these Aboriginal people so despised and forcibly forgotten are the wisest of us all. For we took their land, their children, their livelihoods. But we couldn't steal from them something we are missing within ourselves.

Something we can't quite name but are yearning for. Something that sends us scrambling through cities and busying ourselves with all the distractions of a giant city; restaurants and theatres and terrible TV. Something that grabs ankles and digs us down into the earth. Because nothing can replace 50 000 years of ancestry and being the oldest living culture on earth. And nothing can beat surviving two hundred years of abuse and still standing strong, remembering deeply the ancient songs of the earth and all the Law buried in the Dreaming. Nothing can beat the hard won humanity that seems still to glow forward in some old lady who despite everything turning out wrong in her life has turned out right. Who can hold my hand and meet me with cloudy eyes and try once again, to connect with this one white face. That maybe this one will finally listen to everything she has to say, to everything I need to hear.

Because we're a very broken country even if that's the one thing we're trying not to talk about.

'A national legacy of unutterable shame'
- The High Court Judges during the MABO ruling.



  1. Agree? Disagree? Fact check? I don't claim to have answers or even the right understanding. I do know the hidden reality of our country begs lots of questions. So post your comments here, let's get talking!

  2. Phfaw Caitlin, that's very well said. Thank you !

  3. Love your writing. I too am a non-Aboriginal young woman who has spent years working with Aboriginal people from remote communities. I love my work because it gets me a chance to work with and learn so much but I find it so frustrating that when I go home, I just can't make others understand or care what life is like for those out in communities. Still object to the 'oldest living culture' line, but otherwise, a very eloquent article :)

    1. I saw this description of Australian Aboriginal culture written by Paul Keating and thought of our discussion on
      Keating described it as
      'this culture, the longest with a collective memory of any in continuous existence'. I thought was a clearer way of writing it than 'oldest living culture'! What do you think? The full article is interesting to. You can read it here:

    2. Keating wrote this too: 'Indeed, the more we interpret Australia through Aboriginal eyes, through the experience of their long and epic story, the more we allow ourselves to understand the land we share.'

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