Monday, 5 October 2015
One of my first jobs when I arrived in Australia was volunteering for a local organisation that was running an activity club for Armadale’s disadvantaged “at-risk” youth.
The night itself was mayhem. I was there solely as a youth work volunteer, keeping myself occupied until formal employment came along. Helmed by a team of well intentioned but inexperienced staff, the program consisted of a couple of activities that the young people, largely Aboriginal, could take part in; art, bike building, dodgeball, video games etc. The venue, an old disused post office was working against us from the start being as it was too small and inadequate to house twenty five Red Bull fuelled teenagers.
Art was the first port of call where the leader of the session set out a focus for the group to paint how drugs affect their lives. Cue twenty five beautifully rendered, hand drawn pictures of bongs of varying shapes, sizes and colours. Imagine an Andy Warhol tribute, but with less Marilyn Monroe.
On to the dodge-ball then. This was played outside on the pavement beside a road and featured routine dashes across traffic like a human version of Frogger, as the ball ricocheted off the post office. As a facilitator of youth activities for the last ten years, it went against all fundamental health and safety practices on a basic level. As a first time outsider to this particular set-up, I hoped it would be called to a halt by the session leader without the inconvenient death of a participant. Part of me just figured they surely knew what they were doing here and that I should stop worrying. Both these activities were strung together by the most torrid, disrespectful, human rights violating abuse by the young people I think i’ve ever seen. They just didn’t give a shit what they were saying or who they were saying it to. From the 6pm start through to the midnight finish it was a hurricane of screaming, fighting, swearing, vandalism, stealing, spitting, threatening and general dismissing of fundamental decency towards staff, the very people who were trying to help them.
As part of the service, the young people were given a bus ride home. This went as well as you could guess if you put any fifteen angry, confused and violent creatures in a steel capsule and hurtled it around at fifty miles an hour. Often we would arrive at houses where there were no parents or there were parents but they were in the midst of a spirited bout of domestic violence. We would bring the kids back to the centre, wait a while and return them when things had quietened down/someone had passed out. In one instance of dropping the kids off with a parent or guardian, they opened the door in front of me and revealed a house that had all the hallmarks of a poorly maintained crack den.
All of this may not surprise anyone who works in these communities in Australia. It might not even seem extreme and I've certainly seen and experienced worse over the last three years. The shock came from my naivety (I was essentially straight off the boat) and the fact my perceptions of Australia were vastly different as a person originating from the other side of the world. We are fed an image of this country that has ingrained itself in popular culture. Barbecues, Beaches, surfing, sunshine and a nationwide laid-back attitude to life that permeated every citizen. To my eternal shame, my entire understanding of Aboriginal People before I arrived was based on the cameo in Crocodile Dundee. I can’t remember a single black guy ever gracing the screen in an episode of Neighbours or Home and Away. You hear very little to nothing of Aboriginal Australians if you’re living outside of Australia.
On a vast scale, the majority of Indigenous people are treated as second class. A nuisance. The sigh inducing weight to bear on white shoulders. I talked to as many people as a I could and attended several “Cultural Awareness” courses that went through history, recent history, about what took place here. I joined a room of middle class white people who were asked what percentage of Aboriginal history they were aware of. We went round the room and not one of them said more than 1%. Bear in mind these people (who were between 18 and 60) had lived in this country all their lives.
This amazed me. The fault, I discovered, was because Aboriginal history isn’t taught in schools. Generally, all children are taught Captain Cook discovered Australia and they wonder why young Indigenous people get disillusioned with state education.
There is a reason substantial history isn’t taught. It’s because to educate on even one aspect is to open up a can of worms that may have potentially devastating consequences for the government. Colonial frontiers featured regular massacres of European settlers killing thousands upon thousands of Indigenous Australians. An entire generation of children were stolen from families (under official government instruction) and rehoused in white communities with the direct intention of ‘breeding out’ the Aboriginal element over time. This was conceived in 1937 at a Commonwealth State-Native Welfare Conference where they question was posed as what to do about the ‘Aboriginal Problem’. Discussion revolved around the ‘absorption’ by the people of the commonwealth, with the idea among non-indigenous people that there was no value in Indigenous culture. The children removed from their parents were placed in institutions or foster families where they received a lower standard of education or none at all. In addition, they were told to forget their language and heritage. First hand stories, aside from the obvious trauma of loss and separation include neglect, isolation, deplorable living conditions, abuse and molestation. I’ve met Aboriginal people who went to primary school and were not even looked at as human, with the government classing them as Flora and Fauna.
The result of these policies is seen today with vastly reduced Aboriginal numbers, huge levels of disadvantage, drug use, obesity, alcoholism, broken families, domestic violence, early pregnancies and despite being 3% of the population, they make up 30% of Australia’s prisoners. So many of the young people I've worked with through my own youth program have no issue with spending time in jail. In fact, they expect it. Its part of growing up.
With the complete lack of mandatory education on this subject, you can’t help notice the attitude of many White Australians when the topic is brought up. I cannot tell you the amount of times I’ve heard, “They should just get over it”.
Something else I've noticed is the number of bumper stickers that express interesting opinions on immigration. Considering the vast majority of the country is made up of people who have roots from all over the world, a common banner emblazoned to the back of pick-up trucks or Utes is, “Fit In or Fuck Off”.
Sage advice, 150 years too late.