A week ago I wrote a post called It’s Not About Me. This last week has been momentous – everywhere. While the global pandemic continues, the spotlight this week has been shifted to #BlackLivesMatter. The catalyst has been the death of George Floyd in the US. Here in Australia, we’ve seen protests as well – partially about this death, with people standing in solidarity with their counterparts in the US, but also highlighting the racial inequality that our indigenous Australians experience here in Australia.
I thought long and hard about whether I’d post on this topic. You see, I’m a white woman – probably the second most privileged category of person in the world. But at the same time, I’ve been thinking quite hard about what it means to have privilege and not to have privilege.
Many years ago, in my first job, I worked in a remote area community in the Pilbara Region of Western Australia. I went north as a graduate physiotherapist, into a sole position, working in two hospitals about twenty kilometres apart.
In the morning, I worked in Roebourne. Roebourne in those days, was best known as the place where a young indigenous man died in the police lockup as the result of injury inflicted by police. Sadly, it appears that not much has changed.
In the afternoon, I worked in Wickham, a small mining town on the coast – a place of relative wealth. I went north, to work in an area with many indigenous Australians, without any cultural education at all.
Growing up in the hills area of Perth, I was incredibly sheltered from the reality of remote Australia. I had no idea that the people I was about to work with did not speak English as their first language, or that the children I was to work with often didn’t speak English much before they went to school. In many ways I was incredibly ignorant.
Fortunately, I met some lovely indigenous ladies who gave me some basic Yindjibarndi language skills as we walked together in the course of my job. In addition, one of the experienced nursing staff took the time to explain some of the cultural things that I was completely ignorant of, and really needed to know, in order to actually work in some kind of meaningful way.
Working in Wickham was completely different. I often felt that I worked in what was once called ‘the third world’ in the morning, and then ‘the first world’ in the afternoon. The two towns, twenty kilometres apart were completely and utterly different in their appearance, language, and privilege. I only spent a year there, but there are many things I’ve never forgotten. After that year, I moved inland, to Tom Price and Paraburdoo.
Several things struck me about that time this week. I remember my family visiting half way through the year. I recall my sister commenting that when she’d been in a shop in Roebourne, she’d felt incredibly out of place – because she was the only white person in there. It would have been the first time for her – the first time she’d been the one person whose skin colour was different. By that time I’d been up north for over six months, and had got to know people, and didn’t feel quite like that anymore – but I had when I’d first arrived.
Yet, for both of us – me in my early twenties, and she in her late teens – that year we’d finally experienced a place in which we were not the majority skin colour, and had thus felt ‘out of place.’ It was an enormous learning experience. Yet at the same time, it probably wasn’t as much a learning experience as it could have been, because it was only a feeling, and not a moment of discrimination.
As a woman I have experienced discrimination of the basis of gender, but I’ve never experienced it on the basis of skin colour or race.
It has never crossed my mind that the police might kill or injure me because of the colour of my skin.
When I think back to the issues I met for the first time in that year in Roebourne, I am incredibly saddened that many of those issues still exist. Our indigenous Australians still live shorter lives than those of us who are not indigenous. The reasons are complex, but lack of privilege is the biggest one. They are incredibly more likely to be incarcerated than white Australians.
What to make of #BlackLivesMatter?
The global pandemic has taken proportionally more lives of non-white Americans than white Americans. We’ve been more fortunate here, mainly because overall we’ve been more fortunate. Had COVID-19 taken hold in the ways it has in many other countries, I think we may have seen a similar pattern here. Our government has classed our ATSI people as ‘high risk.’
What about protesting? Gathering in large groups right now makes me a bit nervous. COVID nervous. However, the issues driving group protests in a time of global pandemic are such that the most vulnerable in our societies have chosen to take the risk. That right there, should tell us how much people care about this.
I have not walked in a protest and because I am concerned about the spread of COVID-19, despite our low infection rates, I would also choose not to. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think this issue is incredibly important. It is.
What else can we do? We can write to our politicians. (Which I have just done.) Federal and State. And we can speak with our votes. It’s time that our pollies really thought about things, and used their power as politicians to vote for the things that are right. And if we think they’re not doing so, then we really should tell them.
Party politics is something that on occasion drives me nuts. I understand the rationale. I understand that we need cohesive government in order to get things done. But perhaps our government needs to think about the people they represent. Perhaps our politicians need to think beyond the party. Perhaps they need to revisit their platforms. Perhaps we as voters need to vote vigorously for people of integrity – and not always along party lines.
I know quite a lot of people who won’t agree with me on those points. That’s OK. We are different people and we think differently. For me it always comes down to – in the end – which politicians can I trust to do more right. I can never be a one issue voter, but I can be a voter who thinks about the greater good. The community good.
In the end – pandemic, racism, discrimination, choices – the underlying thing has to be ‘It’s not always about me.’ Because when it is about me, I am selfish. When it’s not about me, then it must be about community. And that community is everyone.
It’s about us.