I was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia. I grew up beneath the gum trees, the smell of sweet acacia gracing my senses. I love kangaroos, koalas and kookaburras; I love the hard-packed earth beneath a eucalypt, scattered with gum nuts, furrowed with tracks left by rivulets of rain water. I love the beaches, the bush, the warmth of the January sun. I love the people and at least some of what makes up Australian culture. I am Australian.
But that’s not the message I received, growing up. We are taught a very different truth by teachers, governments. I suspect this is a message that has always been given, a basic understanding that has belong to non-indigenous Australians since the first ship landed on these shores.
We are told, in no uncertain terms, that we do not belong here. Indigenous Australians are the ones who “belong” – people from across the seas are merely invaders. We came and stole their land, trashed it; took away their right to live out their own customs, speak their own language, live on their own land. Now we live in a perpetual state of uncomfortable contrition: we say sorry, but have nowhere to go after that. Because you can’t go back and change the past, and even to change the present we need to know what it needs to look like when it’s changed. So we say sorry, and try to provide enough ‘services’ to keep Aboriginal people happy, and make token efforts at reconciliation.
I have always had a basic fear of Aboriginal people – I have not wanted to meet any, have not wanted to include them in my view of Christian mission. Why? Because I have been told all my life that they are different. They have different traditions, customs, attitudes. They respect the land, respect each other. I am just the outsider – that’s what I was told. I am of European descent, so it is an honour and a privilege if they accept me. I am not one of them, I am not good enough. My fear was of saying or doing the wrong thing, offending someone. And deeper than that, a fear that I could not understand them, could not feel the common beat of humanity.
Today that lie was exposed. I listened to a young half-Aboriginal girl speak of her journey to accepting her own heritage – something she spent most of her life to date denying, for shame. Something clicked. I don’t know what she said to make it all make sense, but finally it clicked.
I love Australia. I go through periods of praising God that he destined for me to be born an Australian. It is not important what colour I am, how many generations of my family have lived here: I love this country, and I call it home. I love this beautiful land, and it breaks my heart to see people use it for selfish reasons, tearing it up for the sake of consumerism. My hearts beats for this land, in the same way as do the hearts of Aboriginals. I am Australian, as much as they are. I was born here, the same as them. I am not different. I may have white skin rather than brown, but I am an Australian and there is no discrimination – only that imposed by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.
My belief then is this: the reason we struggle so much to be truly reconciled to Aboriginals, the reason we abuse our land for the sake of exploiting its resources, is because we do not feel like we truly belong here. That is the message we receive, and it sits uncomfortably in our hearts, makes us feel guilty for reasons we can’t quite identify, paralyses us. When you receive a label like that – one which says that you are responsible for the horrific actions of people long lost to history, which says you are guilty, which says you don’t deserve to be here – you are stuck living under the expectations that label carries. You play up to that label. You act injustly, feel guilty, rinse and repeat.
We need to be taught how to belong. How to accept that this is our home. I don’t believe that Aboriginal people have ever been anything less than hospitable, anything less than willing to share this beautiful country with others. But we have taken it upon ourselves to declare ourselves strangers, and so we cannot reconcile. So long as we maintain that we are the ones who shouldn’t be here, we can never be comfortable enough to reconcile.
This reflection and realisation has been really important for me, and I would love to hear other thoughts and opinions on the matter so please leave a comment – even if it’s just a quick line about your experiences living alongside Aboriginal people (or as an Aboriginal person) in Australia. Thanks!