Racism, Identity and my Childhood

by John posted August 16, 2015 category Culture, Family, History, Koorie, Politics
Jugun II

My shortlisted work for the 2015 Victorian Indigenous Art Awards

Whilst this site was originally intended as a site to catalogue my artistic and cultural output, recently I’ve let slip my leanings and have begun to write entries of a more political nature. This is simply a matter of needing to vent, regardless of the fact that I may be the only person reading this. Whilst I don’t intend to continue the political and social commentary, I felt I needed to write one last piece before I return to our previously scheduled programming. It’s a topic that I’ve been asked about many times, and felt it was time that I finally put to print, and shared this part of my own personal story. This is the story of my first ten years on Earth.


Being a somewhat fair skinned person, I’m not generally viewed as someone who is likely to have much experience with racism or prejudice, unless it might be assumed that I’m dishing it out, rather than sitting on the receiving end. It’s a fair enough cop, I suppose. Because at first glance for the majority of non-Indigenous people I appear to be a reasonably testosterone laden white male. Nobody thinks twice before positing their bigoted opinions in my presence. I was born with a free pass to being able to hear the worst of society. Prejudice against ethnic minorities, the handicapped, women, gay people, or anyone even slightly different are all expressed in front of me freely, regularly, and often with great vulgarity. You might even assume that I’m used to it by now.

I’m not.

I never will be “over it.”

So the following is a little background as to where my opinion and resolve in relation to bigotry comes from.

I was born in the late 1970’s on the Far North Coast of New South Wales. A part of Australia that many people would classify as a paradise consisting of perfect surfing breaks, pristine beaches, large tracts of bushland and sub-tropical rainforest. It’s a home to hippies, artists, cattle and cane farmers, sea-changers, retirees and the Bundjalung Nation. My father is a member of said Nation as well as a descendant of the Yorta Yorta people of the Murray River, as am I. My mother on the other hand is a grey (and a once red haired) descendant of Irish, English and Swedish settlers and convicts. However I never knew that as a child.

When I was a kid, all I knew is I am a Goori (Aboriginal), that I come from the Bundjalung and Yorta Yorta peoples, and that I have many hundreds, if not thousands of cousins. I knew that whenever I would travel with my family I would meet dozens of people, all of whom I was related to, and it didn’t matter if we were travelling near or far. There were always dozens. And they were all welcoming.

My Mum’s side of the family was very different however. It was unknown. Mum is an orphan. She didn’t know her own story. Not that she was concerned all that much. My Dad’s family became my Mum’s, and many of the Bundjalung words I grew up knowing and using were taught to me with pride, by my Mum.

I was raised to take pride in who I am, to love my family, to respect my Elders, cherish our history, and to treat people and all situations with a level of respect that I might hope to be afforded in return. Unfortunately, that’s not how things always panned out when I was a child. I was born at a less enlightened time, and in a less than enlightened place.

The Far North Coast or Northern Rivers region is a part of Australia where Aboriginal people make up close to 7% of the total population, contrasting with the national percentage of 3%. It is also a region where prejudice and the duplicitous nature of people can often be seen at its worst. I was reminded of this in a very strong fashion a few years ago when I returned to the region after living a considerable distance away and without return for close to a decade. It was the first time my Mum had returned to the area since leaving there in 1989 and it was also the first time she had been the victim of prejudice since that time.

We were at a park in Maclean, a small town on the Clarence River, when my were parents returning from buying our lunch and were surprised by a few local high school students who had decided to audibly make fun of my Mum. They had decided that her heavily curved spine reminded them of Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Very quickly I felt like it was the old days of my childhood again, where walking down the main street of Yamba we would hear an occasionally brutal comment regarding my mother’s scoliosis. Both my younger brother and I reacted quickly in this instance, forcing an apology from the group, but not before the damage was done. But that is very much what I had come to expect from many people on the Lower Clarence.

I was born at Grafton, but the first ten years of my life were spent at Yamba, on the mouth of the Clarence River, in Yaegl country. A small fishing town of about 3,000 at the time. Most people in Yamba either worked on the fishing trawlers, owned fish & chip shops, or worked in the summer tourism trade. The local Goori people for the most part were unemployed, with few viable options due to the town’s endemic racism.

In everything we did, we had to prove ourselves worthy of being in our surrounds. After all, my family in particular had started out with all the strikes against us. My family were the odd folks out, living in a large housing commission home, which sat no more than five minutes walk from a 5km stretch of white sand on Pippi Beach. My dad was studying, building a future for the family, a few short years after having been homeless with my mother in a cargo container in Brisbane, and followed by working in the Baryulgil asbestos mine. In the time that he wasn’t studying or looking for work opportunities, my Dad was lodging his plans with council and investors for building a new community for Yamba’s Goori residents. Yamba was to be a second chance for both my mother and father, after their first marriages had collapsed, each having lost their first born child in the process.

Back then not many people lived on our side of Yamba, other than those in the old and well established streets, and the local Goori community who apart from my family all lived on the local Mission.

A black man with a white wife born with a minor physical deformity, living together in a home they didn’t earn. It was unusual. It wasn’t how it was supposed to be. It brought out the worst in people. The kind of people who would say how they felt, but only anonymously, or when they were called out on being cruel in other ways. I’ve seen my Mother, the most gentle person I have ever met, spat on. I have heard her called the most vile names, all whilst she held my hand as we walked in the town’s main street. When people think of Yamba as paradise, I think of my Mum and her strength, and the cowardice found among the town’s population.

To be fair, Yamba was home to some good people. But their voices were often drowned out by the shouts from cruel, angry, scowling others. I remember an old bloke by the name of Leo, who when my Dad couldn’t find work joined with him and they mowed people’s lawns together. Leo was respected in the community and his friendship saw off some of the more brutish voices. Leo ran the local youth club at the community hall, and tapped my Dad on the shoulder to help out, teaching a number of kids how to box. This was an easy task, as only a couple of decades earlier my Dad had been a household name across the country as the national Bantamweight boxing champion, a few years before Lionel Rose came to prominence. He taught many kids, he gave respect, and he received it in return. A shame then that my Dad was never able to reach and influence my generation, just a few years behind those he had worked with. It might have made a big difference on my formative years.

I attended pre-school at Maclean, just a short 15 minute trip from Yamba. I remember it all very clearly, including the layout of the rooms, the teachers, pictures on the wall, the little girl who ate apple seeds, the water table, an alcove full of giant blocks, my disdain for nap time and the trip to and from pre-school in Aunty Pat’s blue Volkswagen. Aunty Pat was Pat Randall, whose family became only the second lot of Goori’s to live in town, and whom I didn’t realise at the time, is actually my Aunty, and not just an honourary one owing to having been a good mate of my parents. A lot of people are surprised at just how vivid my memory is when it comes to my childhood. I think it’s probably because of how many horrible, scarring moments, amongst all of the love and happiness that my parents afforded me. My life at home and weekends spent on Country at Baryulgil and Washpool in the company of my older cousins, or brothers as I see them, was the stuff of dreams. School however was another matter entirely.

Yamba Public School was a nightmare, and one in which regardless of what I or my parents did, we saw no improvement. The school had a large number of Goori students, of which the vast majority were Yaegl, and all of whom lived in a tight knit fashion, were related to one another, and thus were automatically there for one another. I didn’t have that. They barely knew me. I had the fact that I was an easy target, who was innocent, spent all of my time either talking to adults, my many older cousins, or playing alone. If anyone was going to be called nigger or boong in my school environment – it was going to be the easy target.

My classmates were mimicking the hatred and ignorance of their parents. They had no idea what the words they were using meant, at first. At first I didn’t either. I was a Goori, Aboriginal, or Bundjalung. I had absolutely no idea what a halfcaste, quartercaste, abo, boong or a nigger was. My strong reaction when I began to recognise the sting in those words certainly helped both sides of the conflict to know what they meant. I learnt how much words could hurt. They learnt how words can give power.

I began to dread recess and lunch. When the bell rang it would either mean that most of the white males in my grade would go play soccer, or they would come looking for me. Never did they pick at me separately, or in class. It was only ever when they all had each other’s support, out in the playground, regardless of the teacher on duty, who generally turned a blind eye, that they would come for me.

There was a funny side to my first day of work at my current job. I had to pose for a photograph for my work ID. Even today it still draws the odd comment from colleagues when they see the picture. Eyes wide open, almost unnaturally, as though I was playing around with the photographer and the viewer. It wasn’t meant to be like that. It actually took over 15 attempts to get a photo where my eyes were open. These days, no matter how quickly a camera’s flash is triggered, my eyes react too quickly, and I blink. Sometimes I’ll even explain why. I’ll tell people about how in the playground I had to learn to be very quick with my eyes, because of how regularly they would be filled with handfuls of sand. In comparison, being spat on regularly didn’t terrify me nearly as much.

Every day I would go home in tears, never wanting to return to school. I got sick of the constant racism and the taunts about my Mum’s back. I couldn’t handle it any more. The classroom wasn’t a refuge, with my kindergarten teacher banning me from Aboriginal cultural story time because I had audibly once expressed my excitement about stories relating to my own background. She would occasionally confiscate my belongings, and hand them back to me at the end of the day, broken. I was even kept in during lunch periods for colouring-in “incorrectly”. I was a very quiet child, I was also naive. I didn’t know I could say anything against her behaviour. I thought it was normal.

In these first school years I could only say I had one friend, at first. He was a kid who lived across the street, who had come from Sydney, thus had never been exposed to the endemic ignorance found in Yamba. Occasionally he would join in on the taunts due to peer pressure, but never when it came to racism, and never when it came to my Mum. He was a person I could forgive, for what I would later realise was the sake of my sanity. Later, it was the only other Goori student in my year at school who became a friend. He too would get roped into picking on me, at least on a rare occasion, fearing that he would instead be a target if he left me alone completely. It was only his misfortune that of the many hundreds of times that I was surrounded by a crew of 10 or more, the one time I was able to single out one of my attackers, it was him.

I hit the kid. I hit him hard. He was sent home, and to my surprise, and to a manner that I still don’t quite understand, from the following day he chose to be my mate, at least away from school. He had enough to worry about I suppose. The kids in the playground didn’t pick on him, but the Principal and teachers did. I still remember him being humiliated, standing on a table as the Principal shook him, terrifying him, and hitting the back of his legs as the class looked on. I have no idea why.

My Dad made many efforts to fix my situation at school. There were many meetings with the school Principal, and a few heated one-sided arguments. It got to the point where I was puzzled at how the Principal would excitedly point out my Dad’s car passing by the school during our P.E session, ensuring all the class and teachers waved vigorously and quite nervously.

It wasn’t enough.

My Dad even resorted to watching me from the playground fence at lunchtime. Which did help, but he couldn’t always be there. There are only so many fights you can break up from a fence when most of the action would happen on the other side of a windbreak.

In the end, the bigots won, but so did I. Half way through the third grade, in 1986, my Dad took us away from “paradise” following approval for part of his plans, and we settled in the town of my birth, at Grafton. What a change that move made. Teachers and classmates were friendly, there were lots of children to play with, I had cousins in my grade and the grade below me, and most of the Goori’s there were my Mob. These were Bundjalung and Gumbaingirr, and if we were going to cop anything, it was together. Not that it ever needed to be tested. Grafton gave me the chance at having a childhood. Long after I left Grafton, I still have to deal with racism and other kinds of bigotry on occasion, whether on public transport, in the street, or even in my place of work, but I am thankful for the haven that town was for me as a child.

Is it any wonder that I claim Grafton as my home town, and not Yamba? Even the kid across the street from me at Yamba ended up moving there just a few months later. We’re still friends.
Would I change my past if I could? No. I wouldn’t wish my early childhood on anyone. Those early years at school were hell. But I am passionate about my identity, my family and culture, and maybe I might not have been in such a manner had things been different. It’s odd to think though, that the people who once worked hard to label me as an abo, a boong, or a nigger, are also the people today who would so readily suggest I should be denied a right to identify as I do, as a Goori person. It has to be said, there is no pleasing the truly ignorant.

These days I know who my mother’s ancestors are. I did the research, spending many years tracing it, and I appreciate it as part of my identity. It’s important. I am the sum of all my ancestors lives, including their successes and failures, whether Bundjalung, Yorta Yorta, Irish, English, Swedish, or Saami. I am all those things. None of which diminishes just because of the love I hold for the culture in which I was raised.

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