The charge of ‘systemic racism’ in Australia is flying thick and fast at the moment. Some, such as Dr Anthony Dillon, have argued that while there are always individual examples of racism, it is not ‘systemic’ in Australia. But is that true? Bruce Pascoe must be a magnet for racism. He seems to encounter it rather more than I would expect such a melanin deprived First Nations representative to experience. This excerpt is from his description of a recent visit to Kangaroo Island:
Kangaroo Island appears not to remember this history. (Aboriginal women abandoned on the Island by sealers.) You will search in vain in the tourist information for reference to the Aboriginal women. If you ask about Aboriginal history in the outlets where you might expect to find such information, you might receive a belligerent stare, as I did.
You will have a wonderful island holiday here. To wash away the bitter taste of the reception I was given on my request for information about Aboriginal history, I dived for abalone at the remote and beautiful Snelling beach.
If you hear prejudicial and uninformed conversation on the nature of Aboriginal people while crossing on the ferry, put that down as an Australian tourist experience too, but one that we hope will soon be replaced by discussions informed by the distinction of Aboriginal place names and the entrée they provide to a more real and complete Australian history.
My brother lives on Kangaroo Island and I have visited the place often. And, of course, a memorable part of the overall experience is the preoccupation of ferry passengers with the faults of Aboriginal people. Sometimes it seems it’s all they can talk about!
But a more extreme example of racism is revealed in Pascoe’s famously successful book Dark Emu. Let me tell you of this shocking incident as I examine it in Bitter Harvest, my critique of Dark Emu. Pascoe describes how, in 2009, he bought his wife a holiday so she could fulfil two lifelong ambitions: to see North Queensland Aboriginal art and turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs. The package deal came from what he calls ‘an Australian organisation that produces a very valuable quarterly magazine showcasing the country’s geography’. But he was soon disappointed:
We were promised experts in the fields of art, science and natural history. On the first evening, I was listening to one of the experts retell his adventures on a 4WD trek through the Kimberley. I let the fascination with 4WD bravado go through to the keeper.
As the recollections rolled on, I was stunned into silence. The guru of Aboriginal art proceeded to boast of how he had duped the local Land Council and gained access to restricted parts of their land .
Having been denied access to an initiation site by an Aboriginal elder, it seems the art experts enlisted the aid of the local police:
The police were galvanised into action, relishing the opportunity to thwart the authority of uppity blacks. If we perceive a crime has been committed, they told our adventurers, we can go where we like. We perceive a crime, they chortled .
So the police escorted the group to the initiation site, where they threw beer cans into the water, and took it in turns to shoot them with what Pascoe calls ‘police issue Glock pistols’. He says that when the next batch of young Aboriginal men were taken to this site, they would have found it full of bullet-riddled beer cans. He tells us that ‘the “explorer” gloated over his win against the Land Council, which for many Australians may seem mere cheekiness.’ He continues:
The most disturbing thing about the event was it undermined the authority of the Elders. They were trying to impress on their young men the importance of maintaining culture and a responsible alcohol-free way of life. The young men would have seen immediately that Australia had no regard for the authority of the Elders.
But that wasn’t the end of the insensitivity of these tour guides. Two nights later, as the tourist group sat around the communal fire, the guide to Aboriginal art derided Kimberley art and culture, claiming that the ‘Bradshaw’ rock paintings were first recorded by the pastoralist Joseph Bradshaw in 1891. The ‘guru’ stated that they were the work of Asian people because they were far too beautiful to have been painted by Aboriginal people. Pascoe could hardly contain himself:
I’d heard all the ‘superior civilisation’ theory before, but even in the previous month’s issue of the tour group’s own magazine there had been a lengthy article about the provenance of the ’Bradshaws’ (the correct term is Gwion Gwion), including a refutation of the misunderstanding by white ‘experts’ when told by local Aboriginal people that ‘We did not make these paintings’. No, their ancestors did. This is too difficult a concept for many art experts, and they leap on the idea that the art is the work of a more sophisticated people. What finer way to denigrate Aboriginal culture.
I tried to point out to the 4WD cowboys that the University of Western Australia and their own magazine had dismissed such nonsense. But the ‘experts’ were not to be denied, and shouted us down. We left and toured on our own.
We did see the turtles hatching, and we did spend two wonderful days touring the Laura art sites. We also spent time with family at Lockhart River, but the experience with the white experts burnt. Humiliation always does .
Well, this is a shocking story, but I have to take issue with Bruce on three things. The first thing is that Bruce has no cause to feel humiliated, none whatsoever – no fault lies with him. Secondly, ‘uppity blacks’. Uppity blacks? Did this incident take place in Western Australia—or Alabama? And, finally, I’m afraid I cannot accept that ‘many’ Australians would regard the actions of these renegade police as ‘mere cheekiness’. The vast majority of Australians would be appalled, as no doubt, was the tour company itself when apprised by Bruce of this incident, by means of his post- tour feedback. They would have been pleased to dispense with the services of employees stupid enough to put their business at risk by being so monumentally indiscreet as to denigrate Aboriginal culture to customers who had paid a lot of money to study that very culture. However, I suppose it’s too much to hope that the ‘chortling’ police could also have been called to account.
I have done a fair bit of travel in northern Australia, having visited Aboriginal sites and communities in the Kimberley, Central Australia, the Flinders Ranges, Kakadu, Arnhem Land (including the townships of Maningrida and Elcho Island), Thursday Island and Bathurst Island. I have never come across a guide that was anything other than almost reverential about Aboriginal culture. What an extraordinary twist of fate—Divine intervention, perhaps—that should deliver these 4WD morons into the hands of the one person with the knowledge and passion to expose them.
I must admit to being a tad doubtful about this story initially, but the verisimilitude provided by the ‘police issue Glock pistols’ put the matter beyond doubt for me. I mean, who wouldn’t trust a Melbourne University professor?
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