Know your place

The suburb I live in is named after a pioneering family who ran cattle in the area from 1879 to the 1970s. The husband was a luckless blacksmith who came to Australia in the 1850s for the gold rush, stayed poor, and eventually ended up in Townsville with his wife and family. They set up a dairy farm and struggled to survive. Much of their land is now submerged after the city flooded it in building the local dam.

Knowing your place, as in where you currently live, offers surprisingly rich fodder literally right under your writing desk. Have you ever researched the history of your home, who built it, who the street or suburb is named after, and what they did that was deserving of such recognition? Give it a shot. What you learn can show up in unexpected places in your writing.

But once you’re done, I’d like you to look again at those street signs and suburb names, and ask about the silences they represent. Are any suburbs in your city named after women? Scientists? Humanitarians? Artists? What about Indigenous Peoples? You’ll be surprised by what is underrepresented or missing.

My suburb is Wulgurukaba country. They are saltwater people who have lived in this region for over 37,000 years (to put that into perspective, there were no humans living in England or America when the Wulgurukaba first settled here). There is 6,000 year old rock art only 15km from the city centre—it’s older than the Egyptian pyramids. The river I walk my dog beside every morning is the northern-most area where the Wulgurukaba people travelled during the changing seasons.

In the mid-1800s, pioneers trapped the Wulgurukaba at the base of the nearby mountain range and massacred them. It’s unknown how many families were murdered, but they died because the pioneers wanted the land, and the Wulgurukaba refused to leave their ancestral country.

smoking gun

Like much of Australia’s colonial history, the Indigenous story of this region is buried under silence. One has to dig deep or speak to a local Elder to know.

As writers, we can choose to see the silences in our daily lives. We can discover what is hidden, whether it is in place names, the news, in conversations, advertising or random interactions. And then we can  write about what we find.

Where you’re sitting right now is as good a place as any to start.

Racist jokes

Earlier this week, I was in a department store torturing myself by browsing the racks of summer dresses (none of which I could afford to buy). Behind the counter were four young salespeople, all clearly friends, one of whom was Aboriginal. The store was surprisingly quiet, and so it was easy to overhear their conversation which revolved around a new range of skirts. When asked her opinion of a particularly vibrant yellow piece, one of the saleswomen indicated at her Aboriginal colleague and said, ‘There’s already too much colour here.’

They all laughed, even the woman who was the punchline, but I felt a vague sort of discomfort. It was obviously a racist joke. But was it somehow less offensive because the person being disrespected found it funny?

racismThe reality is that racism isn’t only committed by hateful extremists on the shady edges of society. It’s committed by everyday folk who think they are excluded because they are comfortable to surround themselves with people of other races. It’s done by people who couch their statements with ‘I’m not a racist, but…’ and then launch into something incredibly offensive and belligerent. And it’s perpetuated by people who believe that humour somehow precludes them from acknowledging that what they are saying is hurtful and damaging.

I’ve told enough racist jokes myself, believing it didn’t matter because my best friend is Jewish, my long-term housemate Korean, and some of my oldest friends Aboriginal, Fijian and Samoan. But racist jokes are an insidious way of dehumanising another person, and frankly I want to be better than that.

I hope we all can be better than that.