Friday, 12 August 2016
Writer Bobbie Conlon
I couldn’t count the amount of times people have told me that I am one of the ‘good Aboriginals’, someone that broke the typical stereotype of how an Aboriginal person is portrayed. I became a ‘good Aboriginal’ in their mind purely because I didn’t drink or take any drugs, I lived in a good home, and I was a committed worker not relying on ‘the dole’.
This is a very raw way to start an article but this is a real, re-occurring experience for me in my journey of understanding my Aboriginality—which is something that someone who is Aboriginal can struggle to understand. I have come across many contrasting ideals and perspectives about what an Aboriginal is or who we are supposed to be according to social media and statistics.
When I was 19 years old I had formed an image of what it meant to be an Aboriginal and firmly decided that I wanted nothing to do with the culture. I would chose not to identify as an Aboriginal and if asked I would state that I am simply a tanned Australian, out of fear of the reaction. Unfortunately, growing up I didn’t have a safe place to naturally find myself—something every young person needs to do. When young people transition into adulthood they need time to discover what their identity is and what elements are shaping their identity. Working with youth for the past eight years, I’ve witnessed a similarity in the growth and maturing of young people whether they are Christian or not. I have come to an understanding that creating a safe place for young people to discover and question is essential. Whenever I questioned my Aboriginal identity I was subject to different people’s perspectives and ideals, and not ones that I had formed on my own. That part of my identity had no positive foundation, causing to me to disengage with my Aboriginality.
I don’t speak for every young Aboriginal person, but this was my journey towards discovering and accepting my complete identity. From my personal experience, there is still racism in Australia towards Aboriginal people. I’m not talking about overt racism—the over the top, in your face, out loud racism. While there is overt racism in Australia, that definitely isn’t limited to Aboriginal people. The type of racism I wish to address is called covert racism. This is the subtle, disguised, and under the radar racism. It’s a type of racism that you don’t even know you are committing as it can be so well hidden within society it seems somewhat accepted. Covert racism underpins every statement that says, “Bobbie, you are one of the good Aboriginals.”
Every person that told me I was one of the ‘good ones’ wasn’t trying to be openly racist towards me (hopefully); it was their strong ideals about Aboriginals that made me an exception to the rule. A contributing factor of covert racism are the embedded stereotypes within our society. It is easy to adopt the ideologies that accompany stereotypes if people aren’t or haven’t been exposed to anything else.
In Year 10 I was chased around the school by the Deputy Principle who told me that because I was Aboriginal I required help and was at high risk of having depression. Similarly, I have been journeying with a young girl who is discovering her identity as a fair skinned Aboriginal. When she told someone that she attends the yarning circle I run for young Aboriginal women, they scoffed at her saying, “Why do you even go to that? You’re not even that Aboriginal!” Can you imagine how she felt? Belittled and devalued because she didn’t fit the mold of being a dark skinned Aboriginal. As she was telling her story, it opened a pathway for other girls to start sharing their stories. What they didn’t know was that all their stories were examples of how they were affected by covert racism.
One story that was shared came from two girls who live in different remote communities. They explained that in school their teacher asked them a question about what a Bora ring was. The teacher singled the girls out, explaining to the class that they would definitely know the answer. If the teacher had done prior research, she would have found out that where these girls come from they don’t call it a Bora ring, so of course they didn’t know the answer. When I asked them how they felt, their response was, “The teacher pointed us out in class and tried to get us to answer the question, she kept saying ‘Come on girls, answer it’ and we didn’t know the answer, we have never heard of it before. We rang our family back home and they told us that we don’t call it a Bora ring. It made us feel like we didn’t know our own culture.”
As soon as a certain group of people are put in a box and assumed to be the same, it becomes limiting and hurtful. Questions and statements like, “What part Aboriginal are you?”, “You don’t look Aboriginal”, and “Can you pronounce this word? You should be able to because you are Aboriginal!” are all based on covert racist thinking. They seem harmless, but they can remind us of the horror and genocide that occurred to Aboriginal people, and imply that there is an unrealistic formula to being Aboriginal. These are some of the stereotypes that are affecting our young Aboriginal people of today.
The pain that comes with not knowing who you are or not being accepted for who you are can cause people to resort to the extremes. I have seen many young people shift from being proud in their culture and who they are in that identity to accepting these socially produced stories and stereotypes. These stories and stereotypes are circulated so often that it somehow becomes truth to them; they need to prove their Aboriginality to the world, but more to themselves by adopting these customs.
Another young man I know is fair skinned and feels the need to prove the fact that he is Aboriginal. He started smoking marijuana and when I asked him why he replied, “Because Bob, it’s deadly!” as if it was a fact. Deadly is a word that is most commonly used as describing something as good. This young man starting smoking because to him, it was fact that all Aboriginals smoke.
If we turn to God’s word now, we see that everyone is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14, NIV) We aren’t made to live out stereotypes and fulfill statistics but rather we are to look to the plans God has for us, plans of good that give us hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). It may be cliché to write those verses but in all honesty racism is very limiting and degrading whereas the scriptures give us freedom and hope.
Paul creates a beautiful picture as he writes his letter to the Colossians. He talks of Christ’s supremacy.
“Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see—such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him. He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together.” (Colossians 1:15-16, NLT)
If what Paul writes is true, then it must mean that God made us, we are his creation and he holds us together. Beyond anything else, beyond culture, the first and most important part of our identity is our identity in Christ. If he created us and holds us together then surely we need to identify with him.
If we need to identify with him, then how much more necessary would it be for those who are confused in their identity to identify with him. Yet sometimes it can be hard for some to do this, and impossible for those who don’t know Christ. If everything was created by God, it also means that every person was created by God whether they know it or not. Maybe we need to shift our thinking and start seeing people as though they were made by God. Would this change the way we think, act, and feel towards certain groups of people?
My hope is that by reading this article, you are able to check yourself. What thoughts, ideas, pictures and feelings do you have of Aboriginal people? What stories have you heard and where have you heard them? With the knowledge of how powerful covert racism can be, what pieces of information needs to be critically questioned by asking, ‘Is this true for all Aboriginal people?’ My guess is that, whatever it is, it wouldn’t be true for all Aboriginal people.
The reason behind the negative encounters some Aboriginal youth face is the simple fact that there was no relationship built. In a lot of the cases I’ve mentioned above around covert racism happened because no one took the time to invest in a relationship. Relationships are important to Aboriginal people. We value relationships and the sacredness of what is kept inside a relationship. It’s being connected to one another. In any relationship we learn about the other person, we start to see them for who they are and not what society tells us they should be. Relationships break down the barriers that stereotypes have built. It’s no surprise that God himself demonstrates the beauty of being in relationship and the importance of being connected to one another.
John 17:20-23 says, “I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. ‘I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.’”
That should be our aim, to be one. Jesus doesn’t discriminate here, he doesn’t separate us, he is praying for us to be one. Jesus is praying for us! He wants us to experience the beauty of being connected. That is powerful.
1 Thessalonians 5:11 says, “So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing.”
I wish to encourage you by thanking you for wanting to address racism and how it affects Aboriginal youth. Continue to press past the barriers that society has, build relationships, and engage in conversations that not only build up and encourage Aboriginal youth but that also lead other people towards investing in a relationship that will ultimately challenge covert racist thinking.
Originally published in YVQ12: MESSY.
Written by Bobbie Conlon. Bobbie is a student studying a Bachelor of Education (Primary), has been a qualified Youth Worker for 4 years, and has worked with youth in the community for twice that long. She is employed by Bir'a Women’s Healing Ministry that specialises in survivors of abuse. She is employed as a Community Youth Worker and her focus is on creating a space where young people can come and meet with Jesus safely.
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