I was born in Gunnedah, New South Wales but grew up in Toowoomba in Queensland. My mother is a Gamilaraay woman, born in Gunnedah where her family has lived for a few generations. My father was Scottish. He passed away when I was very young, and my brother and I were raised by mum and her family.
I was the second person in my family to finish high school...after my mum. She worked as a brickie’s labourer, as a cleaner. She did everything. One day she was laying bricks in a carpark across the road from an Indigenous student support centre at a uni. She walked across the road and asked if she could apply and eventually graduated with a degree in journalism. She would finish work, pick us up from school, and we’d sit up the back of her class doing our homework.
Education is the best way to change health and socio-economic outcomes for anybody, it doesn’t matter where you come from.
For me, education is where it’s at because I saw first hand the profound difference it made for my own family.
When I was eight years old my mum said to me: “It doesn’t matter that we’re poor, that we don’t have the things other people do, the only thing that matters is having a good education.”
I ran with that, because I saw it to be true. I took myself to the library and worked hard. And if I can use my work to help open up educational opportunities for other Indigenous people then I’m going to give it a go.
When I started my PhD research I was interested in social networks, in particular social networks for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that either support or inhibit our education experiences.
For any marginalised community, there are challenges and barriers. Sometimes those barriers are external, imposed for instance by school systems and society, in the form of institutional racism.
But sometimes those barriers seem to emerge from within a community, and it often looks like these social pressures are worse in immigrant, refugee or poorer communities.
In the broader Australian community, we might call it the“tall poppy syndrome”. In Aboriginal communities, you might hear it sometimes manifest as people using terms like ‘flash black’ or ‘coconut’.
Of course these are often things that people outside the community hear without knowing the social, cultural or historical reasons for them. All communities set boundaries, so everyone knows what they can and can’t do, to keep a community coherent and cohesive, and their particular cultural practices strong.
In an educational context this has profound implications, which manifests as peer pressure not to achieve highly, and other social sanctions that are intended to inhibit people from doing well.
But instead of coming from within a community, my research shows that these ideas usually come from mainstream society.
For example, if Aboriginal young people are exposed to stereotypes, if their teachers have low expectations of them, and if they have haven’t been shown role models who are successful Aboriginal people, then we start to believe those things about ourselves – that we are poor, sick, or only good at sport. We doubt our ability to achieve anything.
We’re seeing increasing rates of tertiary enrolment of Aboriginal people, and fantastic outcomes. In particular, once Aboriginal people get to postgrad study, our success rates are just as high as anyone else’s.
Aboriginal people often invest in education and come to uni later in life, leaving already established jobs and careers, and often already having had families, so the decision is a big one. Our patterns of investment tend to be different, although we’re seeing increasing numbers of year 12 school leavers coming to uni.
One of the most fascinating things to see is the diversity of responses unis are taking to support Indigenous students.
Victoria is interesting. There are much larger populations of Indigenous people living in NSW and Queensland, and as a result university support programs are a bit different. Only seven per cent of Indigenous Australians live in Victoria, so unis are able to play a really active role in forging links to communities and to financial assistance, and offer intensive student support.
The diversity of Indigenous people living in Australia is immense. We’re a very big country. The difference is huge simply in the way people live, from east to west, north to south, not to mention the cultural and linguistic diversity that exists. In some ways it doesn’t make a lot of sense to talk about “Aboriginal and Torres Strait” Australia, using those words.
The complexity of institutional responses needs to match the complexity of the Indigenous Australian population. Just one thing – one policy, one program - isn’t going to work.
Many, if not most, Australians are really confronted by our colonial history. We don’t have language to discuss it in ways that adequately reflect its effect on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It’s strange because any student of politics knows that empire acts in a handful of pretty standard ways. It’s not new.
We have the language and willingness to talk about the traumatic and challenging histories of other countries, about the East Timorese liberation, the US civil war, the Rwandan genocide, World War Two. We can talk about these incredibly challenging and traumatic events in global history, but we tend not to talk about our own history of empire. There’s just this extraordinary resistance to acknowledging it. Which is surprising because it affects so many Australians – refugees, immigrants, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
I think I will always be surprised by what so many Australians don’t know about Australian history. We want to think it’s all hills hoists and sheep farms.
For me, there is something so important about being able to have a conversation about the effect of historical trauma on people now, because it means we can’t acknowledge the scale of our achievements - the good things - if we don’t understand the difficult things. We can’t put our achievements into perspective until we can talk about how these violent and traumatic experiences have affected us.
That effect of such violence over two centuries is manifest today in incredibly high rates of incarceration of Aboriginal people, lower mortality due to preventable diseases, and socio-economic disadvantage.
I would very much like to ignore shock jocks who make intemperate comments about Aboriginality and Australian history in public life. But this misinformation can too easily slip over into accepted truth.
Aboriginal people know what happened in Australia. These are the stories our people have told each other for many, many years. We have an oral tradition and we know what’s happened in this country.
So anyone who vilifies people on the basis of their indigeneity, well, it just reflects a profound unwillingness to engage with the complexity of our history.
The effect of the Stolen Generations on Aboriginal people in this country cannot be overstated. The Apology was an incredibly powerful moment in the nation’s history, and the effect it had on our people was huge. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens with such initiatives, it was insufficiently supported with commitment to change, particularly financial commitments.
The Apology was very long overdue and very welcome when it did happen but we can’t stop there, particularly when we see current rates of child removal rising significantly.
The ongoing trauma of the Stolen Generations didn’t stop because Kevin Rudd said sorry.
Sorry is important, but so is what you do after it.
I remain to be convinced that constitutional recognition will deliver us the things we need it to. Its benefits are hotly debated in Indigenous communities, and quite contentious.
New Zealand is guided by the Treaty of Waitangi, which is a powerful document that provides robust legal protections for Maori people. We don’t have anything like it in Australia, and in my view constitutional amendment is unlikely to change much. The advantage of a treaty is that is recognises the sovereignty of Aboriginal people.
Our protections exist in things like the Racial Discrimination Act. They are robust but they are legislative, which means they are subject to change.
I could be wrong, however, and I’ll be happy to be corrected if constitutional amendment will deliver tangible benefit in the form of rights, but I think there are other steps that need to be taken to move toward recognition of Indigenous sovereignty.
I take heart when I see lots of young people training to be doctors, or social workers or teachers who are passionate about understanding how Australia fits into the world, and who understand that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and cultures are an integral part of that. I think there’s a generational shift in the way people are beginning to understand the value and validity of Indigenous cultures and knowledge, and our shared history as Australians.
As told to Katherine Smith.
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