A teacher’s personal viewpoint: not Aboriginal, not Migrant, not standard White Australian.

As a seventh-generation non-Aboriginal Australian, I have no attachment to other lands.  I have deep fondness for the land, air, sea and skies of my part of Australia.  However, I have no ritual or family ties to any place, unlike many Aboriginals.[1]  I n this essay I raise aspects of my life parallel to the experiences of many Aboriginals; it is important to remember that some Aboriginals experience far more extreme versions of these and other difficult  situations.

A. Disadvantages: commonalities with many Aboriginals [2]

My parents both suffered chronic illness, with my Father’s PTSD and alcohol abuse giving a background of violence at times of family stress – such as major exams.  My father smoked and drank heavily, but the family treated this as damage caused by his war-time experiences.  A difference in this area was that alcohol was treated by my parents as a useful social drug if not abused, and I was taught to recognise the early physical signs of its effects on me so that I could keep control.  Intoxication of any sort was seen as unwise, but understandable when you knew the background; tobacco was a simple addiction and to be avoided.

We lived on the Service Pension in a State Housing Commission fibro house, with wood stove, wood copper (no washing machine fittings), livingroom fire and chip bath-heater.  We had a second-hand black-and-white TV while my schoolmates had colour, second hand (old-style) school uniforms, and often ended the pay fortnight with meals of pasta, cheese, garlic and herbs.

My family in the State was my sibs, my parents, and a grandmother; we could not afford interstate telephone calls or travel.  None of our cultural group who lived nearby was willing to acknowledge us.  This aspect of my life was very different from the family approach and mobility common in Aboriginal kinship groups[3].  I still feel uncomfortable at large gatherings of my husband’s family.

My home language, lack of religion, preferred media use, and topics of conversation were so different from my classmates that, after Year 2, I was ostracised at best and bullied at worst.  I endured in misery until, in Year 10, I used superior force on my prime tormentor.  This ended the bullying.[4]

Academically, I struggled in Years 1 and 2, being poor at the valued activities.  In later years my terrible fine and gross motor coordination was less of an issue than in early primary, though I was bullied in part  for being bad at art, and at neat writing and illustrations in my written work, and sports. Most winters I was sick, sometimes hospitalised, and missed about half of the winter term.  From Year 3 my teachers mostly let me do my own things quietly, if I did not disrupt the class.  Many of my classmates were children of working men (never “working class”), were expected to get a job at 14, and distrusted those who finished high-school.

One of my sibs died before he was 18; another before he was 50, two years after his wife died.  Another was a marginal alcoholic, and is now living a health-care-card existence on his investments and savings.

I experienced unspoken prejudice as an adult in an “equal opportunity” workplace.  For example,   I found that behaviours accepted in men were described as aggressive in women, and experienced the classic committee interaction:

Problem introduced

Men speak

Woman speaks, suggesting a different approach

Men nod, and then speak again as if woman had said nothing

Man says rephrased version of what woman said, and it is treated as a good new idea.

 B. Advantages

1. Education

Both my parents were extremely bright – each of my parents had, they said, been the Dux of their State.  Both sides of the family put great value on education, sociological awareness, and the precise use of formal English in expression of complex and subtle arguments.  My father was a registered GP, despite being too ill to practise, but had woodworking skills.  We learned to make and mend, and to grow vegetables, and had immediate health care with medical explanations of the disease when we were ill.  The combination of practical labour with theoretical science underpinning was a common experience in our home.  Dental treatment was free and timely, as the State dental system was well funded at that time.

My home language being formal English, I took to serious reading quite naturally.  The complex conversations between my elder sibs and my parents, and the serious programs I heard on the radio, made the school’s “difficult” texts boringly easy by contrast; after Year 2 I would finish non-art classwork before the teacher had finished explaining it to the others.   The literate humour of my family and of the BBC rebroadcast on the ABC made my wordplay entertaining to some teachers, so they let me write creatively.  The science around the house meant that high-school science was partly familiar to me from the start, so again I shot ahead.

Being socially isolated, often ill, and poor, I had time to read;  having good examples of books all over my home I found my friends in the authors – of several races and religions – who helped me escape.  I added to them the gentle and witty people I met in the other media.  The community of thought was, for me, much what the extended family is to others.  In a sense, to paraphrase Robert Tonkinson[5] on the Martu, I self-identify as an intellectual first and an Australian second, if at all.  (Our culture was, like the Martu, at heart in conflict with the mainstream, but it was so in a socially valued way, and fit well with education and bureaucracy).

From this basis, reading of new findings or of history came to be as much fun to me as family gossip is to my husband’s relatives.  This gave me the extreme advantage of finding University studies more play than work.

2. Tolerance

The “Understandable considering” approach underpinned my parents’ thinking: they had wide historical and social knowledge, were angered by racism since they were teenagers, and practised courteous disagreement with a wide range of sadly ignorant and smug neighbours.

This awareness did not mean they gave in:  my parents socialised with Aboriginals when the Aboriginals did not feel it left them at risk of trouble; my father was one of the veterans who marched in the Moratorium rallies, wearing his RSL pin and medals; and my mother (who had been offended at being “not allowed to” dance with Aboriginal men for fear they would be beaten up) agreed strongly with the Civil Rights and the Womens Liberation movements, and brought me up to be sure of my worth as a person.

This approach fed into my sib’s choice to leave paid employment for a quiet and sufficient life, with time and energy to volunteer with community organisations, more personal value in his activities, and less stress leading to less desire to drink:  considering the wider history and circumstances removed the assumption that paid employment is the only value to life.  We also had met a wide enough range of wise people to value formal education less than deep understandings.

A side effect of this was my having a deep interest in the changing situations of Australia’s indigenous peoples, and a deep anger at the way the society in general (through Governments) was handling its responsibilities.

3. Access to social support by the State.

Despite our situation, we were at no risk of removal from the family.

I remember being given pencils, pads, and other things needed for classroom work, and prompt free treatment at the Dental Hospital.  I also remember the luxury of real milk each day at  Primary school, being in charge of my own Commonwealth Scholarship money in High School,  and being paid the away-from-home rate (unreasonable to live at home) as an Undergraduate in the fee-free days of the late 1970s.

These are things mostly lacking now – I was born in an unusual period.

I also relied on supporting Parents’ Benefit as a deserted spouse, and used subsidised council childcare while I sought employment and had a low-paid job.  Having experience in budgeting, I coped when clerical errors cancelled my payments for a month; with the language of bureaucracy, I easily claimed the arrears.  When I was employed, I found out how to get the subsidised housing loan and started buying my own place.  All these things were easier because of my background knowledge of language and socially acceptable behaviours in dealing with bureaucracies.

4. Race.

Being of pale, freckled, red-haired type, and with the “educated Australian” sociolect, I was given the benefit of the doubt in many situations.  There were down sides:  some  less educated people assumed I was English,  many people assumed I had no knowledge of poverty  –  thinking I was not going to restaurants because I was “a snob”, or that I had no understanding of their struggle to meet bills –  and non-whites assumed that I was a “standard” white person.

My social network has shown me the underlying racism I do not experience.  Two examples:  (1) unlike me, my husband (also “white”) has experienced abuse and police harassment based on the assumption that he is Aboriginal.  (2) A brother was charged (case dismissed) for refusing to give details of a street conversation with Aboriginals to two men who told the group to “move along” and then detained him.  (He was lucky they had not bothered to show him their police identification.)

5. Knowledge of History.

With geological and species-length views of time, wide reading on many times and cultures,  of mythologies and science fiction stories, and forty years of taking an anthropological perspective on my own society,  I have a view of the present which is hard to explain to those more bound to this time and place.  I could not have developed this without my family’s background, or without the time to read.  I think this is an advantage, though it does mean I have to restrict my conversation in many social situations.

In formal study of Anthropology and in my simple learning from curiosity I have found a wide range of descriptions of “Aboriginality” and “Aboriginal Beliefs”;  my general assumption is that every human I meet is a new individual, and I must try to find what meetings of minds are possible for the new person.  I also begin with the awareness that the Aboriginals I meet may be deeply angry with the whole of mainstream society, and if so I do not take their anger as a attack on my individual person – though I may be wary of a physical attack in some times and places.

In the shorter (my lifetime) view of history, I have seen the basic assumptions about Aboriginals change:  a family which once joked about “opening car doors into Abos” recently [6] had a member say “Their Mum tries to bring them up straight, pity their Dad’s White trash!” in speaking of a family with an Aboriginal mother.  They are even becoming aware of the range of experiences and beliefs in the Aboriginal population.


My background is a mixture of being an outsider and yet having socially valued qualities;  lower SES environment paralleling the risk factors many Aboriginals suffer, as listed in our lectures, and  yet upper SES educational background.  My personal belief is that I can learn, make, or mend almost anything, and that all humans can change; without my family’s cultural background I might have despaired and lost all confidence, even with my racial advantages.  I cannot assume how others will feel and act in their own, very personal, situations.

Although I have little knowledge (by my standards) of  local Aboriginal beliefs, I have personal and theoretical knowledge of the experiences of exclusion and power differentials, prejudice and challenges to personal pride, dysfunctional family and deep poverty, and the value of academic success.  I have watched the development of the current situation of multiple divisions within Australian society and, while unable to prevent it, do wish to help others reach beyond the boundaries our history has raised.

My personal beliefs will shape my performance, even if I choose to accept an employers’ requirement that I act against them, because I know that I am not a gifted actor – my expression will show something of what I think.  I hope that my understanding and acceptance of individual differences will help me become an empowering teacher- or, at least, to make my classroom a safe place for children in times of trouble.

[1] EDUC8429 lectures (various lecturers) Semester 1, 2010; Australian Aboriginal Studies Journal (various issues).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] I still laugh when people say that violence never solves anything – tell that to the Carthaginians!

[5] Tonkinson, 2006

[6] I accept that many people do not agree that the month just past is already history.  Nevertheless, I do see it as history.


 Australian Aboriginal Studies Journal (various issues). Retrieved from http://www.aiatsis.gov.au/asj/back.html

EDUC8429 lectures (various lecturers) University of Western Australia, Semester 1, 2010.

Tonkinson, R. (2006) ‘Difference’ and ‘autonomy’ then and now: four decades of change in a western desert society.  Wentworth Lecture.  Retrieved 20.04.2010 from http://www1.aiatsis.gov.au/exhibitions/wentworth/wentworthcontents.htm


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