Thursday, August 11, 2016

White Blinding

In the normal course of events, any nationally embarrassing occurrence that has been given rise to by a confluence of factors determined directly by the institutions that people rely on for their understanding of standards in public safety or public decency or a societal sense of fairness is, before being investigated thoroughly and been seen by the public to be investigated thoroughly, condemned publicly and unequivocally by the powers that be so that, if for nothing else, the occurrence can be seen as an aberration - not reflective of community standards and beliefs, and in need of review, not least in the mores of the very institutions that allowed such events to transpire.

For various reasons, the moral high ground has been given a pass, much less captured, by everyone in the public eye following the revelation of events that occurred in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre amidst the public outcry that has followed in its wake. And instead of a clear delineation between what is the personally and institutionally understood acceptable treatment of detained children in the state's custody and the distancing of such from the brutality witnessed in the Four Corners episode, we have launched into a bizarre national discussion about familial standards in Australian indigenous societies.
As a first generation immigrant to Australia, with only a rudimentary understanding of the history of this nation in its documented treatment of, and its communal and social relations with, the indigenous communities of this land, and not possessed of a first-hand experience of the justice system in the Northern Territory, I understand that I am not equipped to question the institutional and structural inadequacies of the penal/corrections system anywhere in this country. What I can do, though, is address attitudes that I have been exposed to in my interactions with white Australians in their natural habitat, namely the pubs or cafes where a certain lowering of the guard and exchanges of confidences have been known to occur, unrestricted therein by notions of propriety that govern our interactions in the workplace and within most family homes where children are present.
The only paraphrased interaction (with parentheses for details that were not cleared up at the time) I need cite here, among many many others expressing a wish that, "...they just die off...", or that indigenous people lack dignity and self-respect because, "...they piss right there in their pants while waiting in the queue for the dole..." is this illustration that was put to me during a discussion about racism towards Aboriginals in modern Australia :-

You are looking at a road with two pavements running along on either side. On one side of the road you see an elderly white Australian woman walking slowly and coming into contact with a group of Aboriginal children (age undeclared) who are heading in the opposite direction. They impede her path, tease her, render her shaken and scared, and then move on. Would you call that woman racist if, on a future occasion, when walking down the same pavement, she were to cross the road to the other side if she noticed a group of Aboriginal children (unclear if they were the same children) walking again towards her?

It is important to state at the outset that there are a number of assumptions attached to the question at hand that the anonymous poser has made, related to my understanding of this case, all having to do with perspective. Would I, for example, have viewed what happened differently if I was geographically looking on from the other direction i.e. the place from which the children were travelling? What if I had known the identity of the elderly woman including possible unsavoury parts of her history as related to her known attitudes towards indigenous people? Is there ever an excuse for bad behaviour by youth brought on by triggers ranging from developmental issues to social/economic disparities and health inequities, and do they deserve wider scrutiny when considering the policing of, and wider attitudes towards the jurisprudence of, disadvantaged minors?

This is, in essence, a simple and illustrative test case that we can all immediately get on the right side of, isn't it? After all, everyone wants to feel secure when walking down a street. Everyone is outraged that an elderly person, who has probably made untold sacrifices in her life for her family, community, and country, can be treated in this way without consequences for her unprovoked aggressors. Where is the law, where are the children's families, where are the community standards etc., etc., etc.?
But the larger question is; whose standards are we imposing, whose laws are we enforcing, whose families are we casting aspersions on? By restricting yourself to the perspective of the elderly woman, who has every right to move on to the other side of the street without being labelled an incorrigible racist, aren't we identifying with her a little too much?
If one has not been born into a well of privilege, lacking opportunities for well-rounded education through childhood and early youth, encountering violence and alcoholism within the family home, and is exposed to a litany of communal victimisation and shame and villainy throughout his/her life, can we judge him/her by the same standards that we impose on a group of opportunistic and misguided children cruelly preying upon a hapless victim for a momentary experience of predatory bravado?
No, we cannot. Perspective is everything. If we are not able to structurally address the causes of Aboriginal victimhood by a system specifically set up to address the concerns of the Aboriginal community throughout Australia, we do not have the right to judge the predatory behaviour of an outlying few of their members. If we do not set up a system by, of, and for all indigenous peoples that repairs and rehabilitates the historical deficits of trust between immigrants and the original custodians of this land, then we are never going to give rise to a common hope for the future of all communities that make up modern Australia.

The time to cross the road is long past.

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