Friday, November 28, 2014

Racism in the Outback

I am finally home in El Paso to enjoy Thanksgiving with my family.  After almost a year away from home, I spent the last month in the tropical savannah of northern Australia.  Upon coming home, I had many stories to tell my family from this amazing place on the other side of the world.  But for this blog, I will share a story that I have not yet shared with anybody.

I was picking up supplies in Darwin before heading back into the outback for field work.  This meant a trip to LiquorLand for a crate of delicious and expensive Carlton Draught.  The liquor store was crowded, and I was standing in line with a case of beer and a credit card.  Suddenly I heard a ruckus behind me.  I spun around and saw a young white LiquorLand cashier scold a young black Aboriginal Australian.

“Why are you doing that?!?  Why are you waving your arms around?!?”  The cashier thrust his face inches from the black man and stared him dead in the eye. “Answer me!!”

The Aborigine mumbled something I could not hear.

“That is not an answer!!  Why are you waving your arms around?!!?  Are you trying to cause trouble?!!?”

Without saying another word, the Aborigine immediately walked out of the liquor store.  I only noticed the customers in line paying any attention.  All others continued scanning the shelves for their favorite brew.  After chasing the black man out of the store, the cashier went back to his register and faced the young woman waiting at the front of the line.  She was another black Aboriginal.

The cashier’s eyes glared at the woman with razor concentration.  “Are you with him?!!?  What did he do?!!?  Why was he waving his arms?!!? “

 The Aborigine mumbled something I could not hear.

“ ‘nah’ is not an answer!!  Answer me!!  Why was he waving his arms like that?!!?  What trouble is he causing!!”

 The Aboriginal woman mumbled.  “He is not with me.”

“Now that is an answer.  That is better.  When you see him, tell him to stay out of this store!!” 

 I have seen small hints of racism in my travels this year.  I felt uncomfortable when my Slovene friends made degrading racial jokes against Serbians.  But this encounter left me dumbfounded.  Worse yet was the reaction, or rather inaction, of all the other customers in the store.  Judging by their casual attitude to unwarranted interrogation of two Aborigines, I figure this scene is still common between the two races of Australia.  I did not know what to do as I stood in line.  When my turn came up to purchase the beer, the cashier was perfectly pleasant and professional.  It is such a dichotomy in my mind when an otherwise likable young man was a blatant, unapologetic racist at the flick of a switch.  How can these two personalities exist under the same skin?  I can just imagine such a scene occurring here in a local El Paso liquor store between a White cashier and a black customer.  All customers would protest and scream bloody hell!  The cashier would be lucky to get away with just a firing but would more likely get a couple of good fists to the face behind the store alley.  The complacency of the Australian customers was what unnerved me the most about the whole episode.

I got the impression that the relation between Whites and Aboriginals in Australia was one of mere toleration and not complete acceptance.  They got along because they had to get along.  While I was escorted by my Australian hosts deep in the Outback, we passed a group of Aboriginal people, including men, women and children, trying to flag us down by their parked car by the road.  The engine hood was up; a sure sign of car trouble.  Although we had a toolbox and an emergency satellite phone, we passed them by.  I have lived in rural regions of New Mexico most of my life, and a rule of hospitality is to stop and help if you are able when you see a person in distress by the road.  There are too many sparsely populated areas up there and car trouble could be more danger for the driver than the car.  

As he drove past them, my host turned to me and said, “Some advice – when you see them trying to flag you down, don’t stop.  Just keep driving.”

I understood the rationale.  It could be a trap.  They could be armed.  They may rob us of our cash!  But  as the days passed, I traveled that same stretch of road numerous times, and while the Aboriginal family had long since left the scene, their abandoned car never left that spot on the side of the road.  Each day we passed, the car lost a little more value due to human scavengers and vandals.  If this were a trap, the thieves were certainly dedicated to keeping up the front, even at the expense of their own vehicle. 

I only stayed in northern Australia for a month, and never spoke to a single Aborigine, so I have a very biased, ignorant and myopic view of the race relations that I witnessed there.   But I do know that the British first colonized southern Australia around 1800, and the northern Darwin region of Australia around 1830 or so.  The invasion of White colonists is extremely recent in the history of the ancient Aboriginal culture.  It is only 200 years or so, give or take, that they have had to share the same land.  At only 200 years of relations, I suspect that the current relation between Australian Whites and Australian Aborigines is about the same relation that existed in the United States say about the year 1830 between American Whites and American Aborigines.  Just a hunch …

With all the traveling I did this year, Rosemary suggested I get a gig on TV like Anthony Bourdain.  Nah, that would not work for me.  My travel show would be too much like my blog articles: instead of writing about the amazing tropical wildlife that I saw, I instead write about what made me nervous and uncomfortable.  Who wants to watch that?  Besides, I can’t eat all the food that he does in his show. 

I am glad to be back home.  Happy Thanksgiving everybody.


Zoe said...

Almost a year? Wow. Well welcome back to the homeland.

Your stories are interesting because they involve the "human" element. :-)

unkleE said...

Hi, I was interested to read your brief account of your time in Northern Territory. Coincidentally, I live in Sydney Australia (I've only visited NT once) but at the time you wrote this post I was just finishing a 2 week stay in Houston, just down the road (sort of) from El Paso.

What you reported isn't totally unusual, though a little extreme. The aboriginal peoples have been sadly degraded by the European invasion. Aboriginals who can adjust to western life or play sport get along fine and with little prejudice, but many cannot make the adjustment and live in dependency on welfare.

The situation is probably worse the further away you get from the cities, where the aboriginal peoples are closest (though not very close) to their traditional lifestyles. Having been robbed of their land, and having little prospect of gainful lives, many life in dependence, alcoholism, abuse, etc. It's a terrible reality, but that's the way it is.

So they are now stigmatised, the police tend to treat them worse than other people (sometimes with good reason from their perspective, though unfair when considering the big picture), and people like the store clerk have just grown used to the situation and treat them badly. It is certainly racist, but it is symptomatic of a bigger problem - we whites have taken too much off the first Australians and haven't left them with fair and viable alternatives, so some make it through the maze but many don't.

I don't really think we as a nation have found the right approach, though many genuinely well meaning attempts have been made. It is really a sad situation and an indictment on Australia.

HeIsSailing said...

Hi UnkleE. Thanks for commenting. Sorry for the late reply as I am not online every day (old fashioned, I know).

Northern Territory was an interesting place. I spent a month within Kakadu National Park. The variety and abundance of wildlife was simply astounding. I have never seen anything like it. But there were plenty of folks there at our worksite visiting from Sydney. They were just as unfamiliar with Northern Territory as I was!! I have no way of confirming this, but I suspect that Australia's relationship with their Natives is about what United States relationship with our Natives was like in the early 19th century. I am just basing that on the amount of time that Eurpeans had settled each area.

Glad to hear you were in Houston. I may be in the same state, but I El Paso has as much to do with Houston as Kakadu has to do with Sydney. There is a world of difference!! I wish you a great Christmas and New Year Holiday.

unkleE said...

Hope the coming year is good for you too!