MLK Let Freedom Ring 2

Funny the things that can trigger old wounds and split them open, making them hurt sometimes more than they did when first inflicted. I thought I’d conquered the emotional trauma of the past. After all, here I am living in the lucky country, the place I credit for the start of my own healing – healing from the scourge of bigotry and racism. Then the Adam Goodes booing dominates the media. And I realize with disappointment that some wounds heal over, but scars remain and without warning can be split open sucking you right back into a past that you’d rather forget.

I came to Australia twenty eight years ago bearing deep scars from a divisive culture. I spent my childhood and teen years growing up as a child of colour during the foulest days of Apartheid in South Africa. In its simplest essence Apartheid was about the segregation of Whites and Blacks. Back then the white minority held the political and economic power and ruled the majority black people with a firm, divisive hand.

Segregation of the people was of such a priority to the leaders of the country that it was entrenched in the laws. Inter-racial marriages were forbidden and punishable by imprisonment. Signs reading “Net Nie Blankes” with its English translation of “Whites Only” were everywhere. Ordinary places of entertainment and enjoyment bore these signs like the KKK in their white robes and conical hats. These signs reserved the best beaches, best train carriages, best movie theatres and so on for the best people – at least that’s how they must’ve seen themselves. The worst part of these signs is that we, the Black folk, got used to it – accepting them like they were supposed to be there. Accepting the overt messages of racism and inferiority like it was fact.

It took decades for Black people (the original people of the land) to fight for their basic human rights and freedom. Prominent black leader, Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned for 27 years. Anti-apartheid activist, Steven Biko, was murdered in prison. Every day, ordinary people like some of the teens I went to school with, priests I communed with at church and teachers I learned from were tear-gassed in demonstrations and beaten in police custody. Innocent lives, often young children and women, were lost in the cross-fire between police and freedom fighters. Suffering and death was such a high price to pay for those who sought and fought to live by the first and foremost edict of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 1 of the Declaration states:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” 

So when I came to multi-cultural Melbourne, with its mix of ethnicities and its title of “most livable city in the world”, I came here with hope. Twenty eight years on and I can say I have mostly known peace in “the lucky country”. My own healing through counseling and personal development stilled the demons of the past. I want to say those scars are completely gone. I want to, but in the last two weeks realized I can’t. And I’m so disappointed and sad at that realization. I, like so many others at the receiving end of racism and bigotry, want to believe I am bigger than the sum of my painful experiences.

I thought I’d left that sad, frightened girl behind decades ago. The one who wanted to die from humiliation when she was shoved off a train by a white conductor at the age of fourteen because she jumped into the “whites only” carriage to make the train and get to school on time. The one who none of the other students would sit next to in French Class in first year university because she was the only black girl in class. Deep inside I want to know that I’m strong now – that I’ve grown into a warrior woman no longer hurt by these experiences. But that is an idealist’s folly and sooner or later idealists must face the reality of ordinary human experience. And sometimes that hurts worse than a child’s grazed knee.

I hurt for Adam Goodes and for the Aboriginal community as a whole. I hurt for the legacy of subjugation, suffering and death the Aboriginals carry deep within, as much as they wear the landscape of this beautiful country like a second skin. I hurt for the lost and stolen generations relegated to lives of poverty, their beautiful culture and traditions stomped on and shunned to the outskirts or remote parts by ignorant white boots. I hurt because I know their culture will forever carry the baggage of bigotry, racism and hatred and the seen and unseen effects of this scourge.

Like a child who is bullied and taunted those scars run so deep that it overshadows confidence, self-belief and significance, sometimes forever. Even when well-meaning and protective parents tell you “you’re as good as anyone else”, something doesn’t feel quite right. It was Martin Luther King Jr who said in his autobiography that the mere use of the phrase “you are as good as anyone” speaks of the injustice that makes its use necessary.

For those of us who weren’t born under the “right” banners of “white is might” across the world, there is a history of “not good enough” or “not equal” messages seeping into the sub-conscious. Apart from derailing self-esteem this robs us of one of our most basic, yet strongest human desires – freedom. And I’m not talking about the freedom to go any and everywhere, though that is important too. I’m talking about the freedom to be and celebrate who you are without fear of ridicule and repercussions. And more importantly, without feeling like you need to prove something, even to yourself.

The scars of bigotry and racism run deeper than displaced cultures and generational memories of hatred, subjugation and loss of basic human rights. Though not always visible, some scars are ingrained in belief systems and govern choices that negatively impact life experiences. I know plenty of people who come from good homes and solid family traditions, yet they still struggle with self-esteem issues from years of racial vilification.

Some carry the scars so deep they manifest as depression and a feeling of being lost in the world. For all the effort and striving, personal and professional success eludes them like dandelion fluff in the wind. Some wear the outward trappings of success yet their overly cocky and exaggerated devil-may-care attitude is nothing more than over-compensation for the insecurity and damaged self-belief brewing beneath the surface. Then there are those like me, who have done the healing work and feel confident we’ve risen above those painful experiences. But in the blink of an eye we are plunged down the rabbit hole of intense sorrow when we see an upstanding member of Australia’s much loved sporting community booed and taunted publicly because of race.

Whilst it’s taken Tony Abbott and AFL footy boss, Gillon McLachlan, a while to call it like it is, many of us knew from the get-go that the recent booing of Adam Goodes was all about race, no ifs, ands or buts. I’ve learned from research and heated discussions in recent weeks that booing a player for things like staging free kicks or unsportsmanlike behavior is part and parcel of crowd spectatorship. It is also a strategy spectators use to psych out the opposing team. But the booing of Adam Goodes with such vitriol only began after he did his tribal dance at the AFL’s Indigenous Round in May this year and continued beyond the usual intimidation tactics.

Once again a black man is vilified for expressing himself and celebrating his culture. This is what I mean when I talk about being robbed of personal freedom. If 2014’s Australian of the Year and two time winner of the AFL’s prestigious Brownlow medal can’t express himself and his culture at an Indigenous Round without copping that kind of abuse from a crowd of mostly white spectators then how do we celebrate diversity and ultimately heal racism? And I can’t help but wonder about the veracity of a statement made by black comedian, Chris Rock, in one of his 1999 comedy routines – “There ain’t a white man in this room that would change places with me. None of you. None of you would change places with me, and I’m rich!


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