On Being Nice: how racism thrives in the polite society of rural Australia

Kata Tjuta Sunset, Outback Australia, Northern Territory

Not much has changed in Cobar since settlement. The main street is an avenue of colonial architecture, wide enough to land a small plane. Empty except for the occasional dusty ute. Locals smile and nod as I pass. They’re a hospitable bunch, having provided a free camp at the reservoir close to town. Their warmth is welcome after nights of isolation in Outback campsites. I am charmed by Cobar’s meandering ways and wrapped in its similarities to the town I grew up in. I know this societal politeness. After decades of city living it still runs through my country bones. I feel my body recognise home and settle in to its rhythm. I have come to resupply and get back on the road. Half a day of smiling and nodding later I force myself out of the pages of Jasper Jones and get to work.

The hardware store shelves are empty if you don’t count the dust. The rusted bell echoes behind me as I search for signs of life. An assistant appears, happy to address my confusion as to where the hardware is kept. After I reel off my list she vanishes without explanation. Emerging some time later from the swirling particles, my needs wrapped in her arms. We get to chatting. City pace is not appreciated much past Sydney’s boundaries. I factor in a half hour at each store for amicable conversation and extend my stay in Cobar by a night. She asks where I’m off to next on my travels.

“Wilcannia,” I reply. Her lips purse.

“You don’t want to stay there,” she tells me, “the Aboriginals are all on Ice.” I don’t think she means the frozen kind.

“You don’t want to stay there, the Aboriginals are all on Ice.” I don’t think she means the frozen kind.Click To Tweet

The litany of what the Aboriginals will do to me is alarming. Throw bottles, smash my car, lie on the road and force me to drive over them. I smile politely as her face contorts and wonder if it is the flavour of the words twisting it. I freeze into silence. How it is possible that in 2017 a person could think it was acceptable to mouth these things? Yet here she is, a real person, in full swing. I thank her, hand her my money and run for the door.

The afternoon heat strikes as I stumble past the clattering bell. I am halfway down the block when I realise that the burn in my cheeks in not from the Australian summer sun. My mind repeats the events and focuses on this: I thanked her and gave her my money. Why did I do that? Shame crawls into my stomach and starts running loops.

Newey Reserve free campground at Cobar

It is impossible to grow up in country New South Wales during the seventies and eighties without having heard this kind of talk. The ice addiction is a new twist on an old tale. Aboriginals are no good. By the time I was twelve years old I knew two things. One, it isn’t right to talk about people like this. Two, white people don’t much like it when you point that out. That lesson stuck like a chewed up wad of paper spat at a wall and left to dry. I learned to shut up.

My compliance through silence in that hardware store is from a lifetime of learning that not offending is as fundamental to being Australian as flip-flops. It is worse to offend a racist than to be one. Australian’s like their peace kept. Wrapped in an illusion of niceness. I learned to swallow the shame of bearing witness to vitriol and bury it inside where it squirms as my own.

The road to Uluru is paved with racism. The rest of my trip offers a sad collection of opportunities to do better. Beyond Cobar I reach a cattle station one hundred kilometres from anywhere. Deep in red dirt and desolation. The sun sets across the plains while sheep and roos roam the horizon. The curve of the earth visible in the expanse. I crack open a beer after a long day on the road, ready for the company of a chat with the station owner. He launches into words I do not wish to hear. His prejudices reserve a nasty bite for our Indigenous people though knows no borders. He has assumed that our shared whiteness includes shared opinion and looks at me expectantly. My silence falls on deaf ears as he veers off on another tangent regarding the problem with Aboriginals.

Sunset over Mundi Mundi PlainsThe expanse of Mundi Mundi Plains, Outback Australia, New South Wales

I retreat to the camper where my silence whispers insults. Why did I not unleash my voice across those plains in protest?

The Outback is no place for a solo woman to be kicked out of her accommodation as night falls. In a strange land I chose not to rock the boat, to follow the set guidelines. Now the boat rocks me as self-hatred runs riot through the night. I churn over the fact that this man will pocket my money for the night’s accommodation.

Again and again I bear witness and stay silent. I have been well trained to fear the retaliation of an offended offender. As I reach Uluru I am standing at a lookout watching the last light shoot rays out of Kata Tjuṯa. A sadness has settled over me as I look at this sacred land. I do not notice the approach of a man who is now all but next to me. He offers a bouquet of wildflowers with a smile that has seen better days.

I bear witness and stay silent. I have been well trained to fear the retaliation of an offended offender.Click To Tweet

“But it is a national park,” I say, backing away from his sudden appearance. He tells me the flowers are from just outside the park, therefor legal to have picked them.

“That is Aboriginal freehold land,” I reply, waving the flowers away.

His smile turns to a snarl. The words that come from it lined with poison. He is ranting things I will not repeat. Their clear message is that he is a superior white man and can take as he pleases.

When there is space enough between us for me to run I feel something inside crack. From this crevice comes a voice that has been silenced since childhood. I tell him that taking those flowers is like jumping his neighbour’s fence and helping himself to their garden.

“Fucking bitch,” he replies walking toward me, shoving the bouquet forward. His body an accusation. I am breaching the white-on-white script. I am supposed to take the flowers. I am supposed to nod and smile. I am supposed to choke on the shame that should be his.

I run to the car and notice my hands shaking as I take the wheel. He strides down the path, flowers still in hand. I tear off sending a stream of red dust into his face. There is fifty kilometres between me and safety. It is almost dark. The roos and dingoes are waking. I drive to camp too fast for the conditions, the only goal to stay ahead of his lights. To get back to a camp full of people and staff.

I reach the campground still shaking as night pulls its veil firmly over Uluru. I pause and turn to look at that beautiful big red rock under a purple sky. And I begin to cry. It is not fear that brings the tears. After weeks of waging war with myself I howl a release. I spoke up. It was meek, it was not profound. It was probably a very stupid thing to do given the circumstances. But it was not silence. I feel Uluru look at me from under its cap of stars and wink. I offer a nod in return and wander to my tent.

The changing colours of Uluru

4 Replies to “On Being Nice: how racism thrives in the polite society of rural Australia”

  1. From one white person to another, thank you for speaking out. We must keep actively dismantling that which our ancestors set up for us in this country. Each time we send our heart racing in fear, saying ‘no’ to the cruel oppression and casual racism, we give ourselves an opportunity to feel for a moment a little of how our country’s first people might have felt for hundreds of years.
    I love how you have juxtaposed those angry feelings with the visual serenity that is Australia.

    1. onethousandwordsorless says: Reply

      Thank you so much Michelle. I agree that we have to speak out. I was surprised at how challenging I found that to be and I think that is also important to talk about.

  2. Very interesting. So how was Wilcannia?

    1. onethousandwordsorless says: Reply

      Thanks for the feedback. In the end I wasn’t able to find accommodation in Wilcannia. I did travel through there but nothing was open and I went through the dirt roads out the back of Wilcannia to Broken Hill. It was a beautiful landscape but I unfortunately did not get a chance to chat with any locals due to the time I was heading through.

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