Wanja is a riot of a story — ten pages, 114 words — about a blue heeler who lives on The Block in Sydney's Redfern. The book was written by Aboriginal elder Aunty Barb Stacey and illustrated by Adam Hill. Their Wanja is a streak of movement against horizontal surrounds: part flying kangaroo, part street mutt. The palette is tightly controlled: red, yellow and black. The bubble lettering evokes the tradition of the 1970s political poster.
Aunty Barb also lives on The Block and the real Wanja came to live with her when still a puppy. I don't know Aunty Barb, but I do know Wanja — the dog — quite well because Wanja — the book — was the subject of a parental complaint and much school discussion in my first year of teaching.
Wanja is a Guided Reader, a book designed to assist reading development in the early years of schooling. In simple language it describes how Wanja was a normal dog, how she enjoyed visiting friends, sleeping, playing ball, chasing sticks and footy. It also tells us of Wanja's talent, the special skill that garnered the book's subtitle: One Smart Dog. Wanja, you learn, could smell a cop at 20 paces. Wanja, you'd hear, would defend her turf. Wanja, you see, couldn't help but get her paddy up when she saw that paddy wagon coming down the street.
A set of parents, who were not Indigenous, voiced a concern about the positive representation of Wanja's anti-authoritarian attitude: 'Then Wanja would see a police van. Wanja loved to chase the van. Wanja loved to bark at the van. Wanja loved to bite at the wheel. The police van would drive away.'
With sincere conviction the parents argued that Wanja presented a confusing message for young children. Part of the child protection program at kindergarten age is that the police are people you can trust. Police are your friends. They are there to help you. Wanja was removed from the school's Guided Reading program.
Is Australia a racist country? Ask any Aboriginal person and you'll get an unequivocal answer. The statistics of systematic disadvantage are at once well-known and shocking.
Nowhere is the disparity between black and other Australians starker than in the area I work in, education. This year's National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) figures reveal that four out of every ten Aboriginal students sitting literacy and numeracy tests fail them. Education is key not only to employment and economic success, but to health, social wellbeing, and ultimately life expectancy. No pressure teachers, but to fail our students in the classroom is a predictor, perhaps a determinant, of a life-time of further failure.
We sing the national anthem each week at school. I was cynical about this at first, or maybe embarrassed, but over time certain sections of the song have come to mean a great deal. There's that part in the second chorus: 'For those who've come across the seas / We've boundless plains to share / With courage let us all combine / To Advance Australia Fair.' I really like it when the children sing that.
In reality, however, White Australia has a long and shameful history of racism towards other migrant groups. Andrew Jakubowicz, Professor of Sociology at Sydney's University of Technology, points out that the focus of this prejudice and hostility has changed over the decades. Indian students, African refugees, and Muslims of all ethnicities find themselves the current targets, but in the 1970s and '80s it was Vietnamese and Cambodians; in the '50s and '60s, Italians and Greeks; before them, the Jews and Japanese; before them, the Chinese.
As opposed to shifts in immigrant discrimination, Indigenous Australians have been a constant target of racial abuse and disadvantage. Indeed, Jakubowicz argues that hostility towards Aboriginal people is probably now stronger than against any other race.
One of the cruellest ironies of racism in this country is that the very fact of Indigenous disadvantage is used to perpetuate prejudice. As Noel Pearson writes, 'The irrational nature of anti-Aboriginal thinking through history is obvious. No matter how decimated, powerless, removed to the fringe or distant reserves Aboriginal Australians have been, anti-Aboriginal thinking has been virulent ... the idea of special treatment for Aborigines in relation to land and resources, and the politics of downward envy, have been a real force in recent history, not least among people who almost never see an Aborigine.'
Significantly, it is education, the place where indigenous Australians are being left behind, that has enabled the children of overseas immigrants to climb the social ladder. Successive waves of migrant children have succeeded academically despite the fact that our schoolyards all too often mirror the prejudices of the wider society. A 2009 survey conducted by The Foundation for Young Australians found that 80 per cent of students from non-Anglo backgrounds have experienced racism, ranging from verbal abuse to discrimination and violence.
The Foundation's lead researcher, Dr Lucas Walsh, concluded that schools can and must do more to directly build diversity and tolerance: 'What the research overwhelmingly shows is that schools that have some sort of compulsory in-classroom program about racism or cultural stereotyping were less likely to have young people who displayed ignorance about cultural issues or racist attitudes.'
Such programs do exist, such as NSW's recent Aboriginal Education and Training Policy (2008), which applies to all NSW educational settings, not just schools. The document is better designed and more ambitious in scope than previous policies, and is explicit about the pathways for improving the educational outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and building increased knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal Australia for teaching staff and students.
Even so, the complexities of Aboriginal experience are all too often lost in translation to the classroom, particularly the primary one. Here the focus tends to be on one of two categories: the Dreaming, safely mythic and uncomplicated by the presence of whitefellas; or individual stories from the Stolen Generations. The tragedy of the Stolen Generations is central to our nation's history, but to use it as the single symbol and summation for the whole history of black experience since colonisation undermines the breadth and complexity necessary to true understanding of white-black relations.
Indij Readers, the publishers of Wanja, have developed stories which aim to counter the simplification so many non-Indigenous teachers fall prey to when discussing Aboriginal perspectives. These books are intended to take Aboriginal people out of over-and-done history, out of static symbol, and into the contemporary every day.
For young Aboriginal students, stories like Wanja are about equitable self-representation. For non-Indigenous students, these books offer invaluable exposure. This is particularly important in schools like mine, representative of many city schools in Australia, which have high ethnic diversity, but low overall Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enrolments. For both groups of students these stories provide a shared experience: another pathway towards Reconciliation.
Indij Readers state that their 'stories deal in a relaxed and often amusing way with issues that affect the lives of all children: culture, family, self esteem, pride, setting goals and working toward them, good health, humour, tolerance and school attendance'. But when the everyday realities of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children are often so markedly inequitable, then perhaps it is not surprising that the content of these stories can offend white sensibilities.
Why Wanja might bark at and bite a police van is not an easy subject for a teacher to discuss with young students. The history and present state of black and white relations is indeed a difficult topic, but that does not mean it should be out of bounds. On the contrary. At primary schools today we talk, in age appropriate ways, about difficult things as a matter of course: sex, death, God, gods, and no God. Educators are, after all, engaged in two processes: teaching children how to read and teaching them how to read the world.
Wanja gives us a generous hand here. It is not an angry story, nor a tragic one. The weapon Aunty Barb Stacey uses is humour. Australians like to pride ourselves on our larrikin humour, our good-natured disrespect for wrong-headed authority. And while the origins of that independence of spirit are commonly traced to a deep-seated convict irreverence, to Irish immigrants, or to the Gallipoli legend, its parallels with Aboriginal humour are often overlooked.
In a 1956 essay the pioneering anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner identified the importance of understanding the cultural significance of humour in gaining a sense of the Aboriginal 'personality', referring in his discussion to Aristotle's definition of wit as 'cultured insolence'. More than five decades later, the Indigenous scholar Lillian Holt reflected on ABC Radio National about the all-pervasive current of humour in Aboriginal culture. She identified Aboriginal humour as communal rather than individual, and as more of a philosophical disposition than a genius for joke-telling.
Like Jewish humour, Aboriginal humour can be seen as a response to a history of oppression. The ability to laugh becomes a precious gift when everything could easily make you cry or scream. To laugh is to survive. But no surprise, given the history, that black humour is often, well, black. Dispossession and disadvantage are recurring subjects. Holt describes standing with an old Aboriginal man and looking at a beat-up bomb of a community bus. 'You think those whitefellas would at least have given us a new bus to wreck,' he remarks.
She laughs remembering the scene from the 1977 film Backroads when the Bill Hunter character asks a group of Aborigines, 'Hey Jackie, can I take this road to the pub?' and is answered: 'Well you might as well, you white bastard, you've taken everything else.'
For Holt there are 'five H's' necessary for Reconciliation — history, honesty, humanity, hope and humour. Humour lightens the load, allowing the unbearable to be borne, and makes possible a new kind of conversation, one beyond the heavy restrictions of both resentment and shame. Because, of course, the history of black marginalisation in Australia is at the same time the history of white impoverishment. As she tells her interviewer: 'What has diminished me as an Aboriginal person, has also diminished you as a non-Aboriginal person.'
To laugh is to no longer be a victim. The story of Wanja, One Smart Dog is so much more liberating and empowering than many of the stories that could be told about Aboriginal people and white power. Instead of Cameron Doomadgee lying dead in a Palm Island police cell, there is Wanja, triumphant and unbowed. A warrior, happily asleep in the sun, waiting for the kids to come home from school and play.
Australia is a country blighted by racism, yes, but one also ennobled by Wanja's brand of fighting spirit and invigorating humour. This is the real knowledge of this book, the difficulty of contradictory world views, hard fought for, continually re-adjusting. She is our education.
Nigel is a primary school teacher, a director of e-lit: the national Primary English Teaching Association and a research assistant at the Faculty of Education at the University of Sydney. This essay was Highly Commended by the judges of the 2010 Eureka Street/Reader's Feast Award.