Aboriginal Australians inherit racial fear


'The Talk' by Chris JohnstonReverberations from the killing of 17-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin three months ago continue. The unarmed Martin was shot by George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old Hispanic-American and community watch coordinator for a 'gated' community in Sanford, Florida, who perceived Martin to be acting suspiciously.

The police charged Zimmerman with murder in the second degree but only after enduring significant media and political pressure. Much of the media scrutiny has emphasised race and violence, fear and prejudice. It has brought into light and public discussion the topic of The Talk.

I had never heard of The Talk before. But, in the weeks following Martin's death, it was out there on the airwaves. The Talk is what African American parents give their children when they become old enough to step out into the world and take the risks that being seen in public can create. The Talk sets out guidelines for behaviour, especially for young males. It seeks to protect them from what their parents believe is a very dangerous world.

What makes The Talk different from other conversations that many parents have with their teenage children is that it is based on race, skin colour and fear. It belongs to an oral tradition where people who have experienced racially-based discrimination and violence teach their young to be aware and cautious when they are in public.

It is based on the premise that one is likely to be judged by the colour of one's skin, and that such judgements can lead to violence, imprisonment and even death.

The Talk varies from family to family but can include rules such as: 'Never leave a store without a shopping bag', 'Never loiter outside, anywhere', 'Never go anywhere alone' (but travelling in a group can also be dangerous), 'Never talk back to the police, and, if you are talking with them, never reach into your pocket'. And, most confronting of all, 'If you go to enter a lift and there is a white woman there by herself, wait for the next one'.

Recently I've been asking some of my Aboriginal friends if they experienced The Talk when they were young and whether they pass it on to their children. These conversations have awakened me to a greater awareness of how some of my friends see and experience society today quite differently from how I experience it.

They do believe that they are perceived and judged by the colour of their skin and the manner of their appearance. They are keenly aware that this can make their children vulnerable and open to being accused, hurt or arrested. Their response is an Australian version of The Talk.

These conversations pose a particular context and challenge during this time of National Reconciliation Week. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents can perceive Australian society to be much more hostile and dangerous than I and many other white Australians might imagine or experience it to be.

Not only are parents and children affected, but all of society as well.

While the issue seems to be about race and colour, it is most deeply about fear. It is about the fear that surfaces when people encounter others with a skin colour that is different, and darker, than their own.

While I believe we are a far more tolerant Australian society than we were decades ago, I do not believe this fear has fully left us. While meeting and engaging people of different races is something now quite normal for most Australians, some fears can linger.

That there might exist an Australian version of The Talk is a reminder that as a society we still have much to address if national reconciliation is to be achieved. We need to identify and allay those deeper fears. We need other and more hopeful Australian versions of The Talk. 

Brian McCoyFr Brian McCoy SJ is a senior research fellow in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health, La Trobe University. He is co-author of Take Off Your Shoes, Walk on the Ground: The journey towards reconciliation in Australia, published by the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council to mark the fourth anniversary of the National Apology. 


Topic tags: Brian McCoy, National Reconciliation Week, Trayvon Martin



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I think in Australia we are a very long way from a racist society as some try to portray it. We have narrow minded people of in every part of our society and we have open minded kind people everywhere. I was reading recently about a push by a famous actor to get rid of racism once and for all. He said that we should never ever mention race as in the media. We are all people of the same globe but with a different background from each other. If we mention in the media about African-American, Hispanic-American and others, then we continue to propagate racism. Would have been an outrage if an American would have killed another American? Is it safe for any American to walk in any American neighbourhood? If journalists and politicians reduce the use of the racist terms, maybe the issue of race becomes less relevant. Racism is as dangerous in the form of “positive” racism and in the negative form. If one part of the society seems to gain privileges purely based on race, then it is racism and it creates resentment. Positive discrimination is not equality and fairness, it is discrimination.

Ali Bernstein | 29 May 2012  

Good article, Brian. The Trayvon case is most disturbing. Can we start using 'embracing' or 'inclusive' rather than 'tolerant'? We should not be tolerating each other, which indicates distance and a degree of disdain. We should be embracing diversity and including the different.

Chris. | 29 May 2012  

Thank you for a timely article. My wife and I raised a multiracial family of four that included a boy and a girl of Aboriginal descent. We naively believed we were moving towards being "a long way from being a racist society." But how wrong we were and we did have to do the "Talk" with our children from an Aboriginal background. When the 4 children were out together it was the Aboriginal child who was sometimes "accused" of shoplifting despite the protestations of his siblings. Then it was not usual to be given any apology when it was shown to be a false accusation. When our son got his first job working in a hospital he had an income that allowed him to purchase a car that was little bigger and newer than we advised. There was seldom a week that he wasn't stopped on the assumption that it was a stolen car. Principals (even one in a Catholic school) would deny any racism in their schools even though the children came home with tearful stories. This was a few years ago but I can assure you from the experience of Aboriginal friends that even now, you need to talk "The Talk" with your kids if you want to lessen their problems if not their pain. We still have a long way to go.

Roger Woods | 29 May 2012  

The Travyon case is indeed a useful prism for viewing how Western societies are managing race relations, but not in the manner Fr McCoy suggests. It might well emerge from this case that the interracial powderkeg it is now tied to is entirely due to the shameful misreporting of the leftwing MSM, and the prejudgements of politicians against the "white Hispanic" Zimmerman in the grubby quest for cheap votes. Let's review the pre-trial spin against Zimmerman: NBC 3 times had Zimmermann saying ""This guy looks like he's up to no good. He looks black." But he didn't say that. The tape was spliced between those two sentences so that the police dispatcher's question to Zimmerman: "OK, and this guy, is he white, black or Hispanic?", is omitted. 3 NBC employees responsible had to be sacked.(Now, why aren't they up on hate crime charges? Where's the media outrage?) Amazingly, NBC has to date refused to air a correction.

Medical records show Zimmerman's testimony that his head was smashed into the ground by Travyon to be consistent with his wounds. Travyon also had wounds on his knuckles (coroner's report) consistent with having landed punches on Zimmerman (whose nose was broken and two eyes blackened - again, medical records.) Travyon's hoodie had powder stains consistent with a shot from about 18 inches away - again consistent with Zimmerman's self-defence account. There's tons more. Look it up if you want achieve some semblance of balance.
The US MSM has refused to give any prominence to these reports, massively prejudicing the case against Zimmerman. And thereby fanning racial hatred. So the relevant question is: is this disgraceful fanning of hatred by media skewing of "politically correct" cases at all in evidence in Australia?

HH | 29 May 2012  

Well said HH. The Travyon Martin case has been disgracefully handled by the MSM. His death, undoubtedly tragic whatever the circumstances, brought people out in their thousands to protest against racial violence. However, as was said by the conservative black pastor, C.L. Bryant “The epidemic is truly black on black crime. The greatest danger to the lives of young black men are young black men.” Why are people not filling the streets in their thousands with the numerous black on black deaths that occur day in and day out? The Talk that black parents should be giving to their young men is to be wary of other blacks, not whites.

John Ryan | 29 May 2012  

Talking to Ned Mippy an Aboriginal elder at Moora WA in the early seventies, he pointed out to me that from an early age children were taught to be afraid of the 'bungey man', always white. Older children came to understand the expression as referring to sexual predators

Ann Troup | 29 May 2012  

The US incident quoted has its own obvious significance and validity. However, we in Australia need to be a lot clearer in our understanding of the various forms of violence used to discriminate against Aboriginal people in our own country. Reconciliation week is, among other things, a time to look clearly at the gross over-representation of Aboriginal people in custody; the progress (or otherwise) of the various state and territory governments in implementing the 339 recommendations from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1991). If all this seems a bit remote, consider the Queensland context, specifically current relations between Queensland Police and Murri people - in many communities. I am a clinical psychologist and retired Uniting Church minister. Across 4 decades I have been made aware by Murri friends of the realistic and restrictive counsel and precaution they must observe in guiding and supporting their younger people.

I have witnessed directly (too many times) the aggressive manner and physical violence (unprovoked) of individual police officers directed at Murri young people and women in particular. The QPS is a better organisation today than 30 years ago. But there is a long way to go.

Wayne Sanderson | 29 May 2012  

What great little article! Informative, compassionate, brief and understandable.

Claude Rigney | 29 May 2012  

Do not call Zimmerman a "community watch coordinator," he was just one man roaming around at night with a gun, stalking people and threatening them. He had no training by the police, no authority, and no supervision. A police dispatcher even told Zimmerman not to stalk Martin, but Zimmerman went ahead and confronted the unarmed Martin and shot him to death.

Joseph McCaffrey | 30 May 2012  

As a person of aboriginal heritage I can tell you this is true. Being the 'fair-skinned' child in my family I got to see first hand the difference in others behaviours towards me when I was with non-indigenous friends and when out in public with my family. People would like to believe Australia has moved on from this kind of thinking, but I can assure you it still happens everyday. Unfortunately parents still have to warn children about the potential problems.

Alyssa | 30 May 2012  

Brian McCoy, what you have written here has two errors. 1. The article misses the glaring facts of the case, that show a considerable injustice against Zimmerman. This was based on race-it fitted, not the obvious facts but the paradigm "black is a victim, white is a perpetrator". As HH shows above, the racism is reversed here. 2. The fear that the young are taught because of their race is an obvious factor in the claim of racism. I have been a victim of what I later discovered to be a racial hate crime in Darwin. The man was probably taught that this was ok, because I was white (Not space here to go into details). Many people feel that if someone's skin is black, they cannot be racist-or if they do point it out, they fear they will be accused of racism, and thus the social stigma of that. I think it helps to point out the fear and the error, rather than be be controlled by it. It is fear of this accusation, and the loss of reputation that controls many, and most certainly I am sure: Fr Brain McCoy. And who can blame him? Truth is sometime a social stigma.

Max | 09 June 2012  

CLAUDE RIGNEY,JOSEPH MCCAFFREY & ALYSSA: Dare I ask if you feel fear of accusations of racism? I say this, as the facts point clearly to Zimmerman-despite being overly suspicious (by race, clothing, youth or otherwise or all the obove), clearly point to the shooting being the tragic result of self-defense. See HH above. As I said, many people are terrified of speaking the truth-but to be unwilling to face our fears is NEVER the loving thing to do. And you can feel inside yourself if this is coming from our emotional needs for approval, which I am guessing it is-as this was the case with me in with such issues (hey, no judgement, yeah?).

Max | 09 June 2012  

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