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Aboriginal Australians inherit racial fear

  • 29 May 2012

Reverberations 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