The sun ricocheted off the water as we crossed the bridge, flashing through the car like a bolt of lightning. The river ebbed and flowed beneath us snaking along like it had for millennium holding its quiet, steady course all the way to the broiling coast. I wound down the window and breathed the heady, earthen scent peculiar to green river country. Mangroves, weeping willows, steaming vegetation and mud. We headed further inland to my hometown and were greeted with the acidic perfume of countless fruit bats. They fill the sky every dusk and dawn and nestle in this last remnant of rainforest on the banks of the Manning River.
It all feels so eerily familiar, no less because it had been so long. It is a very long journey to come back here, almost as long as the one I embarked on in leaving. I deluded myself I had left this place and everything it means behind.
I had moved to the cities trying outrun who I was. I lived in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and many places in between. Working learning and often drinking too much along the way. I had a good career and travelled when I could, standing on the joyously chaotic shores of Hanoi’s West Lakes in North Vietnam; feeling the salt spray of the Sonoma Coast in Southern California; hearing the primal rumble of tribal dancing on the islands of the South Pacific. Yet here I was crossing this bridge, feeling for all the world like I was right back where I started from. Why does it feel as if I had never been away?
Like dinosaur bones entombed in volcanic rock, the sensory imprints of your youth are part of you forever. There is no escaping it. Like DNA at a crime scene it sheds tiny almost imperceptible flakes along your path, inexorably linking to your past. We all bear the mark of where we come from – whether we like it or not.
All the demons were still there right where I had left them. The street where, when I was six years old, they found my Father’s body, felled by a self inflicted gun shot to the head. The back road where seven years later my sister and her fiancee were killed by a drunken driver. The cemetery where we would soon gather yet again to bury one of our own.
I had come home for my Mother’s funeral, a day I had dreaded for so long. As we drove through the Biripi Mission at Purfleet I heard her voice as if she were sitting right next to me. ‘Stay away from those blacks!’ she would say ‘They are nothing but trouble! Drunks, the lot of them’. It was the voice of my people, my childhood, the racist language of my youth.
I can still smell the smouldering carcasses of stolen cars burning beside the highway. Boys from the mission would steal them in town, joyriding them back across the bridge. I see the place where the highway patrol were surrounded by an angry mob, pummelled with bottles and stones as they rocked and smashed the vehicle. It was payback for the beating of a black man in the lockup. It makes m wonder now as Black Lives Matter burns furiously across our screens: will it ever be any different?
Racist rhetoric was every day language when I was growing up. That all blacks were lazy; that they tore up the floorboards of their housing commission homes and ripped down the fencing for firewood; that they only shopped for ‘five finger discounts’ and were such drunks they would ‘knock off the wine (sic) in your gear box’. At every turn, at school, the sports grounds, the public pool, the shopping centre, the skating rink and later the clubs, pubs and backyard barbies. Terrible, degrading language calling indigenous people savages, coons, abos, darkies, boongs, charcoals and much, much worse. Unprintable, foul, racist rants that seemed to fill the air until I thought I would surely suffocate. It frightened me then but I find it beyond repulsive now. It was all underpinned by an endless soundtrack of racist, supremacist, unfounded lies.
Stupid, baseless urban myths abounded. Like the one that ‘the blacks’ only make one car /house/TV payment and the Government pays the rest; that they had some sort of magical priority on the public housing list; that girls from ‘the Mish’ would do anything for a can of coke and a polka dot dress. The biggest lie of all: that somehow they had done all of this to themselves on purpose so they could live on social security and bludge off us hard working, tax paying white people. ‘Too lazy to hunt’ the beer gutted, lazy white men would say as they wasted their lives and pay packets down at the pub. ‘Good for noth’in!’ said another, himself a renowned wife beater who, as my Mother once said, wouldn’t work in an iron lung.
The urban folklore and crushing hypocrisy of growing up in racist white Australia. The utterly outrageous airbrushing and rewriting of reality. A whitewash, a con, a travesty. I was well into adult hood and a self funded uni student before I found out the truth. Our real national indigenous history bore no resemblance to what I was taught in our little public school on the river. No one taught us about the massacres, the genocide, the stolen generation. No one mentioned the black domestic slave girls and the unpaid workers of Wave Hill. No one told us the truth and it made me very angry.
Finally the endless road trip was over. We checked into the motel but I found I could not rest. I walked down the block to the riverfront road, cordoned off now from the rest of the last remnant of rainforest. There used to be a dirt road loop right through it and many a teenage Saturday night was spent chucking laps in friends cars and playing chicken with the river. There was much sky larking, drinking and coming of age.
Now here I stood on the water’s edge and closed my eyes against the late afternoon sun. Lukewarm water lapped at the base of the nearby boat ramp that had replaced the old wooden pier where a schoolmate once got his bike stuck fast in the mud. Trying to ride off the pier he misjudged badly, landing hard in the dark, muddy embankment. There was no getting it out and that stuff was like quicksand. Cows, boat trailers, oil drums, bikes had all fallen victim over the years. He frantically tried to dig, each hole filling with silt and water making it worse It was nearly dark by the time he realised he had to abandon his bike and walk home without it. Everyone knew what was coming. His dad was a violent drunk, but being a white man, was badged merely a ‘strict disciplinarian’ when he hit his son so hard he missed school for the rest of the week. Black parents could do no right and regularly had children removed for far less.
Jolted back to the present by the call of the river birds I opened my eyes and looked out across the water. The increasing current tugging against the trailing fronds of the weeping willows reminded me how dangerous the river could be. It was very deep and easy to underestimate the current. After rain it could be like getting caught in a rip.
Like racism itself I thought. Sometimes you are helpless against strong undercurrents you can’t see, murky forces beneath the surface pulling you in their insidious direction. Social conditioning, public discourse, stratification, biased media, racist advertising, the populist White Australia policy, rabid nationalism, small town red neckery – all of it forms a whirling, spiralling centrifugal pool that drags you under and threatens to drown you in racist, nationalistic, single-cell thinking. The harder you try to swim against the tide the more exhausted and likely to drown you become.
I have often asked myself, so what is the antidote to all of this? How can you unpick that which is woven into who you are? Can you question racism and not denounce your own race and who you are? How can you understand when you view everything through the prism of white privilege? How can someone like me be called privileged? We were not wealthy when I was growing up, not even middle class We started off working class, became underprivileged and ended up poor. My widowed Mother struggled to feed my surviving sister and I and pay the bills. We owed more than one Christmas dinner to Salvation Army hampers and things were very hard.
I learned early what discrimination meant. I can still feel the sting of the other girls taking delight in pointing out when I was wearing their hand-me-downs. I was bullied mercilessly at school and have never forgiven my Mother for her fundamentalist pacifism that punished me when I fought back. There was never enough money, never enough hot water, never enough of anything.
But for all that we were white poor, which still outranked black poor. Perhaps that is the point? I mused as I stood on the river’s edge. Karl Marx spoke of social stratification. He said poverty gives the middle class something to be afraid of so they will continue to create wealth for the rich. Perhaps racism is just another form of stratification? Maybe it gives racist white people someone else to blame for unfortunate outcomes in their own lives?
The sun was going down and I needed to get back to the motel. The sunset sky was flecked with black as the fruit bats made their way to the nearby trees. Large, carnivorous mosquitoes formed glittering clouds above the shimmering water, the swarm reflecting the suns last rays. We used to call it Mosquito River and if you didn’t Aeroogard your skin would be pinpricked with itchy fire for days. The river looked breathtaking and part of me regretted we only had a few days. But the rest of me would be glad when it was over. I turned and walked away before the ghosts of the past could form in the evening mist.
The funeral was the same as all the others. A white Christian minister ushered my Mother’s broken spirit into white christian heaven. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. She was a devout believer – a baptist no less – and I know my atheism and disrust of organised religion disappointed her. We had argued once about the role of missionaries in the slavery of Australia’s indigenous population and the decimation of their culture. She went to her grave convinced it had all been for their own good. I said my goodbyes and wished everything had been different.
As we left the chapel I knew this final goodbye changed something deep down inside of me. As we checked out of the motel and drive back out of town we crossed the bridge again, the dawn light brightening into sunshine as we went. Suddenly Mosquito River felt merely like somewhere I had just been, that I was a visitor now, an interloper. It was no longer all of who I am. I hoped I had come full circle, leaving the demons of my racist past behind in the pall of river mist.
I resolved that from now on I would find real and engaging ways to tell the truth about my country, my people To write more extensively, with honesty. I vowed to use my white privileged voice to speak truth to power, reality to myth and facts to lies. The truth is Australia is a very racist country.
Silence is violence and white voices must speak out against the ongoing blight of racism and the murderous regime that is presiding over black deaths in custody.
How this country treats First Nations people should be a warning to us all. It is how the government will treat everyone, just as soon as they can find a way to get away with it.