‘Knowledge Dispels Fear’: On Aboriginal victimhood and empowerment

By Shauna Bostock-Smith

Shauna Bostock-Smith reflects on her family’s past, and the way personal stories are shaped and interpreted - and the importance of acknowledging both the bad and the good in Aboriginal history. She asks: How can ancestral knowledge empower us in the present? And what are dangers do victimhood pose to collective Aboriginal self-esteem?

IN AN OCTOBER 2011 edition of The National Indigenous Times, Dr Chris Sarra called for ‘fellow Indigenous Australians to take control of their own lives.’ Dr Sarra has accused some Aboriginal community leaders of conspiring with mainstream Australia to cast Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the role of victims.

He lamented that too many Aboriginal people ‘interiorised’ this to the extent that some consider the victim status as part of our culture. Both Dr Sarra’s statements, that mainstream Australia has cast Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the role of victims, and that Aboriginal people have ‘interiorised’ victimhood as part of our culture, can be validated by the following experiences my father had.

My father is a Vietnam veteran who has worked tirelessly for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian Defence Force Veterans. He worked closely with the Returned and Services League (RSL) to organise an annual ceremony to honour and commemorate the active service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Defence Force members both past and present.

When interviewed by a newspaper reporter, my father was asked if he experienced any racism when he was in the army. In his usual larrikin vernacular he said, ‘There was no “black” or “white” in the army, because each soldier thought of himself as green. We were all mates. Occasionally someone would call you a black bastard or something like that; but it was nothing that a good smack in the mouth wouldn’t sort out!’

When the article was published, however, the journalist portrayed my father as the victim of racism by reporting that ‘when George was in the army, he was called a black bastard and smacked in the mouth’, rather than portray him as a strong Aboriginal man who stood up to occasional racism. This interview took place quite recently.

Another situation that again involves my father is a prime example of the ‘interiorised victimhood’ cited by Dr Chris Sarra.

My father also volunteered as a Murri Court elder (an Aboriginal elder who attended court hearings of Aboriginal offenders). On one occasion he attended the court case of an Aboriginal burglar who had broken into houses at night. A woman who was home alone awoke to find him ransacking a chest of drawers looking for valuables. In court, the man complained that he was being victimised by police because they were always checking up on him.

He added that he and his incarcerated brothers were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder brought about by the continual round of institutionalisation they have experienced at the hands of whiteman. My father asked him, ‘What about the trauma that you have inflicted on that poor woman? How frightened is she when she locks herself in every night? Haven’t you institutionalised her?’

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