Some time ago I suffered a stroke that triggered in
me a decision to live the rest of my life as if I were
already dead. I am more inclined to state things as
they are, or as I see them, without fear or compromise.
I tell you that this is a savage moment in the history
of Australia, and I feel obliged to mark it. Our young
Aboriginal people are carrying a humanly impossible
burden laid on them by white society. The problem is
not that we white people are unaware of this. The facts
are overwhelmingly sufficient as they come to us through
The problem is rather to be found in the way we manage
the facts so clearly presented to us.
It is not a question of more information. It is really
a question of understanding. The word "understanding"
is, I think, what Aboriginal people themselves use to
pinpoint the almost despairing problem they have with
us whites. We simply don't understand. We don't know
them, we don't understand them.
Yet they remain in a strategic position that has allowed
them to observe us with remarkable accuracy. They know
us well and often make the crucial observation that,
not only do we not understand them, but we don't understand
We desperately need a new way of looking at ourselves
so that we might come to recognise that we are in need
of liberation and that our liberation ultimately is
bound up with theirs.
Over recent years I have been performing or attending
the funerals of young Aboriginal people frequently.
Some of them appear to have suicided. It forces me to
reflect on some of the differences between Aboriginal
and non-Aboriginal Australians. The pride and pain of
their race is being held almost in a sacred trust, but
always unfiltered and undiluted.
Nothing is blocked out. It is humanly unbearable to
hold that sort of fire in one's heart. Without promise,
they can only lose all hope.
We white people, on the other hand, are ordinarily
well equipped with the defence mechanisms of denial.
Selective hearing of truths is an understandable, even
necessary, psychological device for use in the face
of bitter realities, particularly basic human survival.
One would like to think that Aboriginal people could
resort to such safety devices when it is they who are
fighting to live at the harsh edge of survival.
Yet it seems one of those cruel ironies that they are
the ones who do not possess any alleviating mechanism
for their pain.
In contrast, we whites tend to keep safe control of
our personal environment; we exercise reserve powers
As things get tough, we can move to safer ground. And,
whereas we can do this to keep on top, they have a desperate
need just to keep afloat.
There is yet another depth to the dismal irony. By
poison and starvation they have so often been deprived
of the physical means of survival. In individual cases
at least, they are now deprived of the psychological
means of continuing to live. And this only points out
more sharply the miracle of their survival as a race.
As Paul Keating said in his memorable speech at Redfern
Park on December 10, 1992: "We took the traditional
lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought
the diseases, the alcohol. We committed the murders.
We took the children from their mothers. We practised
discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and
our prejudice and our failure to imagine these things
being done to us.
"With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the
most basic human response and enter into their hearts
and minds. We failed to ask, 'How would I feel if this
were done to me.' As a consequence, we failed to see
that what we were doing degraded all of us."
As I stood there in the open-air gathering in Redfern
Park in that gala, summery atmosphere, I saw what I
had never yet seen in all my years - the tears welling
up in the eyes of countless Aborigines who had believed
that they would never hear a prime minister of Australia
But look what has happened with a change of government
We can ignore Pauline Hanson, but when the Prime Minister,
John Howard, and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs,
John Herron, can each be capable of uttering such a
collection of gauche, insensitive, uneducated and plainly
insulting remarks about Aboriginal people we must protest.
It is possible for a white person to hold respect and
credibility in the eyes of Aboriginal people; witness
the late Nugget Coombs. Measuring them against his stature,
these two forlorn, pathetic figures get no marks at
all, not even for trying.
Why should the Aboriginal people be required to tolerate
this empty posturing, this clumsy pretence, this masquerade
of solutions pulled arbitrarily from the air, when they
themselves were not consulted? I refer in particular
to Howard pillorying the so-called black armband view
of history, evading the admission of shame, and Herron
denying the stolen children.
For us whites, reconciliation starts not with guilt
but with the acknowledgement of the truth.
Unspeakable atrocities were perpetrated. Guilt is a
wasted emotion; it cannot be passed down, for Christ
has taken guilt away.
Guilt is unproductive, indeed harmful, but shame is
another matter. We do share the shame.
We must all remember that not one of these good things
that we non-Aboriginal Australians enjoy today - benefits
that are the envy of the world, which seem to sparkle
the more in the Australian sunlight - not one of these
good things has been attained without the wrenching
distress and grieving, starvation and dying of Aboriginal
people in the past.
The way out lies in letting go of the grand, deluding
myth, so pervasive in the white psyche as to cause us
to brandish hollow sounds of what we call "Australian
pride", so invasive of the black world as to assure
them that the invasion is still going on.
When Aborigines notice that we non-Aborigines are beginning
to see that our liberation is bound up with theirs,
the healing power of truth will begin to set each of
This is an extract from Who is Worthy? (Pluto Press,
$20) by Father Ted Kennedy, which was launched at St
Vincent's, Redfern, yesterday.
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