Talking about Australia’s national identity prompts strong opinions. History, truth, settlement, multiculturalism; many topics and angles are discussed in the conversation about what is ultimately our own self-acceptance. The voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their experience of inclusion and exclusion in our community are often depersonalised. The power of one person’s story is undeniable, and helps us to understand where we came from and who we are.
Rona Scherer, a member of the Workforce Council team and a facilitator of our Yarn Up Tok Blo Yumi program, grew up in North Queensland. She is a Mamu and Kuku Yalanji woman, the Mamu clans being from the rainforests of the Innisfail area and the Kuku Yalanji people being from the Mossman area.
“Growing up in the deep North, as we called it, in the 70s and 80s was at times difficult,” said Rona.
“Mum and Dad raised me to have thick skin, as this was an era when it was easier to be non-Aboriginal. You learned to talk nice and dress nice in the hope of being treated nicely.
“However, it dawned on me quite young that this was not enough for people determined to be racist. In grade 5 in Catholic school, I experienced abuse from some kids and even a teacher, as did the other Aboriginal girl at the school.
“Even though I was attending a good Catholic school and dressing like everyone else, it just wasn’t enough back then.
“It was especially hard because when you’re young, you don’t have much understanding of the culture you’re growing up in, and you don’t have context for the things that are happening to you. It was only as I got older that I started to understand.
“High School was more relaxing, everyone got on better. The racism was still there but it was not shown to me, I wasn’t focused on it. This might have had something to do with my Dad being assistant station master at the railway station, and well respected in the community.”
While coming to terms with her own place in the community, Rona also noticed other Aboriginal people receiving overt prejudice.
“I saw other people copping a lot of racism.
“We would see them sitting on the creek bed and they would be the subjects of many racial insults. Now I know that the spot where they sat is a traditional meeting place, and this might have been the one place in town where they felt welcome to gather.
“Over time you experience exclusion directly or see it, when it’s been there your whole life you develop a sixth sense for it. You come to understand that you can’t control whether it’s there, but what you can control is how you are going to react to it.
“It hurts, but I realise now that I have control. I can be doing everything right: good manners, dressing nice, contributing to the community, paying taxes, but it’s just not going to be enough for some people.
“I’ve lived on the Sunshine Coast since 1997 and have two children, and have always worked in industries where I get to work with people. I am a people person and like helping others.
“One time I was taking my kids to the shops, and as we were walking along, a young man pretended to spit on us. Among all the emotions I felt at that moment, I particularly felt the injustice of it. I was thinking that if that person was ahead of me in the checkout queue and was $5 short, I would pay the $5 for him so he could have his groceries. That’s me, but this person didn’t care about that. What I could do was keep my control and move on.”
Rona is continuing to rise above moments such as that and is finding hope in the progress she sees her community making in recent years.
“When I moved to the Sunshine Coast, it was pretty mono-cultural. I didn’t know where the other Aboriginal people were. Now, there are a lot of immigrants and certain spots are becoming real cultural hubs on the coast.
“You start seeing different restaurants popping up: South American, Indian. It’s really becoming a more dynamic area. Now you feel that anything that gets people accepting different cultures is going to be embraced.
“The Gubbi Gubbi people are very active on the Sunshine Coast, and are a big part of the vibrant culture on the coast. The Gubbi Gubbi dancers, led by Lyndon Davis, often perform here and feature in events like Festuri where cultures from around the world are showcased.
“People are becoming more open to embracing cultures. Social and mainstream media can make it hard for people to unite sometimes, but I believe we all just want to live in peace and like our neighbours.”
Rona recalls the simple but powerful ways that she and her children were made welcome in one community centre.
“When I was looking for a child care centre, the feel of the place was a great indicator, for me, of how inclusive they were. Also, whether they had Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags, or Tibetan prayer flags made a big impression and showed inclusion. It would also add to that feeling if the space had trees and some natural environment. This was indicative of who was running the place.
“Of course, the way people spoke told me a lot about a place. The way people are over the phone is very telling, you can hear if they’re distracted or whether they have a friendly, engaged tone and even if they’re smiling.
“The place I ultimately chose had lots of trees and I could see the prayer flags. I knew for sure I’d chosen the right place when my child and another child were on the swings, and one of the parents came up and asked, ‘which one is your child?’. Wow! They hadn’t just assumed which child was mine just from looking at us! This said a lot to me about the culture of the centre I’d chosen.
“This centre also asked whether I wanted to volunteer there and heartily embraced a concept of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Art and Craft Festival as a school fundraising event, which told me they valued me, my knowledge, and my culture. All of these things added up to assure me that this was a place where inclusion was woven into the centre’s culture, and it was where I wanted to bring my children.”
Add your voice to the conversation at our upcoming cultural capability events and workshops:
- Creating Safe & Inclusive Spaces – Yarning Intentionally – Sunshine Coast (Tuesday 28 February 2017)
- Creating Safe & Inclusive Spaces – Yarning Intentionally – Brisbane (Thursday 27 April 2017)
- Creating Safe & Inclusive Spaces – Yarning Intentionally – Logan (Thursday 25 May 2017)
- Yarn Up Tok Blo Yumi – Brisbane (Wednesday 14 and Thursday 15 June 2017)
Visit our eventbrite page for more information and to register.