Wednesday 7 March 2012

Perks, what perks?

The first question certain people ask when the 'Aboriginal Gravy Train' is mentioned, is often a defensive and demanding "Perks? What Perks? Are you talking about those imaginary free houses and cars and loans?".  They will then, almost without fail, smile smugly and cross their arms, sure they have won the debate with their all-crushing, mind-blowing statement of what they believe to be absolute fact.

The dirty secret is, there is a Train.  But the bad news is, if you're black, you're going to find it hard to get a first class ticket.

This Train stops at many destinations. 

Stop One - The Corporate World

With all the focus on Native Title, Caring For Country, Welcome to Country and all other matters Indigenous, we've created a whole raft of new jobs that need filling by Aboriginal people.  Many of them with quite generous salaries.

Let's look at a few:- (for those playing along at home, todays current Koori Mail employment pages)

If you're from the Geelong mob, why not become a 'Koorie Transition Officer'.  Pay range $76k - $90k plus.

Or, how do you like the sounds of 'Medicare Enhancement Officer' on your new business cards?  Contact VACCHO if you're interested, they're looking for one right now.

Want to shoot to the very top?  How about CEO?  You guessed it, that one is up for grabs too, and best of all, it comes with a six figure salary!

But there's one catch.  Most of them have an impressive selection criteria that tends to weed out a lot of the blacks that need jobs.  I see no entry level jobs, no apprenticeships, no nothing to help someone get that springboard step from poverty to a new and brighter future.  The Victorian Government has pledged a 1% Aboriginal target for Public Sector employment by 2015.  Already advertised is one position for a Solicitor, several for Child Protection workers, some for Prison Officers, and one single Traineeship.  But if you don't have any skills and don't want to be a Fisheries Education Officer, you'll have to keep the job hunt going a little longer.

Stop Two - Small Business Owners

A little annoyed at yourself that you went and studied that Aboriginal Archaeology course?  Well, don't be down, dust off those degrees your parents scoffed at and start your own small business!  Cultural Heritage Management Consultant has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?  You can charge a bunch for your time, doing fun stuff like taking photographs of rock scatters, sitting back and admiring said rock scatters, daydreaming about how they may have come to be here.  Write your dreams on paper, making sure to pepper it liberally with terms such as "shell midden", and "artefact" - or my personal favourite, "tribal gathering place". 

Leave space at the top of your report (for the obligatory Wikipedia copy and paste about the history of the local area and its 'tribes' ) but be sure you haven't left out several gratuitous references to the co-operative nature of the company who is going to pay your exorbitant bill (Oil companies, Mining Companies, despite all their money, they still need their egos stroked) and their genuine warm feelings of reconciliation and respect for the local Indigenous peoples.  It also helps if you mention that they are going to work hard with you to maintain and preserve any cultural sites of significance.  It helps if you don't mention that if it is in the way of a large Gold deposit, or where they want to pipe Gas through, it will have to go anyway.  Negotiation only goes so far of course.

Stop Three - The Arts World

Poor reviews getting you down?  Well, despair no more, Stop Three is where you need to be.

Instead of competing against all the other bland white artists, you need a professional edge.  You need to stop advertising yourself as a 'Struggling' or 'Urban' or 'Contemporary' Artist, and start using the words 'Aboriginal Artist'.  Enter yourself in all the major Indigenous Art Awards (don't worry, I know of one major award that doesn't ask for proof of Aboriginality along with your entry), and even if you only come away with a Shortlist or Finalist placing, it is really all you need.  You've achieved the hardest part of all, cementing your credibility.

When you engage the news media, you don't actually need to explain your heritage.  Refer to a descendant of a parent in wistful terms, using just enough suggestive prose for the impression to be clear that the descendant was 'stolen' and you now have a tactical advantage.  You see, probing further would be seen as highly offensive and no journalist who doesn't want to be hauled before court will dare challenge you, or even ask for something as silly as proof.

Stop Four - Pretend Elders and Fake Traditional Owners

Well kids, the last stop on our journey.  While the sarcasm may drip from my words, I can tell you, this is one that really breaks my heart.

The Elders were once a revered bunch.  Given a status that reflected their dedication to their community, their vast and superior wisdom, once upon a time, there were laws that governed who could, and couldn't be, an Elder.   These days, it is little more than an assumption.  If you're old enough to remember a time before mobile phones, you're old enough to demand the title.  We still have Elders in this state who fit the original criteria, those who should be revered, but when every other person is an Elder, society loses sight of what such a title really means. 

The low blow for me, came the day I realised that you don't even have to be Aboriginal, to be an Aboriginal Elder.  Yes, in one Aboriginal Co-op here in Victoria, we have at least one woman who demands the title of 'Aunty' from her staff and visitors, despite her only connection to Aboriginal ancestry being admittedly by marriage (i.e not a blood relative) and workplace osmosis .  Perhaps working in an Aboriginal Corporation has a funny effect on people from time to time, including altering your genetic make-up.

Traditional Owner is also a pretty neat title to whack in front of your name.  It's got a nactivist kind of feel to it, tempered with the mystical affectation we give to the word Elder.  Either way, it's not a bad job to have.  If you're looking for a late start to this race though, forget about it.  The boat left a little ways back.  The early bird catches the worm as they say, and if you weren't jumping into bed with NTSV years ago, you may find yourself left out in the cold.

I'm not saying the Heritage Council are making bad decisions.  What I will say, is that the current legislation leaves a lot of loopholes.  The onus is on those who oppose any application, when it comes to the burden of proof.  Having lodged opposition myself to one such application (which went on to be declined in 2011), I am thankful that the party in question made a fatal error of judgement when deciding to flout regulations and write member profits into their rule book.  It probably wasn't also a good idea to have a membership consisting of just one family group either.  I'm sure the information I provided was helpful, but when the other side is stupid AND greedy, I won't gloat and chalk it up as a victory for me. 

If you're wondering about what happened to the poor guy whose application is now left in tatters, and how he is going to feed his starving, disadvantaged family - I have good news.  Fake Traditional Owners are a resilient bunch.  Already a successful Indigenous business owner with many Government funded subsidies to help out along the way, I'm sure he'll be positively 'buzzy' with what his future holds.  He may not have a Monsanto like grip on all matters Indigenous where he lives as was hoped, but I'm sure in time, he'll learn to be happy somewhere between the middle and upper classes with his various income streams.  Best of all, he's white, so his Aboriginality isn't going to hold him back at all.  Just open a few more doors that the rest of society aren't allowed to open, and allow him access to a niche market that asks few questions, and goes along with whatever you say.

I hope you've enjoyed your trip on the Gravy Train with me.  As you can see, the Train is not for everyone.  Few seats are ever given to blacks, but that is not to say, that some have not ridden.  Whilst I do not forgive a black brother or sister lightly who steals from their own people, society shames them far worse than I could.  We've had some corrupt blackfellas over the years.  I won't deny it.  We have honest people among us, and, dishonest ones.  Greedy and benevolent. When you create entire systems (like ATSIC) that are open to exploitation, you make monsters.  When you're given a job - not because you're the best person for the job, but, because you wield the most power or have more influence and wealth than your peers - then the likelihood that you will be productive, meet your targets and make life for all those poor saps counting on you better, it is, well,  pretty low.  

To all my black brothers and sisters out there, this is why you should be asking questions.  This is why you should be getting angry. 

How has your life been made better by the Billions in funding that has been spent in YOUR NAME? 

Have you been helped or hindered when you've asked for help from an Aboriginal organisation?

Does your local Aboriginal organisation scrutinise itself with regular audits? 

Do they allow you to attend meetings and be a part of the democratic process that is supposed to give us all a voice, as the very people they are supposed to represent,  to provide services to - that our Government funds them well to do?

Are they working to provide jobs for the local people, or just friends and family?

If you wanted to change your life tomorrow, study and train for a career or vocation, could you reasonably expect that help and assistance would be available for you to attain such a goal?

What makes me sit up and worry at night, is a whole bunch of people who are being denied all of this and more.  What makes me angry, is that those who are denying it to them, claim to represent them.

Every socially accepted, urban living, middle-class, white aboriginal person who has used their heritage to further themselves, contributes to the problem.  It creates inequity in the market.  Twenty years ago, we started making real leaps forward in planning our Indigenous future.  Big talks resulted in great aspirations, our kids would go to college, we'd have Aboriginal Doctors, Aboriginal Lawyers, and all our kids would be just as smart as the white kids.

What happened after the talks? 

Committees were formed, Key Initiatives were set, Funding was given, Scholarships and Indigenous University places grew.

But very few black, disadvantaged kids were graduating.  Instead, the first wave of graduates were overwhelmingly pale skinned, and often two or three generations removed from a single Indigenous ancestor.

Hang on a minute, I hear you say.  How are you to know that these people didn't go on to do wonderful things in remote communities and spend their life dedicated to helping Aboriginal people?

I don't.  And frankly, it matters little.  Whether our imaginary graduate goes on to be the Mother Teresa of the outback or not, post graduation, the end does not justify the means.  If our graduate was that dedicated, she'd be there.  Ask any of the hundreds of average people who have given of their time and hearts to any one of our many impoverished remote settlements.  Ask some of the dedicated non-Indigenous staff who take a shitty wage to stay in a job they love to make a difference in the lives of kids who have so little to smile about.  They aren't doing it because they're Aboriginal, they're doing it because they want to help.

Instead, what I see, is a growing trend of those who focus on their career, their speaking engagements, their own achievements - and when they need to, using the Aboriginal name to help themselves along and in some cases, form the foundation for their whole identity and life focus.  In their giddy indulgence of self-identity, they are robbing us of ours.  We are asked to accept the face of the white man as the face also, of the black man.  He is both our enemy and our brother.  And although my white brother may move about the world freely, accepted as normal to others and blending in with the majority, we are told we must remember his suffering is akin to ours, and never mention the difference.  His white skin is a shield, however, in order not to offend, we must readily make generous concessions that allow far less racism to be equal to or greater than, deeply ingrained and generational racism.  We must never admit that a pervasive racism exists, nor ever reveal that the blacker your skin, the greater your chance is of experiencing such a phenomenon.

We have one section of the Aboriginal race (as defined by any means) doing well, and another, as if in a third world country.  I will never apologise for believing this must change. I refuse to pretend I didn't notice that those doing well are overwhelmingly pale-skinned, and those enduring the suffering are overwhelmingly black.  I will think you are missing the mark when you make comments such as 'but, the criteria doesn't say you have to be disadvantaged, you just have to be of Aboriginal descent' to justify you making a commodity of your thin strands of heritage and taking that opportunity. 

Did you stop and think that if all those who really shouldn't be eligible made a moral decision and opted out, that maybe, just maybe, we'd get an accurate picture of how things really are? 

Imagine if in 2013, we only had disadvantaged, remote Indigenous Australians eligible for every Aboriginal Art Award, Scholarship, Traineeship, IBA loan, Identified job position etc .  As a nation we would be embarassed into a state of action when we saw how few of these roles were able to be filled.  Instead of congratulating our ever growing army of pale skinned High Achievers, we would be shamed into taking real action to address what should be a national disgrace.  What happened to the days when we looked at a child who, through the lottery of birth and not choice, is dealt a crappy hand in the Game of Life and said 'how can we help?'.  When did we change to a society that instead only asked of itself 'What's in this for ME?'.

Monday 5 March 2012

Have I upset you?

Does it hurt to see the ugly side of dissent?

I can think of two individuals who are currently working their blood pressure meds playing a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Arbiter of Mob Justice /Almighty Retribution because of the comments I have made in my blog.  

Do I hate all people with white skin and Indigenous ancestry? 
The answer to the this question, would be no.  I am lucky to have a white skinned son, whom I absolutely adore.  I also have a beautiful white wife, who I love unconditionally.  I am also blessed to have two white step sons.  I passed on only my skin colour to my daughter, my sons twin.  I'm not a religious man, but I say a silent prayer nearly every day that the world will be kind to her, that she won't have to suffer the horrible side of being 'coloured' as my not so learned friend once referred to it as.  Truth is, when you're noticeably Aboriginal, people in the world can be pretty damn unkind.  The best part?  You don't even have to have done something wrong.

I consider myself a lucky blackfella.  I have an education, the ultimate tool to a better life.  I grew up in foster care (I was placed willingly, not stolen and I thanked my father through tears a few days ago for making the choice he did) with wonderful foster parents who enabled me to stay connected to my family and culture. 

That's me on the right, my big brother on the left and if you need help on your Victorian Elders, in the middle is my paternal Great Grandmother Thelma Carter.

I am the only one still living of the three. 

It has been suggested that I am bitter.  Twisted even.  I am bitter that my brother is gone.  He was incredibly talented at so many things.  I looked up to him, and he would always look out for me.  Man, we had some times together growing up.  But people in my family have a bad habit of not living very long.  Although Nan was the exception to this rule, when this photo was taken, my Grandmother and Grandfather had already passed away.   My brother made it to the ripe old age of 38. 

Am I bitter and twisted?  Probably.  I should really get over the fact that while we're patting ourselves on the backs that we have our first Indigenous Rhodes Scholar, we have annoying news reports of suicides of young children trying to steal focus. 

Where is the gap exactly?

What we need is to direct more funding based on need, not heritage.  When we have black Australians graduating from degrees at the same rate as white skinned Australians, when a Yolgnu child has the same access to education and assistance as my own children, when blacks are afforded the same treatment as whites, I'll believe the hype that we're closing the gap.  That those who need the most, are treated first.  If anyone has a problem with that, you are a traitor to the race you claim to be from.  When you can sit by and watch your own people be treated poorly, when you have kids that are going hungry, being abused, killing themselves for chrissakes, do you still believe YOU need that hand up?  When the Universities wake up and realise that there are so few black faces coming through because so few of us are getting even half the education a white child in this country gets, then we'll see the targets shifted. 

You see, before you apply for a University scholarship, you have to have done pretty well in school.  From Primary School, through to High School, all the way to Year 12.  How many black skinned Aboriginal people do you know that have a Year 12 pass?  Let me guess...the percentage is dismally low compared to your white skinned friends, of any ancestry. 

Why aren't we angry about that?  Why on earth wouldn't we want to fix that?

What is so wrong with asking - is this money that could and should be better spent elsewhere?  Is it so wrong to think that the middle class Aboriginals have lost their way a little.  So intent on catching up to the white mans upper class and entrenching themselves there that they don't realise they've just opened an even bigger gap between them and their poorer cousins? 

My black, white and brindle brothers and sisters, we have to take a good hard look at ourselves and face up to a few realities.  We've created a gulf in our minority group of Indigenous Australians.  Just like white society, we have the Aboriginal haves and the Aboriginal have-nots.  Heck, we even have our own middle class. The lack of black faces coming through universities and excelling in school is quickly forgotten when we have no shortage of fair, urban living counterparts to happily sit in their place instead.  We make no distinction nor apply any sort of moral test to what is happening, for fear of causing offence. 

Imagine you have ten people fishing at a waterhole.  All of them need to catch fish, it is the only available sustenance on my imaginary island.  Two of the men own a boat and several nets, so are able to catch quite a haul, feeding their families and selling the excess for a tidy profit, enabling them to continually buy newer boats, better nets, and live a very comfortable life.  Five of the men own top of the line fishing rods, and, while they have to work for a few hours at their task, they too will catch enough fish to feed their families for several days, and when the weather is very favourable, they too make a small profit from their bumper catch.  The final three people do not own fishing rods, or nets.  It takes them the entire day to catch enough food to sustain their family for that one 24 hour period when there is good weather.  In bad weather, they eat what they can catch but it is never enough and they often suffer from malnutrition.  When the government decides to intervene, and provide fishing rods and fishing lessons to the three poorer fishermen, an uproar ensues.  The men from the boats are angry.  They are fishermen as well, and if the government is handing out free fishing rods, they want to be able to decide who gets them and manage the entire handout operation (for a small fee, of course).  The men with the boats have considerable clout within the government (they can afford to send donations to sympathetic politicians in hope of favourable treatment, socialise on occasion with some high ranking officials and the like), so this option is touted as the most likely way of handling the fishing rod distribution after the uproar dies down.  The Five men who already have fishing rods decide to weigh into the discussion when they realise those rods being given for free by the government are a little better than their own.  They believe the government should help all fishermen, and if those poorer fishermen just worked harder/longer/better/faster, they wouldn't need a free rod.  Free market economy and all that jazz. 

In the end, the government distributes six fishing rods.  Two to the men from the boats, which lay unused and are eventually sold for far less that their worth.  The remaining four are given to the five fishermen who already have rods - to squabble over and distribute amongst themselves.  They feel disenfranchised, and resentment builds between the five fishermen and the government, the boat owners, even one another.

The Three remaining fishermen carry on unaware of the whole unfolding free rod debarcle, as they have little time but to run the hamster wheel of survival.

If you're the corrupt CEO of a large Aboriginal corporation, you're the guy in one of the boats.   Yes, you're all fishermen, but on very different standings and with very different lives. 

I may be idealistic, but, one day, I'd like to see a woman from Hermannsburg  hit the news after releasing her first novel.  A woman who'd overcome obstacles (be it domestic violence, drug or alcohol use, loss of family) received funding and help she needed (and lets face it, we all go to sleep wanting to believe that actually happens) and now she has blossomed with a promising career she has real talent for.  Then I'd like to see a man do a similar thing.  And then another, then dozens, then hundreds (in all career paths, doctors, lawyers, scientists, builders, artists, business owners) of black, disadvantaged Australians that we all are well aware exist. 

Although it is deemed a crime in the eyes of some, I want a black role model to look up to.  The more good, respectful, intelligent, wise black men we have participating in our society at every level, the better.  Although it seems to cause great offence to hear, I will not apologise when I say that I cannot emulate a white man.  Overcoming entrenched racism is something that unless you are black, you only experience as an aftershock.  You were teased because your father/mother/grandmother is black?  Wow, imagine actually, well, being black! 

You'll have to forgive me if I won't ignore the reality of White Privilege.  A fact constantly overlooked it seems by so many.  Keep carrying your invisible knapsack though, and I'll look the other way and snigger a little when you keep telling me you know what its like to be black. 

Note for my cyber fans (WQ, JK) : -We have so few Aboriginal voices in this country.  I am not going to stop writing my blog (when the mood strikes me of course) because for every whiny detractor who has posted about me on their Facebook page, I've had support, strength and well wishes from ten more.  A tide, one day, shall turn...