Wednesday 10 October 2012

Aborigines - according to Monash University

Monash University has embarked on a huge undertaking.  As of 2013, the School for Indigenous Health will be open for business, the first dedicated school for Indigenous Health at an Australian University.

Pretty impressive stuff?  Well, no.  Today, I had the pleasure of meeting Nola.  Nola is not real, but rather a fictional character created for medical students to use in role-playing by the magical minds in charge of cultural awareness at Monash University.  Nola even has a back story full of every stereotype of Aboriginal disadvantage you can imagine, in fact, it seems the only tragedy that didn't befall poor Nola was an addiction to sniffing petrol.

Nola has a hard life.  Her partner is of course a violent drunk who beats on her (twice in the short story no less!) and steals her money.  Initially, she is living in a home with 10 people, in an extended family situation, however she recently escaped the domestic violence with her three children.  The four of them are currently living in a two bedroom house, in fact, sharing it with two other people (more overcrowding, just in case you didn't pick up on it the first time).  Nola also unfortunately has Diabetes (type 2), but is eating a very poor diet and taking no medication.  She is unable to eat much fruit (attributed to the high cost and difficulty with transport) and instead her diet consists of bread, jam, tea and fast food.  Of course, adding to her health and domestic abuse woes, her fifteen year old daughter is also quite a handful.  To again pay homage to a myth, she has stopped going to school and is also smoking cigarettes.  Not to be outdone, the youngest daughter suffers from a chronic ear infection as well.  

What you might be surprised to learn about Nola, is that she did not escape from one remote community to another.  No, Nola went from Echuca to Preston. I kid you not.

For those not familiar with Victorian geography, Preston is less than 10 kilometres from the Melbourne CBD, and Echuca is on the Victorian side of the NSW Border.  Neither suffer from the perils of extreme remoteness, in fact both towns are lucky enough to be positioned on major carriageways for transportation of goods.  Echuca, being the far less populated town, even has an Aldi - the home of low low prices on everything.  However, it appears that in the halls of Monash, myth becomes fact - ALL Aboriginal people aren't able to buy affordable fruit and vegetables due to the exorbitant costs of transportation, location be damned.  Our budding medical students are asked to forgo common sense, logic and fact (the stuff we hope they ARE learning while they are in there) and accept any nonsensical statement as truth - as long as it comes under the Aboriginal banner.  Should a student dare to question any of the logic, or the offensiveness of such stereotyping, they will quickly be dismissed as being 'ignorant of Aboriginal culture' by their classmates, or worse, branded a racist.

This has to stop.

The new School for Indigenous Health is going to take current teaching practices (like the racist drivel in the fictional Nola patient story above) and make some alterations to form their new curriculum.  I was not surprised to see that the Director of Research on this new 'make it up as you go along' venture is none other than Kerry Arabena.

Kerry Arabena, co-chairwoman of the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples.

Seeing as Ms Arabena wouldn't know what it is like to be a black skinned Aboriginal man, I'll give her a bit of a heads up - we don't appreciate being painted as perpetrators of violence.  It shocks me to think that those people who have found it their duty to inform the rest of the country about our culture, and from the halls of academia no less, are churning out garbage like this.  It feels a little racist to be honest, and that is something that a University would normally frown upon - well, at least that is what I used to think, but it seems as long as you prefix your racial stereotyping and racism with the word 'Aboriginal' and do it under the guise of 'cultural awareness', anything goes.  And just for the record, in case you're dreaming up new fictional case studies over there at Monash, we're not all child predators either.  I'm glad you didn't add that one in on poor old Nola, I think it would have set me right off.

Just in case anyone from Monash is listening, I'd like you to do me a favour.  Several months ago, a family member contacted your Yulendj Indigenous Engagement people to ask you to remove a picture that includes my niece that you, to this day, continue to display on your Facebook page.   I'd like you to finally respect the wishes of a mother and her daughter and take the picture down.  It is dishonest to imply that the students pictured in your photo attend your institution.  My niece attended an Open Day that your University held, but is not and has not ever been an enrolled student at any of your campuses (in fact, she is still finishing high school), yet I notice that you've ensured she is wearing some of  your easily identifiable apparel and you've placed her front and centre. You were told politely that you did not have permission to display her image publicly, and no release was signed to allow you to do so.  

In the time you spent removing comments questioning your actions from public view, you could have just taken down the photo and done the right thing.  Instead, you now come across as exploitative, and unashamedly so.  

Thursday 4 October 2012

That article on The Drum

Several people have sent me links and asked me to read a recent article posted on The Drum by Kerryn Pholi and I'm happy to say that last night I finally got there - and there I stayed until the early hours.

It was an interesting article, and I also tried to read some of the comments to it, but I got something much bigger from it than I expected - I am now a fan of Thomas Sowell.  I had never heard of him until I started reading the article and clicked on that link, but, as soon as I did I became hooked.  He challenges the thinking on race based privilege without any emotion or personal issues clouding the facts, and I only wish I'd been given the chance to read some of his works in high school.  

But, back to the article.

I'm glad Ms Pholi made the decision to write her piece, but happier still that she allowed it to become part of the public debate.   One of the most important things we need to do as a country is to have an open and uncensored dialogue going around the issues that we have with regard to race-based legislation, preferences and funding.  We need to be real about the outcomes we've achieved, be honest with ourselves, and not be afraid to talk about the problems we have created.

Of the negative Drum comments on the article, I found a couple of recurring 'themes' that I want to talk about a little more.  First, the notion that the article and its contents somehow labels all Aboriginal people who identify as such as 'only in it for the money and the benefits'.

Welcome to the blowback of affirmative action.

You see, simply by virtue of creating a stream of opportunities available to only a small minority of the population - you breed resentment in those who are excluded from taking up those opportunities.  You don't have to participate in the largesse to feel the blowback, rather, simply because of physical identity or how you identify yourself to others, you are forever guilty by association.  That is the price we will continue to pay for as long as there is preferential treatment for Aboriginal people and benefits for a select few based solely on racial identity alone.

Most Aboriginal people have probably experienced that annoying situation where your pride in an achievement, or possession of something you have worked hard to own has been dismissed as 'trappings of the freebies for Aboriginals' or similar.  Been there, done that a million times over.  Why any Aboriginal person would want their child to go through high school being taunted about the extra money they don't get from Abstudy is beyond me, but as long as we demand that Abstudy exist, our kids will spend another generation having their hard work and achievements dismissed at a time when we need them to find self-esteem and build pride in their abilities the most.

The other troubling notion I came across was the barely concealed outrage that someone would dare to burn their 'Certificate of Aboriginality'.   I don't know if people are looking to feel or be offended but please, don't give such a divisive document any credibility.  As someone who went through quite a struggle to get that same piece of paper, I support Ms Pholi in her action.  We are not talking about a sacred document here, in fact, quite the opposite.  Mine you hold on a slight angle for the best reading - a document that, like a piece of art, tells a story all in itself.  Not a story of my family, or ties to my culture, but another kind of story.  One where the issuing authority runs out of blank forms and seemingly cannot locate the master copy.  They decide to take one they prepared earlier, and with the help of a 12 year old work experience boy and a bottle of liquid paper, they create the new master copy.  Once the liquid paper is dried, it is simply a matter of holding the document in a photocopier on a 45 degree angle and bingo.  The mystical magical production line of blank Aboriginality application forms is revealed. 

Most people are aware that an Aboriginal child is not given a special certificate at birth that confirms their identity, rather, Confirmations of Aboriginality are applied for and granted in a way that is not regulated, and often arbitrary.  I feel more pride in my Medicare card than I do my Certificate of Aboriginality - and I say that to be factual, not inflammatory.  A Certificate of Aboriginality does not mean you are Aboriginal.  All it means is that some people signed off to say it is so.  Similarly, being denied that same certificate does mean you are not Aboriginal.  There is no oversight that ensures that the applications granted or denied hold up to any scrutiny, so it is a process that is ultimately without respect.  Over the years we've had our scandals with the system.  Rather than address the shortcomings - that to all but the most heavily invested are apparent - we've decided to pretend none exist.   We've allowed the certification process to become the great joke that it is.  And that is the continuing price we pay for keeping our heads in the sand and demanding we know better. 

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Catching up - it may take awhile

My apologies first to anyone who is waiting on an email back.  I have quite a few sitting backed up and lots to go over so it may take a little while.

As the gods of technology would have it, my laptop is finally back in action at the same time as school holidays are going on here, so please bear with me.  Family always comes first and despite how exciting it is to have the internet at my fingertips again, I did make promises that I have every intention of keeping - even if one of them requires me wearing boardshorts in public and braving the questionable waters of the local pool.