As a light skinned Koori, when you first meet me you probably won’t realise I’m Indigenous. Throughout my life that’s led to some interesting situations, especially as a journalist reporting on Indigenous issues for nearly five years now.
Growing up in a small beach community on the central coast of New South Wales, I had a pretty idyllic childhood. For the most part I “blended in” with the cultural majority and my experiences of racism were isolated events, rather than a constant presence in everyday life. However there definitely was some fairly persistent and idiotic teasing at school, a few ill-informed comments from friends’ parents about Indigenous people, and a LOT of people questioning: are you really Aboriginal?
While that didn’t stop me from having a happy childhood, I definitely internalised some negative ideas about what it means to be Indigenous. My main thoughts that I took away from my teen years were:
1. Being Indigenous is something your family says you should be proud of but everyone else thinks is kind of embarrassing or shameful
2. You’re not “really” Indigenous because you have light skin.
It’s hard to admit it, but when I started as a cadet journalist for NITV and SBS in 2013 I think those ideas still lived within me, buried deep down.
Over the past few years I’ve got to travel around Australia reporting on Indigenous issues and meeting Indigenous people from all walks of life. There were people with different connections to their family and their culture, with different skin colours, and all were truly proud of being Indigenous, through and through.
They also didn’t care about the colour of my skin. I was there to give a voice to them and their community and many were overjoyed to have a journalist there that they felt they could trust. I was honoured by their openness with their stories. Through meeting all of these beautiful mob around Australia, the last vestiges of my internalised doubt and negativity just dropped away.
However, over my years of reporting I did get to see how being able to “blend in” as a kid may have saved me from much more “in your face” racism that Indigenous people experience almost daily.
Once I was getting a taxi to the block in Redfern to report on an Indigenous protest when a taxi driver started talking about “those Aborigines” and how he won’t drop me off too close because he doesn’t like to go there. The absurdity of the situation wasn’t lost on me. If I had darker skin the taxi driver most likely would not have picked me up, but instead I got to hear an actual, honest admission about how and why Kooris in the Sydney community are regularly discriminated against.
Recently I travelled to Kalgoorlie in Western Australia to shoot the feature story Kids of Kalgoorlie. This trip, more than any, highlighted for me how being able to “blend in” as a reporter has its good points and bad points.
I was there to find out how Indigenous kids and teenagers in the town were coping one year on from the death of Elijah Doughty. What I found was a town thoroughly divided by racial tension.
While talking to non-Indigenous locals about tensions in Kalgoorlie, I was told, more than once, that an “Indigenous minority” was taking over … not just the town of Kalgoorlie, but Australia. I was told that the government caters to “the interests of 3%” of the population, over “the other 97%”.
In Kalgoorlie I sat silently at a bar as a man told me that “full-blood” Aboriginal people are fine, but it’s the “half-castes” that are “taking over the government”.
My family has been torn apart by racism and the racist policies of the stolen generation. But in Kalgoorlie, I sat silently as a young mother told me it’s time for the government to intervene again, because she’s seen how bad Indigenous people are at being parents.
I don’t believe people would have said these things to me if they knew I was Indigenous. Not that I hid that from them – I informed them where I work and answered truthfully if asked. Instead, I heard what people truly think and got an insight into the types of attitudes Indigenous people in Kalgoorlie are up against.
These people said these things to me even after I told them I’m a journalist. I spoke to a bunch of kids around town and heard they hear the same, and worse, on a daily basis. These kids told me about being constantly stopped by security when they’re shopping, while non-Indigenous kids walk by.
One parent told me that after last year’s protests over Elijah’s death, her daughter came home from primary school distraught after a friend had told her they couldn’t play because she’s black.
Fourteen-year-old Joshua Jetta, Elijah Doughty’s cousin, told me that people spit at him when he walks past them in the street. He also told me Kalgoorlie locals in cars have chased him, and at times he has feared for his life. His story horrified me and I wanted to find out if anyone would admit to chasing these kids.
Days after I attended the memorial marking one year since the passing of Elijah, a local non-Indigenous man admitted to me over the phone that he had attempted to chase down kids in his car, kids that he believed had stolen his motorbike.
He told me that he believes if these kids were caught, they deserve some “Kalgoorlie justice”. This same man had recently posted online that Indigenous kids who steal motorbikes “deserve to be run over”.
I have to admit, hearing stories like this in Kalgoorlie, shocked me. But some of these attitudes and experiences are not isolated to one regional town. They are common across our country. In the past few years, I’ve repeatedly heard firsthand reports of discrimination in our justice, education and health systems, and in numerous towns.
My hope is that by reporting on racism like this, by using my position of strength, I can do some good, and highlight what many Indigenous kids experience around this country. If reading about the reality of growing up black in Kalgoorlie is also shocking to you, I suggest that you too assess your own privilege in this country, and use your own power to expose it.
Watch #TheFeedSBS Kids of Kalgoorlie here.
This article was first published by Guardian Australia on 11 September as part of their collaborative partnership with IndigenousX