Luke Pearson is a Gamilaroi man, and is the founder and CEO of IndigenousX.
I am Aboriginal and I am white.
I remember the first time I was told I was Aboriginal. My father told seven-year-old me sitting in the front seat of a blue Falcon on the way to school (no seat belt required then): “Don’t tell anyone! It will make life harder for you. People won’t like you.”
I didn’t know what an Aboriginal was or who was one and who wasn’t; just that it was very bad. I was given shame. Shame without acceptance, or place or culture or language or reason. Just shame. I was bad.
I would later hear white children say, “Watch out for ’em! They’ll gang up on ya and bash ya!” My first formal encounter with two unknown dark-skinned Aboriginal boys was at Willawarrin primary school. I peered at them intently, studying their every movement … waiting to be bashed by hundreds of unseen cousins. They never came. Instead, I got smiles. I was immediately caught up in their charm, mischief and brilliant sense of humour. It felt very familiar. My affinity with other Goori kids would never change. I always felt a sense of kin I live with until this day. It wasn’t long before I would ask to have them come home to play.
No one ever told me about people stealing children, people being killed, or that the land we stood on had a language, that it had been stolen, or what happened before white people arrived. This type of talk was completely taboo in Kempsey.
“Abos” were described crudely as drunken dole bludgers who wanted a free ride and to have any affiliation with them was shameful. Racism was ingrained into everyone who had benefitted from it and they were unable (as today) to see the hypocrisy. At best, people pitied the blacks at the missions, but only momentarily before giving way to jibes and jokes to further belittle and dehumanise the mighty Thungutti Nation.
When I was about 10, a local Aboriginal boy who to this day is my best friend, stayed at my home. As two little boys played together, swimming and hunting, we were unaware the white population was perplexed and confronted by his stay. That night, we painted ourselves in ochre and we slept around the fire in the open. This would be the first time I would learn shake a leg and mosquito dance. Neither of us knew how close our grandparents had been. They too were best friends.
Over the years, our extended families and friends would build on our relationship, and the community in Billybyang and Nulla Nulla would drop their guard and begin to heal one another. The secrets would begin to sneak out of the side of people’s mouths around cups of tea late into the night. All because two little boys wanted to play together. I remember only one person ever having a strong voice supporting Aboriginal people – she was a Kiwi.
As a child, many elders such as a local Goori pastor would arrive at my grandmother’s home and collect oranges to eat, talk and have tea. I was always perplexed by this. Who were these people? When she passed away my father flew both the Aboriginal flag and the Australian flag. Half my family and extended white community were disgusted and outraged. I was so proud to see our flag up. As elders sat in the front rows around my grandmother’s grave, white people looked as confused as they did angry. Their eyes questioned: who were we? Why were these people here?
At high school, I was the only light skinned Aboriginal who would sit on the gymnasium wall. There was many light Goori kids who would only claim their identity as adults, and until then would survive as supposed Spanish, Maori, black, Irish or white – but no one dare say, “Aboriginal” for fear of the stigma. That stigma kept people trapped in a racial dysphoria and, like my family, many tried to bury the secret. They were trying to survive.
This wasn’t any old gym wall, it was also known as the blacks’ wall. The kids from Green Hill Mission, Burnt Bridge Mission, Bellbrook Mission and North Street housing all sat there. White kids were not welcome. Goori kids had no power, no influence and no control over anything but this small space, and we guarded it brutally. For a moment, it made you feel in control and important – something Aboriginal kids could seldom obtain unless through sport. White people were important; Gooris didn’t exist in the history books, in language or in a single class. We were relegated to something more like the missing link in social science. We learnt about the romanticised idols of British society.
Aboriginal kids who chose to mix with whites where ostracised and labelled as “coconuts”, or if they weren’t on the mission, they were noted as “up town niggers” by the other Aboriginal kids. Aboriginal kids like me who were fair were seen as race traitors by whites if we mixed with darker Aboriginals. We were hated more than the darker kids because we were seen to have a choice of identity. I was forever asked to choose. I hated this period in my life. How do you choose the truth? I was 14.
I chose the road less travelled, the one my family didn’t have the courage to choose, and the one the majority of people in this country would have me not choose. I choose to stand by the blood of my old people. I was to find out how hard that choice would be.
When I wasn’t called a dirty “Abo”, I would fight for my place like anyone else among young Aboriginal men. At Greenhill Mission, a place whites dare not go, I set up a confrontation with an Aboriginal man with emerald eyes, a couple of years older than me, to prove how black I was. Sick in the stomach and full of adrenaline, I waited … until his grandmother intervened. She had been named after my grandmother who was there the day she was born, down by the river, kissing her on the forehead. So many secrets. Who was I? Who were we?
On the other side, the whites too would push. I recall the day I took a beautiful girl to the year 10 Debutante Ball. I was 16. One of my mother’s acquaintances later whispered that my mother hadn’t shown pictures of the ball as “Jimmy went with a black girl”. I was shocked at the immaturity and cowardly nature of white society. Most people didn’t realise that this girl’s great grandfather and my grandfather were close friends on the mission at Bellbrook. We didn’t know either, then. We were just kids. I am still honoured she chose me.
I went on to travel the world playing music and have been working with Indigenous communities for well over a decade. But even now, returning home has challenges.
After coming off tour recently, I decided to go home and see my family, my country, hear my language. After staying at Foster mission, and on towards Bellbrook mission, we had several lovely days in the bush. On our last day in the evening, as we drank with a local publican, suddenly I was king hit by a jealous, drunk Goori kid.
My community work and the awards I had won, my life in Melbourne, my tours around the world, none of it mattered. I was still under the same intense scrutiny as always. I would have to fight. After eight rounds and both covered in blood, my respect was left intact. I was still Goori and still white. If only the suits at my workplace could have seen my face bloodied and then maybe they would realise how walking in two worlds can be a lonely journey if there’s no love on both sides.
Kempsey was a hard place to grow up. Its many massacres left descendants on both sides, many that live there still side-by-side today. Before Uncle Charlie Perkins came to town, segregation was the norm. But it moulded me, for better or worse. I learnt that I am a bridge between two special worlds. Both that need to be loved, both that need to heal, and both that are stronger together.
This story was first published on 1 March 2017 by Guardian Australia as part of their collaboration with IndigenousX. Produced with assistance of IndigenousX & Guardian Australia staff.
Luke Pearson is a Gamilaroi man, and is the founder and CEO of IndigenousX.