The Aborigines' Reaction to Rejection

from Reference 27

It is incorrect to think of the Aborigine as constantly seeking acceptance by the white community only to be faced by constant rejection. In this area, and to a less marked extent in other areas, the effect of discrimination has been to turn the Aborigine's attention to the potentialities of his own group, so that the station communities are developing an increasingly healthy social life of their own. The station Aborigine is not the victim of frustration in every aspect of his social life, a strong feeling of solidarity with his own group compensates for 'not belonging' to Australian society as a whole. His attitude to the white group is ambivalent; he accepts and also resents the position of inferiority assigned to him. He often believes in the Aboriginal stereotypes more vehemently than do most whites.

He has constantly been told, and has come to believe that his manner of living is inferior to that of the white man.

One old man objected to children on X station playing with toy spears, and another old man, an ardent Christian, refused to discuss aspects of the pre-contact culture with me on the grounds that the sooner his people forgot about such things the better. These are isolated instances, certainly not typical, but nearly all the old people accept the stereotype of the Aborigine who 'goes mad' when drunk, and any proposed modifications of the law forbidding the sale of liquor to Aborigines is vehemently opposed.

The stereotype of the 'lazy' unpunctual Aborigine is never accepted, and that of the 'dirty' Aborigine indignantly rejected, though most people agree that the unhealthiness of the children is the result of insanitary living habits. Here there is a marked tendency to transfer the blame to the Aborigines' Welfare Board, who should 'do something'. This exemplifies one of the basic attitudes to the white community. It might be termed a parasitic approach, the view that all the troubles of the Aborigine can be cured by the white administration, and that it is their responsibility. The failure to bring about a cure is often taken as a manifestation of ill will.

Whites are divided into two categories: those who are 'good to' and those who are 'not good to' Aborigines. Little kindnesses, a human interest in the Aborigine and his family, and a willingness to suspend the cruder aspects of segregation mark the first group. To the second group belong those who are openly rude and aggressive to Aborigines, and who never fail to act in terms of the stereotypes and make it quite clear that they are doing so. The important thing about these relationships is that the mixed-blood accepts the civility of the first group as a boon, as a gracious surrendering of rightful privileges. Very few claim such treatment as a right, and the few who do are considered 'bad types' by the white community and sometimes suspected of 'Communist sympathies'.

The use of the word 'boss ' as synonymous with 'white man' is paralleled at X by 'mistress'. A white woman who has employed an Aboriginal domestic help is always referred to by the help as 'my mistress' or sometimes 'my old mistress'. A 'mistress' who was wont to distribute bounty in the form of discarded clothing is remembered with affection.

In many subtile ways the social distance between the two groups is recognized by the Aborigine. At the U.A.M. convention held near the town of M separate lavatories were erected for the two groups. This took place before any whites arrived on the scene, and was pointed out to me with pride by one of the Aboriginal organizers as a demonstration of how capably the conventions were run. Nearly always in the U area, and only less frequently elsewhere, an Aborigine will speak to white man in the street only if he is alone, never if he is in company with other whites. This is paralleled by the refusal of many white employers to 'recognize' an Aboriginal employee in the street. An X man expressed displeasure with his wife for engaging in a heated dispute with the proprietor of a radio repair shop. 'Anyone would think that she was a white woman.'

Probably from bitter experience in the past the Aborigine has learned that in a dispute with a white man he is almost certain to come off worst. All informants protested that they 'got on very well with white people' and that they 'kept out of trouble'. 'Keeping out of trouble' is valued behaviour in all but one family in the area. This exceptional family is noted for the regularity with which its male members 'get into trouble'. The eldest of the children told me that 'my brothers know how to talk to white people, they do not talk up to them like the other people around here do'. It is significant that it was only with the greatest difficulty that I could persuade informants to address me by my Christian name, and it was some time before they could do so without obvious signs of embarrassment.

Generally, the relationship between the two groups are strictly patterned, and the Aborigine feels most at home when acting in terms of this pattern. He knows just what behaviour to expect from a member of the white group and exactly what is due in return ; were it not that he is constantly being told that he should seek equality, that he should not accept his inferior status, that he is 'as good as' the white man, the idea would seldom if ever occur to him. A keen sense of what is 'justice' and what is 'injustice' is part of the European tradition; it cannot be taken for granted that it is a part of native Aboriginal cultural tradition also, in fact the opposite is suggested. Many tales are told of massacres perpetrated by Europeans during the early days of contact. Though the victims are usually relatives of the narrator, such tales are told in a very matter-of-fact manner without any suggestion of sentiments of outraged justice. Often the manner in which a white man stole the wife of a fellow tribesman is cause for considerable mirth.

Of the innumerable every-day contacts between the two groups very few indeed are marked by friction. When asked about segregation, most informants express disapproval, but very few indeed are preoccupied with it to the point of neurosis. This is the pattern on the far north coast of N.S.W. only, and extending these conclusions to other areas would not be justified. Elsewhere race relations seem to be marked by a far higher degree of conflict. In N, for instance, I was told that during a recent flood parties of Aborigines held drunken parties in the main street of the town, exulting in the misfortunes of the hated white man, and that most refused to assist in rescue work.

Conflict on the north coast occurs chiefly over wages and the inability of Aborigines to buy liquor. Of the disputes with whites that I recorded, nearly all had an economic basis, involving either the failure of the employer to pay adequate wages, or an attempt by him to take advantage of the illiteracy of the Aborigine over scrub-falling and other contracts. One case was recorded of a timber mill strike being caused by the manager's use of the epithet 'black bastard' of one of his Aboriginal employees. In the U area ill feeling towards whites always took the form of a complaint about rates of pay, which were, until recently, sufficient for bare subsistence only.

Nearly all of the young males (excluding 'Christians') rebel against their exclusion from hotels, and delight in circumventing the regulations by obtaining liquor and getting drunk. It is notable that antipathy towards whites is more freely expressed during intoxication than when sober. One man at U asked me how many beers the manager of the station had when he went to town, and insisted that he had a right to drink the same number. Fines and gaol sentences for drunkenness and being in possession of liquor are no deterrent. Two men told me that a spree was well worth a 5 pound fine, and that as they were earning good wages, they could easily afford it. One X man considered the cheapest way to have a drink was to forfeit the 2 pound bail. Although police are feared, it is generally recognized, even if grudgingly, that they are 'only doing their job'. Most antipathy is felt towards the white informer who insists that the police make an arrest and confiscate the hard-won bottle of wine.