Growing up brown in a white-shirted time

Dennis R McDermott
Med J Aust 2006; 185 (8): 464-466.

If all outlets for venting anger come with heavy costs, then unresolved injustice simply simmers

Some time back, my high school matriculation class held a reunion at a Tamworth motel. Many of us hadn’t seen each other for 27 years. Over those years, people, and times, had changed in unexpected ways. I was surprised by the vehemence of one former classmate, who berated me for still having my hair! Then I was angered by another, who now radiated the same kind of menace as the crims he’d put away in the intervening years. What really threw me, though, were the four or five separate occasions when I was pulled aside by someone wanting to personally apologise for “the way they had treated me” all those years ago. Their change in awareness was heartening, their behaviour sincere. Yet I was left groping for words. There was no Indigenous–settler lingua franca from which I could pull a response. I thought back to a particular, clued-in science teacher taking my class to task — in code — for negative responses to “a particular class member’s difference”. Then there were the examples, over the years, of my presence provoking inexplicable hostility: puzzling kicks in the shin in the primary school playground, group taunts at Cubs and Scouts, or the quick-fisted farm boy who spotted me as soon as I turned up at high school. I’d come to believe, though, that the problem was me — that, in some irremediable way, I was simply unacceptable. Not so much that I didn’t, but that I could never, measure up.

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  • Dennis R McDermott

  • Muru Marri Indigenous Health Unit, School of Public Health and Community Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW.

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