I am writing this as a response to a facebook link - of
sermon preached in Gosford about racism, and that Jesus also experienced the local prejudices of tribalism at first.
Enculturation and racism
A personal history from a country kid.
Boundaries are the natural order for human life, as we start with our nuclear family, to an extended family, to local friendships and beyond. For me the boundary was the Mallee area of Victoria and the country town of Swan Hill. We didn’t like the nearby town of Kerang or the other football teams. Going back to the 40s and 50s – there were two primary schools – ordinary and Catholic next to one another, so this boundary was taken for granted with taunts and chants. Only when the Catholic students joined us in Form 5 and 6 did I have Catholic friends as we studied the Renaissance and Reformation together. We were predominantly a ‘white’ community (voting Country Party) and the Aboriginal families living over the river behind the Federal Hotel we treated with indifference. Dad had shearing sheds and a dairy, joined Rotary and became enthusiastic in the Council to make the town a great place to live. My mother who was a triple certificate nurse gave up her career to raise five children. She liked the Aboriginal grandmothers who bought clothes at the op shop where Mum was a volunteer. Dad employed some Aboriginal shearers but said they would go walkabout at times.
This was the 1940s in Swan Hill. Our primary family group came first - I tolerated four brothers, friends were girls from school and local church and sports. I loved my gentle Grandpa who gave me the Age newspaper. My father too – who told tall stories of his father and the sailing ships. Italian blockies kids weren’t really our friends as they came to school by bus and their fathers chatted in a foreign language in front of the White Swan Hotel. We walked and biked everywhere so friends were close by.
After 1955 and moving to Melbourne to study art changed many things. Country kids befriended city art students, who were more sophisticated. – perhaps. A few overseas students from Asia shifted the boundary as we discovered delightful food , music, and languages. Art students of course were superior to other tertiary students! A gay lecturer we regarded as quaint and beyond our experience. When visiting the home town, I noticed the bias and prejudices for the first time, especially regarding politics and religion. In Melbourne we had explored different churches, even St Peters on Eastern Hill.
In 1959 I left friends behind as we all scattered throughout Victoria to teach art. In Bendigo my network now included other teachers, art students at the Tech, young adults in the Forest Street Methodist Church – which was very active then with camps and summer schools and preaching bands. I’d left behind the Anglicans as they were too old – over forty, and the Methodists sang well. My pottery tutor was of Chinese background and that was fine. We drank coffee in a shop owned by a Jamaican.
By 1961 I was 23 and ready to take on the world – go to Paris, see the paintings, do some of my own, but instead I went on a church work camp to Fiji and stayed on for several years. My new friends now included indigenous Fijians, missionaries from Australia, and many families of various Indian backgrounds – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh . I embraced the exotic – the languages, the food, the dress, the religions – even though I had a passion to invite people to become Christians. I don’t think I had any racism at all those days. When I married a Fijian some people back home said – ‘You can be a missionary to them but you don’t marry them! Not my parents - but friends of my parents were appalled.
So I was the odd one out then – an Aussie with a Fijian family and Peceli was a padre to a mainly Indo Fijian community. We spoke three languages then and life was full and fine and included three years living in the canefields near Labasa with the extended Fijian family.
Eventually when we came over to Australia we could see the indigenous Australians in a new way. Peceli made friends with them, was appalled that in the Mallee they had mostly lost their culture and l language. They regarded Peceli as a brother but were wary of me. I worked for a few months in an office of Aboriginal Affairs waiting for a teaching job and the social worker there said one day, ‘Wendy, do you remember when we were in the same class in Primary School?’ I did not.
Unlike some of our relatives in a ‘mixed’ marriage, we haven’t experience blatant racism against our family, sometimes little jokes about cannibals, or Vegemite, which we just take with a grain of salt, that that they were ignorant. Our friends in Hopetoun were mainly in the church but Peceli often played golf with the Catholic priest and by the 1970s there was ecumenical good will in the town – I played for a combined choir - The Messiah - during a dust-storm. We didn’t talk politics too much as the country people mainly stuck to the National/Liberal Party, though I hadn’t even embraced Labour either. Perhaps waiting for the Greens.
Moving to Geelong we have had a good life with our three boys at nearby schools. While I had a shabby house as I once again studied art – this time at Deakin, my peer group now included the middle-aged and teenagers. Geelong fortunately has a very active Migrant Resource Centre (now called Diversitat) and Peceli and I became active in their meetings, Pako Festa and other celebrations. I joined an Interfaith women’s group with joy and moving the boundaries once again. We do meet a kind of racism art times – ‘When are you going home?’, said politely to Peceli, but mainly in sport, social interaction, church, mostly it’s all good. Just sometimes I hear something that gives me a jolt. ‘Oh let’s have a church picnic at Eastern Beach , ‘I say to the ladies. ‘Oh no, ‘says one woman, ‘that’s full of New Australians.’ She means the women cloaked and hooded even on hot days. ‘No sweat, we’ll just go somewhere else. ‘ My art, music and writing networks in Geelong now involved mixing with all kinds of people and I didn’t see difference except as celebration.
But of course we cannot be silent about racism and I engage in discussions on the internet now about what is happening in the wider world as well as Australia, put little articles into our church newsletters, speak up occasionally with passion.
So this personal examination of where I’ve been probably is a universal story as many people ;go through the process of enculturation from the primary racial/ or cultural group to exposure to difference, the crossing of the boundaries, to a celebration of difference. Yet at the same time I am appalled when I see tribalism creating havoc, wars, and death and taunts on a football field is only one local example..