…why is this such a dirty word in Oz?

I try not to tip into my everyday business too much in this world, but the ongoing debate about this “Sorry Business”, just does my head in. I’m going to drop the following article into your lap’s folks – as I’d like to hear your take on it.

I’m in the business of going between worlds here – between blackfellas and whitefellas – and all the ‘shades of Grey’ you can imagine, coming along for the ride. I know from personal experience, the nature of racism and silly business (on BOTH sides of the fence) that occurs here in Oz. That we (Australia) had the hide to Judge South Africa in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s for the way in which they’re government shaped their policies (and hence their populations ‘general’ behaviours), belies belief:

Pot, Pot… this is Kettle – Over!

Having said that – it does no bloody good at all attacking a people, and stabbing hard fingers of absolution into their chests. Nailing guilt – or guilt by association – into a person wins you no friends at all. I’ve conducted “cultural awareness” training on all sides of this debate, throughout many different professional (and community) spheres, and most times – people are happy to discuss this topic properly if they’re free to speak their minds, free of blame, free of ‘shame’ and free of malice. Your opinion after all – remains your opinion… how you support this afterwards in relation to actual facts – is up to you.

I can tell you, that most times I’ve discussed with individuals the absolute messy myriad of topics concerning blackfellas and whitefellas in this country (in more places then you could possibly begin to imagine), we’ve reached a common consensus – and usually it’s the one that supports the strategy above. However, this has ONLY happened when people – from both sides of the fence – are allowed to speak free of fear and have their OWN say – from their OWN point of view. My own personal feel on this topic is that most people want it over and done with: Make a decision, commit to it – and MOVE ON! Most Aussies I deal with simply want to get on with living, and life. Surprise, surprise – most simply want to be able to do this together, without the political bulldust attached to it.

I’m opening the floodgates here – because I’d like to hear your opinion. So read on – and give me your feedback – “No names – No court martial’s”.

A friendly warning: If you’re new here, I’m more than happy to yarn with you on this topic. However, if you’re silly enough to drop a comment here without much thought attached to it, it’ll find a new home in the silly bugger pile, because I’ll delete it. So read on – and tell me what you think.

My apologies to Dr Sean Gorman if I’ve taken this out of context – I’m simply using this as a discussion piece:

(Please note that the use of the word “Koori” in this article lends itself to other Australian Indigenous Peoples as well.)

What’s a Koori word for hello? Sorry, why don’t we know?

Sean Gorman
February 4, 2008
IN 2005 I heard a speech by Brendan Nelson, now the Federal Opposition Leader who sees no reason to apologise to the stolen generations. The occasion was the opening of the Indigenous Studies Centre at Edith Cowan University.

About two hours before the event, protesters and riot police, some on horseback, began to assemble on the university grounds. When Nelson arrived, the din from the jostling could be heard and flashes of horse rump and people’s bodies could be seen through the windows.

The interface between state-sanctioned force meeting free speech made an impression. As Nelson schmoozed his way into the building, all eyes turned towards him. With a traditional welcome to country and the official welcome by the vice-chancellor out of the way, the then education minister made his way to the microphone.

Reaching the dais, he grasped each side of it and began to speak. At the heart of his speech was a story about an Aboriginal stockman. It had had a great impact on him, he said.

One day the stocky came to a waterhole, got off his horse, filled his water-bag and took a deep swig. Within minutes he was dead. The water hole was poisoned. A sign had been erected warning passers-by that the water was unsafe to drink. But the stockman could not read.

This incident, Nelson said, was a great shame and a great loss to all concerned; but at its heart it indicated the need to give indigenous people, especially children, basic literacy and numeracy skills. The facility that he was opening that day would go some way to dealing with those issues.

Much applause could be heard, enough to muffle the horses’ hooves on the bitumen.
Missing from this anecdote
and one that many seemed to miss was the central issue: if the stockman had come to this waterhole, it would have been part of his country. He would have known that it was safe as his ancestors had probably drunk from it for thousands of years.

There was perhaps another reason why the water was bad: someone had put poison in it.
This is symptomatic of how we view history and the questions we ask of it. For Nelson the story contained fundamental issues of education
but for me the story was about land and the struggle to survive.

If the story of an unknown indigenous stockman can resonate with need to educate indigenous kids today, why can’t the past injustices be acknowledged with a simple word now?

Nelson is also fond of telling people that his office wall in Canberra is adorned with a portrait of Neville Bonner that is twice the size of a standard door. He says this matter-of-factly, for the record, as an indication of his commitment to indigenous Australians.

Many Australians would accept this. After all, why else would one have a super-sized Bonner on their office wall?
Again, it depends where we are located in relation to this story to make another reading of it. All I think it means is that Nelson likes what the picture of Bonner represents symbolically, to him and his political party.

Which brings us to the apology. Once again the Liberals are getting themselves tied up in semantics. Julie Bishop wants to see what the document says for “all” Australians.

What we need to realise is that for many non-indigenous Australians the indigenous question is something that hardly comes into our consciousness. A great many non-indigenous Australians do not know, do not speak to or do not engage in any way with indigenous people or issues.

This basically comes from a position of privilege: I can be pretty sure that when I move into a house that my skin will not be an issue for the real estate company. I can be pretty sure that when I go to a supermarket or mall I will not be followed by security. I can be pretty sure that when I turn on my TV or radio that a non-indigenous voice or face will speak to me. If I want to open a bank account or apply for a home loan I know my skin colour will not hinder the selection process.

I would argue that Australians spend more time considering what they will eat at a restaurant than the history of indigenous people in this country and how they fit into it.

If you disagree, perhaps ask yourself what does the acronym NAIDOC stand for? Could you name three indigenous language groups in Australia? What is a Koori word for hello? If you can’t answer, ask yourself why?

One thing I have found in 16 years of study and work in this field is that the one thing that non-indigenous Australians have a great capacity for is to negatively view and comment on blackfellas. Sadly a lot of this negativity is based on popular opinion and the media and not much else. The reason an apology is important is that it will finally enable a national recognition to be made.

Fundamentally the wrongs of the past cannot be fully owned by us; we did not actually commit them. But just as the sweat of our forebears created the towns that became the cities and the tracks became the freeways that link them, the actions of the ghosts have created a spiritual malaise that is not as easy to observe or handle.

Politicians can sweep them aside easily. And just as the ghost of the indigenous stockman who could not read stands alongside that other famous bushman who drowned himself in a billabong, we need to ask ourselves whether we start to deal with the past or just parts of it, or whether we, through our indifference and inaction, perpetuate the violence of the past.

Dr Sean Gorman is a lecturer in the Australian indigenous studies program at the University of Melbourne.

About Belongum

People bring 'things' to me. Not necessarily PHYSICAL things as such - mostly just the loose bits and pieces floating around in their 'brain-box'. Sometimes, they also bring themselves - and THAT isn't anywhere near as simple as it sounds. I come here to pass some of this 'brain-box business' on to the ether world, and to empty my head. Besides folks - I love a good yarn - so come and join me!
This entry was posted in 1905 Act, 1967 Referendum, Aboriginal, Australia, black, Blackfellas, complicated, culture, damage control, fear, hard, hurt, Indigenous, Islander, life, messy, people, racism, Sorry, Torres Strait Islander, Western Australia, white, Whitefellas, work, yarn and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to “Sorry”…

  1. mummabare says:

    ah now..something I can sink my teeth into 🙂

    I love that you have attached Sean’s message. Sean was a tutor of mine at Murdoch uni many many moons ago (no Im not telling how many lol). He was a fantastic communicator and very kind and gentle person, Im thankful for him allowing me to communicate in my own way to develop self esteem, and feel that I had a right an education, like all others.

    Sorry…what is it about?

    From my own experience, jumping between black and white, as we do…its only from sitting in that grey area that you get an interesting view isnt it?

    Sorry, for many who are opposed at uttering such a foul word to an aborigine, is about guilt. They feel that because it was their father’s generation or grandfathers generation, feel that they do not owe an apology…because they did nothing. It was someone elses doing, and they were just left with the messy fallout.

    Sorry, for many indigenous people, is an aknowledgement. It is like “Im sorry to hear that your father passed away” it is an expression of sorrow, aknowledgement that happened that just simply was not just.

    From my experience, the non indigenous people who want to say sorry get “that”.

    I see some people not understanding at all the intergenerational effects of the stolen generation….I see only people who are confused…its like a secret that they dont get.

    Its only when we, as the people sitting in the grey area, take the time to use the language necessary to explain to them what is….then…its an understanding.

    We and our children will forever be affected by what was taken from us, more then land…but that connection to family and where we come from, which is so much more important to our sense of identity than many realise.

    Sorry is what some people need, to move on.



  2. Argh…overload.

    The saying of the actual word, the acceptance of past wrongs of the governments we installed as non-Indigenous Australians, is essential for our spiritual growth as non-Indigenous Australians.

    We need to let go of a past national pseudo-identity – we need to cast out the spirit of racism and of cultural assimilation that was insidiously thrust upon so many cultures, who ironically had suffered under it via colonialism in other countries prior to settlement.

    Whether it will potentially do anything to assist those wronged, is simply beyond my comprehension, but how can it hurt?


  3. belongum says:

    Haha… bit slow around here eh?! 😉

    Damn these HEAVY topics – they really slow down conversation!

    Yep Mammabare _ i remember Sean well – he was a really nice bloke, used to have many a good laugh in his company! I thought It’d be good to have his piece give this Sorry business some sort of ‘kick off’ (which would also be appropriate for Sean given his Footy head lol)… good to see he’s over there, involved in the area he wanted to be in! I had wondered why I hadn’t tripped over him of late – so there you go!

    I like where you’re going – but then again, you knew I would anyway 😉

    DM – It’s really that ‘simple’ I think… but like most things, I reckon it just gets over thought. Were this a primary school, and the two factions were two naughty boys caught scrapping over this in the playgorund – we’d pull ’em apart, dress ’em down, dust ’em off, get ’em to confront each other, have ’em mumble a gruff apology to each other – and shake hands for gawds sake – move on.
    But as this involves peoples – I guess it’s never – really – simple!



  4. sigh again…

    I’m not sure I can go with that analogy B, there’s only one side that should be apologizing – only one committed human rights abuses and genocide everywhere they went. It’s a basic restorative justice principle for individuals, to accept responsibility in order to rehabilitate – I think that theory would apply to a collective identity also?

    If we’re to eradicate racism (which Oz desperately needs to) then it’s an essential step for the collective consciousness, don’t you think?


  5. enigma says:

    Hi Belli,
    the reason for all the dancing around, is the minute the government says sorry they are claiming legal liability…which could run into the squillions, so they are being very particular on that old chestnut.

    I have worked with a lot of Aboriginal people< I used to run a prison rehab program, and half of them were aboriginal.

    It is a difficult situation, as they are still discriminated against, and the extreme problems they have with alcohol doesn’t help.but what we need to do, is help them help themselves .., this is done , as in any underprivileged group, by helping them gain dignity, pride.self respect and a feeling of empowerment.

    The first step is to make sure the basic amenities are in place, food water, health care, shelter…after that ,the other work begins, having meaningful well paid employment, family and social structures, education, a sense of community , the feeling that they can make a difference in their own lives.

    Also it is difficult when people get stuck in the past..no matter what the culture, whether they be Aborigines, Jews, Indians, poles..it can create a dependant mentality..which is a catch 22 situation, of further lowering their self esteem.
    It is the responsibility of governments, and the people to admit a wrong ,and right it, but after that has been done,we need to look to the future, and see how we can change things.


  6. mez says:

    I just want someone (official) to say it! I understand that the legal ramifications of saying sorry may be very bad but then again the whole stolen generation thing was very bad. Maybe some people deserve to be compensated? All I know is that I thought it would be done already – it’s interesting now the news keeps referring to how the “PM is preparing to say sorry”, like it’s such a complex and calculated thing.

    I love that article!


  7. Took me ages to figure out who Belli was then. I guess, like so many in this country, I was a little slow. Got there in the end though.

    It is a complex and calculated thing because it is such a political issue and because, well, fuck it up and you alienate all sides even further. I’m glad Kev’s doing this but I would not like to be in his little booties right now – what a difficult thing to write [presuming that he really is the one writing it].

    Belongum, after the last eleven years I’m surprised that anybody even remembers what sorry means when uttered by politicians. I’m still pretty sure that it’s not got the same meaning as when uttered by us mere mortals.

    And you’re right about the serious stuff slowing down the comments – one doesn’t like to sound like an arse, you know! Well, not all the time anyway.


  8. belongum says:

    Okay – this is long… get a brew and relax: I’ll cease the serious comments when I get back lol!

    Yeah DM – I guess that’s a fair call… I s’pose there’s a part of me that wishes it could be sorted out in a similar way – but I think you’re right – it simply can’t. At the core of the matter is a government that made legislation (i.e. LAW) that saw a peoples graded and treated in a specific way, because they were different – not white – black. These “Peoples” were treated in a sub -human manner. Regardless that a group of people at the time thought they were doing the right thing by making such legislation.

    It was wrong – full stop.

    Even if that argument stood up somewhere by way of justification, what then do you do with all the people appointed by the government of the time who quite blatantly DIDN’T carry out these tasks with ‘missionary’ or ‘ humane’ intent? You’re fooling yourself if you think that the majority of the people carrying out the ‘letter of the law’ OF THAT TIME AND ERA – were predominantly nice people – justly appointed and only looking after other peoples interests at the time.

    It’s been well recorded (by both private AND state records) that cruel deeds were done, and that plenty of other people found the law of the time a good vehicle for doing nasty things to a people, that – and herein lies the irony – were legislated against ‘ for their own protection’. There’s no mistaking peoples justification either… unfortunately some nasty people were in places and positions of power. There are plenty of records that support the idea that such people considered ‘blacks’ – as sub-human.

    Sadly – people in positions of power now – have some of these same ideas in their head… I know – I’ve been on the receiving end of their ‘power’… I witnessed such disgustingly blatant acts of filthy racism all my life – and this hasn’t ended. Public officers, employed on OUR tax payers money, being and acting like absolute pigs towards another group of people simply because of the colour of their skin. I’ve complained and intervened in such behaviour – often… and it falls largely on deaf ears. Even today – we have a legislated system that says one thing – but does another thing entirely. When I think of it like that – I sometimes struggle with the simplicity of the word Sorry.

    It’s not simple at all now – is it? And I wonder now – is it enough?

    Enigma – Yep… I reckon I’ve been actively involved in nearly every facet of what you mentioned… It’s a huge job, and it’s not over with someone saying: Sorry. There’s a hell of a lot of work to do – I guess I know what I’ll be doing for the next umpteen years… just as well the hairs left me already – phew!

    Mez – My military background screams at me to find a leader who actually stands up and accepts responsibility for what his ‘team’ has done. Get on with it dammit!!! It’s the main reason I disliked Johnny Howard… plus all the other little reasons.

    NPB – And therein lies my fears… is it a genuine action? Or is it lined with political silk??? Frightens me it does… but I can’t wait for it to happen – I’ll be recovering though, got a visit to the hospital coming up – apparently I’m getting those horrid little (and very bloody painful) gall stones out! YAY!!!

    At the end of the day, I thought that a government was meant to be held accountable for it’s Law and Legislation – past or present. It’s also responsible for the people it employs, in regard to whatever Legislation it puts in place. They’re actually meant to be held accountable to the people of the day – i.e. us! Why does this come as such a shocking surprise to certain parties in Australia, that this government has finally been called out for bad legislation… and all it took was a demand for the word – ‘Sorry’?!

    Thanks for commenting everyone – much appreciated – as it was a full-on topic! I’ll see you mob when I get back behind a keyboard!

    Ciao 😉


  9. I think it is an indication of intent, that the same regime used the very same tactics (for centuries) to control and assimilate other Indigenous cultures and steal their lands also. It was definitely about assimilation and no misguidedness about it.

    AO Neville, was apparently a sympathist for fascist ideals which was not recognized and acted on until the rise of Nazism in later decades.


  10. Government? Accountability? Let me pinch your little cheeks and patronise you!
    Still, one hopes despite one’s cynicism.

    Good luck with the operation, get well soon and all of that.


  11. CW says:

    I was talking to my sister-in-law last night, and she expressed shock at some people’s negativity and unwillingness to see what an apology means (she’s been reading blogs on news sites) – my mum-in-law chimed in and said it was just the right thing to do, and don’t we say sorry all the time when we learn of something sad or wrong or bad that has happened to someone else, anyway?

    I think it’s a start, and I hope that the word is followed by action to improve conditions for people.


  12. lactatingbookworm says:

    I watched the apology – Rudd’s section of it – and tuned out when Nelson started speaking. He was such a bad orator, the rest of my family tuned out!

    The Apology for me, as a neither white nor black Australian, marked the beginning of a new era in Australia.

    I wrote to Nelson afterwards about his speech as I felt that parts of it was inappropriate for the occassion. He wrote back to me and said that he was trying to be inclusive of the people who had elected him into office. It just wasn’t the occassion – I suppose with a 9% approval rating (or is it lower) he had to win as many people over as he could. 🙂

    It always shocks me when seemingly nice and intelligent people make really retarded downright racist remarks about Indigenous Australians based on their experience of a few – or the few they see on the TV news.
    The apology was great in that Indigenous Australians were acknowledged as people with a history – even though it has been a sad history.

    The problem I had with the previous government (well one of them) and nelson’s speech was that the really crude stereotypes of Aboriginal people that are constantly perpetuated. Yes there are problems in the communities they went into – but when you keep pointing these out the average person ie. some people in my mother’s group get a very skewed view, a tourist from overseas.

    I don’t know what the solution is – perhaps understanding different histories is a beginning. An open mind, trying to get past those ingrained stereotypes.

    I was on the train one evening and there were many drunken cricket fans and some aboriginal kids on the same carriage. I felt more threatened by the drunken yobs running up and down the train, the kids were just sitting in the corner. But the police went up to the kids first instead of telling the yobs to quit disturbing the peace. After wards when the kids got off the train, some of the yobs pretended to shoot them – the same yobs waved at my baby. There’s just so much blatant and insidious racism out there. And then on the other side of the fence a kid I once taught who was just so angry – he kept writing “black power” on his arms throughout class and every time I tried to speak to him he was so so defensive. It was all about his race and couldn’t understand that not everyone sees his colour first.

    My brother in law who is indigenous doesn’t even enter into any of this discussion because it’s just too much for him.

    As for people getting up in arms about compensation – I’m sure with our non-income tested welfare system there is money in the coffers. There’s so much money wasted on crap in government – bullshit accounts. Who do you compensate? How much do you compensate?
    When people have tried arguing this point with me – I try not to engage – but what it comes down to is this – well look at all the people who have made millions of real estate. I mean if you had to buy the land off people it would probably cost a lot more than what a compensation fund would entail.
    Also, I keep thinking that in places where there has been political stability people are still living off the assets in property that their ancestors acquired hundreds of years back. eg. the aristocrats in Europe – or here, people are still on property their family was given upon settlement. The least we can do is acknowledge what was taken.
    I came from somewhere less politically stable so whoever my ancestors were and whatever they had, it’s all gone, but I still have ties to my cultural heritage that I will pass down to my hybrid son.

    I hope my indigenous nephews/nieces (in the making) will grow up to be just as proud of their cultural heritage and their father will feel it’s not so stressful to engage in these issues and embrace parts of his culture as I have mine. We have never spoken about Indigenous issues only touched upon the angst he felt as a kid.

    For anyone who doesn’t understand what this is about – I would recommend reading Carmel Bird’s edited version of the Stolen Children report. I read it again recently as a new mother and it really touched home – what if someone had taken away my baby just because it was half-caste (which he is) and I wasn’t white.

    I could go on about this for a lot longer – I should probably blog about it in my own blog.

    …hmmm I wonder whether these issues will come up in this year’s Big Brother house.

    I just hope that at grassroots level the apology marks an attitudinal change.

    Hiya LM… thanks for such a thoughtful comment… I wish you and your family well in this coming Rudd’s apology era… I sure wish your bro-in-law well… it’s my hope that when my little fellas have grown – there’s more people like you who are happy to think about all this business first – rather then just bitch about it brainlessly. There’s so much background involved… context is everything and if you live in this country and call yourself a member of our society, you should take some time out to ind out about these things… it’s not enough of an excuse in this day and age to say “we didn’t know”.

    In fact I believe that goes for other Aussies as well… it’s not good enough to squawk all silly-like about the different cultures living in our country. We’re ALL Australian’s! Before you make noise about ‘Muslim Peoples’, realise that Australia’s ability to grow into the desert, happened because particular key people involved at the time knew how to live and survive in the desert. They knew camels, and how to use them well. They were also – predominantly – of the Muslim Faith.

    IMHO main-stream ‘White’ (or not) Australia has forgotten it’s past. Australia grew up on the back of diversity and challenge, and sadly – in doing so – it ‘took no prisoner’s’ in relation to it’s Indigenous Peoples. It also pushed aside all those ‘other’ cultures that came along for the ride… if there hadn’t have been all the other cultures involved – we’d not be the Australia we are – and if there’s anything we could call our own distinct Australian culture – it’s THAT! Why not hold onto it and be proud???

    Buggered if I know! Cheers 😉


  13. lactatingbookworm says:

    I don’t think it was a dirty word throughout Australia – but our local press had some front page story about “here come the compensation”. My friend from interstate facebooked the front page as part of her “My trip to the wild west” album. I was so embarassed.

    LM – and I think this ties in with what I said above… context in this country IS EVERYTHING… like other places I guess! Cheers 😉


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