I thought I knew what reconciliation meant
I grew up in a small coastal town where Aboriginal culture was respected and valued. The students at my school were accepting and there were often Welcome to Country ceremonies before important events. My school celebrated NAIDOC Day and Harmony Day and my primary school was great at teaching us about Aboriginal culture and history.
As a young Aboriginal person, this made me feel valued and helped to keep my culture alive. I thought I knew what reconciliation meant and believed it was a widely accepted concept. I believed the word ‘reconciliation’ meant addressing the past to create a more positive future. I thought I knew everything about what it was like to be an Aboriginal person in Australia.
I realised things aren't as good as I thought
This all changed when I was 15 and moved to a boarding school in rural NSW. It felt backwards and I very quickly had the thought that ‘Things aren’t as good as I thought they were’. I was shocked by how Aboriginal people were treated in that town and the culture within the community.
My school was next to the mission, a place on the outskirts of town where Aboriginal people were forced to live because they couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. In that town, it was weird to see Aboriginal person outside of the mission.
A week after starting boarding school, during the summer, I was playing footy with a group of kids in my year. Some the Aboriginal kids crossed the football field, as a shortcut to get into town. As they walked onto “our turf”, the game froze. Both groups stared at each other. This was the first time I had felt such a strong sense of hatred toward Aboriginal people. It really scared me. I didn’t know whose side I should be on because all I wanted to do was to fit in.
I constantly felt like I didn't belong in either group
When I went in to town, I always nodded or smiled at the Aboriginal people that my friends and I passed. I knew we were all one people and we all deserved respect and acknowledgment. That’s how I was brought up. My school friends would often ask me if I knew ‘those people’ who would come up and talk to me, as if it were something to be ashamed of.I tried to continue pretending I didn’t see or notice the mistreatment of and hatred toward Aboriginal people within my town.
I constantly felt conflicted and like I didn’t belong in either group. The Aboriginal communities didn’t let people they didn’t know in because they were scared, so I didn’t feel included in Aboriginal culture there.
I later found out from the small number of other Aboriginal kids in my school that the things I had experienced were very common. I was shocked to hear that, and I felt bad for complaining about it because I felt like it was worse for other people. It made me scared of the possibility of ever living anywhere worse than this town. Most of the kids were from more rural country towns than the one I was living in and said the attitudes towards Aboriginal people were even worse there.
I wondered how I, as an Aboriginal person, had been so clueless to the treatment and experiences of other Aboriginal people. What happened on the football field was a big wake up call for me. In my small coastal town, I thought I was standing up for what was right. But after I moved, I realised I was able to do that because most people there had agreed with me. When you are surrounded by people who don’t have the same views as you, it is much harder to do.
Even though it was hard, moving to a boarding school has been one of the best things I’ve done. Not only for my education, but also for being able to experience and understand the mistreatment of Aboriginal people in country towns. If I’d stayed in my small coastal town, I would’ve just moved to the city and would never have known. Now when I speak up for other Aboriginal people, I actually know what I’m talking about. If I hadn’t had those experiences, I wouldn’t ‘get it’.
My understanding of reconciliation has changed
I love the sense of community that I get to experience as an Aboriginal person. Today, if someone comes up and asks me about the last name of an Aboriginal person, I will probably know if I know them personally. It encouraged me to fight against what I know is wrong, and stick up for what is right. It’s also taught me that not all parts of Australia embrace and value the First People of this land, their culture, or reconciliation.
Reconciliation to me is about acknowledging the past, as well as creating a better future in the present. We need to find ways to reconcile what is happening to Aboriginal people right now. But we can’t do that without valuing the involvement of Aboriginal people in their own communities on their own land. We need to listen to the experiences of Aboriginal people and respect Aboriginal culture, history and traditions. We still have a long way to go, but I believe we can get there.
I have hope that we can reach reconciliation in all parts of Australia.
What can I do now?
- Read Zoe Betar's thoughts on Reconciliation Week.
- Watch this video celebrating the strengths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.
- If you're unsure, here's some tips on understanding and supporting a different culture.