Kyrgios and Goodes – Australian sports, Reconciliation and Suicide

When an Australian tennis player gets roundly condemned for sledging an opposition player, no-one is going to be very surprised. It pains good sports that Australians have given themselves a name for unsportsmanlike behaviour; our cricket team is legendary for its sledging, taunting opposition batsmen consistently, prying for psychological weakness in an attempt to weaken their skills. It’s defended as part of the game and goodness knows there’s no point holding our breath waiting for gentlemanly conduct to return to the arena anytime soon. But it doesn’t reflect well on our humanity, all this undermining of others in order to gain advantage, and it needs to be condemned on behalf of a better society – one that enjoys sport for pleasure, for testing ability against another, for the pursuit of athletic excellence without psychological warfare.

Krygios

But the condemnation that will rightly meet this young tennis player’s bogan* outburst can also be channelled back into another opportunity to revisit what has been recently raised by Adam Goodes. Because where Krygios is simply uncultivated and uncouth – an embarrassment – and at fault, in the case of Goodes, we have the sportsman taking the moral high ground and the fans revealing their bogan natures. (In answer to the question, why aren’t other Aboriginal players booed on the field, the answer seems easy: Goodes is booed because he made public the racist undercurrent of Australian society. Those fickle fans who boo Goodes are shooting the messenger.)

Goodes

And one of the thing Goodes added to the conversation through the whole sorry saga was the plight of being an Aboriginal Australian in 2015. Not the frontier wars, which we bury under as much pioneering blather as we can, so that we don’t have to think about the way an entire race was decimated in order that the colonists could possess the land. That’s history, which needs to be better understood and further discussed; but this is now. The chronic health problems, the structural inequality, the grog, the unemployment – all of which are also being improved on the ground by creative programs spearheaded and managed by Aboriginal people themselves – this all needs to be talked about in the mass media, every day, until this land is healed and its people live in genuine mutual respect.

 

But there’s another problem, which has been increasingly haunting Aboriginal populations in recent years: the spectre of suicide. How do we respond to the suicide epidemic amongst indigenous youth – and, while I was in Western Australia recently, the suicide of a mother of an indigenous youth that had previously killed himself – right here, now, in Australia? (The story was reported here. I won’t publish the picture or name of the lady.)
We respond with compassion, first.
Then, with questions.

Why? This has to be the first question. What conditions, what kind of society do we live in, that could allow this to happen? This is taking the question to its radical conclusion, as well as down to its roots. Any suicide diminishes the community. It should be a rare occurrence, a final option only for the most bereft, the soul who has lost everything and just can’t take it anymore. We can then learn to let them go, with sadness, because we can understand. But when suicide becomes something that registers as a significant percentage of deaths in any community, we have a problem. This is now the case with Aboriginal Australians. And it hadn’t always been this way.

 

Aboriginal suicidesRates of suicide, Northern Territory, 1981-2002 – note dramatic increase in male victims.

So, as a wider community, as a nation, we need to talk about this. Why would a living member of the oldest surviving human culture on the planet kill themselves? What is missing in their cultural tool kit that leaves them open to this sorry demise? It’s a contemporary version of a ‘clash of cultures,’ of course; an ancient way of life forced under the yoke of modernity by people with new technologies, desire for ownership, and all of the Guns, Germs and Steel as described by Jared Diamond in his great book on global colonisation. But suicide prompts not just big picture, structural arguments that show how such situations arise; it requires a moral examination, a set of questions that also include how people relate to each other in everyday life. In order to improve the non-Indigenous population of Australian society – to be a better people, with more self-respect – we need to find more ways to show our respect for Aboriginal cultures and people, beyond admitting the story of colonisation behind modern Australia. We need recognition of the deep wisdom traditions that knew this place for countless generations, honourable and ongoing conversations about how things work here, how things are and could be.

To help stem the tide of suicide amongst Aboriginals and Torres Strait islanders, let’s start by showing respect for their traditions. Respect for the land that sustains us, combined with knowledge about working it, rather than against it; extended understanding of kinship relations, which include all members of our community as well as our relations in nature; cooperation rather than competition. But we have to do this at the personal levels, enact it as more of a mainstream story in the media, not just on NITV (Channel 34, a great resource for all Australians) but also in the more commercialised channels of TV, film and other portals of modern story telling. Better than worrying about how much of a bogan one of our sports stars is; let’s keep building and telling stories of how rich, diverse and wise the Aboriginal cultures of this land still are.

For more information:

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-06-14/youth-suicide-at-crisis-levels-among-indigenous-population/6543060

Info plus organisations designed to help: http://www.livingisforeveryone.com.au/Indigenous.html

*bogan: for international readers, a bogan is an Aussie term for a rough character, usually tasteless:

Urban Dictionary: bogan

Generally ‘dim-witted’, bogans are well know for having poor and vulgar language and typically found in rural areas or outer, lower class, suburbs. A male bogan can often be seen wearing old attire typically a ‘wife-beater’ (singlet), Australian rules football jumper, or a flanel shirt.

White People: Dealing with the guilt of colonisation – and responding with generosity

solar eclipse

 

Once upon a time, when I was in the desert of South Australia chasing (and catching) a full solar eclipse, I decided not to join the rave party nearby but instead enjoy a few cold beverages in town with the locals. Amongst these fine new friends was a large, hairy biker. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t mind me describing him thus. I can’t check and don’t even recall his name. It was just another half hour friendship, as that great folk singer Rodrigues sang about back in the 70s. But a funny thing happened that evening and I write about it now as the conversation has arisen again, this time in Broome, Western Australia.

At one point, I blurted out: “I just can’t get over the guilt of what my people have done to your people.” Did I mention my fleeting mate was Aboriginal? I wasn’t really sure how consciously I had thought about this before, but I was certain it had come up for good reason right then. Because somewhere, in the backs of our minds if not at the forefront, we all know we didn’t end up being modern Australians (or Americans, New Zealanders, Canadians, etc) by inheriting some just and fair deal over land rights. We are children of colonisation, with all that entails – the assumptions of entitlement to development, the religious colourings, the massacres and disease and benefits of more highly advanced technologies. Denying this won’t do us any good; the truth may be well hidden, behind vast reams of other stories, but once we know it exists we can never really shake its hold somewhere in our conscience. And if we want to be better people – happier, more comfortable in our bodies, feeling more at home where we live and work and travel, more consciously aware of our patterns and potentials – then lying to ourselves is definitely a barrier. So, out with it; I’m sorry about the way Australia was colonised, I’m not happy about the way I benefit from this with my mostly unspoken white privileges, and I wish it had been done differently, better, with more care, more sharing, more questions and compassion and understanding. For all concerned.

So there was my blurt and here was his deadpan response: “Get over it mate.” Um … OK. No further comment, from either of us. He didn’t feel the need to give more context – it’s the kind of comment that stands alone, that brooks no compromise, that sets the bar and then walks away, hardly even concerned whether I can jump it or not – and I didn’t see what I could add, subtract, hedge my bets against, conjure up or fluff along. I accepted it, in the spirit it was meant – the spirit of moving on, of harsh but real acceptance, of gruff forgiveness, of the recognition that we as individuals are not responsible for what went on decades and even centuries before, that we should be focusing on getting along right now, in the present moment, with its endless opportunities. Then he shared a piece of black glass with me, to watch the solar eclipse through. That’s a cool memory.

 

boab and beach

 

But I digress. Reconciliation. Between the people who lived here when our ancestors got here (the collective ones, the British and other western Europeans in this case) and us, the white fellas and other new Australians (and Americans etc). How do we deal with the painful history we know exists and move on, so that we are not shackled at the feet by guilt and remorse but not living in denial either? I’ve found a semblance of balance in this regard over the years and it’s time to share it. Because here in Broome, the other day, I met someone working in food sovereignty – helping locals in the community create wonderful vegetable gardens, promoting local produce, harvesting wild foods without compromising the carrying capacity of the land – who expressed her profound disquiet about exactly this issue. And it felt great to be able to help, if only in a small, seedlike way.

It goes something like this:

  1. Face it – the dark truths of colonisation, violent dispossession and all
  2. Sit with that for a while – if it doesn’t feel uncomfortable, it’s being repressed (again)
  3. Admit you benefit from it
  4. Position yourself in this life – you did not choose to inherit unfair privilege
  5. Recognise your relative power in this social structure – and your choice as to how you respond
  6. Rebalance, holding the spirit of generosity out in front of you, in your open hands
  7. Forgive your ancestors, and all who have gone before us, so that they can know peace (even if it is only in the depths of our own minds)
  8. Know peace – and spread it.

What this all boils down to can best be described in a kind of martial arts move: maintain your balance, as best you can, while you accept the incoming movement of this energy or force, realising that the knowledge sits all around you, especially behind, while in front of you, in your hands, you retain the capacity to respond with generosity, to know yourself as free, to give compassion and to be … more. Get over your guilt, white people, by facing it and going through it and coming out the other side. Otherwise, we perpetuate the cycle of inequality, of repression, of colonisation and its shame.