I was in Sydney for The Apology on February 13, 2008, and I was 20 years off being born when the Freedom Riders took to country New South Wales in the mid 1960s aiming to highlight and protest against racial discrimination.
But since moving to NSW’s central-west I can come to the conclusion that both events and the ensuing years have done pretty much bugger-all in changing the majority of country NSW’s white population’s views and prejudices towards Indigenous Australians.
Having lived in the country for the past six months I have frequently heard the words “coon”, “abo” and even “nigger” used to describe members of the local Aboriginal population. Not to the faces of Aboriginal people, mind you, but among fellow white employees and white friends.
That’s probably the main difference one can point to - back in the 60s the racism the protestors were targeting was clear: Moree Baths not allowing black children to swim; Walgett RSL refusing returned Aboriginal soldiers entry to the club. Nowadays, it’s an undercurrent that bubbles to the surface every now and then.
The galling, and indeed astounding, thing is how these horrid words are used. They aren’t the punch lines of jokes, offensive as that may be, but are part of everyday parlance. It is, among many, an accepted way of referring to Aboriginal Australians out here, provided there are none around.
When I first arrived in Bathurst, I’d been warned about Aboriginal youths roaming the streets at night committing acts of unprovoked violence upon unwary drinkers. I was warned of this by a (white) friend who doesn’t use racist language to describe Indigenous Australians. However, in expressing my dismay at how someone can commit an unprovoked assault, it was explained to me by another (white) Bathurst local that “they’re coons - that’s all they do”.
It is true that there is a higher proportion of non-domestic violence related assaults allegedly committed by Indigenous Australians in the Bathurst area - 1.9 per cent of the Indigenous population were persons of interest in these incidents in 2008, compared with 0.7 percent of the rest of the population. Still, 262 of the 288 incidents, or 91 per cent, of these kinds of assaults in the area were allegedly committed by non-Indigenous people.
In 2008, NSW’s Aboriginal unemployment rate was 20.6 per cent, compared to the state average for all persons of 4.6 per cent. Statistics by area are difficult to come by.
In Bathurst the prominent agriculture, mining and energy industries keep many workers out of sight of the general population. Regardless, it is extremely rare, in my anecdotal experience, to come across an Aboriginal person working in the town.
The retail, service, hospitality, and education industries, the industries I’ve had the most contact with, are devoid of any significant Aboriginal presence, certainly shy of the 3.6 per cent of the total population.
While both of my, and I assume all, workplaces claim to be an Equal Employment Opportunity employer, none of my colleagues are Aboriginal. I can’t foresee an Aboriginal Australian being employed at either of my work places considering the racist language used by senior staff.
One incident in particular confirmed this belief.
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