IN A short chapter for a national anthology titled Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, dual cultural woman Carol Pettersen gives a deeply personal account of what it is like to be on the receiving end of bigotry – from both white and black people.
“This is probably the beginning of more writings of mine,” Mrs Pettersen tells The Weekender.
“It’s also about the racism displayed by some Aboriginal people today, not just non-Aboriginal people, and this did not happen to just me and my family but many others born into a dual culture.”
It is an experience shared by the book’s editor, Anita Heiss, a Wiradjuri woman who grew up in Sydney.
In her 2012 autobiography titled ‘Am I Black Enough For You?’, Dr Heiss asks why Australia is so obsessed with notions of identity.
Mrs Pettersen’s father was a white man, and her mother a Menang Noongar woman born by the banks of Lake Mullocullup, or Warriup Swamp as most Noongar people know the waterway east of Albany.
“Mum was semi-tribal, in that she lived in the bush all her life, and we grew up in the bush,” Mrs Pettersen says.
“She knew nothing else but living in the bush.
“I’ve taught my family to be just as proud of their white grandfather as they are of their black grandmother.”
In his 2006 interim decision on native title claims over south-western Australia, Federal Court Justice Murray Wilcox concluded that Aboriginal people were forced off their land, families broken up, and “probably in every Noongar family there is at least one white male ancestor”.
“That’s where all our surnames come from,” Mrs Pettersen reflects matter-of-factly on Justice Wilcox’s observation.
In the ruling, he expressed surprise that members of families seemed mostly to have kept in contact with each other and with other Noongar families, and many – if not most – children had learned traditional skills and Noongar beliefs.
Mrs Pettersen says the racism she still faces from some Noongar people is unfair on those with dual cultural backgrounds, and the bigotry has deep roots.
“The government did this,” she explains.
“Let me tell you, what happened when we moved into the mission, my brother and sister were there first, and I was at home and I didn’t know where they’d gone.
“We were still in the bush, Mum and Dad and me and my sister.”
She says her mother and father insulated her and her older sister from the politics of the time.
“All we knew were glorious days,” she smiles.
Mrs Pettersen says that when she and her sister moved to the mission they stayed in a separate little room from other Noongar girls who lived in a dormitory.
“We were not allowed in their room, and they were never allowed in our room,” she recounts.
“Now I don’t know what they told them, but we read, later on in getting our files, that we were to be regarded as whites.
“They must have told these girls, ‘don’t go in there because they are white girls’, and that’s been passed down, even though they know my mother’s black, and some of them are my cousins and yet they still called us ‘white’ because they were taught by the government to do this.”
Mrs Pettersen says that without the combined discipline of her mother’s and father’s cultures her family would not be “the tolerant and loving people that we are”.
“Every now and again you’ll get from non-Aboriginal people: ‘But, you’re different’;” she says.
“And I say to them that I am the proper Aboriginal.”
She says it is not enough to say: “I’m a proud Aboriginal woman”.
“It’s about the doing and it’s about the feeling and it’s about the application of that pride,” she adds.
“Well, show us what pride is – and that’s about when I look down and see my great-grandchildren following my same values that my grandparents taught me, that’s what pride feels like.
“That comes from a long line of discipline and a foundation of values.”
Co-owner of York Street’s Paperbark Merchants, Lockie Cameron, says sales of a small run of the book have exceeded expectations.
The bookshop has ordered in more, which should be available by the time The Weekender hits the streets this week.