“Blessed is the spot, and the house, and the place…” The words sung by the a capella choir filled the Sydney Baha’i Temple with glorious harmonies accompanied by the rumbling thunder of the storm outside. I shut my eyes and allowed the sounds to resonate through me. Beauty and emotion intertwined in that moment.
The effort to drive through the wind and rain to attend the special service for National Reconciliation Week at the Baha’i Temple was worth it. We imbibed the teachings of holy writings from around the world which exhort those who read them to treat everyone with justice, to create a peaceful world. After the service I was fortunate enough to hear Bettina King, an Aboriginal lawyer, and Professor Shane Houston, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sydney, speak about reconciliation.
It was the end of a tumultuous week. During National Reconciliation Week Australians had celebrated indigenous achievement and remembered a difficult past. We had also despaired when we were confronted by further evidence that our society fails to achieve the standards of inclusiveness, fairness and kindness that we aspire to.
National Reconciliation Week is about listening, learning and action. Listening: This requires a pause in our speech and the internal chatter of our mind. It requires us to focus all our thoughts on what the speaker is saying, to reflect on what they have said. Bettina King emphasised the importance of listening to Aboriginal people. She described Aborigines as story tellers. We only have to choose to listen.
Learning: through this process we add to our skills and knowledge in order to improve our contribution to society. Listening is an important first step in learning. Shane Houston described reconciliation as a process of learning from our past, of understanding that everyone is different. From this we understand that everyone has a right to be different.
Aboriginal people are still recovering from the horrendous damage done to their families and social fabric by past government policies of forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their parents solely because of their race. These policies ended years ago but the damage is continuing to hurt Aboriginal people today. Houston said that the impact of the stolen generations on the children of those who were forcibly removed is tremendous. He referred to the trauma-informed practices developed by professionals dealing with victims of wars including soldiers and argued that Australia needs professionals similarly trained to deal with Aboriginal people still suffering from the trauma of our violent past.
King referred to cultural competency courses designed to teach non-indigenous people the skills required to work effectively with Aboriginal people. She is concerned that people who complete such courses may believe that they are fully equipped to deal with all Aboriginal people they meet, that they now know it all. She pointed out that Aboriginal people are diverse. One course cannot teach students about all the Australian Aboriginal cultures.
It is clear from what King and Houston said that listening and learning for reconciliation should be a life-long endeavour.
Action must be the outcome of listening and learning. If action does not occur then one has to question whether the listening and learning were effective. There are many ways to act. We could repeat what we did this week flinging around the ‘racist’ label, pointing to the faults of others, pondering whether we are a ‘racist country’. Trying to compare ourselves with others to see whether we are less racist than them or pondering where our country sits on some global scale of racism strikes me as a pointless exercise. Too often that enables us to avoid the most essential step in stamping out racism – reflecting on our own actions and endeavouring to do better.
Each of us has a personal responsibility to work on ourselves and expunge these impediments to our development and relations with others.
Yet amidst the name calling and the expressions of shock this week there was some valuable discussion. The sad incidents exposed the insidious prejudice which weaves its way through our culture. We are better able to see that we have been imbued with racist attitudes while we were growing up. As adults our prejudices continue to be fed through jokes, unspoken assumptions, blindness to the needs and cultures of others. The spotlight is quite rightly on ‘casual racism’, the light-hearted banter that cloaks many racist remarks. I think back to a conversation I had as a child with another child where we worked out that the Irish jokes were effectively nasty comments about Irish people. We agreed not to repeat these jokes again. We need to take that step with all jokes that portray ethnic or religious groups in a shabby manner.
Reconciliation to me is about personal action. It requires constant listening, learning and self-reflection.
This is why I want to read books by indigenous authors. I want to hear about Australian history from Aboriginal people as well as from non-indigenous historians. I want to increase my understanding of the experiences of Aboriginal people living today through listening to their stories.
It was appropriate that Lisa Hill chose this week to announce that the Indigenous Writers Week book reviewing challenge will be held again during NAIDOC Week, 7-14 July. I enjoyed participating last year and have saved a couple of books for this year’s challenge, Paint me Black by Claire Henty-Gebert and My Ngarrindjeri Calling by Doreen Kartinyeri and Sue Anderson.
The disturbing incidents this week have caused us pain but we can turn this into a healing pain. As Shane Houston said, we have to embrace difficult things in order to build a better society. My attendance at these talks and reading history is part of educating myself but that is not enough.
The next step for me is to become a more effective agent for change.
- You can read more about what Professor Shane Houston and Bettina King said at the Baha’i Temple Information Centre on the Australian Baha’is website.
- 26/6/2013: Reconciliation Australia has recognised this blogpost as a winning entry in their National Reconciliation Week Social Media Competition!
I became a Baha’i in 1987 and worked as a public information officer for the Australian Baha’i Community between 2003 and the beginning of 2007.