IT CANNOT often be that a member of the ousted NSW Labor government is taken at a glance to be anyone’s moral superior, so former cabineteer and high-flier-in-a-holding-pattern Linda Burney must have enjoyed Monday’s Q&A more than most, which would not be that difficult come to think of it. On matters Indigenous, she was the panel’s go-to gal, her every instruction on the deference that paler Australians must pay to peculiar aspects of Aboriginal life a tutorial in the fine art of not being branded a “casual racist”. This is a new and somewhat vague label, going by Ms Burney’s definition, apparently hinging not on the intent of the speaker but on his or her interlocutor’s ambient capacity for indignation. By the time that blonde American singer was moaning and sighing at the programme’s end, possibly from the discomfort of borrowing a much smaller woman’s dress, the Professor had pretty much decided to limit any future conversations with dusky fellow citizens to observations about the uplifting time one can have by marching across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the beat of a thousand Sorry! Sorry! Sorries! This seems a safe bet, as strolling the byways of shame is now the officially recognised remedy for the violence, drunkenness, child abuse, truancy, disease and welfare dependence of the racist cesspit into which John Howard so wickedly consigned Aboriginal Australia. As to that nagging issue – does the Rainbow Serpent prey on Rainbow Numbats? – ignorance must stay that question for fear of giving offence. Thus does multiculturalism bring Australians so much closer.
Of all the night’s topics, Aboriginal mourning practices were the most interesting and, worringly, the greatest challenge to pallid comprehension. It seems that when an Aborigine passes away, tradition demands his friends and family utter not his name nor view his image. That second traditional prohibition, while not explained, must surely have become the standard when the northern tribes adopted the Box Brownie as a totem, but let us leave the topic of pre-European portraiture for another day and a fresh set of ARC grants.
More important, in order not to be confirmed as one of those casual racists Ms Burney is so capable of spotting, it seems your paler Australians must likewise follow Indigenous custom, which does seem a bit peculiar. After all, when a Jew dies, the attending rabbi will be quite happy if it is only his faith’s adherents who observe the custom of their creed and sit shiva with the departed. Not even Elvis Presley’s most ardent admirers expect universal outbreaks of sackcloth and ashes every August 16.
But Aborigines must be treated differently, as a solicitous Tony Jones demonstrated with this gentle request for guidance:
JONES: Linda, should it be more deeply explained? I mean, is there a sort of spiritual element to this of the spirit of the person being called back by hearing their name or something of that nature?BURNEY: It is a deeply important part of the cultural practice and respect and mourning of the people of this great Australian's nation and I think, given the conversation that we're having tonight, that certainly big news outfits should respect that and work out a way to do the honouring without insulting his family.
Clear on that? Well you need to be, unless you are one of those “casual racists” who might callously have remarked upon hearing the news, “Geez, that Mandawuy Yunupingu was a good bloke, and what a pity he died so young.” That would have been the ugly face of racism, no doubt about it.
Ms Burney needs to be heeded on this matter because she too has suffered all the way to very near the top of the NSW ALP, not to mention five-star UN parleys on Indigenous rights and rites. According to the biographical information Q&A provides, presumably vetted by the guest herself,
… grew up in Whitton, a small farming community near Leeton. One of the 'Stolen Generation' of Aboriginal children, she first met her father when she was 28 years old. She has two children, son Binni and daughter Willuri.
As this information appears on a website run by the ABC, which has its own oracular fact-checking unit these days, Burney’s thumbnail biography is presented as gospel. Trouble is, to those who have knocked around the Riverina and know a little of the district’s past, the idea that racist officials were borrowing the dog catcher’s van to snatch small black children just doesn’t sit well. In Barellan, for example, white townsfolk passed the hat to pay for a young Evonne Goolagong’s training trips to Sydney and beyond. Her family was well known and respected, her dad, Kenny, being not only a gun shearer but the local golf champion, and Goolagong has said she could not have been raised in a happier place. “We never grew up with racism or anything like that,” she once informed the New York Times. As Goolagong is five or six years older than Burney, whose Whitton home was not too far from Barellan, the privations Q&A’s darkest guest now recalls suffering as a child are a genuine curiosity, one enhanced by the fact that Burney’s father was brother to Goolagong’s mum, Melinda. How could one branch of the clan be so content and the other so oppressed? As the “stolen” Burney put it on Monday:
…….you look at Australia, we are a shining example of multiculturalism but when it comes to Aboriginal people, I think, you know, you've got the whole history to deal with and one of the most ugly parts of that was when we were scientific curiosities and there are many body parts, whole Aboriginal people, probably my relatives, that lie in the vaults of museums in Europe and around this country….
Well that would be most unfair: One branch of the family is raised and esteemed by its neighbours, but the other’s elders, from just down the road, are flensed for exhibition in glass cases.
This is where, once again, a little local knowledge comes in very handy, especially when enhanced by the wonder that is Google. You see, while Burney is apparently quite happy to have the ABC describe her as stolen, her own account of those early years is rather different. There was prejudice in her family line, no doubt about it, but racism seems not to have been the keystone offence. The proof of that is her late mother, a white woman who succumbed in her unmarried youth to the romantic charms of a black man, Laurence “Noni” Ingram, whom Burney hailed in her maiden speech before the NSW Parliament:
Growing up as an Aboriginal child looking into the mirror of our country was difficult and alienating. Your reflection in the mirror was at best ugly and distorted, and at worst nonexistent. I did not grow up knowing my Aboriginal family. I met my father, Noddy (sic) Ingram, in 1984. His first words to me were, "I hope I don't disappoint you." I have now met 10 brothers and sisters. We grew up 40 minutes apart. That was the power of racism and denial in the Fifties that was so overbearing.
That same claim of having been stolen is repeated here, so that is one way of looking at her early life. Another might be to recall that pregnant and unmarried youngsters, regardless of the father’s melanin content, were considered in those unenlightened days to be objects of shame. Indeed, for all the victimology on Monday, Burney has also stressed that she was not stolen, not unless you consider being raised by a loving great-aunt and –uncle as an example of modern blackbirding.
Since identity is important and the facts that underscore it moreso, it is to be hoped that Burney will alert the ABC to the need to change that reference to her having been stolen. And the ABC had better do it quick-smart, before the fact-checking unit is on the case.