"M" was born in a small town in Western Australia's wheat belt. Around those parts, lads like M were called "Keller fellers". They were wildly applauded when they performed for the local football team but they knew about certain lines that they could not cross. An outsider could not see those invisible fences, but to the locals, white and black alike, they may as well have been painted in fluoro paint.
Even in the 1980s, "Abos" were still not allowed into some town swimming pools in those parts. But this story is about something that happened on January 26, 2008 ("Australia Day"). It is not set in a "backward" outback town but in a seaside resort increasingly overloaded with marinas and luxury canal developments to cater to the holidays of those enriched by the mining boom.
There were Australian flags flying on many houses, cars and even some bicycles. They were giving them out for free with every case of beer purchased at the local liquor drive-through.
M and his son were holidaying with the non-Aboriginal in-laws in a little old-fashioned beach-side bungalow, squatting out of place amid the advancing tide of beach McMansions. M went for a walk with his 13-year-old son, carefully picking his route to avoid those places where a feller like him would be stopped and asked what he was doing there. Those invisible fences were still up — even though it was 2008.
One of M's sisters-in-law was ropeable: "You have much right as anyone to walk through Paradiso [name of development only slightly fictionalised]". But M knew this, he just didn't want the hassle of being presumed to be a drunk, a drug addict, a petrol sniffer, a thief, a dole-bludger or a child abuser — just because of his skin colour, the shape of his nose and brow.
Teetotaller M is hassled often enough by cops when he's riding his bicycle to start work at 3am cleaning the streets of the capital city a little to the north of this holiday town. Suddenly those Aussie flags everywhere felt even more oppressive and intimidating.
I thought of M and his children and the invisible fences as I interviewed Natasha, a young Aboriginal activist from WA, who came to Canberra to march on Parliament House on the eve of the great parliamentary apology to the Stolen Generations. "This is only the start of a much bigger process that needs to happen", she summed up succinctly.
At Green Left Weekly, we too savoured the historic moment that was the official parliamentary apology for the Stolen Generations. But ours is a project committed to that "much bigger process that needs to happen".
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