Recently the inevitable happened. After 11 years of living out of home, I was finally forced to assume possession of my many, many boxes of childhood memories. Going through them has been sometimes hilarious, sometimes sweet and sometimes poignant. I’ve been taking my time looking at everything. Handwritten letters from high school. Second place swimming ribbons. Stories patiently typed out and carefully illustrated. Some things have been easy to throw out, like all my notes for law exams. Others not so much.
The things I found from primary school evoked vivid memories of hot bitumen, blue legionnaires hats and highly coveted packets of Tiny Teddies. Even though I know it can’t be true, at the time it seemed like my four years of primary school in rural Victoria were four years of non-stop summer.
When I saw one particular keepsake, my first reaction was a smile. It was a handmade card on a piece of lime green A3 paper that had been signed by a bunch of kids from my grade 6 class and a couple of my teachers. A few of us had received scholarships to an international school in the next town over and the card was full of well-wishes from classmates who were going to the local secondary college instead.
‘Bye bye Capitan, enjoy your life with the crew’ wrote one kid, referring to our school play.
‘I hope you have a wicked time next year!’ wrote another.
Among all the muted and ill-suited colours of dollar-shop texta on green paper, I didn’t notice the two messages at first:
‘enjoy your life with the ch*ngs’.
‘Marry no g**ks!’
In that moment, the green paper turned to acid in my hands.
As they grow, kids are constantly bombarded with information – some they absorb, and some goes straight over their head. Like when you watched that Disney movie a thousand times when you were seven-years-old, so many times that you could repeat every line, but then when you re-watch it as an adult you realise there were actually all these jokes that you didn’t get.
In 1994 a book was published that could be found in toilets all over the country. It certainly was in plenty of toilets I visited and I remember flipping through it many times in many different places. The book was called The Penguin Book of Australian Jokes, and it had an iconic Mambo-style artwork of Henry Lawson’s famous loaded dog on the cover. Many of the jokes targeted minority groups and Phillip Adams, reflecting on the compilation he put together with his wife Patrice Newell, noted that he was there to ‘survey, not to censor‘. However, he was also ‘sad to say, indigenous Australians’ were one of the main popular targets.
When you’re a kid, it’s difficult to always tell what’s right and wrong; what’s acceptable and unacceptable. I just assumed that because the jokes were in a book, they were completely fine to tell to other people. Plenty of other books from my childhood had racially-based jokes and commentary, just look at Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton. Kids traded jokes in the schoolyard on the daily, and I finally had some of my own to contribute. I got lots of laughs from reciting jokes about Aboriginal people, so I went back to the book and memorised even more to tell.
In a 1998 study of racism and its impact on education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, around the same time I was trying to win popularity by telling racist jokes, all the parents in the study said that their children experienced and suffered from overt racism. The things these kids experienced included name calling, teasing, bullying and being provoked into fighting by other kids. Parents also felt their kids were discriminated against by teachers, blamed for things that they didn’t do or punished more than non-Indigenous kids.
Reading about this reminded me of an incident that happened when I was in grade 5 where some money was stolen from a classroom. I remember the finger being pointed at three Aboriginal sisters who were being fostered by the family of an old friend of mine. They hadn’t been at our school very long, the classrooms were locked during recess and after school, and they caught the same bus I did which left immediately after school finished for the day. My friend’s house, which was near mine, was basically out in the middle of nowhere and with no shops to spend money at anyway. I remember at the time feeling like it would have been pretty difficult for any of them to actually have done it, but they were nevertheless the primary suspects.
I reached out to that old friend recently to ask her if she could remember what had happened. Her memories were as cloudy as mine but she thought that in the end, there hadn’t been enough evidence to prove that any of the three girls had taken the money.
Even though the intention for The Penguin Book of Australian Jokes may have been anthropological in nature, the effect (at least for me) was to legitimise jokes made at the expense of others – particularly Aboriginal people. For me, it wasn’t a commentary, it was a repository of jokes that relied on stereotypes that Aboriginal people were lazy, stupid and thieving and many reduced them to nothing more than the colour of their skin. While I was laughing in the schoolyard at these jokes, those very same stereotypes were being applied to vulnerable kids who for whatever reason had been taken away from their families.
Around the same time kids were signing my going away card with anti-Asian slurs, Commonwealth, State and Territory governments had begun cooperating to tackle racism in schools. In October 2000, the Racism. No way! project was launched with funding from several education systems and peak bodies. In launching the project, former Commonwealth Governor-General Sir William Deane wrote:
‘Schools play a critical role in developing young minds, building relationships between people of different backgrounds and creating a socially just civil society. From today’s generation of school students will come the community leaders of the future leaders to tackle the complexity of racism in all its forms’.
However, 17 years on, the role of schools and the complexity of racism is still a very contentious issue; one further compounded by the role of social media. Just last month, award-winning Aboriginal author Ellen Van Neerven was targeted by HSC students when her poem Mango was used in an English exam. Van Neerven has since been subjected to abuse, harassment, racial vilification and even death threats over her poem. Although this behaviour has been condemned by the NSW Education Standards Authority, it’s unclear what recourse (if any) there is, who should be responsible and how this can be prevented.
It’s been found that by as young as three, kids can already understand and apply racial epithets to personal situations. Racism is something that we learn, we absorb, from a very young age. If racism is something we learn, then it follows that racism is something we can unlearn. As said by the former Governor-General, where better for that to take place than in our institutions for learning.
There are plenty of materials for kids from kindergarten to year 12 to learn to combat prejudice and racism. Schools today already incorporate some of this content into national health and physical education curriculums. However, this clearly hasn’t been enough. Just as jokes can turn into harassment, harassment can turn into violence. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, several international students from China were physically assaulted in Canberra by local teenagers after a sustained campaign of harassment including being told to ‘go back to China’.
In a where time teenagers think it’s OK to attack an acclaimed Aboriginal poet because they didn’t have the imagination to interpret her words, or target Chinese students in a city whose largest export is international education, not taking action seems like an incredible own goal.
However, for those of us who grew up in the 1990s surrounded by racial stereotypes, the unlearning is a much longer process. I hope the kids who wrote those messages in my card don’t use those words anymore. Even though I try my best, I know I still make plenty of mistakes, say the wrong things, and have to keep actively trying to address my own biases.
One thing’s for sure though, the only jokes I tell now are about animals.
Image: Elements5 Digital
Angharad is a Law graduate with a Masters in Asia-Pacific Studies. She started out writing for ANU’s Asia-Pacific Studies faculty publication Monsoon and the Law faculty magazine Peppercorn. She has been web editor and feature writer for Lost Magazine. Angharad is passionate about books, bunnies, South-East Asia and the Pacific, human rights, the environment, modern culture and all things avant garde. She also runs an extremely self-indulgent book review blog at Tinted Edges.