I just went for an afternoon walk up to the local 7-11 for a robo-iced coffee. I went without a thought in my head. Still feeling pretty murky, mood-wise, but nothing serious. The mental health equivalent of a head cold.
Early in the walk you enter a park, and right near the beginning is a small set of colourful playground equipment. There were a couple of little nonwhite kids trying to play, and there was a sketchy-looking older nonwhite guy on a black BMX bike, wearing a tank top, a baseball cap, and sporting halfhearted dreads, who appeared to be bullying the little kids, and they were yelling back at him. I couldn’t make out what any of them were saying, but it sounded bad. Sketchy older guy rode off up the path on his bike. The little kids yelled what was probably high-pitched abuse after him, and he yelled plenty back. Off in the distance a couple of female adults were yelling something possibly addressed at either older kid on the bike or the little kids on the playground equipment or possibly both. There was a lot of yelling, and it was all none of my business. I motored on, but felt troubled.
I described the participants as “nonwhite”. But that’s not quite detailed enough, or rather that that level of detail is necessary but insuffcient. The two little kids were very dark, and the sketchy young dude with the dreads, tank top, and bike was a very light brown. The two little boys might have been related to him, or he might just be a local hoon they know and who harasses them (which is what it looked like).
I walked further along the path, still very troubled. Sketchy bike dude, ahead of me, had run into the two or three adult women who had been yelling earlier. As I passed, they and sketchy dude were yelling all at once. Bike dude stayed on his bike the entire time.
Then I noticed, as I passed, that sketchy bike dude, with his tank top, dreads, baseball cap, light brown skin, and general vibe of suburban anomie, was playing with a knife.
An actual knife. Perhaps, as far as I could tell, a six-inch blade.
Twirling it by the handle, running it back and forth between his hands, fidgeting with it, more or less exactly the way you might fidget with a pen during final-period Maths on a hot Thursday afternoon.
One of the adult women in the group spotted me looking, and must have seen the concern I could not keep from my face. “It’s all right,” she yelled toward me, and “explained” something I didn’t understand and don’t quite remember about sketchy dude took the knife from some girl, and it was “all right”. The situation did not look all right, but again, not my business. I kept on walking, more troubled than ever.
I made it to the 7-11. I was so troubled, and so preoccupied, that I stuffed up my robo-coffee order, and suddenly the machine was whirring and gurgling and making me an unwanted capuccino. I sought helplessly for a cancel button. There is no cancel button, and the lack seemed profoundly meaningful.
Once I got the correct beverage, I embarked on the return journey through the park. All was quiet, except inside my head.
I have long worried that I harbour racist thoughts and beliefs. I don’t like them, the thoughts. I hate them, and do everything I can to get rid of them. They are unworthy of me. But they are there, conceptual scar-tissue remaining from a childhood where I often saw people with dark skin (regardless of where they were from, or their circumstances) behaving poorly, and whose conduct was commented on scornfully by people around me without anyone correcting them or otherwise telling them off.
I’m also, as I grow older, increasingly, uncomfortably aware, that I live on stolen land. That the entire Australian project is, in its most profound expression, potentially racist. The issue has never been addressed. Lately there have been fresh discussions of treaty settlements with the Aborigine population. I hope I live long enough to see a final settlement, to see the Aboriginal people formally forgive Britain for coming here and doing what it did.
When I saw the sketchy nonwhite kid, he went straight into my mental box for “no-good troublemakers” even though in my own experience there were no shortage of no-good white bullies, ratbags and proper, thoroughgoing bastards. But this kid tonight “looked bad”. The way when “people” see a certain type of person, they immediately think “Muslim” and/or “terrorist”.
I read John Berger’s WAYS OF SEEING recently. He says, “Seeing comes before words.” Before understanding. Our conscious minds are the last parts of our brains to know what the rest of our brains have already considered, thought about, discussed, analysed, and decided. Only then does the conscious mind get, as it were, a one-page executive summary of what “everyone else” has been discussing.
That boy on his bike tonight might well have been a good kid with a great future. It’s possible that woman who spoke up for him was speaking the truth, that he had taken that knife from someone else who had meant harm either to herself or others. I don’t know. I can’t even remember key details of the event. In this account I have been able to scratch up a few details, but I know there’s much that I’ve had to leave out. I just don’t remember, the quality or texture of the sequence of events, the strangeness of the whole thing, the way it tweaked that shameful sense of racist bias I have in me, that I hate so much, the way I leapt straight to the conclusion that the boy was trouble because of what appeared to be happening with those two little boys. But what was happening with them? Who were they to the boy on the bike? I don’t know.
I do know they were much darker, suggestive of origins anywhere from parts of Africa to the Pacific Islands to the Caribbean to the US. Who knows? I didn’t think or form biased thoughts about them. I instantly formed the judgement that the older boy on the bike was picking on them, the way older, not very bright boys picked on me when I was a little kid.
I turned up at that park today, on my way to get a simple coffee, and it turned out that as well as my $2 I’d also brought what John Berger would call my “way of seeing”, the full, nasty, complicated, unfair, biased, mixed-up, mess of it.