Reconciliation might still be just a word

Jacinta CantatoreHarvey-Waroona Reporter
My family.
Camera IconMy family. Credit: Jacinta Cantatore.

I have three nieces, one is 11 (going on 30 if you count her attitude), and two are in their early 20s.

A couple of years ago, on a family outing at the Busselton foreshore, I was in the women’s change rooms with my then four-year-old, leaving my then two-year-old with my adult niece.

This is a niece my kids adore; they call her aunty and try to impress her with “ninja kicks” and songs they’ve made-up about dinosaurs.

They were less than 5m from the rest of my family when, out of nowhere, a woman walked over to them and ushered my son into the women’s toilets.

The woman bodily blocked my niece from coming in after her, despite my niece saying, “No I’m his aunty, I’m his aunty.”

My two-year-old found himself alone and scared in the public toilets with a stranger.

He couldn’t see me, and he couldn’t get back to his aunty, who was being physically blocked.

The seaside visitors in the change rooms ignored the crying, terrified toddler and the pleas of his aunty, and no one said a thing.

I was still in a cubicle with my eldest, unaware at this point of what was happening.

All I heard was my son crying out for me.

I opened the door and gathered him into my arms — where he stayed for the next hour.

This story sounds like a potential kidnapping until I add to the mix that my sons are — like me — fluorescent white, while my nieces are all Noongar.

Without hesitation or second thoughts, a stranger had decided my white son couldn’t possibly be in the care of my Aboriginal niece.

Afterwards, I wanted to tear the locker room down to find the woman.

My niece was upset, but begged me not to say anything or make a fuss.

She has learnt that calling this stuff out can make it worse.

And sadly I witness it all the time.

When we go shopping together my nieces are at best given zero customer service, at worst accused of shoplifting.

It doesn’t matter how they dress or what they do. And it starts when they are young.

When refuelling — in daylight hours at a visible pump — my nieces have to pre-pay while all customers around them do not.

Sometimes the cashier will ask to see their licence before letting them refuel.

While this prejudice is bad enough, it’s sickening knowing that when they are out with me or other white family members, this stuff happens less.

We rarely let my youngest niece go into a shop alone. She is becoming aware of the way her skin is seen and what those glances mean.

I think in a few years she will have tamed her feisty attitude and begun to behave like my other nieces, who don’t want me to say anything, or make a fuss.

And I know what they mean.

I meet a lot of people in my line of work and unfortunately some of them say racist things or tell racist jokes.

While I don’t laugh, I admit I don’t call it out every time.

People from politicians to powerbrokers have made racist comments in front of me and I have chosen to let it slide and get on with the job at hand.

I do not forget what they have said. And I don’t hate them.

Their words are symptoms of a bigger problem, which is not something I can fix alone.

Reconciliation Week kicks off with Sorry Day on May 26 and this year’s theme is “More than a word. Reconciliation takes action.”

Seeing how my nieces are treated on a daily basis, it breaks my heart to think that reconciliation might still be just a word.

I am privileged enough to learn about racism instead of experiencing it my whole life.

I wish things were different. I wish people were different.

As I explain to my youngest son, who is now four, sorry means you don’t do it again.

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