I’m not racist, but…

I come from Narooma. Somebody had to.1 In the 1970s and 80s, and I assume before that, Narooma was a pretty racist town. Not that anyone I knew thought that. I don’t think I’d even heard the word ‘racist’ until I moved away. It was just the way things were.

I remember queuing in the local fish and chip shop on a Friday evening, and there was an Aboriginal guy in front of me. He placed his order and the woman behind the counter asked ‘got any money?’.

There was one Italian kid in my class at school. His parents ran the local pizza shop. His nickname: pizza face. There was one Vietnamese kid in the year ahead of me. His nickname: China. You get the drift.

I remember my uncle, who as a kid growing up in Narooma had shot and fished with local Aboriginal kids, told me that ‘black blokes, they’re all lazy. Wouldn’t work on an iron lung’. I asked him about Ronnie, an Aboriginal bloke I knew he’d worked with for years. Was he lazy too? ‘No, Ronnie’s a top bloke. It’s the rest of them.’

When I was in year 12, I was boys’ vice-captain. The captain was an Aboriginal kid. Every year, school captains from the country made a trip to Sydney to meet the Governor. Except from Narooma. We sent me, the vice-captain. It was said the captain had ‘gone walkabout’, which is code for ‘how could a school admit they elected an Aboriginal captain?’.

When Bruce Springsteen wrote about his hometown, he said ‘if you were different, black or brown, it was a pretty redneck town’. I know exactly what he means.

That said, I love Narooma. Physically, it’s the most beautiful part of the NSW coast. I cross the bridge heading into town and look up the river and instantly relax. I know how strongly I still associate with Narooma by the low regard in which I hold the towns nearby. Moruya; barren, dull. Only a short drive from somewhere better. Batemans Bay; overrated, physically unattractive. Bermagui; rough. Cobargo; Deliverence country. Greatest claim to fame is the 5-year-old who ran away from home on his tricycle, with a shotgun in the tray…

Move forward 32 years and I’m more enlightened. I suspect most of the country is. I gave my uncle a t-shirt that had a map of Australia and an Aboriginal flag pegged in the middle with the words ‘100% Mabo’. Even he laughed, before throwing it in the bin.

Recently, Brenton, one of my mates from uni, sent me an email. He’d had a new bloke start work with him who had grown up in Narooma. He was close to my age. Surely I knew him. I looked at the name. It rang no bells at all. This was a town where my mate Wingnut and I used to sit on the school bus and name every single person we saw as the bus traveled through town. There was only one possible reason I wouldn’t know his name; he was Aboriginal.

It’s here I should point out that I dribble a bit. Okay, sometimes a fair bit. Especially when I’m concentrating. Or laughing. I had planned to reply to Brenton with a simple two word question, to test my assumption. Those two words were to be: ‘Aboriginal guy?’. Unfortunately, just as I started typing my mood got the better of me. I thought of those school bus trips with Wingnut and laughed. A drop of saliva appeared on my lip. I had typed just three letters: ‘Abo’ as the saliva drop lingered, dangled, and then fell…perfectly onto the ‘send’ button on my iPad screen.

At that moment, I learnt that saliva and finger tips are of a perfect consistency: both activate iPad screens. The message was sent.

I stared at the screen for a number of seconds, as if will power could retract the message. I’m actually surprised the message even got through. If public service email systems can block vulgarity, surely they should also block dismissive racist slurs.

I’m sure Brenton had a few intense moments of deep contemplation – ‘now, how do I respond to THAT?’ before my retraction and explanation arrived. To his credit, he’s never doubted my story. I guess it’s too bizarre to make up.

Thank God it wasn’t on Twitter.

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1 I stole and bastardised this line from Bill Bryson, in his hilarious The Lost Continent:  Travels in Small Town America.

I’ve changed some names to protect the guilty and the innocent.

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