We cannot turn our eyes towards the riots protesting inequality, racism and police abuse that are currently raging in America, without acknowledging the fact that the indigenous population in Australia have been treated similarly throughout history. The injustices are many: the stolen generation, decades of Aboriginal deaths in custody and the systemtic abuse and violence that has been directed towards the indigenous community. In 2018 INPRINT spoke to journalist and television presenter Brooke Boney about how she navigates life as a Gamillaroi woman, and the injustice that still exists in this country.
"Every time you meet an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person I want you to know that in some way or another they have been affected by the events that people everywhere are protesting. Every black mother worries that her son will be David Dungay or Ms Dhu. Nearly every month there is a death in custody of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person. So next time it happens stand up and demand answers. When you have policy makers who are wilfully ignorant of the fact that these riots aren’t solely borne of the outrage over the death of George Floyd but centuries of oppression we won’t see an end to this soon."
Brooke Boney (June 2020)
Tell me about your upbringing.
I grew up in the Hunter Valley with my Mum, Leonie, and my five younger brothers and sisters. We had very little when I was growing up, we were living in a housing commission, but I always remember thinking, “I don’t want to live like this forever, I don’t want to be scrimping, and asking for favours and help from people all the time.” I really, really hated it from a very young age. My Mum was on her own for most of it – she was married to my Step Dad, but he was in and out of jail. My parents were never together. My (biological) Dad only found out about me when I was three or four. I don’t have a relationship with him now. There were a lot of things that happened to him that made him who he is; I haven’t spoken to him in a long time. Once I became an adult, I realized that I had a lot of strong men in my life already – my brothers are incredible, my uncles are incredible, my grandfather is incredible, and my Mum is very strong as well. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything by not having a Dad around – actually it was just making my life more difficult. I have really strong boundaries around how I like to be treated by the people who are in my life and it wasn’t meeting that. So, I made a conscious decision not to have a relationship with him.
My Mum, my whole family is amazing, so generous. Even though they didn’t have very much themselves, they always looked after everyone. I have a foster brother, who was a friend of my sister’s at school. He was struggling in his own house, there was a lot of stuff going on and my Mum said, “Would you like to come and live with us?” And so, he did, and he stayed. My younger brother now fosters three Aboriginal kids who are siblings. I know there is a lot of generosity in non-indigenous communities as well, I’m not disputing that, but the thing about the indigenous culture, and ways of being and knowing, is that it’s all about helping others. You’re not winning, or succeeding, unless you bring everyone with you.
Even recently, look at Cyril Rioli, (the much admired Hawthorn player) retiring at the top of his AFL career, and going home to family in Darwin. I wasn’t really surprised by that. Because it’s the way that we are.
What led you towards journalism?
I didn’t go to university until I was 21. My boyfriend at the time was studying journalism at UTS and because I saw him doing it, I could imagine myself doing it. If you can see it, then you can be it. That’s why role models are so important in Aboriginal communities. Because I had never seen anyone go to university before, I’d never seen anyone have a professional career, so I didn’t know what that looked like, what sort of job I would want to have, or what I would be good at. He was amazing, he really encouraged me to do that. He helped me get through university. I mean, I didn’t even know how to study properly. I didn’t know what I was doing.
If you see it, you can be it. That’s part of why I wanted to go to university. We had a couple of really big traumas in my family around that time and I thought “You know what? Most of these things are happening, not because we are aboriginal, but because they are so much more likely to happen to us.” And I was just sick of that. I thought “I’m sick of the way these things are reported, I’m sick of the way people talk about our issues and we’re not involved in the conversation, and we are not consulted during the reporting.” And a lot of it is done in a really irresponsible way. Which is why I wanted to study journalism as I thought I could make a real impact. When I was growing up there was no one on TV who looked like me, or sounded like me. It was very, very white. When you can’t see yourself reflected, its like you don’t even exist in society. It’s a complete silence.
How did you make the move to the ABC?
I used to do the breakfast show at Koori Radio before I went to class, so I was doing long hours and long days. At that stage, because I was a bit older than the other kids, I realized if I wanted to get anywhere that I would have to work really, really hard. Because a lot of the other kids who were doing courses, had parents who were journalists, and they knew how to be involved in the system. I had no idea. So, as soon as I started at UTS, I called the lady who ran the cadetships at the ABC, nearly every week, saying “Please give me a job, please.” I would send her all the work I was doing; I would just find reasons to get in contact with her, almost to the point of harassment! And she ended up giving me one.
I then did a stint at NITV (National Indigenous Television) and SBS for about six months and they asked me if I wanted to go to Canberra to work in Parliament House, so I said, “Of course, yes, this is what I see myself doing.” So, before I had even finished university I became the political correspondent for NITV. I started the very same week Kevin Rudd rolled Julia Gillard. Then I was sent out on the campaign trail straight away. It was that campaign when Tony Abbot was promising a lot about indigenous affairs, such a huge election campaign, on our issues. I’m not 100% certain, but I’m pretty sure it was the first time that there was an Aboriginal journalist on the campaign trail. I remember having a conversation with Peta Credlin about it, and I felt so supported. It was amazing for me to see all this. For so long they (politicians) would go out into these communities and have these discussions and there would be no black journos there to hold them to account. The journalists who are there are fantastic, and very committed, but it’s different when you are talking about the issues from your own perspective or grilling them on behalf of your own people. I found it incredible, that given that my grandparents weren’t even allowed to vote, a couple of generations later, here I am travelling around with politicians, asking them about things that really matter to us.
Do you have any political aspirations?
No, I don’t think it’s for me. I think that the people who go into it do go in with noble intentions and aspirations, but it is such a difficult place to navigate. The way that it operates is so institutionalized; it’s going to take a long time to unravel. Unfortunately, to be able to get ahead you have to make deals with people and fall into factions, and groups and cliques to get things done.
You have a great life, and career, but do the past, and the intergenerational trauma that is carried by the indigenous population affect how you think and feel?
My indigeneity for me is something that I can’t escape. It’s not something that changes when I am out in public or at home. I never, ever think of myself as anything other than an Aboriginal woman and sometimes that’s really difficult because then you feel the pain and the experiences of not only all of the Aboriginal women who are struggling and going through horrible things now, but the weight of all of those things that have happened before. There is weight in carrying that forward and trying to help people get out of this situation that we are in. It’s a difficult thing to reconcile because I look at my apartment, and the way that I live now. I’m not in danger anymore, my life is safe. I’m very, very privileged and very lucky. But I still feel the weight of all of the experiences of the Aboriginal women around me, that I know are being beaten and raped.
I look at my nieces and I wonder what sort of lives they’re going to have. I think about the things that people say about Aboriginal women. Even recently, the comedian Trevor Noah said really sexually explicit things about Aboriginal women, not only saying they were ugly which was horrible enough, and completely untrue, but saying sexually explicit things about us, one of the most disadvantaged groups in Australia. So, carrying the weight of that is hard. The challenge for me is making sure that I’m really mindful, and real, about what my experience is, and to try not to carry around the symbolism, or the statistics of it, because it’s a bit too much to bear. I lean really hard into well-being and wellness, and light-hearted living, otherwise you can just succumb to the misery of it.
You mentioned a lot of people don’t know you are Aboriginal until you tell them.
Even when I go into Aboriginal communities, if they are really dark skinned, they will often think I’m a white woman. I don’t look traditionally what people would consider as being “Aboriginal.” They often think I’m Greek, or Indian (laughs). But I do know some native dialect and I’ve started doing this thing on the radio where I say Yaamainstead of saying hello. I was inspired by the Kiwis who say Kia ora instead of hello, and thought “Why don’t we do that here?" So many of our place names and nouns are already Aboriginal words, so incorporating more of them into our everyday conversation could only be an amazing thing.
It’s the oldest continuing culture in the world. When you think about the great Roman Empire, or the Egyptians and their achievements, indigenous people have incredible achievements here in Australia as well. I think it’s about time we really started analysing and thinking about the narrative that we have built here because it doesn’t really serve us anymore. Initially, there were aspects around social Darwinism that were probably useful for a certain group at a certain time, but it’s time that we moved past some of those myths and stories around settlement and around indigenous achievement. Because there were people doing incredible things. There are books out at the moment about discovering the bases of stone houses, more permanent Aboriginal settlements that debunk the theory of us being nomadic. Or this idea that Aboriginal people didn’t invent the wheel, so they’re more primitive. What were they going to attach the wagon to!? Kangaroos? There were lots of other ways that we were really advanced. To live in harmony in this incredibly difficult terrain, to be able to survive that and do fire stick farming, and to manage land. To live the way that they did for so long without having very much of an impact on the land, and with a substantial population in some parts.
What is your relationship to the Australian landscape, and that of your country?
I’ve been lucky with work because some of the places are very remote and very expensive to get to. I’ve driven up to Uluru a couple of times, and oh, the Olga’s are so beautiful. They are a monument to how great this country is. It doesn’t need to be a native story about how hard it was for the first 30 or 40 years of European invasion. We know that, we need to acknowledge it and move past it. There must have also been a lot of good white fellas around because we survived: due to our own perseverance and hard work and ingenuity but there would have also been a lot of white fellas who helped. I am a descendant of someone who escaped the Myall Creek Massacre. It was the first and last time that anyone was tried for the murder of Aboriginal people. Before that, no one cared; no one cared about prosecuting them. This one was only tried because there was a white man who thought, “This is not right, we can’t continue to treat people like this.” He rode all the way from near Inverall, my home country, through Muswellbrook, past Newcastle, all the way to Sydney to report it.
How does your background relate to your views on feminism?
There has to be an intersectionality between my indigenous background and feminism. Every time things get a bit difficult, or I have to push through something or a set-back happens, I always think of the really strong black women who came before me and know that their lives were much harder than mine. Suffering is relative and your life is as hard as it is, that’s all you know. But to not waste their efforts, that’s what makes me push forward and try really hard. When we talk about feminism now, so much of it is around very important things like women on boards, or equal pay, or childcare and sharing household responsibilities.
But Aboriginal women are literally fighting for our lives. People murder Aboriginal women and don’t get tried. Aboriginal women go missing and no one looks for them. Their families are left to try to navigate the legal system or the police alone. This isn’t uncommon. I remember hearing about these things when I was very little.
Like the Four Corners report on the incident with Lynette Daley, who died as a result of her injuries from having sex with those two men at the beach. The reports of her injuries were horrific and it took a long time for justice to prevail, and for her family to get closure over that. Aboriginal women carry that around with us. We are really left to fight those battles on our own. White feminists don’t take it up on our behalf and Aboriginal men don’t always take it up on our behalf either, they are more concerned about the Aboriginal struggle broadly.
Feminism is great and we should all have equality as an aspiration. But unless you can bring all women along with you, we can’t think of ourselves as truly equal. So, if we get more women on boards are we going to feel okay about the fact that Aboriginal women still get murdered at a much higher rate than anyone else? That’s the thing that makes me kind of sad about these discussions, because so often we’re left out of them, we’re left to fend for ourselves. I don’t want to have to harp on about these things all the time, so I think a lot of my activism is just being present, and being seen. For example, if you’re a young Aboriginal girl living in Tamworth, and you see that an Aboriginal woman has been murdered and no one is taking to the streets in her name, no one is holding a candlelight vigil in her memory, I want that girl to see me. I want her to think, “Actually, life may not be that bad for me, because I do see myself reflected.” There are people who are pushing for something a bit better.