The news photos—the bulky container ship straddled across the straight blue gash cut through yellow sands—prompted memories of my wonder and curiosity when, as an eight-year-old in June 1956, I gazed down from the deck of the P&O liner Strathaird at those sandy banks along the Suez Canal. I knew little of the world beyond the urban slums of northern England. Knew nothing of the lives, cultures, languages of the peoples I saw on my family’s journey aboard that migrant ship from England to Australia. Knew not that the opportunities awaiting us in Australia were inextricably linked to the color of my skin.
I have long since lost the insulated comfort of that naivete.
All of the passengers on the Strathaird were white, beneficiaries of the Immigration Restriction Act (a.k.a. White Australia Policy), the law passed in 1901, when separate British colonies became the independent Commonwealth of Australia. Non-Europeans would be barred from citizenship by a dictation test in any European language of the government’s choosing. In 1945, in a push to “Populate or Perish,” Australia began the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme to encourage British immigration, providing passage for only ten pounds per adult. Postwar austerity, ongoing rationing, and extreme class rigidity led many British working families to uproot themselves and seek a better life on the other side of the world. Would-be immigrants were required to have a trade or profession, promise of a job, or a sponsoring family. My young parents, having no skills, money, friends, or family in Australia, found a sponsoring family in Geraldton, a small rural town on the Indian Ocean coast, three hundred miles north of Perth. There began our “better life.”
To my schoolgirl perception, everyone in town was the same, the notable distinctions being between the newly arrived Poms (the slang appellation for new British immigrants like us), the second-, third-, and fourth-generation Australians (also of British and Irish stock), and the few non-British European families—all white, nearly all working and lower-middle class.
I have abundant memories of my childhood there—idyllic images of endless sunny days, of the musical rustling of wind in the ghost gums; memories of breathless after-school games on sandy streets and learning to swim in the turquoise sea, of family picnics among carpets of wildflowers when the winter rains and spring sunshine caused the desert hinterland to bloom. Though I left Australia over four decades ago, some of my dearest friends remain those from my school years in Geraldton.
But there are other memories—indistinct, not as pored over and enlivened as many of my childhood recollections. Memories more like shimmering ghosts in the periphery that seem to lose credibility when I turn my gaze upon them: ramshackle camps in the scrub on the outskirts of town; rough shacks of corrugated iron and scrap lumber; dark-skinned figures, skinny dogs. All briefly glimpsed from the back seat of the family car as we drive by. Back then in the fifties and early sixties, these “camps”—or reservations—were the homes of the Indigenous people, to where they had to return by the daily 5:00 pm curfew or face jail if caught. Other hazy images appear now—shirtless, shoeless Indigenous men clustered around the back doors of the town’s pubs in the afternoon; the faces and names (Kathleen and Margaret, whose surname was the same as major agricultural company with stockyards in town) of two Indigenous Australian girls in my primary school class, their absence after sixth grade.
These images suggest I was aware of the differences between their lives and mine. I have not forgotten the harsh epithets, derogatory monikers by which these people were referred to—words I would never have spoken and cannot record here. Yet absent in my memories are the impressions these observations made on me. Did I not wonder, seek to understand the terrible things I observed?
If I had wondered, who would I have asked? We were not taught about the modern situation of the Australian Aboriginal peoples in school, nor about their history. Australian history began with the arrival of Europeans, the stories of the heroic white male explorers braving the oceans to map the coast, dying in the desert as they explored the interior. Would I have asked my parents, who, as they became acculturated to the rough Australian country-town life, seemed to adopt the views of the adults who gathered around the kegs in the backyard barbecues? If these adults talked about the Indigenous people at all, it was to decry the latest government policy of closing the camps and moving them into “transitional houses” (small iron-fenced bungalows with louvred opaque windows rather than glass panes), which were built on spare lots among the rows of State Housing Commission affordable housing where we lived.
“They don’t know how to live in houses,” I heard adults declare. “They need eons to evolve to the level of European human beings.” I also heard: “They’re closer to apes.”
Perhaps it takes a more exceptional child than I to question the attitudes and milieu in which she finds herself and upon which she totally depends. We were a small close-knit family, in a totally new environment, with no extended family. I depended entirely upon the care and attention of my stressed, struggling parents. Those impressions seem to have been locked away in my mind to revisit at some future safer time, in some faraway place. I joined Vietnam War protests in Perth, joined South African apartheid protests in Melbourne, but have no awareness whether there were contemporary protests against the mass incarceration of Aboriginal men, the removal of Aboriginal children from their families, the desecration and mining of sacred sites, the ongoing impoverishment and inequality of the Australian Indigenous peoples. I left Australia for the United States before I could witness the growing political activism of Australia’s Indigenous peoples and the attention of more white Australians to their egregious plight.
Shortly after beginning a psychiatric residency in the Bronx in 1974, I attended a local church service, hoping to meet ordinary Americans. As I slipped into an empty seat on the aisle of the crowded church, I became acutely aware that I was different from everyone else. Had I transgressed an unwritten law? Everyone was Black. I was not. For the first time, I became acutely aware of whiteness as a thing that defined me. Amid many friendly smiles and handshakes at the end of the service, the minister asked where I was from. My accent surely revealed I was a foreigner, but it was my whiteness that gave me away. If American, I would have known. In that place and time, white people didn’t attend Black churches.
In forty-six years living in the United States, I’ve learned much—from friends, African American literature, narratives of enslaved Americans, from my work. I’ve gained a political and historical education into the deep roots of slave and colonial capitalism that persist today, seen the recent return of white supremacy and racial hatred in the mainstream of American discourse, hatred that perhaps was not expressed as freely in my first years here (although a Black man was killed and hung from a tree by KKK members as recently as March 1981).
Now, as I reexamine my childhood in that provincial town on the edge of the Australian outback, I know the terrible history of oppression, genocide, removals suffered by those Indigenous peoples whose distant ancestors settled the Australian continent before modern humans settled western Europe and whose more recent ancestors—indentured stockmen on great Australian cattle and sheep ranches—were given surnames of the pastoralist for whom they worked. Indigenous Australians are the proud keepers of possibly the oldest continuous human culture in existence. They have awoken to the imperative of claiming their rights and seeking reparation for the wrongs done to them. However, as here in the United States, oppression continues in many forms: economic, incarcerative, unequal education and opportunity.
As I finish this essay, I look out of my window at the pair of cardinals nesting in the lilac bush that is just starting to bloom and at the light green haze of spring foliage in the trees beyond. A year ago, I retreated from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City to work remotely with my patients from my Connecticut home. Safe, comfortable, able to work in beautiful surroundings, I am acutely aware of and deeply grateful for the privilege inherent in my journeys—my migrations across national borders, across boundaries of class, through barriers to education and enlightenment.
This awareness—difficult to achieve—is uncomfortable to own. ■
Jo Wright is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and writer in New York City and Connecticut. A large part of her analytic work has been with children and adolescents struggling with learning and regulatory disorders, and with women of all ages struggling for autonomy and voice. Born in England and raised in Australia, Jo came to the United States as a young doctor to study psychiatry and psychoanalysis. With her late husband, the psychoanalyst Richard Gottlieb, she raised two sons and enjoyed gardening and sheep-farming on their Connecticut property.
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