Weight of our world
First Nation Australians who have succeeded in the system find ourselves carrying the terrible weight alone - at the expense of everything else we are.
I feel a toxic obligation to fight for the rights of my people, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that make up the hundreds of separate and sovereign nations within Australia. While I find overwhelming happiness campaigning for justice for First Nations Australians, I am forced to sacrifice other aspects of my life to uphold this obligation.
This obligation surrounds me and engulfs every aspect of my life. I can feel it looming over my shoulder whenever I consider taking a break from the work I do within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sector. It clenches my stomach when I consider a normal life outside of social justice. It suffocates me when I rest.
I have a duty to utilise the chance I have been given through education to fight for my people
The obligation I have to my people arises from growing up in a low socio-economic environment in a small country town in Western Australia, surrounded by family in a similar situation. So many of them are in jail now, so many of them are drug addicted, so many of them continue to face abuse. So many of them are still stuck in hell.
But I escaped this, and I feel like I owe it to those I left behind to fight for them. I have a duty to utilise the chance I have been given through education to fight for my people. Not many other people can do this, because not many other people come from the environment that I come from and have gotten as far as I have. This is not an obligation I can easily delegate. And so it is tightly glued to me, and pumps me with guilt if I stray from its path.
I make sacrifices for my family because of this oppressive guilt. These sacrifices mean I am not able to expand my engagement in areas outside the issues facing Indigenous people because I am constantly called back by the cries of my brothers and sisters.
I have given up opportunities in life to prioritise my people. A lot of the time, I can’t comment on the mainstream political debate because doing so would mean that I would have to stop advocating for my community. Even if it’s only for a moment, the guilt boils my bones.
This existence is claustrophobic and limiting, but in abandoning it I abandon my kin and my culture.
This obligation has ripped away my childhood because it was ingrained in me from a young age. In high school, I was always “Ethan, the smart Aboriginal kid”, and with this title came the expectation that I would assume a leadership role amongst my peers. Instead of going to class when the bell sounded I had to stay around and help persuade my cousins to attend their own class. Sometimes, I had to skip after school tutoring to attend community events in order to maintain myself as a positive role model for those younger than me.
This existence is claustrophobic and limiting, but in abandoning it I abandon my kin and my culture
Now, at university, I am seen for my duty within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student movement, pigeon holed by my prioritisation of the obligations to my people.
I don’t blame my people for this sacrifice I make. It is not their fault. They are the victims of an oppressive, racist history which has resulted in their structural poverty. How can you expect the victims of an iniquitous society to be the ones who must bear the responsibility of righting it? That is a double burden of our disadvantage. And they are without the political or financial power to affect such change.
Instead of falling to the white establishment to champion equality, those few First Nation Australians who have succeeded in the system find ourselves carrying the terrible weight alone – at the expense of everything else we are.
Ethan Taylor is the president of the Union of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students. As a peak representative body, UATSIS seeks to establish, uphold, and fight for the collective voice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander undergraduate students throughout Australia.
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