An ally in the face of Australia's casual racism: A review of 'Memories and Elephants'
Fiction, Poetry and Experimental Forms Editor, Lauren, starts the new year with a review of Meaghan Katrak Harris’s memoir, Memories and Elephants: The art of casual racism, a collection she loved so much that Mona has enlisted its author to run workshops on memoir in Mildura in January. Evidently, it has also struck a chord with others in the creative community, as it is currently being transformed by Arts Mildura into a stage production.
At it’s core, Memories and Elephants is about allyship, a concept that has gained momentum in the last couple of years through the Black Lives Matter movement, but in 2022 also started to explicitly surface in how men described themselves (you remember, the men who told those who said “not all men” to pipe down…). Harris’ memoir specifically focuses on her experiences as the partner of and mother to First Nations people in rural communities in Australia, her social worker roles within Aboriginal communities and her career as an academic, who teaches cohorts of social work students to constantly examine their own privilege and who scrutinises the cultural landscape to ensure that all voices can tell their own stories.
Harris begins with a personal experience that those of us can all relate to – the classic rural experience of the country show in the 1990s. We have all been there, in the throng of rides and show bags, corndogs and cake competitions. Harris’ description of being a young parent taking her children to see the agricultural displays is suddenly marred by a racist slur, motivated by a farmer’s disdain about the recent Mabo decision and its acknowledgement that First Nations people had lived on and cultivated land just like his for millennia. It was no doubt a decision that destabilised many white Australian farmers’ belief that they were the centre upon which their communities turned (fear not, though, John Howard set things to rights soon after with the Native Title Act). And from that fear sprang hatred, like that which was visited on Harris, her partner and her family by this farmer’s casual racism.
As Harris’ memoir moves from the 1980s through to 2010 in Robinvale, it’s clear that the sentiments of locals don’t change. Harris relays how first her partner and then her son get told that ‘youse’ (First Nations people) are getting better cars than the white members of the community (including by the police). Harris’ experience of this is that of a white woman who is a mother to brown children, however, the community see her, too, as ‘tainted’, with a local man warning her to stay away from his dog because she ‘doesn’t like blackfellas’.
While this seems to bother Harris because of the insinuation about blackness, rather than a commented targeting her personally, readers can’t ignore the menace and threat that seems directed at Harris, too, because she refuses to play the part of her white privilege that her community expects she should.
Harris explores how the lack of empathy behind these casually racist remarks is pervasive in the small communities she has lived in, noting that even amongst charity workers there were those who were ‘so pious in their giving’ and those made it their sole concern to determine who was deserving of charity and who didn’t meet their unspoken conditions of poverty, such as those who requested a food hamper when they have satellite TV. The lack of generosity (though not by all, Harris notes) and sense of entitlement is of the same ilk as that which underpins the contradictory nature of the town’s beliefs that a member should not rise above their station (by owning a car, by being able to afford to go to the country show) or, indeed, sink below it (by, say, partnering with a First Nations man).
The context of the discussion widens from Harris’ experiences within her township to the cultural milieu surrounding Struggle Street (SBS, 2015) and Q+A (ABC, 2016) and their respective representations of poverty, mental health issues and other social disadvantage. While we think of these casually racist remarks and dismissals of disadvantage belong the small rural strongholds of conservatives, Harris shows us that they are still part of the lesser-discussed side of our national identity; our public policy reflects them, our funding (or lack thereof) of initiatives, our social deficits model perpetuates it. Harris outlines how we first create disadvantage, and then stigmatise it and ensure it becomes entrenched by establishing dependence and satisfying those with a ‘saviour philosophies’. In reality, those saviours are providing basic services that should be the remit of any community, only they are weaponised here in a disguised attempt at assimilation.
The way Harris recounts her use of her own cultural capital (accumulated over the years as she earns her sling of degrees, a PhD and a career in academia) mirrors exactly the advice she gives to her readers about allyship: those of us who exist in rural communities as white majorities must use our access and authority to call out behaviours that degrade, dehumanise and discriminate. Harris recalls an incident in which, in the early 2000s, she came across a locked box at a childcare centre that documented every Aboriginal family in the community, a practice she was horrified to find wasn’t left behind with the rest of the Aboriginal Protectionist policies that included removing children from their families, documentation cards required to be carried at all times and forced domestic labour institutions. She was incensed, but it was a reminder of how entrenched these ideas about entitlement to survey, oppress and dictate are within the rural Australian psyche, and about how important the use of privilege for change is.
Actually, the first hint of the nature of Harris’ deep dive into allyship is her fandom of Helen Garner. Garner provides more than a stylistic influence for Harris. The self-conscious nature of Garner’s writing (sometimes so self-conscious, in fact, as to be labeled naval-gazing and self-indulgence) and Harris’ (don't worry, no naval-gazing, here), is what gets to the heart of Harris’ exploration of this concept of allyship (what she calls the ‘insider/outsider dance’); how do allies write about what they have witnessed in a way that shows solidarity, but doesn’t detract from the voices of those who know the experiences most intimately, who face the brunt of the prejudice? There is a fragility that is laid bare so well by Harris; she is upfront about her anxiety about having nothing to say from the outset, and about her grade nine education not being enough of a solid foundation from which to say it.
The point that Harris makes in one of her final essays of the collection, after she has recounted these episodes and incidents that have imprinted themselves on her and those she loves indelibly, is one that leaves such an impression; today, for us, activism is not as important as meeting a deadline, getting our kids to school, remembering to pay that bill, but for First Nations people, and other People of Colour, activism is not a choice they get to take or leave, or get to move down the list of priorities: ‘It’s Every day… It’s Life or Death.’
Perhaps the most interesting observation that Harris makes is one that comes at the end of her canvasing of such a wide range of experiences and issues. It is that of intersection.
Harris recounts the words of Flavia Dzodan to sum up her own approach to feminism: My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.
Harris notes how class, ethnicity and gender intersect in Australian communities, including our online community, to further disempower women. The trend to share ‘parenting fails’ is what is possibly a white feminist perspective aimed at dismantling the patriarchy’s perfect maternal image. Harris notes that whilst some women have the ‘buffer of social acceptance’ to post feeding their children cereal for dinner and pouring themselves a wine at 5pm, this could have catastrophic consequences for women flagged by child protection services or a woman with declining mental health. She assigns herself to the ‘protection from societal judgment that only the narrow world of privilege offers’, and doesn’t claim these stories, doesn’t show up as the hero in them. Harris tells a story about ordering a guide on being an ally from Amnesty International and the irony hangs in the air – this memoir is as good a guide to allyship as any.
Dr Meaghan Katrak Harris is a social worker, academic, consultant and writer. She has a long and diverse social work background and works across a range of social justice projects within the private and public sectors and the arts. Meaghan’s first work of creative nonfiction, Memories and Elephants: The Art of Casual Racism was released in December 2021, receiving excellent reviews.
Arts Mildura have commissioned Memories and Elephants for a theatre adaptation, and Meaghan is currently working with a creative team for an April 2023 launch. Currently under development is an historical fiction screenplay titled Two Mile to Town, set in small town Australia in the late 1960’s which Meaghan co-wrote.
You can order your copy of Memories and Elephants here.
Lauren Forner is the Fiction, Poetry and Experimental Forms Editor at Mona Magazine. She has been awarded various prizes for her short stories and published a collection of poetry, Parts of a Whole, in 2021. Lauren has years of experience teaching English literature and creative writing to teenagers, adults and children and reads like her life depends on it. She is perpetually completing her Masters in Creative Writing and, like all good writers, working on the elusive novel. Lauren currently lives in the Riverina, New South Wales, and dedicates most of her waking hours to her work in public mental health.
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