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Walking in Two Worlds

My first experience of being different came from my blonde hair, green eyed and white skinned sister, Hails, who was sure I needed to get back into the bath because my knees were ‘still dirty’. I remember crying my eyes out and not being able to calm down. She was little and had obviously started recognising that most of the people at her school looked like her, not like me. Mind you, for a long time when we lived in NT, she was the odd one out with her extremely fair skin, that was unable to catch a tan, and I assume she was trying to reflect her experiences onto me. Even all of our blonde cousins, aunties and uncles had tanned skin, not Hails, she would battle it alone until Keeley came along.

When we moved to Melbourne, I very quickly became the minority. Our Melbourne family (dad’s side) were all non-Indigenous. At school I was the only one who spoke parts of language (apart from Hails). I remember making the conscious decision to stop saying ‘deadly’ or ‘sis’ at school, because no one knew what I was talking about.

It wasn’t until I was about 9 that I really felt ostracised for being Aboriginal. We were learning about Australian history and the Stolen Generation and my teacher asked me to debate how the stolen generation was a good thing for aboriginal people...I remember standing in the classroom not saying a word. Everyone was staring at me and I couldn’t help but think back to my nana, how she was taken from her family and all the pain and anguish that my family continue to feel because of this. The stolen generation was a good thing? It had never even crossed my mind that people would think this, but this was coming from my teacher. Someone I was told to respect; someone I was taught knew better than me. I don’t think I talked for the rest of the day. I didn’t even tell my parents what she had asked me. I was confused and ashamed. I think that was the time that I became an expert compartmentaliser. 

Compartmentalisation: A defense mechanism where someone suppresses their thoughts and emotions. It is not always done consciously but this can often justify or defend a person's level of engagement in certain behaviours.

I became one person to white people, and I was another to my family. Only now am I trying to reconcile these two people.

I had managed, quite skilfully, to ignore the provokes I would hear about being aboriginal – if I was quiet, they couldn’t see me, right? When I got to high school, I developed severe anxiety, although, I didn’t know that's was what it was at the time. I was having panic attacks EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. before school and I honestly felt as though I was dying, I went to the doctors so many times and I was never diagnosed, so I continued to feel as though I was suffocating.

I missed A LOT of school because of it.

What had triggered my anxiety in high school was a particularly vulgar class. The lessons would begin with a quick explanation of what we were concentrating on that day and then for the rest of the lesson the teacher and a student would exchange aboriginal jokes. I sat in humiliating silence class after class while they exchanged their ‘jokes’. When they laughed, they were laughing at me and my family.

I went from a student who cared a lot about their grades, to a student who would hand things in late and with very little effort. My friends sat in silence while my torment went on and I remember feeling so far removed from everyone, not that I blame them, it’s such an awkward age. I tried distracting myself with chatter with my friend’s, but I couldn’t block it out. I remember finally getting up the guts to say ‘I’m aboriginal and I don’t like this’ my teacher gave me a dumb smile and didn’t say anything. The student said ‘oh, but can I just tell one more joke’. I was silenced again but to my relief, no one laughed at the joke that time. The teacher didn’t say anything to me.

I was in and out of school the rest of that year and when I did show up, I would be severely anxious and couldn’t concentrate in class. I was there only for my friends and to not disappoint my parents who worked hard to put me through school.

Sometimes I get the opportunity to feel safe with someone who isn’t Indigenous, and I share parts of my story with them. I am good at that; all minorities are good at predictive analysis. We know what signs to look for to show us when we are safe and when we aren’t.

We look for people who will listen with the intention of learning. When we share and are ignored, we won’t share with you again.

 When you haven’t walked in our footsteps and you decide what’s best for us, you design something ‘for us’ without us leading it, we won’t work with you again.

Kayla Cartledge,
Our Dilly Bag, Our Songlines and Our Survival Day Founder