This evening I nearly saw a man drown. I run the same route most afternoons, over the bridge and along the foreshore. This evening I was about to cross over the bridge when I saw something or someone splashing in the water. I stopped. It was a man, only a few metres from the banks of the river, and he was drowning. He kept trying to stand up before falling over, his head going under the water for a longer period of time each time he fell.
As soon as I realised what was going on I ran to the shore. I called out to him but didn’t get any response. His head went under again. I waded in and instinctively grabbed his chin to hold his head above the water. I told him it was going to be okay. I asked him to sit down. The water was shallow enough that I could hold his head above the water while he was sitting. He coughed and spluttered and struggled to reclaim and regulate his breathing. I asked him if he could stand up. He shook his head. Ma (ok, I understand). I told him that I was going to try and help him, to drag him out of the water. Yo (ok, yes, agreed). Standing behind him I hooked my arms under both of his armpits and in quick lift-and-drag motions we slowly edged our way to shore.
We were very nearly out of the water when a woman came to our aid. She asked if she could help but thankfully didn’t wait for the answer. She grabbed him under one arm, I had him by the other, and together we dragged him out and well clear of the water. I rolled him onto his side. He was absolutely and utterly exhausted, gumurr djarrark. His breathing was irregular, he was coughing up water, and there was mucus streaming from his nose. I watched him for a bit. He was okay. His body was limp and heavy from exhaustion and he was still trying to catch his breath but he was okay. He was shaking a little. I asked if he was okay. Yo.
I drew a big breath and leaned my hands on my knees. The woman who had come to our aid introduced herself. She had been watching him for nearly two minutes, she said, from the bike path. She was really concerned and worried that he might drown but she didn’t want to put herself in danger. Fair enough. She said she was about to call an ambulance when she saw me running towards him, which is when she then came to our aid. This was the moment that I took pause and looked around, and it was as if in slow motion that I realised . . . there were seven or so people fishing off the bridge looking over the very spot where we were now standing, where this man just very nearly drowned. They were no more than ten metres away looking down on him, on us, from the bridge. They were facing in the direction of where this man very nearly drowned. They were standing there, fishing. Watching a man drown. To my right, along the bicycle path, there was a steady stream of people walking, jogging and riding. Across the river along the beach-front there was any number of people walking their dogs. If I had noticed this man splashing and struggling with my poor eyesight while running past then everyone, all of them, would have noticed. The people standing there fishing, watching him drown, I honestly cannot comprehend.
I cannot remember what I said to the woman who had come to our aid at this point. I think I may have said something along the lines of ‘What the actual fuck! These people were just standing there watching him drown!?’ I remember her reply was something to do with not wanting to put themselves in danger. They were fucking FISHING. WATCHING this man drown.
Now propped up on his elbow, still laying on his side, I asked him what his name was (in Yolŋu-matha, having assumed from his ‘yo’ that he spoke Yolŋu-matha). Don. I told him my name, my Balanda name, and my Yolŋu name. He kind of looked up at this point. I told him that he had just very nearly drowned, that he was okay now, but that he had just very nearly drowned. I asked where his family mob were and, as if on cue, I saw a group of Yolŋu’yulŋu walked into sight along the bike path on the far side of the bridge. I yelled out, kind of rudely (obviously still a little bit shaken):
‘Waaaaaay! Dhuwala ŋayi Yolŋu yukurra rakunythirri-ndja! Guŋgayurra, räli marrtjina buku djulŋi, guŋgayurra please.’ (Hey! This person [just very nearly died] is dying! Come and help! Please come over here and help/assist!)
Two men ran over the bridge towards us. We all introduced ourselves to each other. I explained what had happened. One of the men, Don’s brother, crossed himself. They thanked us – myself and the woman who had come to our aid – and we all helped lift Don to his feet. Don was with-it enough to ask our names again before his family mob helped away.
‘Marrkapmirri, thank you’ (Beloved [people], thank you).
Since moving to Darwin I have collected a number of case studies – so many stories of everyday jarring, explicit, yet so dangerously normalised, racism. My notebook is filled of them. Indeed, I’ve written a number of blog posts drawing on said case studies, which I’ve left in draft because I wasn’t sure whether to focus on the policing and racial profiling element, the attitude and behaviour of the general public, or the political and legislative context that not only accommodates or enables such racism, but that seems to actively foster it (with the help of mainstream media).
But this evening was something else. It subsumed and enveloped and amplified all of the case studies, observations and concerns that I have ever noted, seen, read, or written about racism in contemporary Australia.
I saw a man nearly drown tonight. There was a man drowning in the river. He had been struggling in the water for at least two minutes before I got there. He couldn’t keep his head above water. He was flailing and splashing. He was struggling to breathe, to stay alive. Another minute and he would have been unconscious. I have no doubt. And there were people who not only fleetingly saw this and chose to keep walking, jogging or running but there were people standing right there. Fishing on the bridge. Within metres. Overlooking this very scene. Watching this man drown. And they chose to do nothing.
This is what it has come to. This is the level to which Aboriginal people have been dehumanised in the eyes and minds of the general public of white Australia. If it had been a white man drowning, of course – it’s a silly question – everyone would have rushed to his aid.
I know there is racism in Australia. I understand it’s pervasive. But these people were watching a man drown. This is something else. Another minute and he would have been unconscious. Floating. Would they have been moved to act [only] then? Who knows.
How has it come to this? How is it that Aboriginal people have become so dehumanised in the eyes and minds of white Australia?
Sometimes racism seems like some kind of intractable historical force. There is certainly an historical depth that I cannot address here, but we – speaking (and collectivising) here as a white, non-Indigenous person – cannot deny our role and responsibility in this. Yes it is government policies that, for example, claim that all Aboriginal men are child abusers. It is government policies that insinuate that Aboriginal people are so lacking in any sense of adult responsibility that they cannot be trusted with their own finances – or to bring their own children up. It is the mainstream media who repeat, reproduce, and amplify these stereotypes. It is everyone who unthinkingly accepts or believes these stereotypes, justifications and measures. But just as, if not more importantly, it is the people who walk or jog or ride past. Not just in this instance but in every instance, all and every time.
With every racially motivated, discriminatory government policy, media campaign, policing practice, popular prejudice, stereotype, rumour, or joke that we fail to publicly challenge, speak out against, object to, refuse or interrupt – we do this. We are part of this. ‘It is them, not us’. So we remain silent and do nothing. We walk or jog or ride past. It is everyone who has ever seen a group of Aboriginal people bundled into the back of a police wagon for ‘public nuisance’ or ‘public drunkenness’ next to a group of whitefellas doing just the same – enjoying a wine or beer in company – who didn’t think to publicly question or challenge these dynamics or police behaviour. It is everyone who has ever seen ‘public transport officers’ systematically target and harass Aboriginal people at bus depots and on public transport who make a choice to sit quietly rather than ask why they are being targeted, on what basis, on what grounds. It is everyone who has ever laughed along to a racist joke about Aboriginal people because it’s awkward to break the atmosphere and point out how and why that is actually completely inappropriate and wrong.
Shit is fucked up and shit, as they say, but we are a part of this. And we have a profound responsibility to one another, never mind any government body, policy, or institution in between.
To be a socialised moral person, as Yolŋu say, is to be gurrutu-mirri (to have or possess kin/kinship), and to be gurrutu-mirri is to be dharaŋan-mirri (to recognise/understand one another [as kin]), to be djäka-mirri (to care for/look after one another), and to be guŋgayun-mirri (to help or assist on another).