Change The Phrase, Change The Date

Uluru Sun – Sandee Allen

12 Mar 2021

A year ago yesterday, my children and I became Australian citizens. US born, we are truly being raised in Australia, all of us. A year ago tomorrow, I took my kids out of school in advance of the advancing pandemic. I’ve been quite reflective of this time, listening to a mix of Midnight Oil  a la Amazon music as I type. It will be our first concert since we went into lockdown.

As I listen, my heart stirs with memories of the past. I was a bit more of an activist as a younger me; I was one of the few in my small, country high school who was listening to the likes of Midnight Oil, R.E.M., Elvis Costello, pulled in by the music but staying for the lyrical lessons. Those songs, over 25 years ago are as relevant today, politics, climate, war, racism, corporate greed, guns, and what have we learned? Are we better off now, or did it take Mother Nature stepping in to save herself, so maybe, just maybe, we would learn to save ourselves? 

Memory lane conjures up moments when I was in grade school in Utica, New York, insulated by my white privilege (for not knowing otherwise), a friend to all, no matter what country or colour we were made of. High school in a small town, was less of a melting pot, and more close-minded. I craved being out in the world, including studying French, yet had to settle for my time in Rotary Club where I got to meet foreign exchange students, who became my teachers and friends, more than I was gaining in the classroom. I was also a member of Greenpeace, Amnesty International (with dreams of being president of the organisation when I “grew up”, PETA, and even became a vegetarian, which lasted for six years until I realised it wasn’t sustainable for me health wise. At my university, I joined Club International (a group mostly comprised of foreign students) and eventually succeeded my graduating Nigerian friend as president. This worldly view I was acquiring would translate to advocacy for the voiceless, oppressed; human or creature. My motivation was always putting myself in someone else’s shoes or fins, wondering how they would feel to be victims of injustice, discrimination, violence, poverty, environmental toxins, inequity.

It wasn’t until I was much older, my thirties perhaps, and I don’t recall the exact moment it happened, but the phrase “Treat people how you’d want to be treated.” just stopped making sense. I thought I was doing my part all my life to be inclusive, to learn from others, take everyone at face value, not by the colour of their face, treat people with respect, and on equal footing. It was then I realised that all that was well intended, but clearly treating people how I wanted to be treated, wasn’t working out for them. And warped by my own white privilege, I couldn’t understand why. As open minded and evolved as I believed myself to be, even into my corporate years, I still never understood affirmative action quotas. 

A pivotal moment, I will confess, was not me at my finest, but I believed I was the best qualified candidate on my team to be the lead of the team, and was distraught when my colleague and friend, also a person of colour, became my manager. I honestly don’t know what went on behind the scenes of the decision or even if this was AA in action, but several coworkers told me the company had to maintain quotas. So I struggled with why the hiring managers wouldn’t treat us the same and promote the most qualified for the job. But guess what, we have to learn at some point, and often painfully to our whiteness, what perpetuates the institutionalised racism that exists in most businesses and governments. And if she’s reading this, I want her to know I am sorry for my behaviour, and I love and have the ultimate respect for her (and she was a great manager!). 

A flash forward and full circle in Australia, where I live now. I live in a community of diversity, the first generation kind that I grew up with in Utica. Different country, same problems, yet the response to what ails us and the planet, while not always perfect, is different. Mass shooting: turned in guns. Climate change: solar panels, wind turbines, and battery farms. Racism: ongoing reconciliation and advocacy for changing the date of Australia Day, at the very least. Coronavirus: mask wearing and lockdowns. These things all boil down to respect, for each other and our way of life. 

So next weekend, when I take my kids to the Midnight Oil concert to relive my musical youth and renew life lessons, it’s most importantly to attend an event in support and celebration of our First Nations people. And my kids will take my phrase with them on their journey through life, “Treat people how they’d want to be treated.” Maybe if we only thought and did this simple thing, we’d be a better people, and planet.

Uluru Sunrise from Kata Tjuta – Sandee Allen