Living in another’s shoes

It’s a proud moment for me. I have a short piece of personal experience included in the current edition (#361) of The Big Issue – an issue that focuses on the ironic hysteria this country has whipped up about the ‘boat people’.

The response from those who know me has been most enlightening. It seems that the article has hit some interesting spots. It was my hope that it would because, as I said in the article, the experience was attitude and somewhat life changing for me.

And it is interesting to ponder why, because I know I was not the only one impacted. The original piece was much longer and told of how, at the end of the three hours (yes, only three hours) it took for us to traverse three hundred years of Australian history in Aboriginal shoes, a room full of people were left silent and tearful. The emotional impact of this particular hypothetical was profound and all encompassing.

Was it because our imaginations were activated into the experience? For me the answer is yes, and no. I have attended numerous Indigenous awareness programs throughout my professional life. Most of them contained some personal questioning – ‘Imagine how you would feel if you had your children taken from you? Imagine if you had been told you were useless your whole life? Imagine being treated like you were dumb or being beaten or jailed just because of your skin colour?’ All these questions light the imagination, invite us to think, feel, taste the experience of another. They helped me understand what it might be like to be an Indigenous person in this country, opened my eyes to some of the institutional racism we have, but did not affect me in the way that this particular experience did. As I said – to FEEL it in this way was altogether different.

Grant Sarra was a charismatic and very skilled facilitator. He did not let a single person in that room off the hook in terms of participation. He actively observed and engaged everyone so that all of us had a role, had an alternative identity. He fostered in us a vision of ourselves as another. For some, like myself, this was an easier transition than for others. I guess living in the imaginal world as I do it was easier for me to enter another persona, another world. But the gravity of what Grant facilitated in us was not lost on anyone. We all FELT the human experience of this journey – the anger, the grief, the shock, the disbelief, the despair.

 It was the feelings that impacted on us, made us realise that the experience of Aboriginal people is a human experience (something that Grant was at great pains to reinforce). By feeling those feelings the imaginary cultural gap between myself as a middlish class white woman and an Aboriginal woman was greatly reduced. The learning was personalised in a way that brought the physical and emotional experience of Aboriginal people in this country into sharp focus – even though most of us in the room were non-Indigenous.

 Oddly, ever since I have felt an enormous gap between my personal understanding of Australian history and that of my colleagues, family and friends. Try as I might I cannot convey the emotional experience of this journey. My words fall empty and hollow on ears that only hear a left wing, slightly fanatical woman ranting about a cultural injustice that most people simply accept or take for granted in modern Australia.

 I was asked about memorials and whether they are only meaningful these days if they have an experiential component. So many of our ‘memorials’ are set up to engage us emotionally in an experience we are never likely to have in our lifetimes. Memorials are only truly meaningful if there is an emotional connection to them. I think of the resurgence of Anzac Day and the history teachers that engage young people in that piece of history by getting them to find a family member who fought there, or adopt one. Once the young people have engaged with that character as a human being, know them as if they were flesh and blood, what happened to them in war takes on a completely different meaning. Because their subject is real to them, they feel the horror, the fear, the grief of losing them in battle – and the emotional impact of learning in this way not only stays with them, it changes them as no history book could.

 Obscenity is possible in this type of experience as there is the possibility of voyeurism if the material is not treated respectfully and is not presented by someone who has an emotional attachment to it. It does have something to do with what you choose to do with the knowledge once you leave the room and return to your comforting latte and cake. If how you think and behave has changed, does it really matter that you drink a latte and talk about Indigenous affairs and reconciliation with insight? As long as the humanity of the experience is retained and honoured, I think experiential or embodied (as in felt in the body) learning is the most powerful and lasting. It is the path to living with real honesty and finding truth within the experience of a character we can never be.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Eleanor
    Aug 25, 2010 @ 13:30:56

    Hi Kate,

    I just read your piece in The Big Issue and thought it was wonderful. It is a new way of thinking about what happened all that time ago and why it still matters today. I also like the cartoon which accompanied it (I guess it’s not yours) and I’m going to enlarge it and put it on the wall but cut it so that it’s only the first person speaking as I believe it shows how stupid we are being out boat people. Hopefully your piece touched some other people also – maybe someone who’s views need to be shifted.

    Keep up the good work,


    • Kate Rizzetti
      Aug 27, 2010 @ 03:16:17

      Thanks Eleanor. It was my hope that it would touch people and possibly challenge some old thinking. I hope you share it with others and spread the love, so to speak.


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