What’s it like being Aboriginal and doing law at Sydney Uni? Having finished my first year, the word that I’ve come up for it is that it’s shit-tastic – that is, it’s shit but fantastic at the same time.
The workload is hell and there isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t think that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. But, at the same time, there isn’t a week where I don’t learn a little bit more about the laws we live under; why Indigenous people are so overly represented at the pointy end yet so badly underrepresented at the end that hands it out.
Does it bother me? Yes, massively. But you can’t let it get to you. Instead I see it as a opportunity to, in my own small way, set a couple of things straight and to let people know a few home truths about being Aboriginal. Which is why I decided to do law at Sydney University in the first place.
You don’t get any special favours being black here which, considering this is where people like Tony Abbott and John Howard went to law school, isn’t particularly surprising, really. There’s a good reason why this place has a reputation as being as white as hard-baked porcelain.
So I decided to do something about it.
“We’re going to start a tradition and we’re going to do it on your watch.” The plan was simple: to open the University of Sydney Law Ball and give the gig the Aboriginal dignity it deserves.
To his credit, the Law Society president was all up for it. I didn’t even have to fight. “Great idea,” he said. “Everything has already been finalised but this is a really good thing and we’ll make room for it.” It was almost too easy, like getting into the ring only to have the other guy hand the trophy to you. But I didn’t know the fight was actually yet to begin.
With only a week before the ball, I had to get the message out to the other Indigenous students. The problem being was that I didn’t know the other Indigenous law students. Best the school could do was put me in contact with one, more senior Indigenous law student, who then put the idea to his three Indigenous law mates. I couldn’t believe it. All I got was tut-tuts and knitted brows.
I was gutted, hurt and confused. What was I doing wrong? But as my grandma Edna would say: “If you walked on water there’d still be people who’d say that it was only because you can’t swim.”
Too right, Grandma. And off the back of that, I came up with one of my own. After all, you can’t polish a turd… but you can roll it in glitter. That is, the best way to deal with a bad situation is to make the best of it.
So that’s what I did.
Now it was up to me to get some elders. Instead of going to the local land council I went to the people that I reckon are the rightful owners of the land the where the ball was being held – the locals of Pyrmont.
Mandy Dawes, 64, came to Pyrmont when he was seven after he was taken from his white mum and black dad after spending some of his early years sleeping under a car in Redfern, because landlords would wouldn’t rent to a mixed race couple. And 53-year-old Mark Merriman’s family have been on in Pyrmont for six generations, ever since his ancestor Umbara Merriman from the Wallaga Lakes on the far south coast was moved here because he was seen as a troublemaker.
I told them I thought it my job to let them know that the whitest law school in the land was going to have their annual party on their land.
It’s worth saying that both Mandy and Mark are Stolen Generation, both have been on the receiving end of the law and it would be totally reasonable for them to curse the whole ball.
But they didn’t. They wanted to be there too. Instead they both said, “We’re in.”
And from that the three of us formulated our plan. A typical welcome would be a lost opportunity. Instead we decided that ours would be short, sweet and courteous while giving Sydney Law School the punch in the snout it deserves. The president of the law society wanted to know what we were going to say “for organisational purposes”. I told him just give us a couple of minutes and to trust us – and, to his credit, he did (if nervously).
And so on the night, we stood outside the giant function centre, filled with people dressed like they were in a scene from The Great Gatsby, bracing ourselves for what we were going to do. We didn’t have a clue what sort of reaction we were going to get but that wasn’t the point.
“Come on boys, we’re going into the belly of the beast,” I said. We walked in, got on the stage and this is what was said:
“This first time this law school’s history that it’s had Aboriginals open this. and while we’re not here to rain on this parade we want to consider this one message…
“The truth is that this law school has been, and still is, at the heart of the system that has held Indigenous people down. But despite that the original owners of this land have the decency to still welcome you onto their land. Because they know this law school and the people here tonight and the decent ones among you have ability and the power to be at the heart of rewriting those wrongs when you because the lawyers, judges and leaders of tomorrow.
“Now we welcome to this land as friends, decency goes a long way and let’s have a party!”
And then a moment of silence and then applause erupted. People got out of their seats all three of us choked back tears. And from there, the elders did what anyone should do at a party. They met, they charmed and they captivated people with their stories as well as tearing up the dance floor. It made me proud.
How much good did it do? Definitely more good than harm. Sure, there were jerks in that crowd that didn’t pay any attention, but were also plenty who did. And I’ll you this for free: opening a door to someone is far better than slamming it in their face. I reckon that’s what the elders did to every person there who had the decency to listen.
Regardless, by Mandy’s admission it was the “best night I’ve ever had”. That’s a good enough measure for me.
This might be our land, but it’s their law and that’s not going change any time soon. And if somebody points a gun at you, you won’t have an ice cube’s hope in hell of winning… unless you learn to use the gun yourself.
And that, to me, is the reason why I’m going through the whitest law school in the country: to do something about it.