Conversations around our Indigenous history and the colonial legacy of British colonisation can be difficult ones to have. Even just grasping the huge and ongoing impact of that legacy is tough, but it’s a whole lot harder to understand when you’re still learning to colour within the lines.
Talking to kids about institutional racism is never easy but at some point, they will have to learn what’s right, what’s wrong, and the best ways to negotiate these difficult topics.
To help you out, we caught up with Marlee Silva, author of My Tidda, My Sister, to discuss growing up as a Kamilaroi Dunghutti girl and experiencing racism, learning colonial history, and the hope for the next generation.
“The earliest assignment homework I remember was making a convict story at home and talking about arriving on the shores of Australia. I was at seven or eight, and I remember that being our introduction to Australian history”, Silva says.
While you might not yet know how to speak to your kids about colonial history, it’s definitely something that is being taught in school. But what is taught in school may not necessarily be the whole story and it may not relate why people have such an issue with the date.
“I knew that Captain Cook was never someone that was celebrated in my house”, Silva tells us.
“That was where the conflict came. When we talked about Cook at home it was kind of like he’s a bad guy but at school he was the good guy. That was kind of weird. When you’re that young, you don’t think about it too much, but as I got older I looked back on that and went, ‘that’s really messed up’.”
She tells us that race didn’t begin to play a significant part in her life until her classmates realised her dad was Black. “They would say things to me like ‘do you eat witchetty grubs? Do you believe in the Dreamtime? Does your dad play the didgeridoo?’ I was like, ‘what does that mean?’. That’s where those discussions really started”.
Explaining to children the significance and breadth of Indigenous culture would be a good place to start here. Learning that Indigenous people don’t all play the didgeridoo, that witchetty grubs aren’t a part of the staple diet, and that the Dreamtime is a sacred cultural system not unlike Christianity would be a help.
Kids are curious and they don’t always know how to ask about things without upsetting others – or even that their questions might be upsetting. In the end, it’s all about respect, and teaching them that different people have different beliefs, histories, and backgrounds to themselves which are brilliant and worth discussing in a friendly way is good.
Feed that curiosity and tell them that different people know things that they don’t and that they can learn a lot by listening to others.
From Invasion to Survival
Silva discusses talking to her cousins about January 26th by telling them that “it was only Aboriginal people here, and our way of life was really different. Then people from England came and wanted to make this continent like England”.
She doesn’t however think that it’s “something that could be fun” for kids, so the discussion would probably have to have a degree of seriousness, something kids might not want to hear.
When talking about Australia Day though, understanding the strength and endurance of Indigenous people and culture can be really useful.
“We had never celebrated Australia Day like everyone else did, we always called it Survival Day. I didn’t even realise what that actual day was. January 26th is actually the day when they arrived which I didn’t realise until I was about 12. And then I was like, ‘Okay. That’s why it’s two different things, because that’s when things started to change for us’.”
Silva’s dad explained the story to them by telling her that “everything that’s happened, the bad stuff, or things that have been hard, or even those kind of weird comments that kids make to you, or racist things that you hear, that all goes back to that one point when they came here”.
But her dad didn’t want them to focus on the negatives, so instead, he called it Survival Day.
“As much as it was that moment that indicated a big change when a lot of bad stuff happened, we actually want to celebrate that we survived it. I think it gives us agency.
“My whole family were very much optimists and really don’t like focusing on anything in a negative way. When we were kids he was definitely more like, ‘No. It’s about surviving. It’s about how strong we are. It’s about the fact that we have been here for this long’.”
Being open to having those discussions, explaining what the date signifies, and the negative implications for Indigenous people is key.
“In our house, we were always encouraged to have our own voice and discuss things and have our own opinions”, Silva says. “Even though things were being taught to us differently in a school environment, we didn’t feel the pressure to kind of accept that that was the case when we knew things were different. So I feel really lucky in that sense to have that kind of environment around me.
“That’s what we were raised with and set a really good precedent for us”.
Education Is Changing
Things have defintiely changed since you were at school and primary schools are becoming much more open to disucssing history that does not begin in 1788.
“I have friends who are primary school teachers now and things have changed a lot. It’s definitely exciting to think that the next generation is going to be raised with so many different ideas to what we were. It gives me hope as well.”
Today’s kids, Silva’s cousins and their friends blow her away with their knowledge and understanding, she tells us.
“They know so much more than what we did. There’s this level of wokeness in children that I am just really blown away by. I have one cousin in particular who is just really smart and has lots of opinions and she’s from my white side of the family”.
“She’s petitioned at her primary school to have them fly the Aboriginal flag every day of the year, it’s very cute.
“She was talking about how in class they are now taught about the fact that we’ve been here for 60,000 years as part of that beginning of talking about Australian history.
“In not even one full generation of kids, it’s already changed so much. They’re just so much more aware of the things that were kind of quiet or exclusive to an Aboriginal household when I was growing up.”
As a final thought, Silva tells us that speaking about history defensively is not the way to go about it.
“That’s the thing that’s always confused me as well is that people get on their high horse and say, ‘well it wasn’t me who actually did it’.”
She wants kids to understand that they still benefit from what happened. “Let’s just acknowledge it, you’re not a bad person, let’s do better.”
If you really want a great way to introduce your kids to the topic of Indigenous history, Darumbal and South Sea Islander author Amy McQuire has recently released a children’s book called Day Break. It features an Indigenous family reconnecting with country on January 26th and discusses the narratives and history around the arrival of the British.
It’s well worth a read and a great start for any kids interested in learning more about Australian history.