Friendship isn’t black and white – and neither is the Voice

College buddies: Leonora Adidi, Susanna Freymark and Katherine Hansson in 1980 in Adelaide.

OPINION: Susanna Freymark

I’m not voting to Close the Gap. That’s a complex issue unlikely to be sorted by a Voice to Parliament.

I’m not voting to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians. A Voice advisory body may help with that but there is no guarantee.

I’m not voting yes or no to follow Labor or the Coalition. This isn’t about party politics.

I’m not even basing my vote on the facts, although I have closely followed the debate for and against the Voice.

Democracy calls for process and fairness. A referendum, which is the most democratic way we make decisions in this country, is as simple as each voting individual choosing a Yes or No. There is no maybe, no in-between, no conditions, no if onlys.

Yes or No.

I’m casting my vote based on a decision from the heart. My heart.

When I was 17 I left my country town to go to university. I moved into a college residence in the city filled with young country students like me. Fresh faced, full of ideas on how to change the world while we we were still finding out who we wanted to be.

I lived on the second floor of the KMB building where about 60 students lived in single, separate rooms along narrow corridors.

Leonora lived below me. Katherine above. Meeting them changed my life.

Leo was from Bamaga at the northern tip of Queensland. She wore coloured t-shirts and bright scarves in her hair. She had the widest smile and a wicked laugh as if she could get away with anything.

Katherine had an Aboriginal mother and Swedish father. Sometimes, she spoke a mixture of languages. She laughed easily and screamed when she saw Leo and me. She still does.

We became a trio of fast friends. We’d hang out of the doorways of our rooms, music speakers in the corridor blaring, chatter consuming the hours. We went to the same teachers college and shared assignments and bus rides.

The colour of my friends’ skin shouldn’t have mattered. But it did. Because a whole life and culture came with that skin – one I knew little about.

It was our friendship that drew me to take up Aboriginal Studies as an optional module. What I learned shaped my opinions and made me realise how little I knew of Australian history.

The watered-down high school version of our country didn’t cut it. In my studies, I read books about Aboriginal history and culture.

When I graduated I got a job at Amata Aboriginal School in Central Australia.

In a community of about 200 Anangu, there were 30-odd White people. There was no special way to describe people here – simply Blackfella or Whitefella.

There were issues in the community before anyone had invented the Close the Gap slogan – nutrition, petrol sniffing, infant mortality, sickness and more.

The Pitjantjatjara people living there welcomed me to their land.

Family and kinship were what mattered most in Amata. And the footy.

The women always asked why I was alone. Where was my family?

They included me in outings to dig for honey ants or hunt rabbits. They showed me the movements for inma (dance) and I had to promise to never show a man – White or Black – they trusted me with those moves and laughed at my pathetic attempts to mimic them.

It was 1984. I was a young teacher with my first class. There was no internet or social media to connect this community to the rest of Australia. Alice Springs was a five-hour drive away. Amata was a dry (no alcohol allowed) community and any White person entering Pitjantjatjara Land had to have a permit.

The place ignited my heart. I watched the way the Anangu women walked on the land. It was their second skin and they became the land. They sat crosslegged in the dust and told me stories of long ago – Black people with chains around their necks, seeing their first camel, first White man, the first plane landing on the dirt airstrip. These women had lived many lives.

They rolled on the ground laughing when I stripped down to my undies so they could paint my body and face with ceremonial markings. We danced for hours in the Outback dust. We laughed and talked under the arching desert sky with stars seeming to rain down on us. The desert was a place to marvel. The Anangu showed me a different life – one of simplicity and of value for the land, family, mob.

Two years later, I left Amata and headed to London. The contrast was not lost on me. Amid the tall buildings and grey skies of the foreign city, I felt like I left a little piece of me in the desert, in the waterholes and in the hands of the women who made their mark on me and my skin.

I am not voting Yes for these women.

I am voting Yes for me. It is such a small thing. But it is symbolic. It may not change conditions for Indigenous people in this country, but it will change me.

I want to be an Australian who lives in a country of equality. A country proud rather than ashamed of its history.

When prime minister Kevin Rudd made the national apology in 2008, it didn’t change the conditions of deaths in custody, of health and mortality rates. The apology didn’t Close the Gap.

But the intention of that apology meant a lot. Acknowledging the wrongs of the past had to be done to move into the future.

I want a future with heart. The Voice is not divisive. It is an opportunity. One that I will grab with both hands.

I won’t be voting Yes for the Anangu. Nor for Leo or Katherine.

I’m voting Yes because it is the least I can do. Colour doesn’t matter, and it does. Being Australian, of any colour or race, requires generosity towards others. Especially those we perceive as different to us.

Blackfella, Whitefella,

Yellafella, Anyfella

It doesn’t matter what your color

As long as you a true fella

What matters is us. All of us. And our national heart.

Read the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Words from Blackfella/Whitefella written by Neil Murray and George Rrurrambu and performed by their Warumpi Band

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