Stop it, step in

If you are white, you can make sure where you work, doesn’t do this, look around you and if you see something happening stop it or step in.

Colleen Lavelle, Subversive Racism, Aug 2016


I’m sitting in the rain in my car listening to the radio, waiting for my daughter. There’s a senior corrections officer from the Northern Territory on the phone to the radio station explaining why restraints are used on “challenging prisoners”. He’s talking about Malcolm Morton, an Aboriginal man who has an intellectual disability and has been strapped to “the chair” 17 times in four years.

He has all the words in the right order, the rehearsed explanations of safety and benefit and conscience and proper governance. He’s trying to make “the chair” into something that sounds like good practice, a practice of care. These are words that have been put on his tongue.

Tressie Mcmillan Cottom taught me the phrase “cornbread that turns to shit in your mouth.”

He says it’s the worst week he’s ever had.

Until the last couple of weeks, Australians could be sorted into those who knew about “the chair“, and those who had no idea.

Now we can sort ourselves into those who are still shocked, angry and disbelieving, and those who are exhausted by their fellow citizens’ ability to keep being surprised by the reality of what’s going on in this country. We’re playing the stupidest game of catch-up in the world. We are barely on the map of this continent’s history and we keep claiming that we’ve arrived, we get it, we’re in this. We take to the streets again, or Twitter, or wherever it is that we express our concerns.

We have no idea.


Colleen Lavelle is a blogger who has entirely reshaped my sense of what it means to be an Australian with cancer. She has shared her own story of living with a brain tumour with extraordinary generosity: working with cancer, living with cancer, being a parent with cancer, managing debt with cancer, dealing with cancer drugs and cancer professionals and setbacks and fears and anger.

Time and again I’ve gone to her blog when I just need to hear the voice of someone who knows that there are days when all of these things are messed up.

But I also go because I’m a narrative researcher and Colleen does this incredible thing: other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people share their cancer stories with her, and she puts them out on her blog. Thanks to her, there’s a platform where the hidden voices of cancer care get heard, where people get to speak about having cancer while Black, having cancer in a country and healthcare system that is entirely failing to get to grips with structural racism.

Because cancer patients don’t just have cancer. We do other stuff. We drive cars and rent homes and stand in lines at the shops, and absolutely every one of these simple, self-affirming efforts at keeping it together while having cancer is messed up for Colleen in a way that it will never be for me.

How do you fight the system that leaves you out? How to you gain real equality when you are profiled and stereotyped? As a patient, I have been denied pain relief because of the colour of my skin. I have had medical professionals assume that I drink and take drugs. How do you fight against an entire health system? How do you deal with the police that pull you over because you are a black person in a new car? Don’t think it doesn’t happen because it does, it has been happening for years.

Please read the rest of what she has to share.


In her last blog, ever practical, Colleen suggested that she doesn’t need white Australians to march or tear our hair or feel bad. She needs simple, practical, direct action.

If you are white, you can make sure where you work, doesn’t do this, look around you and if you see something happening stop it or step in. It’s not hard to say ” That lady was first” when shopping, When you vote, ensure that you are not voting for a bigot. Read about Aboriginal people and I am not talking just the negative stuff in the papers but positive and novels. Get involved in local activities to show your support and be willing to learn.

I work in higher education. And on the days where I wonder how print newspapers survive, I know that one way is that large institutions like the university where I work have multiple subscriptions to the daily papers. I wander round offices and there they are, put out and tidied away at the end of the day. I respect and admire many journalists who write for these papers, and I know it’s important that we try to keep some kind of national conversation going, for which national newspapers are still pretty well set up.

But The Australian, our most national newspaper, which to be honest rarely fails to disappoint on some level or another, has today responded to the national crisis in Indigenous incarceration with a cartoon so awful that for me it takes down the whole proposition.

I’m not linking to it. If you read one thing about it, read “Here We Go Again” by Luke Pearson, founder of @IndigenousX, who’s absolutely right that the problem this cartoon represents is way bigger that one individual, one editorial decision, one issue.

But there it is, and I look at it with tears in my eyes and I think about Colleen going about her work, having to step out into her community and know that this newspaper is in cafes and bars and homes and universities and concerned white Australians all around her are saying with a shrug “Oh, that’s too much”, and turning the page and moving on.

If you see something happening, stop it or step in.

“You Are The System”. I found this written on a whiteboard where I work in May 2016.

Here’s what Australia’s universities could do: cancel your many subscriptions to The Australian, and explain why. We are Australia’s peak organisations for fostering ethical and critical thought, and that still has to mean something. So take a stand and say that even though this is the only national newspaper where there is anything like coverage of Higher Education issues, if this cartoon represents their editorial standard then the price for getting our sector’s news from them is too high.

And to the leading journalists working there who are so important to our understanding of higher education issues: I am so sorry, I know this is about your jobs and not mine.

But if the place I worked published something like this, I would not walk in the door.

Stop it.


And if cancelling your subscription to The Australian is too much to contemplate (although do think about that for a moment, given the standard of this cartoon), then here’s a second thing you can do.

At the end of 2014, when I was beginning to pull myself together after chemotherapy and radiation, I came across a video in which a woman who looked to be about my age spoke to the camera with a fierceness that made me sit up. She talked about her struggle with chronic illness and for her the symbol of her determination to be well was to be able to walk up a hill that she found particularly tough. I was walking up a similar hill every day, trying to bring my damaged self back into some kind of order. So I contributed to the Hope4Health campaign that was fundraising to help Dianne Biritjaluwuy and other women from her community to develop a model of healthcare in harmony with Yolngu principles of culture and nutrition.

They have made it work, and they just met their target of raising the next $80,000 to run “a world-first, indigenous-led health retreat”, with their own meaning. You can follow them on Twitter @OurHope4Health, and read about their journey here.

So if what The Australian has done today makes you despair for this country, then don’t. There’s hope about, and you can help: read here and contribute to what these extraordinary women are doing.

Step in.


I think about the day a person dies, how the morning is just a morning, a meal is just a meal, a song is just a song. It’s not the last morning, or the last meal, or the last song. It’s all very ordinary, and then it’s all very over.

The space between life and death is a moment.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs, ‘Yahrzeit


The internet is curled in on itself with grief, again. Someone loved and admired and puzzled over and copied and with a place in so many hearts through songs we sing in the car and lost times in our own lives, our own gone selves, that someone has gone and died. In a last blurry photograph of an out of the way moment, there he is right in the act of being ordinary, walking back to his car outside the pharmacy. What does he know? Does he know that it’s today?

The best piece I read was Tressie McMillan Cottom getting right to the core of why this death holds our attention, and how even someone beyond the circle of our own kin and people, can still rip into skin.

We took the road most traveled and there are no detours for the foreseeable future. That kind of genius died today and with it went my faith.

Celebrity death fills the space after loss with wild-eyed explanations and suggestions, as one thing gives way to another. The scene of death is explained again and again, events gather together and take on significance. The day that could have begun and ended like every other, ended differently.

And look, there they are, big pharma’s gleaming fishhooks. Percocet. Oxycodone.


Stephanie Wittels Sachs writes about the anniversary of her brother’s death, and the Jewish tradition of lighting a Yahrzeit candle on the memorial day at the end of a year of mourning, that burns for 24 hours. Two months later, and it’s his birthday. In a beautiful essay on the struggle to sustain empathy among strangers online, she tells this story:

My brother’s 32nd birthday is today. It’s an especially emotional day for his family because he’s not alive for it. He died of a heroin overdose last February.

This year is even harder than the last. I started weeping at midnight and eventually cried myself to sleep. Today’s symptoms include explosions of sporadic sobbing and an insurmountable feeling of emptiness. My mom posted a gut-wrenching comment on my brother’s Facebook page about the unfairness of it all. Her baby should be here, not gone. “Where is the God that is making us all so sad?” she asked.

In response, someone — a stranger/(I assume) another human being — commented with one word: “Junkie.”

Hard as it is to imagine from here, her essay becomes a powerful defence of empathy as the recuperation of our capacity to care for strangers, even those we feel most secure in shaming.


But. And.

In his writing on generosity, Arthur Frank calls on Levinas for the concept of alterity, as something fundamental to being human. We are not other because of location or opportunity or type, or because of any of the big markers of diversity (however important these are for other reasons) or any of the particular things we have gone on to do. Alterity—being other—is the condition of being a person in the first place.

For Frank, this is a useful way of approaching the symbolic violence of medical diagnosis and treatment, that tries to discipline alterity, to bundle it into thinkable categories. All the institutions we work in depend on this kind of classificatory busywork: tagging, sorting and ranking of humans like it’s a good thing that we can do this. We add a little science and call it analytics, but what we’re doing here is profoundly social and shot through with tiny fears: we’re trying to sort out the confronting alterity of the human crowd into patterns we can tolerate, so we know who to join up with, who to work on, who to exclude.

In Frank’s reading of Levinas, this poses an uncomfortable question about empathy. When we look at what someone else is going through and mistake our empathic reaction for their suffering, we blanket their experience with our own. Empathy places alterity under strain.

Empathy tends towards unification: either my projecting what would make me feel better onto you, or my fusing with your suffering. … Seeing the face requires alterity. I must recognise that there are aspects of your suffering that I can never imagine and I can never touch.

Restraint: it’s a tough standard for times of social grieving, when it feels as though we’re all keening and wailing through our common loss of faith. But maybe getting straight with this loss of faith might be a way that we can build something new together.


It’s been a year. Many of us stayed awake all night, keeping candles in our windows and our thoughts, while the rusted machinery of state killing—that has no place at all in this world, none—cranked into action and flung itself on the bodies of people who were already as subjugated to the forces of the world opiate market as anyone else.

When Myuran Sukumaran died, Australia lost a courageous, graceful and visionary thinker, someone who was actively making a better world.

I can’t imagine his mother’s loss. It’s beyond anything I could claim to touch.


All this was meant to be gone long ago,

votive lamps, lighting candles,

bowing towards some holy centre of the earth,

yet sometimes we have to

gather up the four corners of our lives,

like the corners of a tablecloth,

to shake out the crumbs;

sometimes we need light

for a journey,

sometimes we even need to bow.

Moya Cannon, ‘Midday at Stockholm Airport’

I’m not a person of faith in any religious sense, not at all, but reading this beautiful poem I wonder if maybe mortality itself can stand in for faith at times like this. It gives us a sense of scale, after all, and a reason to stay awake.

for Tressie

Showing up

Go son, go down to the water / And see the women weeping there
Then go up into the mountains / The men, they are weeping too

Nick Cave, “The Weeping Song


It’s a day for weeping, as it turns out. All over the place, so much grieving.

Lives brought up short abruptly and in shockingly public ways right in the middle of being lived, and other lives ending privately with some warning.  Barely born ones touching down lightly and leaving us at once and very old ones leaving us in the arms of others they made out of their own bodies, or not.

And all of us still here at this time going on with the unfinishable project of writing the rules for grieving when grief is suddenly more than can be held in the boxes and buildings and clay cups we have made to hold all the stuff. People setting fire to things and lying down on freeways, and setting tables of thanksgiving with empty places, and making quiet organised gestures, all of us trying to find the words for these confusing experiences of shared public grieving while not getting in the way of others above us in the complicated hierarchy of entitlement to shock.

Because it’s not over. We’re all here to go on dying, that’s our work, our gift of making way to everyone who comes after us. And yet we work as if that’s not the case, not relevant to our values, as if it’s a vanishingly tiny thing relative to the busyness and accomplishment we stand for while we’re here.

But sometimes it feels as if the spectacle of dying demands our attention, and so we stop awkwardly and don’t know what to do with ourselves, how to show up, where to stand, banal and tricky survivors that we are. Do we play cricket this weekend, or not? Do we go to McDonalds? Do we carry on with the chatter of our day online as though #blacklivesmatter or #blackdeathsincustody or #stolenlives or #putoutyourbats shouldn’t just let all the other conversations fall quiet and all the workday deadlines go by unattended?

Aren’t we meant to stand and line the roads in silence at a time like this?


In the waiting room of the radiotherapy unit where I spent a lot of time this year, there’s a big table of jigsaw puzzles. People come along, and fill in their bit, while they wait. Because that’s one of the weird details of cancer treatment: it involves a lot of waiting, a lot of sitting about, a lot of downtime. So we put the pieces of the sky back together, over and over.

Without exactly planning it this way, at home we distracted ourselves from cancer with the enormous and unfinishable puzzle of military history. Weird, hey.

So now, written up in the incalculable heap of debts I will never be able to repay to the beautiful Rustichello who walked every single step of this year with me, is the fact that I really know a lot more than I did about war. War movies, documentaries, audio books, actual books being read aloud to me in the middle of night: the soundtrack of this year. It’s got me thinking about why we keep telling ourselves the story of war, given the price of listening: wins at terrible cost, losses at even greater cost, history excused by the winners and remembered by the losers, and all the maps and diagrams and technologies and turning points. So many stories, so much hurt.

And at some level it seems to me that what happens when people commit to going back and thinking about what happened in the past is connected to this strange capacity that we have to show up—this same capacity that social networks online have suddenly made visible at such extraordinary scale—in respect of the grief carried in the lives of others, to maintain some kind of vigil over the histories of dying, to keep passing on the stories of the exact moment they left us, and what grief remained, and for whom.

But I think we’re still struggling with the practice of showing up in the context of lives that are still being lived.


And so this gets to what we might be searching for as we say over and over and over and over: rest in peace. What is that peace that we can’t bring ourselves to create in life on this earth, that we hope others will rest in by dying?

The problem is that a conciliatory practice of peaceableness can’t come into being in any rational way with things as they are, and we all know it, and none of us know what to do about this. So we end up with showdown after showdown, pleading with each other to listen, while demanding compliance and respect and public order and fatalism from those who get the least from the way things are.

And it’s so hard because to listen well, we have to listen to the stories that are furthest from our own values. Because for someone it really is about ethics in games journalism, and for someone else it really is about the shirt, and for a whole crew of others it’s the energising sense of capacity and relevance that comes from tipping the trash cans over and over and over. What even is that?

So power can’t make way, privilege can’t shut up, and yet for all the talking there is now so much we can’t bring ourselves to say. In a beautiful post, Tressie McMillan Cottom puts part of it like this:

But it should never be spoken. We should never have to admit that we have sanctioned murder so that we can have stuff. Stuff, loosely defined, runs the gamut from televisions and plate glass windows to whiteness and bike lanes. We should never be forced to articulate that we have accepted a minimum threshold for murders so that we can have stuff. (Tressie McMillan Cottom, Riots and Reason)

And then it happens that people who do have something to say about this, something that might help, second guess themselves, stay quiet, and don’t know how to show up in case they’re in the wrong fight, on the wrong topic, carrying the wrong credential.

Shut up.


And yet we keep trying to show up. In Australia we’re watching the showing up that’s happening in the context of a particular incident of public loss, a life that was stopped in public, right there on the television while people were reaching for a beer or chatting or sending another email, freakishly and impossibly and in a way that confounds statistics and any reasonable safeguards.

And I’m reading about Kate Forristall’s beautiful #irlproject, which is fundamentally about showing up for others as we are here, all still living as we are.

And I can’t help it: I think in the face of all of this—look, we have got this. We know what to do. We’re doing it. We’re weeping, exactly as we should.

Cricket bat
All over Australia, people are doing this thing today: #putoutyourbats