My parents just rang from Ti Tree in the Northern Territory. Either today or yesterday they rescued a carload of strangers stuck on the Sturt Highway by buying petrol at the next town and taking it back to refuel their empty tank.
I feel really proud when they do things like this. I expect a lot of people wouldn’t have done it, and I’m not sure what I would have done. When you’re driving along a highway it seems hard to stop for anything. There’s just something about zooming along a road that makes you want to keep zooming.
And the area they’re in is very remote – roughly speaking, in the middle of Australia. This is Barrow Creek in a photo from Wikipedia by Adrian Kitchingman:
It’s known for being the place where Peter Falconio is presumed to have been murdered – after being waved down by a stranger on the side of the road. That was big news back in 2001, and I still remember it.
Barrow Creek is the home community of the people my parents helped, and they’re Aboriginal people. In Australia it means something to say that a carload of strangers is Aboriginal, and that’s because we’re racist. Put it this way: I’m a white Australian and I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that a carload of Aborigines had run out of petrol. But if it had been a carload of Indian or Chinese people, or Caucasians like me, that would have surprised me a lot – both that they’d run out of petrol on a highway and that there’d been a carload of them.
Is it reasonable to stereotype people in such a way? Of course not. I do it because of prejudice or bias or discrimination, due in part to overly-biased media reports or something. And taking a wild guess here, I bet my parents think the same way. They’re not so enlightened that they see everybody fairly; I bet nobody is. So, when my parents came across a carload of Aborigines on the side of the road in a remote part of the country, I think they would have had to counteract 200+ years of racist social conditioning in order to make themselves slow down and stop to offer assistance. And that’s what they did.
They’re good people, my parents, and the people they were helping are quite likely good people too. If the positions had been reversed, the Aboriginal people would quite likely have stopped to help my parents. That’s what you do when you live in the country: help each other. And that might be what you do in the city, too; who knows.
And years ago I was helped by two Aboriginal men when the car I was driving lost a tyre. This was on the outskirts of a local town. I’d been driving home when the car started making a weird thumping noise, so I pulled off the road to replace the obviously hopeless tyre. But then couldn’t even remove the tyre, let alone replace it. I can’t remember why; I think either the nuts were screwed on too tightly to loosen, or I didn’t have the right tools for the job. While I was fumbling and worrying, a car pulled up behind me and parked, quite a long way away. The two occupants, two Aboriginal men, sat there and … just sat there, for ages. I didn’t know what they were doing, and started to worry, plus I was already worrying about not being able to replace the tyre, and this was back in the days before mobile phones, so I was actually literally stuck.
After what seemed like forever the two Aboriginal men got out of their car and walked over and asked if I needed a hand. And I said yes, and thank you, and thank you, and they removed the tyre and replaced it for me. I hope I shook their hands, but now I bet I was too shy to do that. They were kind. They were good people. And on the drive home on the newly-replaced tyre I wondered if they’d waited in their car for so long because they’d thought I might be scared of them.
That idea makes me want to cry, now. They were good people, being kind, but maybe they thought prejudice would make me think otherwise.
Then again, maybe they just stayed in their car to wait for me to ask for their help. And thanks to my own traditions, I probably would have waited until the point of starvation before asking – not because of racism, just because of self-sufficient stupidity.
It’s a funny old world we live in, and there’s so much that’s terrible, but when someone like my parents or the tyre-changing heroes do something kind, they make me think that a better world is possible, or may even be here already if we just try harder notice it. Yay for them.