On MangoGate, Entitlement, And Australia’s Total Reluctance To Listen

"These kids could learn from this. But they won't."

When I was in my first year at university, I opted to do Indigenous Studies as my elective alongside my Bachelor of Creative Arts courses. I was the only Indigenous person in a class of people who were mostly doing education degrees, and were there because it was compulsory.

I did a group project on the Stolen Generation, and when we played the scene from Rabbit-Proof Fence where Daisy, Gracie and Molly are taken from their families, the majority of the class erupted in poorly-stifled giggles, and the rest looked mortified at the classmates’ behaviours. I snapped at them, demanding to know what was so funny, only to be silenced by my white teacher and asked to sit down.

At the time I remember wondering how these morons even got into university. Perhaps it was growing up in the country, or being raised to appreciate every opportunity, but I had always assumed that people who got into university had to be clever, tolerant, and mature. Not like some of the ignorant shits I went to high school with.

Do Ignorant Shits Really Deserve A Free Pass?

I’ve been thinking about this again this week, after some high school students began harassing a dear friend of mine, 26-year-old writer Ellen van Neerven.

Ellen had been receiving hateful messages from New South Wales students over a poem of hers, Mango, that had been included in the NSW Higher School Certificate English exam (something she was never given any notice of). Comments such as “We were asked to analyse your mango f****d poem — and I’m asking what the f***k was the point of your mango bullshit?” were sent to her in direct Facebook messages.

Writers who have been rushing to her defence are now being harassed too. The NSW Education Standards Authority has expressed their discontent at this behaviour, but hasn’t really done anything to reprimand the students.

The sad thing is, our culture encourages this.

Since then, the students have been posting comments in their HSC discussion Facebook group, making claims such as “Cook shoulda finished the job” and posting pictures of a monkey at a typewriter, stating this was the author of the poem. These are some of our potential university students, everyone. I imagine they’ll be some of the students laughing at our misfortune in future classrooms, while their classmates cringe.

The sad thing is, our culture encourages this. We’re living in the times of people eye-rolling at blackfellas demanding basic human rights, and thinking that having an opinion and a keyboard is the same as having informed insight. If people are challenged or proven wrong, they make it personal.

As a result, these kids think that it’s perfectly fine to seek out and harass a person all in the name of fun, and when they are told that this is shitty behaviour, this escalates into racially motivated cyber-bullying. They’re not only getting away with this, but some people are making excuses for them too.

Responding to all this, Crikey writer Guy Rundle chuckled at the “culturati” who are calling out the behaviour. He ended up praising these teenagers for demanding an education in the way they see fit, actively denying the middle-class teenaged entitlement that resulted in racist attacks. Sorry bud, but when they start posting shit like “Cook shoulda finished the job”, and “suck my dick, and I’ll give ya petrol”, we know it’s no longer about a poem.

A Missed Opportunity

Ok I admit, these kids were initially just taking the piss out of a poem they didn’t like, but the game changed to harassment when they contacted Ellen directly. It changed again when they were given context of what that monkey picture meant. Instead of stopping the abuse and calling out the racism, many still tried to defend or excuse it or the group as a whole.

These kids are not alone in this. Think back to what happened to footballer Adam Goodes in 2015. He was facing widespread booing and, at some points, racial slurs. Adam called it out as racism, he told the public how it was being interpreted, he gave it an explicit context. But people continued doing it. Many vocally resented him for speaking outThe students undertaking this hateful treatment of an Indigenous writer are a product of a world that prioritises their outrage over the hurt of people who are just asking to be treated fairly.

It’s that simple.

Meeting Ellen through the black&write program in Brisbane was one of the most fortunate things to happen in my life as a writer. I gained a wonderful friend. Ellen van Neerven is one of the most gentle and creative people I’ve ever met. She’s a wonderful writer, poet and playwright, and has done wonderful things for herself and her mob. She will continue to do amazing things with the support of all of us, despite all of this.

These entitled kids, on the other hand, are going to have any opportunity for personal growth completely stunted because they’re not being held accountable for their actions. They could learn from this. But they won’t.

It’s not our job as Indigenous Australians to educate your kids about decent behaviour, however, people whose job that has been allocated to aren’t stepping up. The NSW Board of Education and NSW Education Standards Authority are simply “hoping the students will see it fit to apologise”.

The most horrific thing about all of this, for me, is the question that these students were asked to answer about this poem: “How does the speaker convey delight?” In a country of Tall Poppy Syndrome, lateral violence, whatever you want to call it, if this was the younger generations’ response to a conveyance of delight, what hope does that give the rest of us?

Carissa Lee (@rissless) is a young Wemba-Wemba writer and actor based in Narrm (Melbourne). An active member of the First Nations Australia Writing Network (FNAWN), her writing has appeared in Uni Junkee, The Melbourne Writers Festival, The Conversation, Lip Mag, and Book Riot.