Blacks to the back of the bus: Part one: guest post by Mike Pepperday

There have been some recent racism incidents and the awkwardness of speaking up about it. I am way ahead of them. This was written in 1991. “X” and “Y” have been substituted here for bus company names.

Blacks to the Back of the Bus, Part One

It is after midnight. The coach is stopped, the yellow interior lights are on. The 25 whites have been aboard for hours. Forbidden to get out, they stare down at the blacks outside. The driver returns, announces that 13 local people will be joining the bus and that passengers must vacate the rear seats. He walks back down the aisle giving orders “You move here . . . you sit there . . .” No please or thank you. They obey like mice.

Alabama 1950? Fiction? No, Warburton, Western Australia, 1990. Routine practice on a regular run.

My coach, X service 755, operated by Y Coachlines, departed Ayers Rock about 2 pm Northern Territory time for the 30 hour trip to Perth via Docker River, Warburton, Laverton, Kalgoorlie. The passengers were mainly UK tourists, with two Japanese, one Swede and three white Australians including myself. No Aborigines.

There were two drivers, Murray and John. Murray, slightly built, quick moving, in his forties, was in charge. He had been on the route six months.

As it was a full-sized bus there were plenty of seats. Murray announced that, though we could have a double seat each for the moment, it was possible there might be some “local people” to pick up at Warburton and, if so, passengers presently at the rear of the bus would have to move forward so the new passengers could all sit at the back. The reasons for this rearranging “I won’t go into over the microphone.” The meaning, clear at the time from the context, was that the locals smelled.

Somewhere west of the Olgas we passed a burnt-out car. Murray told us that it had not been there two days before. “They [Aborigines] get a flat tyre so they set a light to them.” We passed a point where there was some litter scattered about. Murray, going on about “drunken no-hopers,” said that it had recently been the site of an Aboriginal roadblock. He then informed us that photography was not permitted at Docker River and Warburton. If anyone took photographs their camera would be confiscated by the “local people.” This included taking photos from the bus, which would be stoned.

At Docker River, about 6 pm, there was no one in sight. Docker River may be fairly described as a rubbish tip with some cabins scattered about in it. We stopped for a couple of hours at Giles Meteorological Station, departing about 9 pm, and pulled into Warburton general store about 12.30 pm. There were perhaps forty or fifty people—Aborigines—standing around.

Both drivers got off to see if there were any new passengers. They closed the door. Normally bus doors are left open when the vehicle is stationary. They were trying to close the door from the outside but it wouldn’t stay shut. After several attempts one of the drivers climbed back aboard, made an adjustment, stepped down again and this time it shut properly. Thereafter the door was carefully closed every time one of the drivers went in or out. Picture the scene: for half an hour we stared out the windows at the black locals and they stared in at the white tourists. Deliberate, blatant, racial segregation. Why? I don’t know.

Murray returned to tell us to vacate the rear seats. Mine was fourth from the front but ever since the afternoon announcement I had been hoping this was not really going to happen. I have done a fair bit of coach travel in many countries including southern United States. The racist attitude didn’t surprise me but I had never seen the practice and had been wondering how to react.

I said loudly, “Blacks to the back of the bus, eh?” Since everyone had a window seat there had been little conversation so we were strangers to one another. My outburst was a breach of Anglo-Saxon decorum, or perhaps of white solidarity.

After a brief silence: “What was that?” said Murray from the rear. He’d heard but couldn’t credit that someone had challenged him.

There was no retreating now. I repeated “Blacks to the back of the bus!” and went on, in jovial tone, “Segregation—you’re seeing it! Here in Australia! Right now! Segregation in action!” No one said a word. “What do our visitors think?” I asked, “What do the Japanese think? What does the Swede think?” The Swede was seated opposite me and threw me a look. He was frightened.

Murray finished his redistribution, walked forward and, standing a few seats in front of me, turned and said: “The reason we do this is because if we didn’t, blokes like you would complain about their body odour.” I replied that I knew very well what he was doing and that it would cease when the people themselves made a stand. He then said that if I said any more he would put me off the bus!

“You’re kidding—I can’t talk?”

“I’ll kick you off! Don’t try me! Any more from you and you’ll be off! Just don’t try me!” I didn’t. His manner was very aggressive and the weekly Y Coachlines is the only transport.

The Englishman who had been placed in the aisle seat beside me muttered that it “does seem a bit extraordinary” and “they’d never get away with this at home” so in due course, when the doors were opened and the new passengers were filing in, I suggested he take a sniff as each passed. The man was genuinely surprised that he could detect no smell.

Since most of us on board had climbed Ayers Rock that morning, if anyone had been offensive it would have been us. For the remainder of the trip to Perth (20 hours) there were few microphone announcements. There was no conversation between blacks and whites.

Later I wished I’d said more—perhaps made some explicit criticism. I don’t think he could have put me off the bus. Why didn’t anyone else speak up? Part of the reason would be the driver’s extreme reaction to my few words, and part would be that they were overseas visitors, but the main reason would be the picture the driver had painted during the previous ten hours.

Nobody spoke up because nobody wants to sit, for a long journey, next to a stinking, car-wrecking, camera-snatching, stone-throwing, drunk. (There is actually no alcohol at Warburton.) These remarks had the aura of authority as they were made in the context of general commentary over the microphone.

Even the government body set up for the purpose said it wasn’t in a position to speak up. There is a Western Australian Equal Opportunities Commission and I had a number of phone conversations with it. The “Conciliation Officer” told me the Racial Discrimination Act requires a complaint to be laid. I pointed out that the reserved culture of the Central Australian Aborigines would not enable them to “lodge a complaint.” She told me “their” people could lodge a complaint on their behalf but no complaint had been made. The bus had been running for six months. I pursued the point of my making a complaint on their behalf but was informed I could not, though eventually I was told I could advise the Equal Opportunities Commission in writing.

In theory I could lay a complaint on my own behalf. But there are rules. A legal opinion would be required. It takes “a long time.” It would also be seen as a sham. The officer told me that racial discrimination is not illegal and nothing could be done till someone lodged a complaint according to the Racial Discrimination Act. She quite readily agreed that without a complaint the segregation would continue.

Since no outback Aborigine would make a complaint and since I thought that the Aboriginal council of the area could not be unaware of what was going on, and since I had received the impression that the WA EO Commission would prefer that I crawl back into the woodwork, I decided to take up their invitation and advise them in writing.

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Jamie
Jamie
8 years ago

A fascinating article and story, I cannot wait to see where it goes next. I am a recent (well, ish, almost 10 years and a citizen now) immigrant who knows precious little even now about my new home’s history. I moved here from the US with my partner to be near her parents after my own mother died, and so the kids would have grandparents.

Sometimes, it shocks me both at the perception in the world that Australia is racist/bigoted. Moreso that other Australians see Brisbane/Queensland as so! In my time here I have transitioned gender, with the amazing help of a government sponsored (And now, of course, closed, thank you slashing and burning the local health system) gender clinic. And I have never once run into anything but support and acceptance here. Which is a huge, huge privilege I know few share with me, but it still leaves me sad when I encounter the realities of other’s experiences both current and past.

My partner and I just this weekend watched a documentary on the White Australia policies and just how huge they were, and I was blown away. It is horrifying and depressing, and blew away any lingering thoughts I had that Australia had handled racial tensions any better than my birth country. Far from it! I am sure some in the US would be envious of just how different it was!

You spoke up more than many, and more than those who couldn’t risk losing their once a week bus ride could have themselves. It no longer surprises me that noone wanted to even talk about the problems you ran into. I hope that the next entries prove me wrong and this has some uplifting and wonderful ending, but I seriously am having trouble picturing it just now!

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
8 years ago

Well, by now you will have read the non-uplifting ending. I did make some attempt at publishing the story but I don’t think I was very persistent. The universal between-the-lines message – shut up and go away – which had at first made me stroppy, got to me in the end. I was out of line.