October 01, 2015

Don't give them any money

In Katherine, it's common to get 'humbugged' at Woolies (the local supermarket). Humbugging is basically an unsolicited request for something - usually money. It's different to begging. It's typically done between people who already have some sort of relationship. Anthropologists call it demand-sharing, and it's actually a way of maintaining healthy family relationships. In remote communities, it's typically reciprocal and a leveller. But in town where there's alcohol and wealth disparities, it's more complicated. Humbugging pisses off a lot of white people - especially people who don't know and/or like Aboriginal people. For me, it is what it is. It's a cross-cultural challenge and the prevalence of it in Katherine town itself is a symptom of social inequality. Sometimes it's a pain. Sometimes it's just a means to start a conversation. Sometimes it's a way for me to help a friend in need.

So, as it often goes, I dropped into Woolies Katherine and on my way out was stopped by someone I know and he asked me for money. He's a young man I've known for over 10 years, since he was about 12 - I don't know him well, but enough to say hi to. He was with his wife and they were drunk, a bit noisy and extra friendly. I didn't want to give them money which was okay with them (if not a bit disappointing). That didn't matter much - we still were having a brief friendly chat despite them being pretty all over the place.

At which point, a "concerned citizen" walking past made a point of detouring towards us and gives me some completely unsolicitied advice:
Don't give them any money. 
He said it to me without any evidence of self-consciousness despite him speaking loud enough so that all three of us could hear. I looked at him blankly and said quite coldly: "It's fine. I know these people". And he slunk off, and the drunk guy I was talking to also raised his voice and said something cranky in his direction as he walked away.

I was stunned at this person's boldness. It was so insulting to me, my friend and his partner. I did not need to be "saved" by a random stranger. I found the stranger's behaviour wildly more inappropriate or "anti-social" than that of the young drunk couple. I did not look distressed and my "advisor" did not first check to see if there actually was a problem. I know the couple were drunk in the afternoon and not in a good way, but to assume that it's ok to tell me "don't give them any money" right in front of them? I'm sure it would make them feel utterly worthless. But it's part of this small-minded uncaring ethos among some (many?) in Katherine that "anti-social behaviour" must be stamped out. And at the same time, reflecting a lack of understanding that anti-social behaviours are also the stuff of rude, open hostility and racial profiling like what this random stranger exhibited.

FYI, the guy who humbugged me originally? He has a problem with alcohol and he's been involved in the revolving door of a justice system that we have in the NT for several years now. Both those things are quite likely due to his cognition and judgement being affected by foetal alcohol syndrome and/or petrol sniffing. Despite this, he has still managed to make valuable contributions to a cultural organisation I've had some involvement with over the years. He's a nice guy who makes bad life decisions for reasons that aren't entirely in his control. It is not okay for a stranger to treat or speak to him like he's a piece of trash, nor assume I need "saving" from having an interaction with him.

My only hope is that my unsolicited advisor realised pretty much straight-away that he'd overstepped the mark and next time won't be so quick to judge.


Jordan Ralph said...

Thanks Greg, great post. I've never had an issue with humbugging in and around Katherine. Sure, I've been humbugged as most people have, and I either do what I can to help or apologise and keep moving. When I've declined I've never been harassed like I’ve heard other people have (though I have been harassed by people at stalls trying to sell me something). It's a concern to me that people find it so confronting to the point where they feel the need to intervene and embarrass the people 'humbugging'. As I said, it’s never been a problem.

Your blog reminds me of a time when I was fuelling up at a service station in Katherine and a whitefella came up to me and told me a story where his car was at the mechanic and they wouldn't accept his basics card to pay for it to be fixed. He asked if he could pay for my fuel with his card and I give him the cash (which was around $100). There were a number of thoughts running through my head (which are remnants of my sheltered upbringing in regional Australia) like 'this might be a scam so he can buy something illegal', but I quickly decided it wasn't for me to judge, mostly because I am opposed to the patriarchal aspects of the basics card. Anyway, I agreed to let him pay for the fuel and throughout the rest of the transaction, he was keen on ‘othering’ himself from Aboriginal people – as if the prospect of me judging him as people judge Aboriginal people was too much to bear, as if his humbugging was somehow different to (better than?) the humbugging of Aboriginal people.

I think the problem, particularly in places like Katherine and Broken Hill (where I grew up), is that the majority (or is it a vocal minority?) of people continue to ‘other’ to the extent that they see themselves as blameless or disconnected from the problem – or that they are actually creating the problem in the first place. I hope that your unsolicited advisor also takes time to reflect that there are other issues at play when it comes to humbugging, as you explained. Although, I think (however cynically) that the extent to which many Australians apply critical thinking to these situations is to sit back and say ‘they’re different to me, it’s not my problem’.

justin T NT said...

great post greg.

I have had this experience repeatedly. Strangers berating me for even stopping to talk to people they think i shouldn't be 'encouraging'. It's not just disgusting, it's also sad that these strident segregationists are so disconnected from so much of what is going on around them. I remember one occasion I was asked for 2dollar, and was planning to just say no when one such loudmouth hurried past with unsolicited advice, and in doing so convinced me to hand over my change.

I've also had many experiences saying no, without any abusive response. I find that if I stop, say hello and listen, then apologise that I can't spare any money or that I don't smoke cigarettes, people accept my apology good naturedly and we go our ways. Often I think when people ask for a cigarette they're just as happy to have had exchanged a few friendly words.