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.