“Reflections on a Journey”

by Dr Stacey Kim Coates

Here I share my family’s story, as a way truth-telling. While many great stories start with ‘a long time ago’, it really wasn’t that long ago that the events detailed here took place.

I am a proud Aboriginal woman; however, it was not always safe to acknowledge my Aboriginality. At a young age my grandmother told me I was forbidden to tell people we were Aboriginal, to protect our ‘family secret’. To be honest, at the time I didn’t understand what she meant when she said we were Aboriginal and more importantly, I didn’t know why it needed to remain a secret. No explanation was given and when I attempted to ask my grandmother questions, I was told to ‘hush’. In fact, on one occasion while I was visiting my grandmother, I told her that other children at my school were asking me where I got my ‘olive skin’ from. The question seemingly upset her; my grandmother moved closer to me, and in a stern, yet quiet voice, with her finger pointing directly at my face, she said ‘you tell them you’re European and leave it at that’. I remember at the time feeling really confused. Why would I tell people my family were European considering we weren’t European? It wasn’t until many years later I learned why.
          My great-great-grandfather was an Aboriginal man, from Central New South Wales. Under Australian Government policies, during the time of colonisation, he was taken from his way of living and placed on a mission, with other Aboriginal Peoples. The only way he could leave the mission legally, to live a seemingly ‘free’ life was if he married a ‘white’ woman, who had migrated to Australia, from Ireland. The purpose for the marriage was based on the theory that it was possible to breed out the black skin. Their marriage resulted in the birth of seven children. The seven children were considered ‘half-caste Aborigine’ children under Australian law (Aboriginal Peoples are no longer referred to as either ‘half-caste’ or ‘Aborigine/s’).
          One of their children was my great-grandmother; she was born in 1899, during a time the Australian Government permitted the forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their families, based purely on the fact that the children were of Aboriginal decent. The majority of Aboriginal children were then placed in orphanages and siblings were generally separated. Sadly, this was the case for my great-grandmother and her siblings. At the age of five, my great-grandmother and her six siblings were removed from their family home and placed in various orphanages across Australia. Once my great-grandmother was placed in an orphanage, she never saw or heard from her father, mother or siblings again. Shortly after being placed in an orphanage, my great-grandmother was placed with a non-Indigenous foster-family, where she remained until she was of an age that she could legally leave.
          During the period my great-grandmother was raised in foster-care, Aboriginal Peoples were prohibited from obtaining any form of ‘formal’ education. While an education policy, known as the ‘Clean, Clad and Courteous’ policy was introduced in 1884 allowing Aboriginal children to attend their nearest Government-run school, providing they were ‘habitually clean, decently clad and they conduct themselves with propriety’, this meant school administrators could exclude Aboriginal children from the classroom if they were perceived to have health and/or hygiene issues (Fletcher 74). Furthermore, in 1902, Government schools were directed to exclude Aboriginal children if complaints were received from non-Indigenous parents, under the ‘Exclusion on Demand’ policy. In cases like this, most Aboriginal children, including my great-grandmother, were then forced to attend segregated ‘Aboriginal schools’ run by unqualified teachers (Hogarth 148–149). Sadly, the ‘Exclusion on Demand’ policy was maintained well into the 1970s. While the policy is no longer in operation, such discriminatory policies are more tenacious and have negative long-term effects, well after the policy expired.
When my great-grandmother was of an age where she was legally able to leave the foster home in which she was raised, under the Australian Government’s ‘Assimilation’ policy, she was restricted to where she was able to reside. The goal of the ‘Assimilation’ policy was to make the ‘Aboriginal problem’ gradually disappear so that Aboriginal Peoples would lose their cultural identity while also ‘falling into line’ within the wider non-Indigenous community. Seemingly, in the case of my great-grandmother, the Assimilation policy achieved its objective; once my great-grandmother settled into a newly established suburb, just south of Sydney, New South Wales, she realised that the only way my she could succeed in ‘white Australia’ was to deny her Aboriginality. Unfortunately, my family learned well after she had passed that she was not always successful at doing concealing her Aboriginality, resulting in being subjected to racist taunts and threats.  

Fast forward to a time when my great-grandmother was married and had three children of her own, her three children, one being my grandmother, were also denied the opportunity to attend mainstream schooling. Instead, labelled as ‘half-caste Aborigines’, the ‘Exclusion on Demand’ policy forced them to attend segregated Aboriginal schools. My grandmother was taught how to carry out basic labour-intensive tasks for work and her formal educational journey was non-existent. By the age of fifteen, my grandmother was hired full-time as a cleaner. Ironically, she spent most of her working life cleaning Government-run schools; cleaning classrooms was the closest she got to being on the inside of a mainstream public school. My heart is filled with sadness when I reflect on the fact that my grandmother wasn’t permitted to attend school as a student, but it was acceptable for her to clean classrooms once the school day ended.
          When my grandmother was twenty-one, she married a local Sydney man. He was a stonemason by trade; a trade he claimed he fell into by mere chance, without any formal training or education. Together they had two children: my father and my uncle. My great-grandmother was clever, she helped my grandmother conceal the Aboriginality of her two sons so they wouldn’t be subjected to forms of racism (political and non-political). I don’t know how they achieved this but there is no record of them being Aboriginal. As a consequence of concealing their Aboriginality, my uncle and father were permitted to attend the local public school. However, given my great-grandmother and grandmother were denied the opportunity to receive a formal education, and my grandfather faced his own challenges in terms of schooling for reasons we don’t know, my grandparents’ attitude towards the education system was tainted. My grandparents simply did not see the value in obtaining a formal education and therefore my grandparents didn’t encourage my father or uncle to attend school. Consequently, by the age of fourteen, my father stopped attending school all together. Eventually my father joined the police cadets at the age of sixteen, resulting in him serving on the police force until he reached retirement.
According to my father, his Aboriginal heritage was never talked about. He remembers his grandmother, my great-grandmother, being a very ‘hard’ woman who never talked about her life growing up. In my father’s mind he was led to believe she was an only child that lost her family when she was a young child and was raised by distant relatives. In one sense she was an only child that had lost her family, the reality was her family was taken from her. My father didn’t know when his grandmother was alive, that she was forcibly removed from her parents and siblings at a young age and grew up in foster-care. Uncovering the truth to her life, well and truly after her passing, shocked him to his core.
          When my father married my mother and had three children of his own, including me, and by the time my siblings and I were of school age, there had been a shift in Australian policies, and it was now compulsory for all children, including Aboriginal children, to attend school—not that the change in Australian polices mattered, considering we weren’t allowed to acknowledge our Aboriginal heritage. By this time, it was very much a family secret.
          In terms of an example of the tenacious and negative long-term effects of exclusion policies, in the same way as my great-grandmother and grandmother did not see the value in obtaining a formal education, my father did not either. Therefore, my siblings and I were raised to believe school was just a babysitting service, so my parents could work; if we learnt anything while at school, it was a bonus.
          As for my schooling experience, I didn’t learn to read until I was in Grade Four (ten years of age), even then I struggled with basic ‘sight words’. Every time I was asked to read aloud to the rest of the class I would panic. In a crippling state of anxiety, I would slowly stumble through a few words as the other children in my class snickered. It wouldn’t take too long before my teachers released me from the torture I was inflicting on the other members of the class, by asking another student to read out loud instead.
          I remember my Grade Four teacher contacting my father at one point, as he was concerned my literacy and numeracy skills were well below average for my age. My father attended a meeting with my teacher. During the meeting my teacher handed my father an envelope with extra worksheets in it. My father was encouraged to help me complete one worksheet per night as well as getting me to read out loud. Upon returning home from the meeting, my father threw the worksheets in the bin and said school was a waste of time. I remember feeling distressed; I didn’t want to be the dumb girl anymore and I saw those worksheets as my only way out.
          I found myself in all the low performing classes throughout my high school years. I remember sitting in one of my first mathematics exams and quietly crying because I couldn’t read the ‘problem-solving’ questions, but I also couldn’t complete basic mathematical questions either. As the tears ran down my face, the student next to me could see I was struggling. She kindly turned her page towards me, allowing me to copy her answers. I will never forget that act of kindness.

On the face of it, I was simply pushed through the education system. At the conclusion of my final year of high school, at the age of seventeen, my self-esteem and confidence levels were at an all-time low, along with my ability to read and write. I obtained a basic low-level, low-paying job in a call-center, shortly after the completion of high school. I had no future career prospects and my outlook on life was bleak.
          During the first few years of my ‘working’ career, I avoided any tasks that required written correspondence. However, following working in the call-center for a few years, it became apparent that I needed to lift my reading and writing skills if I wanted to get away from that line of work. From that point on, I worked tirelessly to improve both my literacy and numeracy skills. I initially started reading simple books, designed for people that were learning to read. When I came across words I didn’t recognise I would refer to the dictionary I bought. Slowly but surely, I could see my ability to read and write was improving.
          As my ability to read and write improved, I was keen to learn more. Armed with my newfound confidence, I made the decision to apply for entry into university, as a mature age student. I wanted to study psychology. Still living at home with my parents, I shared my plans with them. My father was furious. He couldn’t understand why I wanted to go to university. He didn’t see the value in furthering my education, referring to university as ‘a waste of time’ only to gain a ‘piece of paper’ at the end of it. He said he couldn’t see what I got out of school in the first place, saying I was ‘not an academic’ and ‘people like us were too dumb for university’. It was interesting how he referred to ‘people like us’, but looking back, I can understand why he said what he said. He too struggled at school. School was a place of pain, difficulty and rejection.
          I forged ahead.

At the time I applied, university acceptances were published in the newspaper, As soon as the delivery arrived at my local service station the day the offers were released, I was there. Then, there it was, in black and white, my name. I had been accepted into the University of Western Sydney, a Bachelor of Social Science.
          My first years at university were difficult. It was the first time I had ever seen or read journal articles. Reading abstracts alone took me hours. Understanding the work took even longer, writing an essay was near impossible. I refused to give up. I had a point to prove, mainly to myself. I was not going to be that dumb Aboriginal girl anymore, even if it meant going to hell and back.
          Today, I am proud to say, against all odds, I have successfully completed a Bachelor of Social Science, majoring in Psychology, and a Master of Teaching.
          In between completing my Bachelor degree and Master of Teaching I met an Aboriginal man who recognised my Aboriginality the minute he laid eyes on me. Panicked-straitened, at the age of twenty-four, I remember sheepishly mumbling to him that I didn’t know much about my family heritage as it was something we were not allowed to discuss. During the conversation he urged me to uncover the truth surrounding my family history and to stop denying my Aboriginality. In his words, it was my responsibility to ‘right the wrong doings of the Australian Government, for the sake of both my ancestors and future generations’. The conversation was a life changing moment that led me to where I am today, in terms of proudly identifying and advocating for Mob.

I was motivated to complete my teaching qualification to ensure our future generations were given the educational opportunities that previous generations were denied. Therefore, in my capacity as a primary school teacher, I became a strong advocate for our People, ensuring our children received the high-quality education they deserve. But I realised it wasn’t just our children that needed educating.
          In 2014, on my first day as a newly appointed teacher, the relieving principal called me into her office and told me she hadn’t told the staff that I was Aboriginal. According to her, it was best that my colleagues didn’t know.
          Seemingly, in 2014 it was still best to deny being Aboriginal. Horrified at her suggestion to conceal my Aboriginality, I waltzed into the staff room and introduced myself to my new colleagues as a proud Aboriginal woman. However, I soon realised why the principal suggested I kept my Aboriginality a secret. The racist remarks made from several other teachers were disgraceful to say the least. One teacher went so far as to tell me that I was only appointed to my teaching position because I was Aboriginal. Needless to say, she was absolutely incorrect.
          Despite being on the receiving end of several racist remarks, I saw it as an opportunity to challenge the systemic racism that was clearly still evident across the education system. It was clear a vast majority of teachers lacked knowledge and understanding pertaining about Indigenous Peoples and the impact of colonialisation. Armed with this insight I commenced a campaign termed ‘Educate the Educators’. The campaign centered around urging the Department of Education to introduce mandatory ‘Indigenous Histories’ training for all public-school teachers. I’m pleased to say the campaign was well-received and soon after the Department of Education introduced mandatory Indigenous Histories training for all public-school teachers. 

Now, under the guidance of two deadly Indigenous academics, strong Aboriginal women, I have been awarded my PhD.
          Reflecting on my journey, I went from not being able to read and write, to learning to read and writing essays, to writing and publishing my own pieces of work, including writing an entire PhD thesis. As first-author on seven journal articles and co-author on six journal articles, with two more publications underway, I am an academic after all.
          Namely, a proud Aboriginal academic. School is for everyone.


Works Cited

Fletcher, J. J. Documents in the history of Aboriginal education in New South Wales. Carlton, N.S.W: J. Fletcher, 1989.

Hogarth, Melitta. ‘One step forward, two steps back: The historical and social context of Indigenous education policy’, Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues, 19.1–2 (2016): 147–160.


Dr Stacey Kim Coates is a proud Wiradjuri woman (an Aboriginal mob from central New South Wales, Australia). Stacey previously worked in the field of child welfare, before moving into the education sector. She completed her PhD in 2023, examining synergies between the governance structures within Australian universities and outcomes in relation to Indigenous higher education. In addition to her PhD, Stacey completed her Bachelor of Social Science majoring in Psychology in 2008 and her Master of Teaching (Primary) in 2014. She has published several pieces of work that centres the voices of First Nations Peoples across Australia, New Zealand, Canada and North America.