The Millimurra-Munday family, the Indigenous (or Aboriginal) Australian protagonists of No Sugar, are forced to endure racism daily, both personally and institutionally. They are taken advantage of and abused, forced to accept unequal treatment and invasive government control simply because white Australians have political and social power, and they themselves are not white. Davis clearly illustrates the impact that racism can have on the lives of minorities, but he also takes a broader view of the racist history of Australia, and the centuries-long disenfranchisement of the Aboriginal people. He examines the ways different individuals respond to the trauma of colonial violence—either by becoming angry and fighting back, attempting to assimilate and follow their oppressors’ rules, or even becoming complicit in the behaviors of the racist ruling class. By highlighting both the day-to-day racism wielded against the Millimurra-Mundays, and the long-term effects of colonial violence on Aboriginals as a whole, Davis illustrates how decades of casual interpersonal racism can lead to the systematic disenfranchisement of many generations of people.
The Millimurra-Munday family endures small acts of racism every day, which are the direct result of a colonial culture that devalues the Aboriginal Australian. Although this discrimination is familiar, it is difficult to tolerate. Even the youngest members of the family recognize the ways they are mistreated because of their race—Cissie complains that the grocer sells her and her siblings “little shriveled” apples while “wetjala [white] kids” get “big fat ones.” When Gran and Milly go to the police station to pick up their rations, the Sergeant tells them their real problem is that they have “got three healthy men bludging off you, too lazy to work.” These three men, Sam, Milly’s husband, Jimmy, her brother, and Joe, her teenage son, are unable to find employment—largely because the Great Depression is going on, and unemployment rates are over 30%—but the Sergeant implies that it’s a result of laziness, which he attributes to their race. The white Australians also have little respect for the Aboriginals’ belongings. One notable instance of this is their total disregard for the Millimura-Mundays’ pet dogs. When they are forced to relocate, the family wants to take their dogs with them, since the dogs are like members of the family and are used to catch game. The white Australians do not care, and the Millimura-Mundays correctly predict that any dogs that are left behind will be killed “with a police bullet.”
In addition to the more casual racism that the Millimura-Mundays face daily, the Aboriginal people of Australia must deal with institutional racism at the level of local and state governments, which leads to their systematic disenfranchisement. Most horrifyingly, this colonial violence manifests in genocides, such as the Forrest River Massacre (also called the Oombulgurri Massacre), a historical event recounted by Billy. What begins as more minor racist harassment turned into a large-scale effort to rid a white community of all its native residents. This genocide was the result of already simmering racial tensions, and it gave white Australians an excuse to exterminate a population they already had no respect for. In another instance, three white officials at the Police Station—the Sergeant, Neville, and Miss Dunn—discuss Aboriginal women and teens who “went out in domestic service last year.” Of eighty women, “thirty returned to the settlement in pregnant condition.” Although the implication is that these women have been raped by their white employers, the officials at the police station don’t see this as a problem, and take no steps to prevent it from happening again, or to care for the pregnant women in the present. This shows that even on the governmental level, white Australians show a systematic disregard for the lives and safety of their Aboriginal neighbors.
For the Aboriginal Australians, dealing with daily harassment as well as large-scale physical and sexual violence takes a toll on both individuals and communities. There is no single correct way to deal with the trauma of this centuries-long colonial violence, but by showcasing various solutions, Davis suggests there are better and worse ways to cope. Responses that bring about real change, or at least force white Australians to consider the plight of the Aboriginal community, are more productive than responses that continue to perpetuate the pain of the colonizers.
In response to a lifetime of discrimination, Jimmy becomes increasingly antiestablishment, challenging the authority of any white civil servants. This is evident in essentially every interaction he has with a white character in a position of power, but is especially clear when he and Sam are imprisoned for drunkenly fighting. While Sam is happy to cooperate, Jimmy plays the harmonica to irritate the Constable and Sergeant, talks back to them, throws a bucket at them, and generally tries to prove that, although they have locked him in prison, they cannot control him. Meanwhile, Billy and Bluey have done their best to assimilate into white society. Both men are policemen working for the Moore River Native Settlement. Even though Billy and Bluey are Aboriginal themselves, they treat the Millimurra-Munday family with the same disrespect that white Australians show them, and Billy especially has internalized the violent and racist tactics that his white employers use. Davis depicts their behavior critically, suggesting that assimilation into a racist system is not a productive way to deal with trauma. However, there is a possible way to break from the cycle of mistreatment and violence, Davis suggests. Joe and Mary, for example, attempt to escape their Settlement twice during the play. No Sugar ends with the two teens packing their bags and beginning a search for a home where they can control their own lives. Their departure is bittersweet but hopeful, as the play suggests that some Aboriginal men and women can find a way to escape the colonial violence and racism that has plagued them for centuries.
Throughout No Sugar, the Aboriginal protagonists are forced to endure racism and harassment on multiple levels. Although each individual attack could be bearable, added up over years and generations these assaults become systemic colonial violence. Davis makes clear the relationship between racism at an individual and at a governmental level, and argues that such violence takes an incredible toll on its victims. However, he also suggests that how a person reacts to this violence is an individual choice, and allows room for hope that, in spite of great adversity, some Aboriginal men and women can break free from the cycles of violence, and learn to work through intergenerational trauma.
Racism, Discrimination, and Colonial Violence ThemeTracker
Racism, Discrimination, and Colonial Violence Quotes in No Sugar
JOE: ‘The—blood—was stirred…as if by a trumpet… by the history-ical…Headed by a tab-leau… […] ‘…Commemorating the pioneers whose lives…’ […] ‘…Were a steadfast performance of duty in the face of difficulty and danger. With them was a reminder of the dangers they faced, in the shape of three lorries…carrying Aborigines.
[They all stop what they are doing and listen.]
JOE: All right! ‘…Dancing…to a brass-band.’
SAM: Koorawoorung! Nyoongahs corrobereein’ to a wetjala’s brass band!
JIMMY: Ah! That beats everythin’: stupid bloody blackfellas…You fellas, you know why them wetjalas marchin’ down the street, eh? I’ll tell youse why. ‘Cause them bastards took our country and them blackfellas dancin’ for ‘em. Bastards!
JOE: ‘The pag…page…page-ant pre-sented a picture of Western Australia’s pre-sent condition of hopeful optimum-optimis-tic prosperity, and gave some idea of what men mean when they talk about the soul of the nation.’
SAM: Sounds like bullshit to me.
NEVILLE: Can you take down a note for the Minister, please? […] Item one: the native weekly ration currently costs this Department two shillings and fourpence per week. Perhaps this bears comparison with the sustenance paid to white unemployed which I believe is seven shillings per week. […] Item two: off the cuff, the proposed budget cut of three thousand one hundred and thirty-four pounds could be met by discontinuing the supply of meat in native rations. Soap was discontinued this financial year. Item Three: of eighty girls from the Moore River Native Settlement who went out into domestic service last year, thirty returned—
NEVILLE: Where was I?
MISS DUNN: Of eighty who went out in the domestic service last year…
NEVILLE: Thirty returned to the settlement in pregnant condition, yours etcetera… If you could type that straight away I’ll run it up to the Office myself.
MILLY: Whose idea was it to stop the soap?
SERGEANT: The idea, as you call it, came from the Aboriginal Department in Perth.
GRAN: Mister Neville?
MILLY: I just can’t believe it: no soap!
SERGEANT: Your trouble, Milly, is you got three healthy men bludging off you, too lazy to work.
MILLY: Where they gonna get work?
SERGEANT: They’re afraid to look for it in case they find it.
MILLY: Cockies want ’em to work for nothin’.
GRAN: They not slaves, Chergeant!
SERGEANT: Well, they’ll have to work if you want luxury items like soap.
MILLY: Look, last week my Joe cut a hundred posts for old Skinny Martin and you know what he got? A pair of second-hand boots and a piece of stag ram so tough even the dawgs couldn’t eat it; skinnier than old Martin ’imself.
As I mentioned, I was a little concerned to see so many dirty little noses amongst the children. I’m a great believer that if you provide the native the basic accoutrements of civilisation you’re half way to civilising him. I’d like to see each child issued with a handkerchief and instructed on its use. […] I think some practical training from yourself and Matron in its correct usage would be appropriate. If you can successfully inculcate such basic but essential details of civilised living you will have helped them along the road to taking their place in Australian society.
CONSTABLE: You’re being transferred to the Moore River Native Settlement.
GRAN: I ain’t goin’.
CONSTABLE: You’re all goin’. You’re under arrest.
GRAN: What for? We done nothin’ wrong.
SERGEANT: It’s for health reasons. Epidemic of skin disease.
JIMMY: Bullshit, I’ll tell you why we’re goin’.
CONSTABLE: You wouldn’t know.
JIMMY: You reckon blackfellas are bloody mugs. Whole town knows why we’re goin’. ‘Coz wetjalas in this town don’t want us ’ere, don’t want our kids at the school, with their kids, and old Jimmy Mitchell’s tight ’coz they reckon Bert ’Awke’s gonna give him a hidin’ in the election.
MILLY: Who’s gonna look after our dogs?
CONSTABLE: We’ll attend to them.
MILLY: Yeah, we know that.
JIMMY: With a police bullet.
GRAN: [frantically] You’re not gonna shoot Wow, you’re not gonna shoot Wow Wow. You hear me, Chergeant? I’m not goin’.
[GRAN is frantic now. She tears her hair and throws plates and mugs about.]
SERGEANT: Oh Jesus, take your bloody mangy Wow Wow, whatever you call it. Take the bloody lot, just remember to be ready to move out tomorrow morning.
[The police escort JIMMY away. The family looks on in stunned silence. CISSIE clings to her mother and cries.]
Mary: I don’t like the way [Mr. Neal] looks at me.
Joe: Well, you got me now, for what I’m worth.
Mary: He’s always hangin’ around where the girls are workin’; in the cookhouse, in the sewin’ room. And he’s always carryin’ that cat-o’-nine tails and he’ll use it, too.
Joe: Bastard, better not use it on you or any of my lot.
Mary: He reckoned he was gunna belt me once.
Joe: What for?
Mary: ‘Coz I said I wasn’t gunna go and work for guddeah on a farm.
Joe: Why not? Be better than this place.
Mary: No! Some of them guddeahs real bad. My friend went last Christmas and then she came back boodjarri. She reckons the boss’s sons used to belt her up and, you know, force her. Then they kicked her out. And when she had that baby them trackers choked it dead and buried it in the pine plantation.
[He picks up inji sticks. The Nyoongahs, SAM, JIMMY and JOE, dance with them. BILLY joins in. They dance with increasing speed and energy, stamping their feet, whirling in front of the fire, their bodies appearing and disappearing as the paint catches the firelight. The dance becomes faster and more frantic until finally SAM lets out a yell and they collapse, dropping back to their positions around the fire. JIMMY coughs and pants painfully.]
BILLY: This country got plenty good dance, eh?
JIMMY: Ah, yuart, not too many left now. Nearly all finish.
BILLY: No, no, no. You song man, you fella dance men. This still your country. [Flinging his arms wide] You, you, you, you listen! Gudeeah make ’em fences, windmill, make ’em road for motor car, big house, cut ’em down trees. Still your country! Not like my country, finish… finish.
[He sits in silence. They watch him intently. JOE puts wood on the fire. He speaks slowly.]
BILLY: Kuliyah. [Miming pulling a trigger, grunting] Gudeeah bin kill ’em. Finish, kill ’em. Big mob, 1926, kill ’em big mob my country.
MATRON: Apparently you told [Mary] she was going to work at the hospital and stay in the nurses’ quarters.
NEAL: Who told you that? [Yelling] Billy!
BILLY: [off] Comin’, boss.
MATRON: It seems she was terrified at the prospect of working in the hospital.
NEAL: They’re all scared of the dead.
MATRON: I think she was scared of the living.
When referring to Australia’s treatment of her Aborigines we are apt to refer somewhat scathingly to Tasmania’s harshness in ridding herself of her natives within the first seventy years of settlement. In that time some six thousand natives disappeared and only one was left alive. Yet here, in the south-west of our State, within an area about twice the size of Tasmania between 1829 and 1901—seventy-two years—a people estimated to number thirteen thousand were reduced to one thousand four hundred and nineteen, of whom nearly half were half-caste.
NEAL: Just a moment… There’s another matter I’d like to discuss with you. I believe you’ve been lending books—novels—to some of the natives.
SISTER: Yes, I have.
NEAL: There’s a sort of unofficial directive on this is; it’s the sort of thing which isn’t encouraged by the Department.
SISTER: What do you mean? That you don’t encourage the natives to read?
NEAL: That’s right.
SISTER: [incredulously] But why? I’d intended to ask your permission to start a small library.
NEAL: I’m sorry, Sister, but—
SISTER: [interrupting] It won’t cost the Department a penny, I can get the books donated. Good books.
NEAL: It’s quite out of the question.
SISTER: But why?
NEAL: Look, my experience with natives in South Africa and here has taught—led me to believe that there’s a lot of wisdom in the old adage that ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’.