A Newtown bookshop has apologised to iconic Aboriginal singer and saxophonist Aunty Marlene Cummins after she copped racist abuse while busking outside the store. Out of all the staff and passers-by, not a single person stepped in to help.
In a video taken about 10 minutes after the incident on Saturday night, Aunty Marlene said a group of three “well-dressed” white people began heckling and swearing at her, as well as mocking her music.
“They were just full-on, disrespectful and racist,” she said.
The bookshop in question is Better Read Than Dead on King St – one of Newtown’s best-known bookshops, and a shop which prides itself on its progressive image. Aunty Marlene has busked at that spot for around 20 years, and told PEDESTRIAN.TV it’s not the first time she’s had racists gang up on her there.
Around five minutes after the incident, a worker from the bookshop came outside to apologise, but that couldn’t undo what had already happened.
Aunty Marlene then went inside the shop to explain to the staff how their lack of action in the moment was “completely contradictory” to the messages the shop tries to promote.
“I’m out there playing beautiful music to the masses, and you let these idiots, these racist, redneck white people abuse me,” she told the shopkeepers.
“You sell books here about Eddie Mabo – it might interest you to know that Eddie Mabo helped me get my first saxophone.
“You’ve had launches of people who write good books about this sort of behaviour […] and yet when something happens right under your nose, you do nothing.”
On Sunday, the bookshop released a statement from the entire team apologising for not handling the situation better.
“Offering assistance after the fact is not good enough – we should have been proactive in addressing the incident, and on this occasion we failed,” it said.
“We will be reviewing the whole incident with all our staff this week, and will be implementing staff training with regards to conflict resolution and racial abuse.
“Now, as ever, is the time to be engaging in these conversations, to be accountable, and to do better.”
Aunty Marlene Cummins, a 66-year-old musician and activist, is one of the foremost blues artists in Australia, and has a long history of involvement with the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and Australian Black Panther Party. This incident is an example of everything she has spent her life fighting against.
She told PEDESTRIAN.TV that after having busked outside the bookshop for decades without being offered so much as a cup of tea, and then not being supported when targeted by racial abuse, she felt as if she was simply an Aboriginal token for a progressive bookshop.
“I am sick and tired of being overly tolerant with racism in this country,” she told P.TV.
“I will never accept it and will always do my part to challenge this insidious attitude of these kind of people.”
Unfortunately, racist incidents like this are nothing new. The takeaway, as Aunty Marlene explained in the video, is that white people must not simply be bystanders.
“Being anti-racist is an action word,” she told the staff at the time.
If you’re privileged enough to be able to intervene in these situations, it is your responsibility to do so.