“You’re from Blacktown? So have you gotten stabbed yet?”
My classmate asked me this after our first university tutorial together, on the way to Macquarie Station. I didn’t react in shock, because offhand jokes like this were commonplace to me and my Western Sydney-based friends. Though often said light-heartedly, these jokes reveal harmful underlying attitudes towards the western suburbs and the people who live there.
It wasn’t until university that I fully realised the stigma surrounding Western Sydney. Growing up in Seven Hills, a quiet residential suburb beside Blacktown, it’s not that I had been ignorant to the stigma’s existence— I learnt it by osmosis through scoffs from eastern suburbs kids on school trips and the overwhelmingly negative reports about Western Sydney in the news. Thankfully, I never experienced what a friend’s older sister had in her first year at uni; telling a classmate in introduction that she was from Blacktown, only for that classmate to immediately walk off.
I encourage my fellow westies to also take pride in where we’re from: our difference is a strength, not a weakness.
For a while after my own encounter with my classmate, I would instead say I lived near Parramatta, or leaned on the ambiguity of Seven Hills’ name. “Oh, the Hills District is nice, isn’t it?” people would reply with a smile that made me sigh in relief. I hadn’t been caught. “Hills”— it’s softer on the tongue, conjuring up images of lush hills à la The Sound of the Music— a concept easier to digest for the listener at the expense of the shame nipping at my gut.
At a certain point, I became sick of feeling ashamed. I love Blacktown! I love my area’s multiculturalism and the vibrancy that stems from it, from living amongst diverse cultures, to hearing diverse experiences, to eating diverse food. Thanks to my fellow “westie” friends, I re-learned how to love Blacktown in the way I had as a child.
According to the 2016 Census, 65.2 per cent of City of Blacktown residents have at least one overseas-born parent (compared to 45.5 per cent nationally) and 45.9 per cent speak a language other than English at home (compared to just 22.2 per cent nationwide).
Walking along Main Street near Blacktown Station, you see these statistics in technicolour. Ethnic grocery stores, cultural clothing shops, and spice-filled fruit markets dot Blacktown’s iconic tree-lined street.
My friends and I frequent Main Street often for El Jannah’s charcoal chicken, while our parents come to buy the ingredients of their childhood that they can’t find at Woolies or Coles. It was at Main Street that I tried walnut-stuffed, sickeningly sweet baklava for the first time: sticky and rich, it was unlike the milder Aussie desserts or steamed Indonesian cakes I’d eaten at home.
I can’t see myself leaving Blacktown. It’s my home.
But it’s Blacktown’s culturally-diverse residents who really bring beauty to the area. Many are of migrant, refugee, second-generation, and First Nations backgrounds, and they all have their own stories to share. In 2018, I worked with Blacktown Woman of the Year Maryam Zahid for a uni project promoting diverse women making a difference. Maryam is a refugee-background activist and the founder of Afghan Women on the Move, a community group supporting Afghan women in finding their voice and becoming socially, economically and emotionally independent. Last year, the group contributed to Daneha (“seeds”), an exhibition displayed at Blacktown Arts Centre exploring the refugee experience.
In primary school, I sometimes brought my mum’s homemade bakpau for lunch. My lunch was “different”, but I didn’t feel out of place because my friends brought different lunches too: rice dishes, spicy curries, and Lebanese bread-wraps common alongside Vegemite sandwiches. Then at my high school, Blacktown Girls High School, I joined our African Drumming Ensemble, introducing me to rich rhythms and instruments that I would go on to perform for HSC Music and the Blacktown City Festival’s Streets Alive and Parade Day.
I think there’s a certain worldliness and compassion that rises out of engaging with cultures different from your own, and growing up amongst Blacktown’s diversity has reflected itself in my passion for culturally-diverse storytelling.
There’s a newfound sense of pride amongst young 'westies', pushing to break the area’s stigma.
But Blacktown’s reputation is clouded by its history as a high-crime, working class area that migrants move to for cheap housing. No matter the amount of truth to these claims, why are they reason to ignore the cultural richness the area brings to Australian society and shun the people who live there? Shouldn’t it be all the more reason to support Blacktown?
In 2015, Blacktown City Council councillors proposed changing the government area’s name to something more “positive”, like West Sydney City Council, Western Sydney Council or Fairwater Council. Proponents cited modernising the image of the area and moving away from the racist history against Aboriginal people involved in Blacktown’s naming.
But Blacktown’s Indigenous community hit back. Though it was settlers who initially named the area “Blacks Town”, it was through succeeding years of Darug community resilience that their language and culture survived. They argued a name change would erase this history, and hinted at the racist undertones of the proposal— that erasing the “Black” from Blacktown would somehow bring the area more middle-class appeal.
Then there’s the related issue of media representation. The Australia we see in the media— pristine beaches, pale faces— is the complete opposite to what Blacktown is. If the media shapes the “norm”, Blacktown is the “other”.
At school, rice dishes, spicy curries, and Lebanese bread-wraps lunches were common alongside Vegemite sandwiches.
But there’s a newfound sense of pride amongst young Western Sydney-based Australians like myself, along with growing movements pushing to break the area’s stigma. SWEATSHOP, a western Sydney-based literacy movement, is devoted to reclaiming and giving voice to underrepresented and misrepresented Australian narratives through publications, films, performances, and the arts. They recently launched Sweatshop Women, a collection of short stories, essays and poems by western Sydney’s women of colour, at the 2019 Sydney Writers’ Festival.
I can’t see myself leaving Blacktown. Born and raised there, it’s my home. I love Blacktown, its diverse cultures and experiences and food, and the massive internal growth I’ve been afforded growing up there. I encourage my fellow westies to also take pride in where we’re from: our difference is a strength, not a weakness.
For those from out of the area— ask yourself where your postcode prejudices come from, and please, visit El Jannah’s on Main Street for the best charcoal chicken you’ll ever try.
Danielle Francis is a Macquarie University journalism student and an SBS Media Mentorship mentee. Follow Danielle on Twitter @thewriterdan.