Translator: Josephine O’Donnell
Reviewer: Hélène Vernet I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians
of the land on which we meet. I’d like to acknowledge
this year’s NAIDOC theme: “Because of her, we can!” And I’d like to acknowledge all of you. In February last year,
I was at a crossroad. Do I start up a micro law firm, “micro” meaning me, a laptop and a phone? Or do I pursue the obvious
alternative career path: stand-up comedy? (Laughter) The fact that I couldn’t even
complete the business plan, had no capital – well I did, but it was
all in small change – and I had no immediate clients,
made my decision an easy one: stand-up comedy it is. (Laughter) My first performance wasn’t
actually until November last year, at the Queensland heat
of the Deadly Funny, which is a competition held by the
Melbourne International Comedy Festival to provide Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islanders a pathway into stand-up comedy. The winner of the Queensland heat would go
on to compete at the national finals, that happened at the festival
in April this year. I didn’t win the heat, but I was fortunate enough
to secure a wild-card. I attended the festival and competed along with 11 other stand-up comedy acts
from across the country. To my shock, I was announced
the national Deadly Funny winner for 2018. (Cheers) Thank you. (Applause) After I returned from Melbourne,
I continued doing stand-up comedy, but mostly I did independent open-mic
stand-up comedy rooms in Brisbane, but also some cooperate
and community events as well. One night, after I’d finished the set,
I was approached by a young lady. “Excuse me Leon, I’ve come out
tonight especially to see you.” My ego went, “Oh my God,
my first groupie! Cool!” (Laughter) She continued:
“You went to QUT, didn’t you?” “Yes, I studied a Bachelor of Laws and did my graduate diploma
of legal practice there. I have a sharpie, where would
you like me to sign?” (Laughter) “No, thank you. You see,
I curate the talks at Tedx at QUT, and I’ve come to ask whether
you’d be interested in doing a talk.” “Oh wow! Really? What’s the topic?” “We think it would be
interesting to find out why you went from law to comedy in order to facilitate
important conversations.” And that’s what I’m here
to share with you all, today. Why did I go from law to comedy
to facilitate important conversations? To answer the question,
I needed to unpack it. Why, beyond this amazing feeling
that I get when I make somebody laugh, did I want to pursue stand-up comedy? You need to understand the inspiration, and the reasons why
I studied law in the first place in order to answer the question. But, before I tell you why I studied law, I need to tell you where I’m from. See, there are two indigenous
races in this country, the Melbourne Cup, (Laughter) and the Sydney to Hobart. But, there are also two unique
indigenous races of people: the Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islanders. They are people that were
on this continent for 60,000 years before the first fleet, which is really just a nice way
of saying “first boat-people,” arrived from England 230 years ago. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a processing
facility at Manus island at the time. (Laughter) If you converted the 60,000 years
into a period of 24 hours, the English have been
here for five minutes, and just look at what
they’ve done with the place. I mean, the national debt
is the highest it’s ever been, fuel price is ridiculous, and 80% of the recycling bin
is going to landfill. That never happened
on my indigenous ancestors’ watch. Just saying, 60,000 years
is a pretty good track record. See, I’ve ancestrial heritage
from both races. In the Torres Strait, I have a lineage from
the Ugarem Le in the East, and the Italgal
and the Maluilgal in the West. My Aboriginal ancestry
stems for the Kokomini, Kokojelandji and Gurindji people
of Far North Queensland. Now, the reason I look Mexican, (Laughter) is because mixed in
with my indigenous heritage, I have English, Scottish,
Welsh, Chinese, Indian, Malayan, Polynesian and Papua New Guinean. I like to think of myself
as the poster boy for multiculturalism
and cultural diversity. (Laughter) So, I was born and raised on T.I. T.I. is an acronym for Thursday Island. Thursday Island is a small island located between
Wednesday and Friday islands (Laughter) in the Torres Strait. People always laugh there and say
“That’s such a silly joke.” and I’m always like… (Laughter) “A joke?” Eighty percent of the population
in the Torres Strait are indigenous. There are four languages
spoken there including English, but it’s not the main one. Traditional culture is alive
and well in the Torres Strait, and it influences day-to-day life. I therefore grew up in a remote
indigenous community, and I know first hand that Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islanders are proud of their culture, and generally proud to be Australians. I now live in Brisbane, and I’m very well accustomed
to Western social norms and conventions. But my upbringing and my culture
still informs my identity and how I view and behave in the world. For example, traditionally, in my culture, the men always walked
ahead of women and children, not because they were
chauvinistic or rude, but because in old times, if there was an ambush
by warriors from another island, those men would be in a position to fight
and protect the women and children. Today, in the city, I consider myself a gentleman
and accordingly, I hold the elevator door
open for women to walk in first, but I always feel guilty. To be truthful though,
being a gentleman suits me because I couldn’t fight
my way out of a wet paper bag. (Laughter) But, I can draft
an awesome witness statement. (Laughter) So that paints a picture
of where I’m from. Why then, did I study law? There are three reasons: One, I wanted to prove that someone
from a remote indigenous community, like T.I., could go on to become a lawyer; Two, because of the racial
discrimination and social injustice that stemmed
from our racist colonial history; And five, because maths wasn’t a prerequisite. (Laughter) But the main reason was the second one. It hurt me and concerned me that the country that I love,
that I called “home”, Australia, had a history of cruel
and inhumane treatment of my race of people, the Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islanders. When I grew up, I wanted to be
in a position to protect my community. I thought by becoming a lawyer
I would be able to achieve that. At the time, I also had ambitions
of joining the circus, I mean, sorry, “Federal Parliament,” (Laughter) but not anymore. “Sorry, what was that? If those are my reasons
for studying law, then why comedy?” That’s a great question, very timely,
thank you for asking it. (Laughter) As a lawyer, I was militant
every opportunity I got in relation to discussions around racial
discrimination and social injustice. And after many confrontations,
I had an epiphany. People appreciate being challenged
about Australia’s true colonial history, their bigotry and racism, in small doses, shrouded in humour, and when they don’t know it’s happening – you know, just like
when you give your furred baby its worm tablet, hidden in a treat. (Laughter) Otherwise, we all know the gagging
and struggle that ensues: “Take this bitter pill
of truth, you little denier!” (Laughter) Or, you offer them the tablet, and they look at it
and dismiss it, just like the then Prime Minister,
Malcolm Turnbull dismissed the Uluru statement. Over the years, I’ve heard so many
insensitive and ignorant questions. And I’ll give you some examples: “Um, I’m not racist but, don’t Aboriginal people
get university for free?” “Mate, I hope not because that means I’m the only black-fella
paying off the X-debt.” (Laughter) “Um, I’m not racist but,
Aboriginal people, don’t they get free accommodation?” “Well, actually, in particular
indigenous men, who are 15 times more likely
than non-indigenous men to not only get free accommodation, but free meals,
and their laundry done too … … in jail.” “I’m not racist mate, but, you’re only
at the firm because you’re black.” “Ouch!” (Laughter) “Yeah, well you’re only
at the firm because you’re white.” I thought that was a great comeback, (Laughter) but unfortunately, it was only
a thought I had two years later. (Laughter) “I’m not racist but, why don’t you all
just get over the past already?” Ah, the ignorant bliss
of white privilege. “Hmm, I wish I could say that
to my landlord: ‘For goodness sake, why do you
keep bringing up rent arrears? Get over it already!'” After years of these sorts of questions, it got me to thinking: as an indigenous man,
if I could choose one superpower, I would choose white privilege. I mean, from what I’ve seen,
some people with that superpower can say, think and believe
whatever they like about people of other races. It doesn’t even have to be true. And if somebody challenges them, or tries to make them see things
from their perspective and have some empathy, they exercise their superpower
in a number of ways. They can be dismissive: “Meh!”. Or, they say, “Political
correctness has gone mad!” Or, my favorite, they convene a panel
with everybody else with that superpower, and discuss how it’s an example
of reverse racism, and it’s unfair. Every superpower has a weakness. White privileges’ kryptonite? There’s only one: wealthier white privileged
people than them. To be fair dinkum, we as Austalians need
to acknowledge and understand the true colonial history
of this country, Australia – warts and all. the destruction, the hurt, and the ongoing intergenerational trauma it has caused Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islanders. Because no country
can realize its full potential if its history is based on
an ignorance of the truth. Comedy has the ability to remove blame while delivering hard truths. Comedy is a powerful platform
that can bring people together, to educate, to expose stereotypes and make us aware of our respective, of our respective privileges, and in turn, create empathy. Not sympathy! Empathy. Empathy for Australia’s first people
and all they’ve had to endure. And if we, as Australians,
demonstrate our empathy, then Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islanders will have a voice
in the Constitution, a treaty, and Australia Day held
on a date we can all celebrate, together, in solidarity,
as one country. Armed with a law degree, a strong and proud culture, and the delivery of comedy, I’ve shared a story, I’ve shared my story, not just in the hope
of finding one groupie, (Laughter) but in the hope of sharing an insight. Today, we have advanced the conversation. And together, together, we have
embarked on a journey, on a path to healing. And that is why I went from law to comedy. (Applause)