In part four of a special report into the family feud in the indigenous Noongar community that made national headlines, Research Journalism’s Kayt Davies examines the prickly issue of race relations.

Racism is a dirty word, and in Narrogin it gets people’s backs right up. I promised the old timers in the pub I wouldn’t quote them by name, but when I floated the “racism question” every one of them slipped straight into a story about how they used to play footy with Noongar boys, how they’d grown up with them and how anyone who said they were racist was clearly just stirring up trouble.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. But it’s tricky because different people have different ideas about what racism is, and as the town’s indigenous population struggles to find solutions to its problems — that are manifesting in suicides and brawls — it is inevitable that statistics about “the Gap” will be evoked and the word “racism” will be used.

My search for the story behind the brawl in which two people were shot last November uncovered seething anger over the “Redneck Narrogin debate”, with one feuding family on one side and the other opposing. If there is a core issue at the heart of the dispute between the two families, their attitudes towards racism, and how “the Gap” should be closed, could be it.

On May 30 last year the Sunday Times ran a story with the headline “Redneck Narrogin”. On June 10 the Narrogin Observer ’s front page headline was “Rednecks? Not us”.

The Sunday Times story quoted human rights lawyer John Hammond, who was representing the Kickett family over the allegedly racist treatment of 11-year-old Eli Kickett at Narrogin Primary School. Among other things, Eli had been called a “nigger” in class. Hammond’s words were: “I believe it is institutionalised racism. Redneck Narrogin.”

The Observer story quoted two prominent locals arguing the town was working hard towards reconciliation and that people from all backgrounds co-existed peacefully. Questioned by the Observer, Hammond added: “I was definitely not suggesting everyone in the town of Narrogin was a redneck.” But he added: “From what I’ve been told, racism seems to be commonly accepted at the school. It seems students and, to a more alarming degree teachers, think it’s OK to harass people based on the colour of their skin.”

It wasn’t the first, or last, time claims about racism in Narrogin have been raised in public by members of the Kickett family and/or their representatives. In September 2008 Warren Kickett was bashed with a baseball bat outside the Duke of York Hotel in Narrogin’s main street, while 20 people stood around and watched. The police were called and the one person arrested at the scene was Warren.

The story, as others in town tell it, is a 20-year-old man may or may not have said something disparaging to Warren, Warren responded by throwing a punch, the young man then called his father who turned up with a baseball bat, and proceeded to bash Warren while others looked on. Eventually the father was arrested and charged, and Warren’s sister Priscilla caused a media stink over whole affair. The Koori Mail reported that police “admitted that proper procedures were not followed”, but Sen Sgt Martin Voyez has no memory of any complaints about it.

What remains contentious about the Warren and Eli incidents is whether they are indicative of racism, or just rows between individuals.

Murray Riley is a friend Colbungs and the chair of Kooraminning Aboriginal Corporation and, like the old boys in the pub, he’s angry about the racist rhetoric. Kooraminning is a committee established around an old railway workers house in east Narrogin, gifted to the local indigenous community by the state government in 1986. Over the years it has been a meeting place and a youth centre.  In recent months its committee has started applying for funding and running community-oriented programs.

Riley said: “For the past nine years Narrogin has been put in a dark hole by bad publicity. I put it down to people being selfish.

“At the end of the day innocent white people have been dragged into this and our community shouldn’t have to go through that. The fight between Warren and the guy in the pub was a fight between individuals, the kids get called names at school because who are they are as individuals; to call it racist is to blame someone else for the problem.”

Sitting with me and a small group of his friends in a shady park, he said he sees the passing on of blame as a good way to make yourself unpopular with the rest of the community. He thinks it’s counter-productive. “If a Noongar person has a problem, the only person who can fix that problem is that person,” he said. “Instead of complaining about racism he should be making it his business to find work.”

He waved his arm towards one of the young Noongar men standing nearby and said: “He used to be in jail, but since he got out, not a day has gone by when he hasn’t been either working or working on a qualification or ticket so that he’ll get better jobs. He’s taking responsibility for himself.”

Asked if he thought racism was a problem, the young man said he’d been disappointed that although he’d been working hard at the grain silo before Christmas, and had the licences required to drive the vehicles involved, that he’d been passed over for full-time work in favour of migrant workers without the relevant licences.

At this, Murray added he’d rather see Equal Opportunities and the Department of Indigenous Affairs “coming here for the right reasons, like unfair dismissal, not the wrong reasons”. He thinks the Kicketts are boys crying wolf, and that the danger is that people will stop listening.

Tomorrow in the final chapter: duelling definitions, money, power and uncertainty. You can read the previous chapters here. Research Journalism — published by the CREATEC Research Centre at Edith Cowan University — is a new academic journal for reporting issues of public concern.