Expectations…

Aboriginal protestsBefore I was fourteen I spent nearly two years of my life in apartheid era South Africa, and more recently I spent eight years in Dubbo at around the time white authorities were bulldozing the primarily aboriginal suburb of Gordon Estate.  I guess I’ve witnessed some of the worst excesses of racism.

Born white in Africa has its own baggage and I know what it’s like to be surrounded by those convinced about the eminent superiority of everything about their culture and worldview.  I also had my own moment of epiphany when fifteen and reading the opening chapters of Alex Haley’s Roots and realising Black Africa had a lot to commend it that wasn’t always apparent in Western society.

Race relations in Australia have flared up again in the last week, inevitably connected to the inappropriateness of Australia Day as a National holiday, something I touched on last week before all hell broke loose.

In the wake of last week’s protests the aboriginal “father of reconciliation” Patrick Dodson had some interesting comments to make about white/black relations in Australia.  In particular he suggested that “If there was any parallel with Gandhi’s wish to ”get the Empire out of India”, it would be to displace the rule of the public service from Aboriginal people’s lives so they could express indigenous values that existed in Australia before the British arrived”.

At the same time I’m reading a book entitled “Tall Man” about the death in custody of aboriginal man Cameron Doomadgee and the inquests and court trials of the arresting officer Chris Hurley.  The book paints a grim picture of both white and black Australia.

Palm Island comes across as a result of decades of policy bungling – some of it heinous, some of it well-meaning but generally completely disconnected from traditional aboriginal values.  An aboriginal society bereft of hope, subjugated by centuries of bullying and genocide and seeking solace in all manner of harmful substances and behaviours.  An insidious police culture aligned to the methods of control and harassment that have been the hallmark of race relations on this continent for the best part of 240 years.

There seems to be an endless cycle of intervention from white Australia into the lives of our indigenous brothers and sisters – the latest being Northern Territory National Emergency Response.  A program costing millions but, five years after being rolled out, apparently seeing little in the way of quantifiable difference (and there is a deliberate irony in that statement).
Dodson makes a pitch for indigenous Australians to be relieved from the meddling of the bureaucracy.  I sense a deep concern in white Australia about the kind of talk from Dodson.  It provokes several valid questions.

How would ‘displacing the rule of the public service from Aboriginal people’s lives so they could express indigenous values that existed in Australia before the British arrived’ look? 

Would customary laws only apply just within relationships between aboriginal people? What would the interface be with the wider society?

Personally I think the details of any such policy need to be put on the shelf until there is clarity about its philosophy.  Because it seems to me that every “solution” put forward for indigenous Australians over the years has a limiting and fatal flaw.   The flawed expectation that indigenous people should or even would aspire to the so-called superiority of the Anglo-Saxon culture that overwhelmed them.  You know, things like democracy, Queen, the Westminster system, nine-to-five employment, a comfortable house in the suburbs, an SUV and a plasma-screen.

So much of policy seems to be about moving indigenous culture to the quantified ideals and KPIs of Western materialism.  And check that racist snort that it sure beats the current alternative of indigenous society most of us are familiar with through mass media.  Think about how much of our language, culture, customs, laws and dignity would have survived the onslaught indigenous society has been subjected to over a quarter of a millennia.

I think this is what Dodson is hinting at.  Self-determination includes the ability to decide what is good about indigenous culture and slowly reclaim it.  It’s one of the first principles of effective leadership – people support what they create.  How much policy intervention by the bureaucrats legitimately engages those who have a direct stake in the issue?

Yes it is true that some elements of indigenous society are bereft of hope.  Centuries of abuse have fatally broken down the ways and methods of a people group with the longest continuous record of survival on the planet, despite living on its harshest continent.  And many have become slaves to the worst of the ways and methods introduced by the invaders.  But there is hope.

A couple of weeks ago we hosted a camp for indigenous teenagers, a vibrant and energetic group accompanied by their wise and concerned elders.  Part of their time here was to teach them some of the old ways.  But then there were things like a spontaneous and rousing rendition of sung grace before each meal.  A week which saw a fusion of indigenous and white culture all for the purpose of building up a young generation, giving them hope.  There is much that is good about indigenous culture and where it is met with humility and celebration from Anglo-Saxons, and this is given in return, heaven and earth overlap.

Cameron Doomadgee was unemployed and on the day of his death was apparently high on a mixture of alcohol and methylated spirits.  Yet every character reference for the man spoke of him as easy-going and most at peace when he was out hunting and fishing, providing for his family and teaching his son (who hung himself during the inquest process) to do likewise.  Most happy when he was living the lifestyle his people excelled in for thousands of years.    Dead at the hands of the law.

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5 Responses to Expectations…

  1. Stan says:

    Eloquent as usual, and you have made some very good points. Are you however, suggesting that 12 years into the New Millennium that we somehow return vast tracts of Australia to pre-settlement times and allow Indigenous people to roam, hunt and fish? Is this the solution?

  2. Michelle says:

    Beautifully written. And, as Stan has stated, some excellent points. I don’t think that you are suggesting that we return vast tracts of Australia to pre-settlement times and allow Indigenous people to roam, hunt and fish, as he has queried.

    I am hearing a plea that we respect each other and don’t try to make indigenous people into clones of white people. There is beauty and wisdom and respect for the land and each other in indigenous culture which can be lacking in white culture. If indigenous people were allowed to find their roots in their culture then, I believe, that they would be more secure in their identity as a people and less inclined to fall to the ‘evils’ of our culture.

    That also goes for white people. If we know who we are and where we come from, then we are less likely to follow the crowd and go down the path of destruction (both personal and relational).

    (Sorry if this seems a rant. I guess it kind of is. My heart aches for the people groups who have been destroyed by the actions and supposed wisdom of white people, of which I am one.)

  3. Stan says:

    I agree with the call for respect, cloning,etc – it goes without saying. However, behind that accusation is an assumption that contemporary Australia and contemporary living (education, employment, etc) is inherently ‘white’ and a ‘white way of life’. That ignores the reality that contemporary Australia is made up of many cultures, including many high achieving and well educated Indigenous who would rather not fish and hunt thank you very much.

    I’m looking for Andrew to go beyond eloquence and down to brass tacks. So what does it look like in 2012 for a scenario where some Indigenous (I presume some?) go back to being “Most happy when …. living the lifestyle… people excelled in for thousands of years.” Is this only some, or all? Is this not as paternalistic as the other excesses pointed too? Is it wrong to aspire to creating opportunities for disadvantaged and marginalised people to share in the wealth of the land, learning, employment, etc?, or are the horizons we have envisaged for them limited by traditional notions of hunter gatherer? And which particular Indigenous people are we talking about here?

    If I was to take Andrew’s angle I presume what we are looking at here is a distinct nation within a nation, with unique customary laws, language, education system, etc. Project those same principles to the rest of Australia and we could have Sharia law for Muslims, Arabic language spoken in schools, Jewish law, etc,

    Gary Johns, ex Keating Labor minister writes in the The Aussie today commenting on the diversity amongst Indigenous and the recognition of Aboriginal identity rather than identification: “It is time to fold the tent on the Aboriginal preferment industry and complete the job of 1967, which was to integrate Aborigines into society on equal terms.” Noel Pearson makes the most sense to me in terms of combining the two competing realities: maintaining unique culture and engaging in the modern economy & education system.

  4. mzilikazi says:

    I don’t know that you can say I have taken an angle Stan, because I have deliberately stepped back from specifics and details to first assess the philosophy of the situation. And some of your comments appear to reinforce the suggested flaw of those who hold out that it is self-evident that the vestiges of Western society are inherently superior – none more so than the suggestion that the current education system is “modern”. Well it is modern but as to whether it’s better is an argument for another day. Arguably the indigenous Australian pre-1788 had received far more useful and dedicated instruction to prepare them for life within their context than their Western counterpart did then and does now.

    And extrapolating my comment on what made Cameron Doomadgee happy to apply it to an entire race is disingenuous and/or mischievous. The man’s story is his own, as are the stories and worldviews of those who have found it easier to assimilate with the conquering culture. IT does however uncover another flaw in broad-sweeping policy – the type removed from the context of relationship and narrative.

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