As a mid-level Aboriginal bureaucrat working in various government and community sector agencies, I had for some time been feeling uneasy about the deference given to my opinions, the leniency around my work standards and the indulgence of my behaviour that did not extend to my “non-Aboriginal” colleagues to anywhere near the same degree. As an Aboriginal employee, I was a valuable acquisition—one that demonstrated my employer’s commitment to “reconciliation” and to “closing the gap” in Aboriginal disadvantage. Skilled and qualified Aboriginal employees are in high demand amongst organisations anxious to demonstrate this commitment, so my employers were competing against other potential employers for my loyalty. It was important to my employers that I was content with my role and satisfied with my remuneration, that I felt my Aboriginal identity was “valued”, and that my co-workers “respected” me not merely as a colleague, but as an Aboriginal person.
In a number of organisations I worked for, I noticed that my non-Aboriginal colleagues were not always free to fully apply their knowledge and expertise to resolving problems in Aboriginal policy and service delivery, as they were required to consult with and defer to the opinions of Aboriginal people such as myself. I noticed that “cultural respect” policies—designed to help me feel respected and valued—led my non-Aboriginal colleagues to hold a well-founded fear of causing inadvertent offence to Aboriginal people such as myself. I noticed that I and people like me had a great deal of power to dictate and enforce “appropriate behaviour” for our non-Aboriginal colleagues.
Not only is it important that organisations keep their Aboriginal staff happy in order to retain them, but it is important that organisations continue to please their Aboriginal stakeholders and external advisers. As a research officer working in Aboriginal statistics, I noticed that while we depended heavily on the guidance of Aboriginal “key stakeholders”, we were disinclined to subject their analysis and opinions to rigorous critical inquiry. I also noticed that, in following the advice of our Aboriginal steering committees and stakeholders, we did not always collect or report on Aboriginal statistics as accurately as we could have.
In my experiences of working in organisations responsible for direct service provision to Aboriginal people, I noticed that the continued satisfaction of our Aboriginal clients was a primary concern. When funding is allocated and an agency’s performance is measured by the number of Aboriginal clients it services, the satisfaction and retention of these clients take precedence over challenging them to make necessary changes in their lives. Rather than risk Aboriginal clients taking their business elsewhere—or worse, complaining about the service’s “cultural insensitivity”—the service provider simply provides whatever the Aboriginal client demands of them.
I began to realise that commodifying Aboriginality—placing a positive value on an individual employee, student, consultant, adviser or client purely on the basis of their “race”—was doing little to produce sensible policies and effective programs to solve the problems many Aboriginal people face, and was doing nothing to address the ongoing calamity of daily life in many remote Aboriginal communities. Instead, it was producing divided, fearful and risk-averse organisations where the subjective happiness of Aboriginal staff, stakeholders and clients took precedence over the wellbeing and effective functioning of the organisation overall.
As I read the works of American, Indian and African-born authors Thomas Sowell, Amartya Sen and Kwame Anthony Appiah, I realised that there was nothing unique about the mechanisms or the unfortunate effects of Aboriginal race politics in Australia; this was an international problem, a human problem that arises wherever people become emotionally and politically invested in one “identity” as separate and distinct from the “identities” of those around them. In Australia, our substantial emotional and economic investment in maintaining a separate Aboriginal identity has created an Aboriginal industry, made up of institutions and agencies with “expertise” on the distinct needs and wants of Aboriginal people.
In September 2012, the ABC’s online opinion website The Drum published a short article I had written, which briefly explained my experiences of working in the Aboriginal industry, and the shift I had experienced over time in my own views on race-based preferential treatment for Aboriginal people. I explained my decision to reject such preferential treatment for myself because I could not reconcile myself to racism, and I suggested that other Aboriginal readers consider doing the same. The article generated a substantial number of responses, with a number of commentators expressing support for my views. Other responses presented arguments in favour of preferential treatment for Aboriginal people, generating further debate amongst readers.
The Aboriginal industry has the power to swiftly dismiss the critical opinions of non-Aboriginal people as ignorant, paternalistic or racist. This leaves Aboriginal dissenters best positioned to critically engage with Aboriginal identity politics, which in turn creates an urgent need for the Aboriginal industry to suppress dissenting Aboriginal opinion by other means. A number of responses to my article provided useful examples of the kinds of suppressing arguments that the Aboriginal industry puts forward in order to silence and dismiss dissent from within. The silencing of Aboriginal dissenters is centred on the “legitimacy” and “authenticity” of the Aboriginal speaker, rather than the quality of the speaker’s reasoning and expression. Silencing arguments also point to the speaker’s unsavoury character, which is evident through the offensive nature of his or her ideas, as well as through his or her apparent pandering to a “racist” enemy force. None of these silencing approaches are unique to Aboriginal race politics; they appear in some form wherever the politics of identity take precedence over constructive political debate.
This unpleasantness may discourage Aboriginal people and others in the industry from expressing dissenting opinions, or may even discourage us from seriously considering dissenting ideas in the first place, given that the intensely prescriptive nature of identity politics—in dictating the ways an Aboriginal person is supposed to think and feel—can lead us to police our own thinking and doubt our own judgment. We may be especially reluctant to voice controversial opinions when we are unsure of our ability to respond confidently to the inevitable attacks on our credibility and character that will ensue; the more irrational the attack, the more difficult it can be to muster a coherent response.
Following are some examples of the common “silencing” arguments that were presented by commentators on the Drum website in the interests of suppressing and dismissing my dissenting opinion as illegitimate. The Aboriginal industry’s attempts to silence internal criticism can be welcomed as a useful opportunity to offer further critique, as every argument provides another illustration of the irrationality and bigotry upon which the industry is based.
“You’re not black”
Take a good look at Kerryn and notice how pale she is for an aboriginal woman that would make her somewhat more acceptable from non aboriginals … you can’t ignore the thousands of other aboriginals who are regularly discriminated against on the grounds of their distinct aboriginality …
—J: 27 Sep 2012 8:36:03pm
Fortunately because of your appearance you would never have had to put up with the stares, abuse, rude offensive behaviour by shop assistants, harassment by the police etc that is part of everyday life for fullblood aboriginal people …
—oneman: 27 Sep 2012 10:27:41pm
It’s really easy to walk away from your heritage when it isn’t obviously stamped all over you. As a well educated young woman with only some aboriginal heritage in your mix (as you put it), you don’t face the racism reserved for more obvious Indigenous Australians.
—Honour: 27 Sep 2012 3:38:56pm
Responses such as these were arguing that if I were a darker-skinned, obviously Aboriginal-looking person, I would probably experience a great deal of racist discrimination and I would therefore appreciate special assistance, support and compensation for such unfair treatment. They suggested I was unfairly criticising the system from a position of privilege—as an Aboriginal who can “pass” as non-Aboriginal—while others are not so fortunate.
I agree that my not-particularly-Aboriginal appearance may render me “more acceptable” to some, and that I may therefore be treated better in various aspects of daily life than a distinctly Aboriginal-looking person may find herself treated. I also agree that I cannot offer an informed view of the degree of discrimination and ill-treatment such a person may experience—how would I know? My argument against race-based preferential treatment is not based in a belief that racism is not a problem; I don’t doubt that racism towards Aboriginal people occurs, as it occurs towards people of other “races” and ethnicities in Australia and elsewhere. Yet how does the provision of special privileges to someone like me—simply because I can claim “Aboriginality”—ameliorate racist discrimination against other people Aboriginal people?
Can racism be OK if it helps properly black people?
While there have long been grumblings amongst Aboriginal folk in some quarters over precisely the issue that Andrew Bolt notoriously raised—that entitlements and concessions intended for “Aboriginal people” are too frequently claimed by “white Aborigines”—the grumblers tend to shy away from the obvious solution, which would be to introduce a skin-colour requirement to the assessment process. A chart of Aboriginal skin-colour gradations with a clearly indicated cut-off point would provide much-needed guidance to selection panels for jobs, grants, awards and other Aboriginal-specific entitlements, ensuring they only go to properly “black” Aboriginal people.
Few would seriously consider such an obnoxious solution—yet even if it were adopted, it would still be merely an administrative adjustment and not a remedy for racism against people of Aboriginal appearance.
A system that responds to racism by implementing special entitlements and assistance for actual or potential Aboriginal victims of racism reflects an incredibly complacent, or perhaps defeatist, attitude to the problem it purports to address. Rather than rejecting racism as a backward belief that has no place in modern Australia, and promoting equal treatment and dignity for all and enforcing this wherever necessary, our governments simply create an alternative form of racism into which “vulnerable” Aboriginal people are shepherded for their own safety.
This is a state that has given up on its own citizens as irredeemably backward and ignorant racists, and has given up on Aboriginal citizens as incapable of survival in the nastiness of the world outside the sanctuary of the Aboriginal industry. To genuinely address a problem of racism against Aboriginal people, we must not tolerate racism in any form. Anti-discrimination measures must be clearly expressed and rigorously enforced, and an individual who experiences discrimination or ill-treatment on the basis of his or her race—whatever their “race” may be—should have the means to seek redress.
Some Aboriginal industry advocates may counter that a sole reliance on anti-discrimination measures would be insufficient because many Aboriginal people are too oppressed and marginalised to recognise the racism directed towards them, or to take formal action as people of other ethnicities may do when they encounter racism. This then justifies a need for special protective and compensatory measures for Aboriginal people, preferably delivered by other Aboriginal people wherever possible in order to avoid further traumatisation. Yet this is simply further evidence of the complacency and defeatism that pervades Aboriginal affairs; protection and compensation for Aboriginal people is regarded as preferable to the education and empowerment of Aboriginal people to take care of themselves.
“You’re not disadvantaged”
Aboriginal people still do suffer discrimination on all manner of fronts. So, some positive discrimination probably isn’t all that bad. You seem to be in a position now where positive discrimination and access to education etc has given you the opportunities and voice you now enjoy. Others in this time are not so fortunate.
—Disagreeable: 28 Sep 2012 12:26:31am
Kerryn would appear to have had a good education and agrees that she is equipped to operate on a level playing field and doesn’t need to play the “Aboriginal” card. However I think there are some indigenous people who don’t have the same opportunity to reach her level in the community.
—Pegaso: 27 Sep 2012 9:21:03pm
Out of 699 responses to my article on the Drum website, not a single apologist for race-based preferential treatment tried to persuade me that I was, as an Aboriginal person, actually quite a disadvantaged individual whether I realised it or not. A number of comments, such as those above, pointed out how disadvantaged other Aboriginal people are, and some Aboriginal commentators talked about how disadvantaged they themselves were—but no one contradicted my own fairly obvious lack of disadvantage. If anything, my relative privilege was regarded as further evidence that I didn’t know what I was talking about.
Yet if people can readily accept that I am an Aboriginal person who is not particularly disadvantaged, then they must concede that disadvantage must rest in something more than simple “Aboriginality”. Therefore, bestowing concessions and entitlements simply on the basis of “Aboriginality” makes no sense as a means to address the problems many—but not all, and not only—Aboriginal people face.
Aborigines are supposed to be disadvantaged
The Aboriginal industry sidesteps this problem of individual difference by consistently framing discussion of Aboriginal people in terms of the Aboriginal population. When we define people by one variable, in this case “Aboriginal”, they become a homogenous collection of indistinguishable, interchangeable units, whose fate is somehow linked. As far as the Aboriginal industry is concerned, as an Aboriginal person I belong to a statistically disadvantaged Aboriginal population; therefore, I am “disadvantaged”.
In reality, there is substantial disparity in the Aboriginal population—a “gap”—between the poorest and most disadvantaged Aboriginal people and those such as myself who are doing quite well. The most disadvantaged are living in circumstances where their choices and opportunities are extremely limited, and where they have few incentives to change their geographic or social circumstances to pursue opportunities elsewhere. At the next level up, disadvantaged Aboriginal people live in circumstances where there may be somewhat more choices and opportunities, but many individuals do not readily take advantage of these opportunities to alleviate their disadvantage (although opportunities are often vigorously pursued at the collective level, particularly in the form of funding for community organisations). These Aboriginal people face powerful disincentives to personal advancement, not least of which is the inextricable association of “Aboriginality” with “disadvantage”.
While these Aboriginal communities are socially, emotionally and often economically invested in maintaining a distinct and separate Aboriginal identity, they exist in a society where Aboriginal “identity” and “culture” are increasingly nebulous and changeable concepts. As a consequence, disadvantage has become one of the most recognisable and cherished features of the Aboriginal sense of self, and a source of community solidarity. In such an environment, to pursue opportunities to move away from disadvantage is to reject one’s Aboriginal identity and one’s own family and community.
Then there are the relatively small but rapidly increasing ranks of middle-class Aboriginal “achievers” such as myself. Some people have suggested that perhaps there would be fewer of us if not for the special opportunities that were made available to us on the basis of our Aboriginality. I suggest that there might be more of us if the benefits of education, employment and a middle-class lifestyle were not anathema to those who treasure their disadvantaged “Aboriginal” identity.
Middle-class Aborigines are disadvantaged too
As I discussed above, one (flawed) rationale behind the offering of race-based entitlements and concessions for Aboriginal people is to serve as a counterbalance to prevailing racism in the broader society. Another rationale is to provide Aboriginal role models, in order to demonstrate to Aboriginal people and to the broader community that is it possible for an Aboriginal person to “make it”. There are two logical problems with this reasoning, the first and most obvious being that, if my success had been dependent on special assistance, then I did not so much actively “make it” as passively submit myself to being “made”.
The second problem lies in the “role” the middle-class Aboriginal role model must play as a representative of the Aboriginal industry. Our mission is to model to those Aboriginal people lower down the socio-economic ladder that one can take advantage of opportunities to make a more comfortable life for oneself whilst retaining a recognisably Aboriginal identity. At the same time, we must reinforce the message that to be Aboriginal is to be disadvantaged, hence the need for an Aboriginal industry comprised of Aboriginal professionals—such as ourselves—to help “close the gap”. As an Aboriginal role model, I must downplay my own relative privilege and good fortune and instead display my “authenticity” as a disadvantaged Aboriginal person, despite outward appearances.
To display my “disadvantaged” credentials, I may do a number of things: I may recount my family’s experiences of deprivation, perhaps with anecdotes of unpleasant experiences from my childhood. I may describe my extended family’s ongoing disadvantage, complete with examples of my various relatives’ health, legal and financial woes. I may reveal my personal experience of racism, with stories of the offensive remarks, assumptions and slights that plague my daily existence—or conversely, if I am paler in complexion I can describe the emotional pain I feel when my Aboriginal identity is unrecognised, questioned or ignored by those around me. If all else fails, I can talk about my personal grief over the suffering of “my people”. In this manner I can demonstrate that I have “made it” and bravely continue to “make it”, despite the disadvantages I face daily as an authentically Aboriginal person.
As far as the Aboriginal industry is concerned, an Aboriginal person’s relative position on the socio-economic ladder is immaterial—we as Aboriginal people are all “disadvantaged”. While there are non-Aboriginal people living in poorer circumstances than me, Aboriginal people overall are statistically worse off than non-Aboriginal people overall, therefore I, as an Aboriginal person, have a greater claim to assistance and recompense. Also, while there are Aboriginal people living in far poorer circumstances than I am, directing assistance to me will be instrumental in improving their circumstances anyway, because improving the lot of one Aboriginal person (such as me) somehow contributes to “closing the gap” for the disadvantaged Aboriginal population as a whole. Assistance directed to me is also likely to produce greater returns on a smaller investment of resources and effort than assistance directed towards an alcoholic, illiterate, welfare-dependent Aboriginal person in remote Australia.
Perhaps we could make racism work better to fix Aboriginal disadvantage?
Some of my colleagues in Aboriginal policy have conceded that this blanket approach to resolving Aboriginal disadvantage tends to favour the least disadvantaged Aboriginal people, mirroring Thomas Sowell’s findings from affirmative-action policies worldwide. Some have expressed tentative interest in a modified approach, whereby assistance and opportunities are directed more effectively to those Aboriginal people who need it most. However, the practical and ethical considerations of implementing an eligibility criterion of “disadvantage” are yet to be seriously examined.
An honesty system in which Aboriginal applicants self-assess their eligibility for assistance is unlikely to work, given that even the most prosperous Aboriginal people may still consider themselves to be disadvantaged in some way. Perhaps Aboriginal-specific positions, awards, grants and scholarships could be subject to means-testing and skills-testing, whereby those Aboriginal people with existing assets, skills or qualifications may be ineligible to apply or may be ranked lower in order of preference. This solution would, however, make it difficult to hire the best Aboriginal applicant for a job, or award a scholarship or research grant to the most promising and talented Aboriginal candidate. It would also create disincentives for Aboriginal people to develop skills and acquire qualifications and assets, since these would render them ineligible for special assistance.
Perhaps Aboriginal candidates from postcodes with lower socio-economic index rankings might be given preferential consideration among the broader pool of Aboriginal candidates. It would, however, be difficult to explain to their equally disadvantaged non-Aboriginal neighbours why the Aboriginal people in their neighbourhood are receiving special assistance from which they themselves are excluded. “Because Aboriginal people are disadvantaged” is a rather lame response to give to people who are substantially disadvantaged themselves. “Because the Aboriginal population is more disadvantaged compared to the rest of the population” suggests to our audience that the “non-Aboriginal” population’s relative affluence overall, in which they themselves have very little share, is nonetheless a benefit they enjoy that their Aboriginal neighbours do not. Perhaps we would explain to them that Aboriginal people suffer from the additional burden of racism in ways that other disadvantaged people do not experience. While several in our non-Aboriginal audience could point out that they themselves experience the effects of racism, our entire audience may reasonably ask—“If Aboriginal people are being disadvantaged by racism, why don’t you do something about that instead of creating more unfairness for us?”
We know that discrimination on the basis of “race” is ludicrous and unjust, yet we are afraid to openly challenge preferential policies for Aboriginal people for fear of being regarded as callous, uncaring, ignorant and, of course, racist. Instead, we look for ways to make racist policies “more effectively targeted”, hoping to deliver sufficient benefits to justify our racism as a means to more noble ends. We look forward to reaching a point where such policies are no longer needed, though we have little idea how or when this point will be reached. We try to find ways to make racism “fairer”—which is even more reprehensible than simple, unreconstructed racism, because we do not have ignorance as an excuse.
“You don’t know your culture”
The genuine traditional aboriginal people have to put up with people like yourself, who have no experience of traditional custom, language, law or tradition, making public representations on behalf of “aboriginal people” most of whom they know nothing about and don’t even have the basic respect of wanting to find out.
—oneman: 27 Sep 2012 10:27:41pm
Central questions in court cases dealing with this tricky issue are upbringing and cultural identification. A witness in Eatock v Bolt last year testified about inculturation from early childhood by participating with his grandparents in hunting, fishing and producing the medicines, remedies and tools they needed. Traditional knowledge of sacred sites and stories of his people were passed down to him by relatives and other elders. He also testified to the racism he suffered growing up within a marginalised community. Was this Kerryn’s upbringing also? Or did she choose to identify as Aboriginal later in life, as she later chose not to? This would seem a relevant point.
—Alan Austin: 27 Sep 2012 3:29:22pm
I am Indigenous, worked in the public service too and never had the problem she mentions, but I think she lacks the type of childhood I had where I was brought up with a strong sense of cultural identity, which acts as a sort of buffer to the issues that appears to plague her. I place this article in the just another “Blame society it’s not my fault” rant pile.
—Timothy Williams (Woppaburra): 27 Sep 2012 5:12:01pm
When an Aboriginal person speaks out in criticism of the Aboriginal industry, or speaks in favour of policies that are unpopular with the industry, it is almost inevitable that at some point a venerable Aboriginal spokesperson will declare—more in sorrow than in anger—that the dissident has “lost her culture” or “turned her back on her culture” or is “ignorant of her culture”. The superficial attractions of “whitefella” culture have led the Aboriginal dissident to stray from the guiding wisdom of Aboriginal culture, which would have prevented her from forming such foolish ideas and voicing such dangerously naive opinions. In this particularly effective form of silencing and shaming, Aboriginal dissenters are simply ignorant, pitiable, uninitiated children—which means there is no need to engage critically with anything they say about Aboriginal policy.
This form of silencing suggests that if I had more “cultural” authenticity I would be disinclined to question or critically reflect on policies that provide preferential treatment to Aboriginal people. Or perhaps I might still reflect on the issue, but I would not be very concerned by the problems I see—or my special cultural knowledge would allow me to see justifications for this approach that I simply do not see from my present, culturally bereft standpoint. Or perhaps I would simply refrain from voicing any concerns out of loyalty to my “culture”.
“Culture” means you don’t have to think
In essence, this form of silencing suggests that to be “strong in my culture” is to be less inclined to think independently, less inclined to care about anyone other than myself and my immediate family, and less inclined to voice any opinion that conflicts with those upheld by my “culture”. If this is the “culture” that I am supposedly so sadly lacking, then I am glad I missed out on my indoctrination. I feel fortunate that I belong to a modern culture that encourages me to think for myself, speak for myself, to take an interest in ethical and effective public policy and to have concern for the welfare of those beyond my narrow kinship group or tribe.
On the other hand, it is possible that there is some mysterious element of “Aboriginal culture” that—should I be exposed to it—would radically transform my view of what I currently believe to be racist, nonsensical policy. If so, perhaps those advocates for race-based concessions and entitlements who are so fortunate to be “strong in their culture” would be willing to share this element of their culture with the rest of us, so we can all come to see rationality and justice in racism.
Much of the conceptualisation of Aboriginal identity rests on “belonging” and “acceptance”; an Aboriginal person is an Aboriginal person who thinks and behaves like “us”. When I was a part of the Aboriginal industry, I believed and expressed some very silly notions, and I was applauded by many of the people I met in the course of my work as a “proud Aboriginal woman”. At that time, I was considered acceptable as one of “us”. Now that my ideas have changed, some have suggested that I am not really an Aboriginal woman (proud or otherwise) and perhaps I never really was. Such is the capricious nature of Aboriginal identity that my “Aboriginality” can be historically revised and retrospectively erased in response to my present behaviour. Given that I do not crave the acceptance of a group that cannot tolerate dissent, any such rejection is not worth grieving over.
“You’re forgetting your history”
… due to the immense damage that occurred to the Aboriginal people of this land I can’t help but think some kind of restoration & compensation would be in order …
—a new name: 27 Sep 2012 6:25:21pm
Like a lot of Gen X and Gen Y’s, you might not really know how bad it used to be when there was absolutely no Aborigines in positions of responsibility in the community.
—Kali: 27 Sep 2012 12:17:51pm
I’m not indigenous but I do believe anyone younger than me (44) shows an amazing amount of historical ignorance sometimes.
—Sam of Brisbane: 27 Sep 2012 3:11:32pm
When a group is or has been discriminated against it is entirely proper that this group be targeted for redress of the injustice. This is not racism it is remedying racism.
—Evan Hadkins: 27 Sep 2012 6:43:11pm
To the latter comment, I would counter that targeting a present-day “racial group” for the redress of historical injustice against other people of that “racial group” is actually racism at its most insidious and contemptible. According to this notion, I am regarded not as an individual with my own personal history, aspirations and choices, but as a member of a historically mistreated “racial group” that is now “targeted for redress”. I have become a representative of all other Aborigines, past and present. This means that if you feel bad about what happened to an Aboriginal person in the past, you can simply compensate me, because we are essentially the same creature. The ill-treatment or misfortune of a past Aboriginal person, unrelated or very distantly related to me, is apparently recorded in my Aboriginal genes as a hereditary grievance, which can be remedied by providing me with material compensation and perhaps an apology.
An alternative, but no less loopy explanation could be that all Aboriginal people are so cosmically entwined that awarding special concessions to me somehow mollifies the aggrieved ghost of an Aboriginal person who I never met and who has been dead for quite some time. Such is the mysticism surrounding Aboriginality, I would not be surprised if some otherwise rational people actually believed ideas as silly as these. Like all notions that are premised on the concept of “race” as something real, there is no rational basis for this sort of thinking.
In reality, some people experienced hardship in the past. I was not one of those people. Why should I be “targeted” to benefit from another’s hardship, simply because a person who suffered in the past happened to be Aboriginal, and I happened to have an Aboriginal ancestor? It is not as though we consistently embrace this concept of redress for other historically marginalised racial groups in Australia; Chinese immigrants had a particularly hard time during the gold rush eras, yet there are no special benefits extended to Australians of Chinese background today to make up for their historical mistreatment.
Who to compensate for colonisation?
Some Aboriginal proponents of “redress” may describe a direct personal link with historical injustice and deprivation (a great-grandfather’s unfair treatment on a cattle station; a grandmother of the “stolen generation”; a parent’s experiences of racism in the classroom and subsequent poor self-esteem) as a rationale for race-based concessions as a form of compensation for past wrongs. To this I would ask: “How does awarding entitlements to me make things better for you, your parents or your grandparents?” The aggrieved party would most likely indignantly respond that such entitlements are not rightfully mine—the redress should go to those people who have been hurt (that is, people like them), and people like me should keep our paws out of the compensatory cookie jar.
Given that the compensatory cookie jar is not an endlessly self-replenishing magic pudding, those who feel entitled to compensation for historical injustice would do well to establish some criteria on genuine cases for compensation, to ensure undeserving Aboriginal people like me do not fraudulently benefit. However, as soon as we begin to consider eligibility criteria for compensation for historical injustice, the issue becomes something more than a matter of mere “Aboriginality”, and introduces a greater burden of proof, along with thorny questions of who should have the authority to judge claims and order recompense.
It is understandable that, on further consideration, Aboriginal proponents of compensatory preferential treatment would prefer to maintain a “magic pudding” policy, whereby anyone who can claim to be Aboriginal automatically has a moral claim to compensation for historical injustice. Although this approach means some Aboriginal people, like myself, might get more than we “deserve”, it doesn’t really matter so long as there is plenty to go around and nobody makes a fuss about it.
“You’re hurting people’s feelings”
I’m amazed that a person with aboriginal heritage should write such appalling things. This is playing into Andrew Bolt’s hands and giving him what he will assume is a licence to continue his racist attitudes towards our first citizens. You should not be proud of your disloyalty to your people.
—hammygar: 27 Sep 2012 3:50:56pm
As an Aboriginal woman who has worked all my life to get better outcomes and a better quality of life for our people, I find it puzzling why you would write such an article in a major daily newspaper, which most Aboriginal people don’t even read! Maybe you want to impress the red-necks. Let’s hope such naivety on your part doesn’t lead to another ill thought out debate …
—Pat Turner: 27 Sep 2012 11:24:15am
A number of responses linked my views with those of Andrew Bolt. Some expressed concern that I had inadvertently aligned myself with Andrew Bolt and other such “conservatives”—perhaps in the belief that I would never deliberately choose to do so. Many assumed that I would not welcome any association with Andrew Bolt and his expressed views on preferential treatment for Aboriginal people, either because I could not possibly share his views, or because I would not want to be seen to share them.
When I first saw Andrew Bolt’s now-notorious articles identifying a number of “fair-skinned Aborigines” as recipients of grants, job opportunities and awards for no clear reason other than their questionable “race”, I was sitting at my desk in an Aboriginal-identified government position. My first thought on reading the article and viewing those pictures was, “Holy shit—he could be talking about me!”
I am satisfied that fair-skinned Aboriginal people (or some of them) were reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to have been offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations conveyed by the newspaper articles.
— P.17, Eatock v Bolt  FCA 1103 (28 September 2011)
In keeping with this finding of Justice Bromberg, I did indeed feel humiliated and intimidated by the implications of Bolt’s article; I felt hurt, shamed and vulnerable. But rather than simply complain about how the article made me feel, I understood I could only resolve my discomfort through first examining why it made me feel that way. I realised I felt vulnerable because there was no way I could defend my own position if it were to be challenged; it was indefensible that I should occupy an Aboriginal-identified position when I knew that race-based preferential treatment was misguided and unjust policy. I felt shamed because my position was shameful, and my choices were shameful; I knew I was a party to something very wrong, yet I chose to continue because complying was easier than walking away from my chosen career. I felt hurt because the truth hurts, and my comforting rationalisations about myself and my place in the world were already painfully dissolving.
Bolt questioned the legitimacy of claims to a predominantly “Aboriginal” identity amongst urbanised, obviously “mixed-race” people, and went on to question the legitimacy of such people’s claims to awards, grants and positions specially designated for Aboriginal people. The resulting court case and decision seemed to rest on how the injured parties felt; whether they felt themselves to be Aboriginal and had always felt that way, and whether they felt upset and offended by Bolt’s writing, and whether other fair-skinned Aboriginal people and other such “vulnerable” Aboriginal people would be likely to feel the same way.
Aboriginal feelings are special
With the decline of recognisably “Aboriginal” cultural practices and the disconnection of Aboriginal identity with recognisably “Aboriginal” physical features, the feelings of Aboriginal people (or more precisely, the feeling of being Aboriginal) has become an increasingly visible concern for the Aboriginal industry. In the urban and regional centres where most Aboriginal people live, Aboriginal people may not necessarily appear or behave very differently from the non-Aboriginal people around them, but we are assured that Aboriginal people feel different, and feel differently, and thus require special treatment. As Aboriginal people’s feelings—rather than appearance or practices—are increasingly the key point of difference between Aboriginal people and the rest of the population, Aboriginal feelings are increasingly regarded as instrumental to Aboriginal disadvantage and ill-health.
In response to the statistical “gap” in health and life expectancy for the Aboriginal population, the Aboriginal health sector has increasingly focused on monitoring, reporting and improving the feelings of the Aboriginal population. This is mainly pursued through the management of others’ behaviour towards Aboriginal people rather than through direct dialogue with Aboriginal people about their feelings and how they might manage them. “Cultural awareness” and “cultural safety” are important qualities for government agencies and service providers to develop and display towards Aboriginal people, while the broader community is encouraged to demonstrate “respect for Aboriginal people” by engaging in certain practices (acknowledgements, ceremonies) that help Aboriginal people feel good, and refraining from others (questioning, criticising) that might make Aboriginal people feel bad.
Such expressions of respect for Aboriginal people do not require a clear explanation of precisely what it is about Aboriginal people we are meant to be respecting. Instead, these expressions are a kind of shorthand to indicate that I want Aboriginal people to feel respected, because I care about Aboriginal health and wellbeing. In contrast, if I speak or behave in ways that are deemed to be disrespectful of Aboriginal people or inconsiderate of their feelings, this indicates that I do not care about Aboriginal health and wellbeing, and that I accept—or even endorse—ongoing Aboriginal disadvantage. Respect is conceptualised as an active form of caring for Aboriginal people, while disrespect is actively harmful to Aboriginal people—because making Aboriginal people feel bad is bad for their health.
An accusation of disrespect can very effectively shut down dissenting voices in Aboriginal affairs, particularly in a climate where “respecting the traditional owners of the land” is expressed as a key value of many government and community organisations, along with several in the corporate sector. A statement, an act or an omission that is deemed disrespectful—and which may leave Aboriginal staff, stakeholders or bystanders feeling disrespected—can be a deeply shaming transgression in an organisation that proclaims a “commitment to reconciliation”. Any association with the transgressor can be potentially damaging to an individual’s career or an agency’s reputation. Although the protocols and boundaries surrounding appropriately “respectful” behaviour are broad and indistinct, ignorance of these protocols and boundaries is no excuse for “disrespectful” behaviour.
Be respectful: The governance of sentiment and policing of speech
It is reasonable to ask staff and members of organisations to behave towards each other in ways that the organisation endorses as “respectful”, so long as the demands are not too onerous or restrictive, there is a shared understanding of what respectful behaviour looks like, and so long as the expected behaviours are adequately expressed in cases where cultural protocols are more exotic or unfamiliar. It is not reasonable to demand that staff and members feel respect, or that they go out of their way to express respect, only that they comply with certain standards of behaviour as best they can. In contrast, the state has no business expecting or demanding that citizens feel respect, express respect or even behave “respectfully” towards each other; the state can only expect its citizens to behave lawfully.
Respect is a sentiment; we either feel respect for something or someone, or we do not. Increased knowledge and understanding may increase our respect for another’s particular culture and views—or we may find that our respect for another party diminishes the more we learn about them. As citizens, we should be free to express and explain our feelings of respect or disrespect for each other. These freedoms must include the freedom to express personal feelings of disrespect for Aboriginal cultural values (both traditional and modern), for Aboriginal popular opinion (if there is such a thing), and for the expressed opinions and behaviour of particular Aboriginal people.
Aboriginal people should not be insulated from “disrespectful” critique and commentary; not only is it infantilising, but it stymies the necessary self-reflection and debate that is a catalyst for change. Aboriginal people should not be afforded special legal protection from being “hurt” or “offended” by another’s critique of their values or behaviour, as such protection only discourages intelligent people from engaging with and critically examining Aboriginal problems. No Aboriginal individual in public life should be exempt from the scrutiny that others in public life are subject to—particularly those Aboriginal individuals with responsibility for substantial amounts of public funds.
Excessive deference to Aboriginal demands for “respect” has left many Aboriginal people unskilled in public discourse, with a tendency to conflate contrary opinion with oppression, criticism with abuse, disapproval with racism, and speaking about Aboriginal issues with presumptively speaking for Aboriginal people. Race politics and a minefield of “cultural sensitivities” have already rendered Aboriginal health, education and social services professional ghettos, discouraging many—too many—talented and compassionate professionals from pursuing careers in these areas. Excessive restrictions on “respectful” discourse in Aboriginal policy debate will only create an intellectual ghetto, where only those deemed to be appropriately respectful will be permitted to discuss an increasingly impoverished range of ideas. To attempt to govern and police “respect” for or amongst Aboriginal people is just another form of tyranny; and as with all tyranny and repression, it is the most vulnerable that suffer from the silencing of debate.
So, who are we to speak?
In the interests of encouraging free and open debate of Aboriginal issues, the obvious response to the question, “Who are you to speak?” is, “I am a person with an opinion and the right to express it. Who are you to stop me?”
When our legitimacy to speak critically is questioned on the basis that we are not dark-skinned enough, not disadvantaged enough or not sufficiently “cultural”, it can be tempting to respond with proof of our Aboriginal credentials by describing our “Aboriginal” upbringing and recounting our personal experiences of racism and disadvantage. (Similarly, non-Aboriginal people seeking permission to speak may point to their numerous Aboriginal friends, or describe their experiences of living and working closely with Aboriginal communities.)
While it may be momentarily satisfying to prove our legitimacy in this way, leaping through this hoop to demonstrate our credentials does little to encourage others to participate in debate on Aboriginal issues. When we do this, we are perpetuating the convention that only those with an acceptably authentic personal experience of Aboriginality can legitimately participate in discussion. If we want anyone with a rational and informed point of view to feel they are able to express it, we would do better to refuse to jump through hoops, and to simply insist on our right to speak on the understanding that our audience will judge our ideas on their merits alone.
Encouraging free and open debate may paradoxically entail some policing of the language we and others use. Too often, those concerned and committed enough to offer an opinion will apologetically preface it with, “Well, I’m just a whitefella, but …” Aboriginal dissenters can play an important role in dispelling the convention that another’s views can be justifiably ignored or treated with contempt simply because of their “race” (or their postcode or political affiliation, for that matter). Apologetic “whitefellas” may for some time need consistent reminders that they are simply a person with an opinion and the right to express it, and that every time they apologise for their “whiteness” they are genuflecting to the silencing power of the Aboriginal industry.
Finally, we need to stop talking in terms of “closing the gap”. There are Aboriginal people whose social and material circumstances are virtually indistinguishable from those of other middle-class Australians, and there are some Aboriginal people who are quite prosperous. Other Aboriginal people, particularly many in remote communities, are living in desperate need, and at present they have limited options and incentives available for them to improve their circumstances. Their circumstances and opportunities—or at least those of their children—can be improved, although improvements in material circumstances and integration with the broader community will be necessarily accompanied by some shifts in their beliefs, values and self-perceptions.
There are other Aboriginal people living in remote, regional and urban Australia with serious—if not quite so desperate—problems and needs. These Aboriginal people have the same choices and opportunities available to them as their non-Aboriginal cohorts, though they face identity-driven social and cultural disincentives to make the choices that would improve their circumstances. Again, improvements in their social and material circumstances may be accompanied by transformations in their current ideal of what it means to be Aboriginal.
The problem is not the “gap” itself, but the notion of an inherently disadvantaged Aboriginal identity that inhibits Aboriginal people’s advancement. Kwame Anthony Appiah, in The Ethics of Identity (2005), notes that the contemporary notion of “identity”—in which race, ethnicity, sexuality and other social features are recognised and venerated as the defining elements of one’s sense of self—came into being in the social psychology of the 1950s. So up until fairly recently, people managed to function without such “identities” to tell them who they were and what they needed. Perhaps Aboriginal people will find they too are capable of flourishing in the absence of an Aboriginal industry to construct and represent them. The power of Aboriginal identity politics to suppress Aboriginal people’s advancement will diminish the more we challenge and “disrespect” its many absurdities, and the more we continue to speak about Aboriginal issues as though it is everyone’s business to do so.
Kerryn Pholi’s article, “Why I Burned My ‘Proof of Aboriginality’”, can be read at The Drum