The first and saddest reaction of far too many Indigenous activists and spokesmen is to see the past as a crushing burden, one that can only be lifted by profuse apologies and, the most recent demand, a re-written Constitution. It is an attitude no less destructive than delusional
Many people have asserted that the problems Aborigines experience today are largely due to the influence of the past. Specifically, colonisation is assumed to be the cause of much of the suffering as James Cook University Associate Professor Gracelyn Smallwood has stated . Aboriginal people, she says, remain burdened by “the trans-generational scourge of violent colonisation”. The Creative Spirits website takes up the same theme, blaming colonisation for causing “all the known social disadvantages and trauma.” Interestingly, despite a past said to be causing such havoc today, there are many Aboriginal people — many thousands in fact — who not only survive but thrive.
How can it be that the past is not holding them captive? What we do know is that any search for an answer anywhere but in history attracts much criticism. Could it be some Aborigines are victims of one particular and debilitating view of the past? What is certain is that any explanation that directly or indirectly suggests Aboriginal people have a part to play in addressing their problems will attract vitriol and abuse.
Such has been the lot of Noel Pearson, recently quoted in the The Australian as urging indigenous Australians to get over their traumatic history. This prompted a feeding frenzy among the culture vultures and victim brigade. The purpose of this article is not to defend Pearson, but to offer an alternative to the mantra, “Our suffering is due to colonisation”. I do this because I wish to see Aborigines move forward, not be held back by the myth that we are history’s victims and powerless to change our own lives. The equally pernicious twin of this poisonous message about the past is that, until some (unspecified) form of recognition or acknowledgement or apology is given, Aboriginal people will be unable to move on. Yet, despite those who derive their sense of personal meaning and importance by playing the prophets of gloom, many have moved on in leaps and bounds.
Before showing why it is not the past that keeps Aboriginal people down, I would like to briefly consider a few of the recent responses to Pearson. First, consider Ghillar Michael Anderson, last survivor of the four young men who set up the Aboriginal Embassy outside Parliament House in 1972. According to Anderson, the anger directed by some at Pearson is proof in itself that he has no empathy for other Aboriginal people. “Telling his own people to move on from the traumas of the past makes it very obvious why he is not accepted in many Aboriginal communities,” writes Anderson. This may well be the case, but it would be very foolish to conclude that the rejection of a message is evidence that it does not contain truth – just ask Galileo.
The simple fact is that people of all races and any often need to be confronted with unpleasant and unsettling truths. But how many wish to deliver such messages? Many of those who wish to win popularity contests in Aboriginal affairs have found the message ‘you are not responsible for finding solutions’ is the way to go. Anderson then goes on to claim that Pearson “continues to appease perpetrators of racism”. He gives no evidence whatsoever for this claim, confident that the cry of ‘Racism!’ is one of the surest and easiest ways to shut down what might otherwise be a rational discussion.
Not to be outdone, fellow activist Kerry Blackman also weighs in, likewise failing to provide any argument to refute Pearson’s position but invoking the past to attack the man whose message he dislikes. “Pearson doesn’t and never have [sic] had in his control the silver bullet to cure our social ills”, he said. Most people, including Pearson himself, would not beg to differ. None of us has the magic remedy Blackman is talking about. Is he suggesting that Pearson claims that he has the answer? Some detect the whiff of a red herring deployed to conceal a weak argument.
The Australian quoted Pearson’s diagnosis as “twenty years of brutal trauma caused by an untrammelled alcohol binge.” Blackman acknowledges that alcohol and drug abuse are prevalent within Aboriginal communities while adding the qualification “as they are in all mainstream communities”, a sleight of hand which neatly ignores that grog and drugs loom larger in Aboriginal community than for the “mainstream communities”. Blackman should perhaps also google “fetal alcohol syndrome” or visit this Australian Institute of Health and Welfare webpage and download these documents examining substance abuse among Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Sadly, he appears to think that more money is the solution.
Blackman then claims, “Whitefellas generally, and black coconuts specifically, understand the social issues facing our people today are directly linked to the high level of direct and indirect violence and racial discrimination from white people since they set foot on our lands in 1788”. He offers no evidence or rational argument to support his claim, just his opinion that “forcefully taking our land off our ancestors without negotiating a treaty … created trauma back then as it still does today to us as displaced traditional owners”.
While Blackman is happy to talk about the violence of the past, he does not refer to what is surely the more serious problem facing Aboriginal people today: the shocking and undeniably high rates of violence affecting some Aboriginal communities. In 2003, Mick Dodson lamented that “violence is undermining our life’s very essence, it is destroying us, and there are very few Aboriginal families that are not struggling with the debilitating effects of trauma, despair and damage resulting from their experiences with violence … To read the many reports detailing violence in our communities is to make one weep.”
I cannot help but wonder how much the silence and denial in regard to Aboriginal violence has contributed to the state where, more than a decade after Dodson wrote those words, violence in some Aboriginal communities has only grown worse.
Or consider another activist, Jude Kohn’s reaction to Pearson’s words. Pearson, he wrote at New Matilda, must bear in mind that “any survivor of any trauma can tell you that healing cannot begin until there has been some recognition of the suffering inflicted upon them.”. That is Kohn’s opinion, and that is all it is – an opinion.
People can move on, and many have, without receiving any such recognition. Offering forgiveness of wrongs committed is far more empowering than seeking some form of recognition or apology. I am not suggesting that people do not derive some short-term relief from an apology or other manifestations of recognition. But it is not the healing which comes from forgiving — and never forget that forgiveness can be an incredibly difficult thing to offer. That is why blaming others and demanding acknowledgement are more popular, so much more seductive. But the popular approach is also the disempowering approach. To blame others essentially communicates a message that hobbles those who utter it: “I am unable to do anything to help myself.”
There is another serious problem with the belief that an acknowledgement of past wrongs by non-Aboriginal people is needed in order for Aboriginal people to feel good, engage productively with society and be able to attain the standard of living most Australians take for granted. To insist on some form of acknowledgement essentially implies that the happiness and well-being of Aboriginal people is under the direct control of those who are being requested to give the acknowledgement – the non-Aboriginal people. This is not to say that any official acknowledgement of past wrongs is inappropriate, only that it is not required before Aboriginal people can succeed and thrive, as many are already doing. The simple fact that many Aboriginal people are not suffering, and, indeed, are thriving, must surely cast serious doubt on the assumed cause-and-effect relationship between the past and contemporary disadvantage.
Blaming the past (or someone else) has great appeal. It may be human nature, but the blame game will not solve the problems facing Aborigines today. Rather, it helps perpetuate them while preventing the necessary internal changes that will enable Indigenous communities and individuals to focus on the areas where real gains can be achieved, such as personal responsibility, jobs, education, and health. Discussing race relations in the United States, University of Pennsylvania legal scholar Amy Wax suggests: “Focusing on the actions of others may sap the determination necessary to achieve difficult internal changes.” Her point applies no less to Aborigines than it does to minority groups and communities in her own country. If Aboriginal people are constantly urged to regard the past as their catch-all excuse for a miserable present, they will be less likely to focus on solutions to today’s problems, less motivated to grab the many opportunities available today – opportunities which so many Aboriginal people have already taken. Instead, overcome by passivity and a crushing sense of victimhood, they will sit and wait – and many will die waiting – for the state to ‘rescue’ them.
While many of the problems facing Aboriginal people are arguably linked to the legacy of past events, it is not colonisation that sustains those ills and the ongoing disadvantage of many. One hundred years from now, unless that attitude is abandoned, the same problems will remain, the potential of countless lives squandered and many available opportunities ignored. It may be useful to know how a fire started, but there is surely greater value when seeking to extinguish in knowing what keeps it burning. That is the case, of course, if we are more interested in putting out the fire than laying blame!
It cannot be denied that many people (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) have had difficult pasts, nor that their ancestors endured dreadful hardships and injustice. The past cannot be forgotten, nor should it be, but it can be overcome. Perhaps the Indigenous Canadian writer Calvin Helin puts it best:
The problem with always looking back is that there is nothing we can do about what has already happened. How can the constructive future of indigenous nations be founded on festering grievances of the past? Should we not be focussing on positive, forward-looking solutions to a new policy, a new economy, a fresh outlook, rather than being anchored entirely in rancorous injustice of the past (no matter how justified such views are)? How is dwelling on historical injustices going to lift indigenous people out of the morass of social and political pathologies? … We should be asking, “What pragmatic steps can we take now to make the lives of ordinary indigenous people better?” It should be obvious that we must begin moving forward and start looking for real solutions.
Anthony Dillon identifies as a part-Aboriginal Australian who is proud of both his Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestries. Originally from Queensland, he now lives in Sydney and is a researcher at the Australian Catholic University