The past week has seen some interesting news that concerns Aboriginal people. There was this story about comedian Trevor Noah and this one about the court case for the Tennant Creek man accused of raping a two-year-old. On Aboriginal-specific social media pages, perhaps you can guess which one has attracted the most attention and ‘outrage.’ Let’s look at each:
Noah: The South African-born comedian thought he was making a genuinely funny joke about Aboriginal women. I didn’t find it funny, but nor did I take offence. If he wishes to attract more fans, I would advise him, that’s not the way to do it. And yes, any offence is always taken, never given. So why do some people choose to take offence? I’ll answer that at the end of this article. But first, let me give you some insight into what his ‘joke’ means to me. You may ask: “Well what if he aimed that joke at female members in your family?” (some of my aunties would laugh it off and give back even more). My response would be “I don’t care.” You may ask: “Well what if he told you that you were ugly?” Again, I wouldn’t care. It is, after all, just his opinion (and hypothetically his audience’s opinion). If I valued his opinion about me more than I value my opinion about me, then I might be upset. But why would I do that?
Not surprisingly, there was no shortage of ‘warriors’ rushing to express their disgust and, of course, their ‘hurt’ at Noah’s joke (which, by the way, was was dug out of the internet’s archive from a few years ago). Consider what Summer May Finlay had to say in an open letter to Noah:
“I’d like to take the time to explain to you how inappropriate, but also how hurtful, your comments are to my sisters and me. … When I watched this clip where you make fun of Aboriginal women such as me, I was speechless and dumbfounded.” And for good measure she had to throw in “…this was and always will be Aboriginal Land.”
Also weighing in was Aussie sportsman Joe Williams. You might recall that Joe doesn’t like the national anthem (just between you and I, I’m not a fan of it myself, but I’m not upset by it). Williams was also reported as saying that Australia Day was a day of great heartache for Aboriginal people. Well not for me and many other Aboriginal Australians. He has called on Noah to apologise. Why? Would it make you feel better, Joe? As I have written before, offering forgiveness is far more empowering, while insisting on an apology immediate casts oneself as a put-upon victim.
And then there is Amy McQuire, who never misses the opportunity to promote the ‘white men are evil’ myth:
For all the white and non-Indigenous POC making excuses for Trevor Noah, telling us to concentrate on the ‘real issues’, I look forward to seeing you at next protest because I bet you weren’t there for Don Dale, Ms Dhu, Ms Maher, Elijah, Bowraville, David Dungay & so many others.
Amy, the real issue is preventing people from getting into trouble in the first place. We look forward to seeing you at the next protest for the mistreatment of Aboriginal people by Aboriginal people in their homes and communities.
Noah may have delivered a sad joke (though I respect your right to see it as funny if you wish), but what I find to be a sadder joke is that this comedian’s act (from five years ago) raises far more hackles than the real tragedies confronting Aboriginal Australians — violence and child abuse most of all.
Now let’s look at that other story.
Tennant Creek: Tragically, there’s really nothing new about this story; it’s been happening for so long. The Northern Territory Children’s Commissioner, Colleen Gwynne, was reported in The Australian as saying: “A lot of what would shock people who come into the Territory has become very much normalised.” This is very sad. For those planning to boycott Noah’s Australian tour, I ask you to think about those Aboriginal people who are truly being savagely hurt.
Now let’s return to Noah and the associated outrage. What do Aboriginal people think of Aboriginal women? Many Aboriginal people are of mixed heritage (like myself). Some look distinctly Aboriginal like my dear sister, Bess Price, and for some it’s the non-Aboriginal features that stand out. Regardless of the mix, I think all are beautiful. But I find it very interesting when I look the Miss NAIDOC finalists. Very often, the majority of finalists are not recognisable as being Aboriginal. Now some will immediately trot out the dog-eared arguments of the ‘cup of coffee’ analogy, that “being Aboriginal is not in the colour of your skin …. but in your heart and connection with country….” I’m not going to get into a discussion on identity politics, but are those women who are distinctly and immediately recognisable as Aboriginal any less beautiful or any less Aboriginal in their hearts? This simply tells me that many people identifying as Aboriginal seem to value the non-Aboriginal features (fair skin, etc.), at least when it comes to Miss NAIDOC contests.
There was a time when Aboriginal people were able to joke around. These people still exist, but they are being drowned out by the whinja ninjas who are keen to take offence whenever they can. Consider this skit from Ernie Dingo.
Why take offense? Because to feel offended is to feel important. I have written much about this before. Here is one extract from an article I wrote about Australia Day. It explains how offence, anger, or other emotions are not caused by others or jokes, or cartoons, etc., but is actually learnt behaviour. And if it is learnt behaviour, then it can be unlearnt, but for those who thrive on feeling important, they will be reluctant to let go of feeling offended.
People claiming to feel offended believe their offence is always caused, thereby freeing them of personal responsibility. They believe this for their emotions generally. Consider the man who claimed to be angry because his girlfriend didn’t wash the dishes. He believes her failure to wash the dishes caused him to be angry (it did not). Again, we have an assumed cause-and-effect relation. Here, the assumed effect was his anger and the assumed cause was her not doing the dishes. He further believes he has no choice but to feel angry as he believes his anger is caused by her. In other words, she’s responsible for his anger (and happiness) and he is not responsible.
He believes he is powerless to feel anything other than angry. And it’s not too difficult to see that in order for him to have control over his happiness, he has to have control over what he believes is the source (or cause) of his happiness – her. Yes, the anger is real, just like the offence is real for people who claim to be offended because Australia Day is celebrated on 26 January. But the cause is not in some other person or date, or other event – it resides within us.
There will always be comedians who say things that aren’t funny, up to and including the disgusting and offensive. If you want to take offence and hand control of your emotions to someone else, well go for it. But while you are fuming and blaming others, know also that you can be better than that. Moving on, as they say, is far more empowering than allowing yourself to become the pawn agitators want you to be. It’s a big step in the right direction not to reward them.
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. For more, visit www.anthonydillon.com.au