This is Part 2 of a 5-part series
Matt Pedler – Flinders University Counsellor and Clinical Psychologist
In the first article (Why hasn’t the gap between Aboriginal and White Australia been closed?), we looked at how there appears to be some roadblocks in the way of repairing the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. In this article we will look at how history has ‘served up’ these roadblocks for us to deal with today.
Our Inheritance – Where did white privilege come from?
White privilege is easier to spot in other places and in obvious acts of hatred, such as in the United States following the recent horrific death of George Floyd. It is, however, much harder to see in ourselves. Like everyone else, I am deeply disturbed by seeing George Floyd slowly suffocate. I have had visions of being there and intervening, I have also had moments of hopeless sadness. The truth is, the world probably doesn’t really need white saviours or white hopelessness, it just needs white accountability for racism (including our pervasive subtle expressions which likely nurtured the hatred in that policeman’s heart).
The term ‘white privilege’ just sounds bad to me, it has a very uncomfortable ring to it and it has taken me a long time to accept it as an apt description of my unearned racial power. The notion of being privileged really violates my ethics and I think this is partly because dominant Australian culture despises privilege and unfairness and instead places great value on ‘a fair go’ and on ideas of being rewarded equally for working hard. So it seems confusing that I can hold, at the same time, both values of egalitarianism and also superiority over other races. Now cultures are not stagnant and, like people, cultures cleverly adapt to their circumstances. So I think that the history of how our culture developed probably explains why I/we have such a confusing mixture of beliefs. If we understand this history then we can appropriately place some blame on our inheritance of white privilege rather than just on ourselves as inherently ‘racist’ or ‘bad people’. We can then more consciously make decisions based on our values and try to be better versions of ourselves.
So what gave rise to this confusing combination of beliefs?
Without getting too complicated, I think that there are some key historical drivers which shaped our ancestor’s tendency to think of themselves as both separate and superior to other people and the natural environment. These beliefs give unquestioned permission for dominance over others – racism and white privilege. I will propose only 2 of these drivers below (just to make the point that our history is important); climate and chronic conflict. I will also propose that the Enlightenment and post-colonial periods have equipped us with a cherished cultural value of egalitarianism. Together with Aboriginal wisdoms about richly interconnected social and eco-systems, this value of equality can offer hope for building healthy relationships with each other and our Australian environment.
Approximately 12,000 years ago modern humans permanently inhabited Britain. Maybe the population pressures of Europe pushed people into such relatively extreme climates zones and those people were then more likely to exert control over their environments (agriculture) in order to better survive harsh winters. I am aware that all cultures manipulate their environments to some extent (and developed agriculture) but perhaps Western European, and particularly British, cultures had to do this to a greater extent? I wonder if this set of circumstances and adaptation meant that these cultures were more likely to see themselves as separate from their environmental surrounds?
Skipping ahead a bit – the early and Middle Ages were times characterised by territory being in high demand, population movement and pressure, and some state of constant war or vigilance about war. This is the perfect recipe to encourage beliefs that one’s own people and culture is better than others. Without such a sense of superiority it would be very difficult to justify constantly engaging in war at such cost to self and group/nation.
This is a time period portrayed as a re-birth of artistic, intellectual, and technological expression and development. It was a time not without costs but the benefits were numerous and included an increased importance placed on independent thought and reasoning, individual freedoms and rights, and an associated gradual flattening of hierarchical class and social structures. Our cherished cultural value of egalitarianism probably had its birth in this period.
Unfortunately, it seems that the new tendency to see others as equal and important during the Enlightenment were not then applied across cultures. Instead of turning our sights inward and addressing our sense of supremacy over, and separateness from, other groups, like their ancestors before them, our colonial forebears set their sights on lands for the taking. The result was a forceful and coercive infliction of white ideals and ‘enlightened’ thinking, rather than a collaborative exercise in mutual learning and benefit. Colonialism, it seems, was an impossible combination of supremacist abuse and attempted egalitarianism.
Since early colonisation (it is easily arguable that we have not yet entered a post-colonial phase), it seems that the peculiarly white Australian values of scepticism of power and authority and the associated affinity with the underdog (e.g. in the narratives of Ned Kelly, Eureka Stockade, Waltzing Matilda, and ANZAC legends) were added to the cultural values previously held. Perhaps these latter values further emphasise the ideas of egalitarianism and fairness due to the nature of convict settlement, the need for previously defined classes to work equally to survive in the early colonial settlements, being at some distance from the entrenched cultural forces of Mother England, and perhaps some unacknowledged cross-pollination from Aboriginal cultures…
Whose culture is right then?
Both Aboriginal and white cultures are highly evolved and clever, but they are adaptive to very different circumstances. That is, the English world view of thinking of ourselves as separate, superior, and also egalitarian was probably highly adaptive and clever if you lived in a place and time where; winters were harsh, conflict had been the norm, territory was contested and populous, conflict was reducing but still occurring at large scale, and survival required successful establishment of a group large and unified enough to be safe. In contrast, Aboriginal worldviews evolved on an island continent, without much external interruption for over 60,000 years, and amongst hundreds of other nations with shared ancestry and relatively similar worldviews. In this context it would be advantageous to have evolved a belief system with more emphasis on intricate symbiotic interdependence, relationship, and humility.
What do we do with these two clever but highly disparate cultures?
The context which we find ourselves in now is actually unique to both cultures and some genuine cultural exchange appears to be the most adaptive pathway forwards. It took our white forebears thousands and thousands of years to finely tune an attachment to the lifeblood of our natural world and each other. Yet our ancestors then found themselves in contexts which required them to shed these attachments in order to survive conditions of harsh climate and chronic conflict. This detachment is difficult to reconnect, although it is partly mitigated by beliefs in equality (a commitment of sorts to each other). The irony here is that, not so long ago, our ancestors stole Australia and brutally oppressed its inhabitants. And here we are. In a place so far from where our detachment advantaged us. Here we are in a place where a precious, uninterrupted and finely tuned evolution of human attachment to the natural world and each other still resides in Aboriginal Australia. It’s a stalemate that we haven’t yet managed to reconcile; the oppressed and the oppressor each hold a different key to set the other free.
The take home message
Anyway, I tried to not make this complicated and I think I did. Sorry! The thing to remember here is just that there is a reason that the terminology of white privilege feels uncomfortable. It’s because we have been ‘served up’ some very conflicting beliefs about being separate and superior but also equal. Thanks history! This conflicting duality continues to instil an ongoing colonial mindset and subsequently we have a poor relationship with, and at great cost to, Aboriginal Australians. However, our notions of egalitarianism, our more recently evolved Australian amplification of this value, and Aboriginal cultures’ ongoing intricate connections to the world around us offer beacons of hope to together build something more adaptive to present day Australia’s needs. True to the 2020 Reconciliation Week theme, we really are ‘In This Together’.
The next article will look at what maintains such a conflicting mixture of ideals in the here and now so that we can begin to understand what is required to sort ourselves out.
If you would like to start taking some action then here are some activities to undertake before the next article.
Choose a cultural valuable and celebrated story/saying. What is important about this for you? For example, Ned Kelly, The Eureka Stockade, The ANZAC legends, Waltzing Matilda, notions of ‘tall poppy syndrome’, and ‘barracking for the underdog’…
Who are some positive white role-models/examples – in your own or public life? Below are some suggestions…
- The apology by Kevin Rudd in 2008 https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/apology-australias-indigenous-peoples
- The 1967 referendum https://australianstogether.org.au/discover/australian-history/1967-referendum/
- The 2000 Sydney Harbor Bridge reconciliation walk https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/walk-for-reconciliation
- Paul Keating’s Redfern speech https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1S4F1euzTw
- The Treaty movement in Victoria https://www.aboriginalvictoria.vic.gov.au/treaty
- The 9yo girl who sat during the National Anthem – https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-12/national-anthem-protest-school-brisbane/10235792 ).
- Mark McKenna’s (2016) description of Cooktown’s joint annual re-enactment of James Cook’s arrival in 1770 https://www.mup.com.au/books/from-the-edge-electronic-book-text