Beyond White Guilt at Gleebooks

Last night we cashed in a couple of our Gleeclub vouchers to hear Sarah Maddison in conversation with Jeff McMullen about the former’s new book, Beyond White Guilt. A couple of years ago, Sarah’s Black Politics drew on interviews with 30 Aboriginal leaders to give a kind of map of Aboriginal politics (the link is to my blog entry, which outlines some of salient points on the map). This book could be seen as a sequel, looking at non-Indigenous Australians.

A quick look at Wikipedia’s entry on Jeff McMullen shows him to be an eminently qualified whitefella to converse on this subject. He kicked off the conversation with two lists: on the one hand, invasion, dispossession, genocide, stealing children, and on the other denial, loss of memory and guilt. ‘We struggle in Australia,’ he said at one stage, ‘to have an honest and direct conversation [about the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians].’ This conversation was refreshingly free of indirection or quibble. I won’t try to summarise, but can offer a couple of notes.

Asked why she chose to focus on guilt, which is after all often a useless, self-punishing emotion, Sarah Maddison cited Bernhard Schlink’s Guilt About the Past which argues in the German context that every generation that doesn’t make a substantive break with the atrocities of its forebears is standing in solidarity with them. Her book doesn’t advocate that non-Indigenous Australians should wallow in guilt forevermore, but that we should ‘sit with’ our guilt for a time, not run from it either by taking action or by denial. Facing that discomfort is a necessary step to understanding and making thoughtful progress. [I liked this. I know a Native American woman who urges non-Indigenous people to put our minds to answering the question, ‘How have I personally benefited from genocide?’]

She talked about ‘high-identifiers’ – people for whom it is extremely difficult to acknowledge any negative dimensions to their national identity. Such people tend to think that the continuing disadvantage of Aboriginal people must be their fault, specifically must be because there’s something wrong with Aboriginal culture. She talked about the need for adaptive change, the kind of change that requires a change of perspective rather than a technological fix.

The questions were all excellent. Perhaps for the first time in my life I heard a very long question that was neither primarily self-promoting nor bizarrely tangential to the topic in hand. The questioner spoke of the problematic nature of the phrase ‘white guilt’ both because non-Indigenous Australia is very diverse, and ‘white’ covers only part of it, because the ‘we’ who actually experience guilt, as opposed to, say, denial, is very hard to define (is it only liberals?), and because guilt is a pretty dead-end notion anyway. These were interesting issues to raise, and, as Sarah Maddison acknowledged, weren’t going to be resolved in an hour before dinner on a Friday night.

No doubt I’ll blog about this again when I read the book.

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