Sarah Maddison’s Beyond White Guilt

Sarah Maddison, Beyond White Guilt: The real challenge for Black–White relations in Australia (Allen & Unwin 2011)

I’ve been having trouble blogging about this book – maybe I would have been better off writing one of those ‘X reads Y’ series of posts that take you through the book along with the blogger over the days or weeks it takes to read it. There was hardly a page when my mind wasn’t firing off in many directions, excited by one idea, quarrelling with another, irritated by an elliptical use of a reference, challenged and provoked and challenged again. But here you are, just one little blog post.

The book starts brilliantly. While strolling around her inner city suburb the author sees on the bank of the polluted and deformed Cooks River a tiny space that she imagines to be pretty much unchanged in the 200 and more years since white settlement. She pictures a group of people of the Eora nation going about their lives there, and is shocked by the mental image, not because it is new or surprising, but because she realises ‘that [she] had allowed [her] consciousness of that reality to fade.’ She goes on, ‘Unlike Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, I could choose to “forget” or to deny or repress the reality of my place here.’

Such moments must have been experienced by every thoughtful non-Indigenous Australian – moments when, in shocking contrast to our habitual complacency, it becomes blindingly clear that our current lives rest on a history of colonial invasion and dispossession. Recounting this example in the Introduction implies a promise that the next 200 or so pages will unpack such moments: How and why does that forgetting happen? What would happen if we stopped ‘forgetting’ and began to live in the real world? How do we go about making that change? Is this a thing that we need to address as so many million individuals, is there a challenge we need to meet collectively, and if both how are they connected?

Coming from the author of Black Politics, a powerful account of the main themes and tensions in Aboriginal politics based on extensive interviews with a range of Aboriginal leaders, this implied promise feels anything but hollow.

I’m not confident that I can summarise the book’s argument adequately, but here goes:

  • When the British arrived on the continent of Australia in the late 18th century, they wanted the land, and took it, with devastating consequences for the people who were already living here. Some people baulk at calling what happened genocide, but it’s hard to see how that word is far off the mark.
  • As the Australian nation formed, and people took on the  Australian national identity, they needed stories of the nation’s origin that would allow them to feel good about themselves and the identity. Stories were told of pioneers’ hardihood, of Anzac larrikin heroism, of sporting accomplishments. The history of European–Aboriginal relations was marginalised or silenced. This version of national identity became entrenched both in public institutions and in people’s minds.
  • The objective reality is that all non-Indigenous Australians continue to benefit from the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; and that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders continue to struggle with the consequences of the huge and ongoing assault on their ancestors, their cultures and their communities.
  • We know this. We mostly ignore it, but we know it. [This has to be very confusing for us as children: the stories are told and discounted in the same breath.] This is a kind of anaesthesia, a dissociative story we tell ourselves.
  • To break through that anaesthesia and face the reality of our history involves emotional discomfort. Unless we face this discomfort we’re likely to either a) see the problem (if we admit there is one) as inherent to Aboriginal and Torres Strait cultures and so none of our business, or b) intervene in ways that  don’t challenge the assumptions that allowed the past and ongoing injustices to happen in the first place. [Her discussion of the Intervention is compelling.] Either way, we continue to live in a strange, dissociated state.
  • What has to change is us.
  • Real, effective change isn’t impossible. Australian history is full of examples. [She discusses  the 1967 referendum, the Reconciliation process of the 1990s, and the Sorry Books and the apology for the Stolen Generations.]
  • So what is to be done? We need a difficult conversation about remembering and forgetting. We need dialogue – as opposed to debate or just conversation – in which [I’m quoting Boori Pryor, not anyone in this book] ‘we see your tears, you see our tears’. We need to acknowledge our [now I’m quoting Sarah Maddison] ‘bonds of solidarity with the perpetrators of historical and human injustice’, and find a way to break them, that is, ‘to rethink who we are as a nation’.
  • ‘Relationships will be central to whatever path lies ahead’. An immediate opportunity is the referendum coming up in 2112 to include an acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution.

It’s an important subject, and an important book. When you read it you may find my summary inadequate, and if so you’ll get no quarrel from me. The fact is, I found the argument hard to follow. My best guess as to why is that there are actually two books here struggling to co-exist. One is the one I’ve tried to summarise above. The other is a companion volume to Black Politics, which acknowledges and synthesises a vast body of thinking in a range of disciplines that addresses the issues of racism, colonisation and collective guilt. Notes and the bibliography account for nearly a quarter of the book’s pages. The text is studded with rich, provocative quotes, but at times it feels that no phrase, no concept can be used without deference to its originator. This may be sound academic practice, but the effect – at least for my kind of reader – is that hardly any time at all goes by without someone identified as political scientist A, legal scholar B, anti-racism educator C, political psychologist D, historian E … the list goes on … popping up, throwing a couple of words into the ring and then disappearing. I’d be going, ‘Who was that talking head? What  context did they use that phrase in?’ I would rather have read an overview of the scholarship,  White Politics, perhaps, and then moved on to Sarah Maddison’s argument. Or perhaps this is just a longwinded way of saying I found the scholarly apparatus distracting here.

Another reason for my difficulty is confusion about the word guilt. You’ll notice I haven’t used it in my summary. Is guilt a feeling or a legal verdict? Does it refer to a subjective state or a collective condition, or a vertigo-inducing combination? It seems to me that there are a number of quite distinct things rolled together in the one term here.

You can see Sarah Maddison speaking loud and clear in her own voice in a talk given at the Wheeler Centre here. I recommend it.

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