Tag Archives: Sarah Maddison

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.

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.

Conversations while reading while walking

I’ve posted about these brief conversations before, and they continue to amuse and even fascinate me. How much can be communicated in the time it takes to pass a friend, neighbour or stranger in the street! The conversation en passant is an under-appreciated artform.

So here are a couple that have accumulated over the last couple of weeks.

Neighbour: (beaming) Jonathan, every time I see you you’re reading. I wish it would rub off. It’s years since I’ve read anything.
Me: It’s not always serious stuff, you know. (Though I was reading Sarah Maddison’s Black Politics, which is surely serious enough for anyone.)
A non-conversation that fits here anyhow: I actually saw someone else in the Taylor Street Park reading while walking, accompanied by a dog. We didn’t acknowledge each other, and I didn’t get close enough to see what she was reading. It had an orange cover.
This one could have happened whether I was reading or not (I was wearing my red Viva-the-Kevolution shirt – a red version of this one, not this one):

Silver-haired man outside Glebe library: I’m not talking to you! (When I took no notice, being about 20 metres away) Hey, man in the red shirt … I’m not talking to you! (As I look up from my book and acknowledge him) I’ve got ADHD and I’m disciplining myself not to talk to everyone who walks past, so I’m not talking to you.
Me: (somewhat absent-mindedly) Oh, OK, thanks. (Now more like 30 metres from him, I return to my book.)
Silver-haired man: (calling cheerfully) I’m a little disappointed in your response. It would have been better if you’d said. ‘Now I’ll never know what I’m missing out on,’ or something like that.
Me: (closing my book, turning to face him, but not retracing my steps) Of course, I’m sorry. I wasn’t paying attention.
Silver-haired man: You see how needy I am!
Me: You’ll do.

My guess is that this charming man has been convinced  by a well meaning psychiatrist / psychologist that his ‘inappropriate’ gregarious impulses constitute a disorder.

More of these conversations as they occur. I do get a lot of indulgent smiles, and I’m not including dog-psychology haiku chats

Black Politics: behind the news

Sarah Maddison, Black Politics: inside the complexity of Aboriginal political culture (Allen & Unwin 2009)

Sarah Maddison is a non-Indigenous Australian academic. Over five years, she interviewed 30 Aboriginal leaders, activists and public intellectuals, ‘discussing their life histories, their political views, their worries and their aspirations’. Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton and Michael Mansell declined to be interviewed, but the actual cast of characters is very impressive, ranging over all mainland states and including household names as well as people who work at the community level, far from the limelight.

Starting from these interviews and drawing on very wide reading (the bibliography runs to 30 pages), while ‘privileging’ the voices of the interviewed and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait people (emphatically including the three who declined to be interviewed), Maddison constructs a kind of map, mainly for whitefella readers, of the complexity of Aboriginal politics. A reading-while-walking conversation helped me to think a little more about the idea of the book as a map. A park friend commented knowingly, ‘I would have thought that was more for dipping into than reading straight through.’ She’s partly right: the book could serve as a reference. But it is a map, not a street directory, so it also makes good sense to get the whole picture by reading it straight through.

Maddison gives a lightning-quick survey of the history of government policy (violent dispossession, ‘protection’, ‘assimilation’, ‘self-determination’, ‘intervention’) and Aboriginal responses from the beginnings of the colonies, but the book is about living politics, and so deals mainly with the Howard years and their dark shadow, in which we still live. While there is some attention to personalities – Noel Pearson, for example, emerges as a man most people love to hate, or at least contend with – our attention is drawn to ten ‘key areas of tension’. Here they are, with a little taster from each chapter to give you a clue on how the tension plays out:

Autonomy and dependency

In every country where Indigenous people have been subjected to a colonial regime, precolonial autonomy has been eroded. In its place a range of damaging dependencies have manifested themselves. These postcolonial dependencies add complexity to Aboriginal political culture as individuals, families and communities struggle to regain their autonomy as self-determining peoples and as political actors. These struggles take place in political contexts that tend to necessitate at least some degree of dependence on non-Indigenous structures of government.

Sovereignty and citizenship

Are Aboriginal people citizens of Australia or members of sovereign Indigenous nations? The nation-state of Australia may have sovereign legitimacy in the eyes of the world, but in the eyes of many of its Indigenous inhabitants it remains an illegitimate interloper on their territory, still trying after 220 years to usurp a sovereignty that they have never ceded.

Tradition and development

Without an economic base, Aboriginal people cannot be autonomous. Not surprisingly, however, there are complexities that get in the way of economic development for Aboriginal people. One is […] the tension between need for economic development and the importance of traditional connections to land.

Individualism and collectivism

Aboriginal value systems are often at odds with liberal democratic philosophy, creating tension between those committed to ideas of individual political equality and those who maintain that the foundational unit of society is the Aboriginal group or community.

Indigeneity and hybridity

The idea of “Aboriginal” or “Indigenous” identity is a distinctly postcolonial construct invented to both name and contain the “natives” of terra australis. In light of this, there is immense complexity concerning questions of Aboriginal identity today. […] Both non-Aboriginal politicians and, at times, other Aboriginal people will question an Aboriginal leader’s racial credentials on the suspicion that they may not be “Indigenous enough”.

Unity and regionalism

Attempting to organise political representation at the national level thus risks obscuring the diversity of Aboriginal nations and community groups, leaving many feeling invisible or unrepresented. This emphasis on localism can make national unity seem fragile or even impossible. In the absence of a credible model of national political representation, however, there can be tension between Aboriginal groups and communities who may find themselves competing for recognition and entitlements.

Community and kin

[The] majority of Aboriginal communities are a fiction, or at least a creation, comprising a number of kinship groups that, prior to colonisation, would have occupied different territories and that in many cases still retain different languages and systems of law.

Elders and the next generation:

Aboriginal political culture is still based on a gerontocracy in which elders command the most potent authority and influence. elders are holders of special and sacred cultural knowledge, and it is their responsibility to hand this knowledge down to the younger generations. The breakdown of traditional authority structures, however, means that this transfer of knowledge can no longer be assumed In place of this hierarchy of cultural seniority, younger leaders now emerge from the ranks of political activists fro community organisations, and from the developing class of young, university-educated professionals.

Men, women and customary law:

Colonisation has interrupted the inevitable evolution of Aboriginal custom and belief, instead pushing Aboriginal people to defend their threatened culture. At the same time there has been an extensive but poorly informed public debate about the recognition of customary law that has done much to muddy the water and demonise Aboriginal men.

Mourning and reconciliation:

The traumas of colonisation, including massacre, rape, starvation and introduced diseases through to policies that justified the removal of Aboriginal children from their families, are not resolved.

The author doesn’t keep her own mind out of the telling. She has struggled to do more than simply present the variety of Aboriginal viewpoints, which might have been useful to dip into but very hard to read. In general she has done a hugely impressive job of shaping her vast material into a narrative / argument. Occasionally there’s a sentence that strikes a chill. For example, when one reads, ‘What is almost universally rejected by Aboriginal leaders and activists, however, is the use of customary law to defend violent and abusive behaviour, particularly that directed at women and children,’ one does wonder what unspoken murk hides behind that ‘almost’. And, as the endnotes acknowledge, some complexities are simply not discussed – Torres Strait Islanders are generally not present, for instance. But a book that tackled this subject and didn’t have loose threads or unaddressed areas would be a miracle, and very very big.

I heard Sarah Maddison on Radio National saying that she wrote this book largely because of her love for Australia. Though this statement may have been in part a preemptive defence against imagined attacks from the weirdly patriotic right, on the evidence of the book itself it was also the plain truth. The book is the labour of an engaged, committed mind, and I for one am grateful for it.