Daring to think about Indigeneity (as a white girl)

In a moment of naivety, she wishes she was black. To be a part of the collective consciousness that existed in this land long before it became ahistorical. To claim affinity with the land, to feel that she has an excuse, a justification, a legitimisation for her own feeling of belonging here. But she doesn’t want to be the object of the disavowal, the blind hatred, the ignorance, the dispossession. She doesn’t want to die seventeen years before the twenty-one million, three-hundred and eighty-one thousand and five hundred and ten non-aboriginal occupants of this country.

I wrote this as a part of a short story for a HSC  major work  in 2009. I was a white girl, German by birth, an invader in this country. I lived in the beautiful Northern Rivers region of NSW, and I felt a very significant sense of connection to that place. I still do. And I wanted to write about it, even if it would only ever be read by the markers.

I remember being taught about the Stolen Generations at my high school, about Aboriginal people removed from their culture and families, dispossessed, disarticulated, identities torn apart. I remember feeling guilt, a lot of guilt. I remember skipping class – the only time I ever dared to – to watch Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations on a tiny TV in the library, about fifteen of us white kids huddled around. I remember studying the statistics – life expectancy, poverty, abuse, employment, education.

When I wrote about my own belonging to the place I had grown up in a lot of this was always at the forefront of my mind. I felt guilty because I knew that even if it wasn’t me personally, I was part of the group of oppressors. And there I was writing about feeling connected to a land that wasn’t even mine. That had been stolen. I dared to write:

She can feel the land breathe and pulse beneath her feet. She respects it, the stories that shaped it, and the people who watched over it for an hundred years. Perhaps, she thinks, the land does not distinguish black and white as its people do.

I do not know if I was right in daring to say that. But I admire the way that Aboriginal discourses aren’t (as far as I have had it explained to me) formulated around ownership of space, but custodianship. Ownership speaks of dominance, control, defensiveness. Custodianship, to me, speaks of relationships, responsibility, and respect. I think that it would benefit Australia if white people began to think about these three aspects rather than those associated with ownership.

Thinking about relationships, we (non-Aboriginal Australians) need to acknowledge (as individuals and as a society) that different layers of disadvantage intersect each other. We need to understand how being Aboriginal is influenced by the cycle of poverty, by trauma, by a history of physical and cultural dispossession, by living in a rural or regional community, by any number of disadvantages.

Thinking about responsibility, we need to realise the full implications of past policies, discrimination and dispossession without sweeping it under the carpet. And we need to then take responsibility for those actions. That involves recognising the impact that those actions still have, and that Aboriginal people are still oppressed, managed and judged. This isn’t just a thing of the past.

And thinking about respect, we need to realise that our dominant perception of Aboriginal people as lazy, alcoholic, abusive and violent is wrong. We need to respect Aboriginal people’s right to speak and to be heard. We need to respect that this country has a history before 1788. (And hey, as an archaeology student I’ve studied some great Aboriginal sites!) And I think that we also need to respect Aboriginal people’s anger and pain without trying to put it aside.

Coincidentally, Chally also posted on a similar topic the other day. She writes on being the first ones there, and all the dangerous discourses surrounding it.

Please leave a comment if you enjoyed this post, or if it made you angry, or if you disagree with something I have said. There may be something I have gotten wrong – and I won’t know if you don’t tell me.

4 thoughts on “Daring to think about Indigeneity (as a white girl)

  1. I do think it is possible to feel a connection to a land in which you occupy a position of privilege and the body signifying colonial oppression.

    And what the land distinguishes between is very much a matter of what place the land has in your discourse. In mine, the land always knows. In a lot of white western discourse, the land is inert, unknowing. In other discourse, the land knows and forgives the short-sightedness of the humans who occupy it.

    In many ways liberal white guilt is a deterrent to real change. Most people fear guilt and try and avoid it, in my opinion (I’m a non-white immigrant in a white immigration system) it’s better to carry the weight of the guilt and shape it into something constructive.

    I think it is important for all people to think about indigeneity in a way that acknowledges their own privilege with integrity and grace. Which I think this post does.

    1. Thank you for the comment, brownflotsam! I like what you say about different discoyrses about the land – I have always felt that the land is alive rather than passive as well.

      Your comment on guilt is very pertinent as well, because it is one of those emotions that many people try to avoid rather than engage with. The differences between Germany (where I was born and have lived for part of my life) and Australia are particularly strong in respect to the way the countries have processed their guilt – I have always felt that Germany has taken that guilt and turned it into responsibility much more than Australia has. Australia just kinda swept a lot of everything under the rug and evem now doesn’t engage with it as well as it could. So much damage was done under the previous governments but it’s not dealt with very responsibly at all.

      I’m very happy about your last remark, thank you. I was write nervous posting this and not knowing exactly how it would come accross!

  2. hey Jo, it’s Ellie from latin camp again.
    I am absolutely DREADING having to make a sorry day speech at assembly next week. Every year we take such a condescending, dominant white stance on Indigenous Australians and everybody fails to realise this same sentiment is how the Stolen Generation happened. We talk about ‘Aboriginal Issues’ like alcoholism, substance abuse, and domestic violence, and nobody ever seems to think ‘hey, these aren’t solely Aboriginal problems. They’re just problems. And a lot of Aboriginals aren’t like that. Just like a lot of white people are.’ And now I have to repeat the horrible cycle unless I find some new way to talk about what is essentially a sympathetic day of empty promises and condescending comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how I can turn this disaster around

  3. You may be interested to know that according to the ABS if your family can trace it’s history to before 1950 – and disappears into the mists of time you have a 75% chance of having Australian Indigenous blood. Interesting fact. Obviously it doesn’t apply in your case Jo or brownflotsam. I am proud of the question mark hanging over the top branches of my family tree and hope that i am connected by blood to this stunning land.
    I really resonated with what you wrote Jo.

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