Wednesday, 16 May 2018

When identity politics start to fail

The other night I was driving home in my car. It was late in the afternoon and James Valentine was on the ABC talking to a woman who represents a local Aboriginal land council. The Coalition government has said it wants to give $50 million toward the construction of a new monument to James Cook, who had sailed up the eastern coastline of Australia in 1770, thus claiming the continent for the United Kingdom.

Valentine was being fair and exhibiting interest in what the woman, who I presume would classify herself as Aboriginal, had to say. He asked her about the stories that Aboriginal people tell themselves about the discovery and settlement of Australia, especially the people who are descended from the Eora people who lived in the Sydney area at the time. What she said made me listen intently.

She said that Aboriginal people still teach “culture” to their children, in order to pass on their civilisation from generation to generation. She also said that the survivors of the Eora people who still live in Sydney have been asked for their opinion about the planned memorial. Valentine had asked for quite different information, however. He had wanted to know what those same people, the Eora, tell themselves about the discovery and settlement itself. But she brushed him off and at length gave him some bland pabulum that contained little or nothing of interest to listeners. What she said was merely what everyone already knows about Aboriginal people. It was as though the stories that Aboriginal people tell themselves about the dispossession were somehow sacrosanct, not to be revealed to outsiders, and especially not to white people.

The response told me something that I already knew: there is little trust between the two communities. Or at least there is little trust in the Aboriginal community for the mainstream. Because the Aborigines only account for about three percent of Australians, they find themselves in a besieged minority, where everyone outside the circle is a potential enemy. The stories they tell themselves might be different from the ones people in the rest of the community tells itself, but there’s no need for this.

The response also told me that Aboriginal identity is more important for them than any other consideration. They cleave to their Aboriginality as if their lives depended on it, rather than a good job, an education for their children, or any other one thing that might make their lives better. It further told me that the stories that Aborigines tell each other are probably different from the ones they share with the rest of the community.

We see from the protests in Palestine that what you teach your children determines the future of your people. Palestinians teach their children to hate Israelis, which means it is easy for those young people to break the law in Israel. For Palestinians, as for Aboriginals, the whole system is stacked against them, and there is no incentive for them to apply themselves to any metier or calling, and to thrive as families or as a people. They fail from the outset but because of the way identity politics work the blame falls not on them, but rather on the mainstream they oppose.

It is time for the Aboriginals to lay aside their special claims to a unique identity. Or at least to stop defining themselves purely in opposition to a monolithic mainstream. Only a small minority of the mainstream holds an animus against them. Even in her home state of Queensland, Pauline Hanson only got about 13 percent of the primary vote in the 2017 state election. The vast majority of Australians have changed their way of seeing Aborigines and most of them disagree with the measure of building a new commemorative memorial for James Cook. The majority of people teach their children in schools that the Aborigines were the original inhabitants of the continent, and that they were treated very badly by the settler population for generations. But that political settlement belongs to the past. Things are different now. Being black should not be more important than being successful and happy, and giving your children every opportunity to be successful and happy.

Aborigines account for a significant proportion of those who are incarcerated in Australia, so we know that the identity politics that they have so greedily consumed from birth no longer do anything for them. They also die earlier than people in the broader population and have poorer education outcomes. Instead of seeing themselves as a besieged minority, Aborigines should spend more time looking after their children, so that the young people can grow up to live successfully within the community. Identity politics doesn’t keep working in the same way forever. Once equality has been achieved, it merely serves to separate you from the mainstream, and thus reduces your chances of being successful.


Matt Moore said...

Matthew - Let me pull this apart somewhat.

1. Your post lumps a quite disparate group of people together. You heard one woman from a land council. You heard her views on aboriginal culture. There is a diverse range of aboriginal experience - in the city, in remote communities, somewhere in between. Do all aboriginals hold themselves in "opposition to mainstream"? Based on my experiences, many are trying to balance multiple identities - professional, personal, family, racial. Isn't viewing a group of people monolithically part of the problem? If I were to say, "all white people act the same", you would quite rightly say I was talking nonsense. There is also be reason to be wary of those who claim to speak on behalf of hundreds of thousands of people.

2. It's very easy to tell someone else to give up their identity. It's harder when you are being asked to do so. People die for their identity (nation, religion, family). It's not something you just toss away. I would hold that it is possible to be both proud of your aboriginal heritage and hold down a job, be a good parent, etc.

3. Racism is more endemic than you claim:
Few people would admit to racism but many would do things that betray a prejudice based on race.

4. You correctly identify problems in the aboriginal community (high incarceration rates, shorter life expectancy). I'm sure some aboriginal folk have some good insights but so does this white guy: (and the story he paints is complicated).

Matthew da Silva said...

Thanks for your comment. Your point number four directs me to an interview on the ABC with Don Weatherburn, the NSW crime statistician. I tend to disagree with him on the cause of the malaise. He says that the colonial dispossession cannot be blamed for the problems Aboriginals face in society today. I tend to believe that the sins of the fathers in the settler community have visited evil upon the sons in the Aboriginal community. Taking away the land took away the entire social structure upon which the Aboriginals depended for their identity in a very personal guise. But Mabo says that we cannot undo what has already been done. Subsequent title changes erase original title to land. So it is up to the Aboriginals to start looking after their children. They can perhaps take a leaf out of the playbook of north Asians. Possibly we need more "Tiger Mummas" in Aboriginal Australia.