I’VE EXPERIENCED THE transcendental power of switching from a toxic narrative of low expectations and negative stereotypes to a new one in which we are all strong and smart: young, black and deadly. And I survived the gruelling dynamics that have undermined the truth about who we are as Aboriginal people, solidly anchored by ancient connections to the land we now share; traversed far beyond the shadows of Plato’s cave, embracing instead a world more vibrant and full of potential than anyone thought possible in this lifetime.
In partnership with some quality teachers, Aboriginal parents, Elders and community, we dramatically transformed an Aboriginal school at a time when very few believed it could be done. With quality literacy and numeracy programs that would be accepted in any white school, student results surged towards the belief that Aboriginal children could be strong and smart, rather than seeing them bludgeoned with costly remedial products, and then later blamed for their failure. School attendance improved from 62 per cent to 94 per cent after purging the naive, simplistic and ineffective truancy paradigm, to embrace an honest and professional approach in which we put a mirror up to ourselves and asked questions such as: what are we asking children to turn up to here, and would I accept this school or classroom for my own children?
That was Cherbourg State School. Children became strong and proud to be Aboriginal, and smart enough to mix it with any other child in any other school.
Outside this microcosm of self-empowered relationships based on high expectations between children, families, community leaders and teachers, there was a society that continued to baulk at the negative Aboriginal stereotype that persisted and appeared to many as something of a truth. This manifested in the experience I had in my search to find the right school for my own children upon leaving the exciting and vibrant school we created together.
I asked the principal at a school I was considering, ‘How do you think my kids will settle into your school, given their Aboriginal background?’
‘No worries!’ he replied confidently. ‘That wouldn’t be a problem.’
But there was a problem, obviously, given the swiftness and easiness with which he linked ‘being Aboriginal’ with ‘being a problem’.
The principal was a decent man and he was trying. I should have at least heard him out. However, his next utterances left me in no doubt there was indeed a problem.
‘Our kids are all Australian when they come in that school gate. We are all the same!’
I reiterate, he was a decent man and he was trying. He was not malicious, and I didn’t know him well enough to conclude he was in any way some kind of racist. There were simply some things he did not know.
He didn’t know that Aboriginal cultural identity is something you can’t take off like a backpack and leave at the school gate on the way in and pick up on our way home. Aboriginal cultural identity, like any sense of cultural identity, is inherently connected to the very essence of who we are. He did not understand the fundamental notion that when one implies we should leave our cultural identity at the gate, our cultural identity is being judged negatively. When any person’s sense of cultural identity is deemed inferior or detachable, then of course their confidence is dramatically undermined.
Education 101 at any university teaches this principle: a student will struggle or become dramatically disengaged when they lack confidence or lose any sense of their personal value. To me it was very obvious that this principal did not make this connection, nor appreciate the depth of this complexity. It was clear that he was not conscious of the notion that white Australian cultural identity is so hegemonic that it is, in the terminology of Roland Barthes, ‘exnominated’. Just like the fish knows nothing about the water it swims in, we simply don’t realise or acknowledge the existence of the dominant white Australian cultural identity. It forms part of our common sense. As a consequence, we do not understand its effects on those who are different.
THIS IS NOT just a phenomenon that exists in schools. White cultural identity forms a dominant discourse that permeates the entirety of Australian society, and has done so since the dawn of our relationship. Some aspects of this white cultural identity – not all – are fuelled by blatant racism and a belief that Aboriginal people should be relieved of their cultural identity, assimilated or exterminated.
Despite the significant cultural achievements that were championed at Cherbourg, and Stronger Smarter programs that continue to change the life-trajectories of thousands of Indigenous children, we face new challenges. The very existence of Indigenous Australians continues to be ‘awfulised’ by both apathetic-armchair and in-your-face racism that has today become both prolific and ethereal.
Now is a good time to understand these issues in order that we can transcend the toxic governing discourse of our current cultural and societal constructs. These were engineered long ago by a white Australia that could not and would not understand a better way to be in this relationship. Today, despite the challenges we continue to endure, there is enough positive evidence to enable us all to imagine into reality a new vision of modernity, where every citizen exercises the right to self-determinism, and all embrace the unique colours and flavours of their individuality. As I have said on many occasions, this will not only enhance the existence of Aboriginal Australians, it will in turn enhance the existence of us all.
Until now, the dominant discourse of our nation has been viewed through the lens of us and the feared and despised other. White politicians and policy-makers, licensed by ‘booting the victim’ style Aboriginal leadership, consciously or not, have viewed our racial differences as consisting of the white and powerful having to deal with the stigmatised Untermenschen.
The parable of six blind sojourners who encounter different parts of an elephant comes to mind, where each creates his own version of reality from that limited experience and perspective. Few white Australians can say they have a complete perspective of the beast that was forged from many hands over many generations, crafting directives that stem from ignorance, fear and greed. And here we stand today, a couple of centuries into our relationship, and still the humanity of Aboriginal Australians is undermined. Consequently, the humanity of us all is undermined.
To stand abstracted from one another is to stand without strength. A house divided against itself cannot stand. And our house is divided. No one can argue that for over two hundred years the new occupant hasn’t tried to assimilate or destroy the original tenant, and this colonial-age mandate anchors us against the progressive current of Enlightenment. Notwithstanding, it is from the crowded graveyard of failed policy after failed policy, after billions were thrown at Closing the Gap, after apologies and reconciliation, I sense an opportunity to re-dream the existential possibilities that we can make manifest in Australia.
AUSTRALIA CAN AND must realise a new dimension, where the negative stereotype of being Aboriginal that has defined us to white Australia since 1788 is filed away as a painful chapter in our history, and Aboriginal people are unequivocally liberated from the toxic precept of being forced into the mainstream. We would no longer suffer from the gaping, dysfunctional policies that have propagated racism and inflicted unbearable hardship on Aboriginal communities.
Dimensional shift involves embracing and being receptive to the realities of latent complexity rather than clutching at simplistic and often expensive magic bullets. Magic bullets do not work in our complex world of multiple causality. Billions of dollars have been spent trying to close the gap between richly diverse worlds, further planting seeds of exasperation, while all the while the reality that remains beyond understanding is that all we have ever commissioned is a thousand rewrites of white Australia’s ‘mandate’ to ‘fix’ Aboriginal Australia. Together, we must find a way beyond the sterile clash of the binary of Paul Hasluck’s assimilation versus Nugget Coombs’s vision of self-determination.
The mechanics of steering Australia toward a new dimension of multicultural strength, harmony and identity might seem radical and daunting. In the face of this challenge let me offer some insights to reframe our thinking in a way that is fundamental.
More recently on the Indigenous policy landscape, we’ve seen prime ministers wanting to be heroes. Some are determined to close the gap while others have wanted to be known as ‘the prime minister for Indigenous affairs’. There are some fundamental flaws with this situation. The close-the-gap mantra emerged from the courageous efforts of many Aboriginal leaders in the health sector. In that very focused context it makes perfect sense, and offers an honourable platform upon which to make change. Unfortunately, it was hijacked and dragged onto the broader Council of Australian Governments’ Indigenous policy front. Regrettably, in this context, it seems to signal that the best we can do for Aboriginal people is get them to be as good as the average white Australian. It fails to acknowledge, or simply cannot see, that we Indigenous Australians are so much more than this. The ‘PM for Indigenous affairs’ cloak might have seemed cute at the time, but it diminished the critically important space of Indigenous policy, making it more about personalities when, in fact, it should always be about policy design and execution.
There is, however, a deeper, more profound flaw in such approaches: policy intent. As we sift through the wreckage and the rubble of Indigenous policy over the years, we can understand why we’ve spent tens of billions of dollars to limited or no avail once we realise the policy intent was contaminated. This contamination infects many decent Australian policy-makers and service-delivery people, including the school principal I encountered some years ago. It also infects the thinking of many Indigenous Australians.
Such people think policy success lies in making Aboriginal Australians just like everybody else without truly understanding that we actually can be the same, and at the same time we can be magnificently different. The policy intent here has always been about taking Aboriginal Australians from surviving to complying. We must instead plot a course that takes us from surviving to thriving.
Enabling this move requires all of us, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, to understand that our sense of identity is not entirely defined by our sense of Aboriginality, nor our sense of being Australian. As individuals we are defined by both, and we should not have to be locked, coerced or assimilated in to being one or the other. We are Aboriginal; we are Australian; we are human.
MY DEAR LATE friend and founder of the critical-realist philosophical movement, Professor Roy Bhaskar, leaves as a precious intellectual gift to the world his notion of the ‘concrete universal’. Bhaskar’s concept, if understood and embraced, enables us to transcend the stifled modes that contaminate our thinking and lock us into identity binaries that, at their best, can only ever allow us to be mediocre. The intellectual concept of the concrete universal emancipates us all from mediocrity.
The first step in understanding Bhaskar’s approach is knowing that any individual at their core is human, and upon this core humanity are a range of magnificent, complex and layered ‘mediations’ in the form of cultural, spiritual, professional and other relational identities. The second step is knowing that our core humanity and the infinite range of magnificent, complex and layered mediations upon it are avidly dynamic, influenced by time, place and context.
When I stand in my father’s village of Miglianico in Abbruzzo, Italy, and speak Italian with my half-brother Giulio while standing at the graves of my nonna and nonno, my cultural sense or mediation of being Italian resonates very strongly upon my core humanity. And in that moment, because of the time, place and context, I lean into my sense of being Italian and feel extremely proud. I do not surrender or relinquish my sense of being Aboriginal; it just is not resonating as strongly as my sense of being Italian in that moment and in that place.
When I am at home on the land that holds the footprints of my traditional Taribelang and Gurang Gurang ancestors, I lean into my sense of being Aboriginal, and it resonates strongly because of the time, place and context. By leaning into my sense of being Aboriginal, I do not surrender or relinquish my sense of being Italian; it is just not resonating as strongly as my sense of being Aboriginal. On many fronts, more circumstances in my life cause me to lean into my sense of being Aboriginal more dominantly.
On a positive and cultural front, going fishing and hunting, and making time to just be on my country; making time to take my children on our country and explain the significance of various places; making time to be with extended family, and explaining to my oldest son how we are all connected to each other and what responsibilities come with knowing this – all of these things cause me to lean into my sense of being Aboriginal. On a negative and demand-for-social-justice front, getting called a ‘black bastard’ as a child by the old guy living next door to us; being sold short in classrooms by teachers with low expectations of me; being held back professionally by others with stifled beliefs about who I was and what I could do; feeling a sense of rage knowing that a police officer can cause the death of an Aboriginal man, with no serious consequences – all of these things cause me to lean into, with a sense of defiance, my sense of being Aboriginal.
On other fronts, when I am celebrated as the first Aboriginal principal of Cherbourg State School; when I challenge and influence other educators to understand and commit to a relationship based on high expectations with Aboriginal children; when I sit across from the prime minister to negotiate an honourable way forward on Indigenous policy – all of these things cause me to lean into my sense of being Aboriginal. Indeed, because of who I am, where I live, what I do, how I connect with others, and how others connect with me, my life and my existence is dominated by my sense of being Aboriginal. Yet like others, I am so much more than this.
The third and ultimate step in understanding Bhaskar’s sophisticated notion of the concrete universal is recognising that our entire sense of identity and being is encapsulated by our core humanity, our dynamic mediations upon that core humanity, and the manner in which these mediations resonate upon our core humanity according to time and place. It is not just our humanity, nor just our cultural identity.
Understanding and embracing Bhaskar’s concrete universal enables us to transcend the pressures of stifled neoliberal thinking that the key to ‘fixing’ Aboriginal Australia is to just make us all ‘like white Australians’. It enables us to understand that, because we are connected by our core humanity, there are indeed many ways in which we are already the same: loving our children and wanting them to have a bright future in the same way as any other human being. It should also enable us to understand that we deserve to have our mediation of being Aboriginal acknowledged, honoured and nurtured. When we send our children to school, they rightfully deserve to learn in a place where their sense of being Aboriginal is acknowledged, honoured and nurtured, rather than having it implied that this important part of their being should be left at the school gate.
ONE OF THE challenges here is when a contaminated and toxic perception of the mediation of being Aboriginal persists. A contaminated view of being Aboriginal explains how a police officer can cause the death of an Aboriginal man, woman or child; acknowledging core humanity should demand that justice is afforded. A contaminated view of being Aboriginal explains how in education we cherrypick a small number of children from remote Aboriginal communities and send them off to private schools while leaving the majority of Aboriginal children to be subjected to a remedial curriculum that does not comply with national standards; acknowledging their core humanity demands that we provide quality education for all children. A contaminated view of being Aboriginal explains how we can leave an Aboriginal child exposed to sexual abuse in a household as if it is somehow ‘a cultural thing’; acknowledging their core humanity means ensuring their protection and wellbeing no matter what.
It is worth dwelling on this specific example and considering how such complexity can be attended to respectfully with solutions framed by Bhaskar’s concept. Acknowledging the child’s humanity demands they be removed from a household in which they are exposed to harm. A positive and respectful view of the Aboriginal mediation enables us to understand that a child’s family usually exists in more than one household, therefore we can remove the child from a particular household, but we do not have to remove them from their extended Aboriginal family. A contaminated view of the mediation of being Aboriginal is clearly problematic. Focusing only on one’s core humanity while ignoring a positive perception of the mediation of being Aboriginal is also problematic.
The American ‘Black Lives Matter’ activists were countered by an equally strong ‘All Lives Matter’ sentiment. This is an example of how individual and community-wide mediations are denounced in favour of a homogeneous, assimilated, Hasluck-style society. My children’s potential school principal would have identified with such a statement, and had his view reinforced if he tuned in to conservative commentators who regularly state ‘We are all Australians’. Such comments seem so seductively logical when made from a place of hegemonic luxury, without realising that some are actually excluded from the opportunity to be as ‘Australian’ as others.
This approach holds the key to resolving many dilemmas in apparently unsolvable issues, especially those regarding recognition and identity. If we embrace it, without amendment, we can realise a culture and nation that can relinquish long-held beliefs and attitudes about Aborigines and minorities, and engage in a new, honourable way of being in high-expectations relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
When we eliminate the power relations that hold white and Aboriginal Australia apart, a new paradigm can emerge where Aboriginal people are liberated from the toxic dynamics that force us to be one or the other and enable us to be content with who we are; richly diverse yet anchored by our core and shared humanity.
Reflecting on the many wonderful conversations I had with Roy Bhaskar, and without getting too exotic for some, I recall how he would often refer to our need to ‘re-enchant the world’. Embracing his concept of the concrete universal, whereby we see and relate to each other in cognisance of the core humanity we share, and the individual mediations that make us so magnificently different, enables us to play our part in this by re-enchanting our nation. Embracing the humanity of Aboriginal Australians, and the positive mediation of our sense of being Aboriginal, will enable white Australia to understand and share all that is superb and exceptional about us. With this sharing, their connection to country significantly deepens then from two hundred and thirty years to sixty-five thousand years. With a deeper, more respectful and authentic relationship we can transcend any challenge we face together.