There is one of those things I believe the expert photoshoppers call a “macro” currently circulating madly online. I am all for a critique of that celebration of theft we call Australia Day and don’t really mind this:
Except, of course, I am myself a bit of a prick and do mind it. I am a prick and I am also racist.
I am a racist prick. Let me clarify that: all white people are racist. I am white people, ergo I am racist prick people.
We honkies are all racist. There are those of us who own up to it. There are those who pretend they’ve detached themselves from the centuries and are miraculously cleansed of it. Then there are those who just say it out loud. Whatever the case and however we choose to excuse or deny our bigotry, it lives in all white folk just as surely and as ineluctably as money just somehow tends to flow to the postcodes in which we reside.
Any white person who says he or she is not a racist is a racist liar as well as a racist prick. But this ineluctable racism, of course, does not excuse the long and troubling work of ridding ourselves of its complex practices –whether they are linguistic or economic or even, seemingly, positive.
Here, just for fun, is an example of racist thinking that is still commonly understood as “positive” in the lead-up to Invasion Day.
I lived in Canberra as a child and saw the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of the Old Parliament House. I wondered what it was all about. Canberra was a pretty liberal place in the ’70s, and its mostly white residents were “tolerant”. I remember asking a teacher what the Tent Embassy was all about and hearing the advice that it was a good thing that demonstrated Aboriginal Australians had a “special relationship” to “the land”. For years, right up until the Native Title Act (1993) and even afterwards, I believed that Aboriginal Australians had a “special relationship” to the land.
I am not dissing this unique relationship. There is no doubt that humans tend to form attachments to place. I felt it once. I was dragged “back” to Ireland by my mother and my grandmother to see the birthplace of my convict ancestor, when actually, I just wanted to go drinking in Temple Bar. I wasn’t at all impressed by the idea of ancestry and still consider it vain; although I was, and remain, conceited about having an Irish rebel antecedent. But anyhow. I stepped off at Shannon Airport and cried like a baby.
There was something about the place that was familiar, something communicated across generations to me, and suddenly a good deal more about my life made sense. I was home, and I was emboldened by it. And yes, I am quite aware that comparing my family-funded trip in a comfortable plane to commune-with-my-acceptably-roguish-ancestors from the comfort of a B&B is every bit as comparable to having one’s land stolen, ancestors murdered and children taken “for their own good” as, say, a holiday resort is to Manus Island.
I’m just saying that I understand in the merest way what my Aboriginal Australian associates mean when they say “country”. But I am also saying that much too much is made by white people of this “special relationship” to “the land”.
“They don’t own the land. They are owned by it.” This is what my teacher told me, and she was a nice white lady who meant very well. And I suppose it was better to hear this sort of assessment of Aboriginal Australians as being somehow “above” capital and property than hearing what I occasionally did at home, to wit: “these people” were “dirty” and “couldn’t keep a job” and “drank all the time”. N.B. This was often said after a cask of Coolabah funded by the theft of Ngambri or Ngunnawal territory.
I apologise to any reader who finds, as they very reasonably might, this description of the sorts of things white children hear from their families about Aboriginal Australians troubling. It is deeply troubling. But it is also at the foundation of many policies and practices and, I contend, shared building materials with the “They Have a Very Special Relationship With The Land” bullshit.
White people have become invested in this idea, which Dr Gary Foley, one of the nation’s best and most readable historians, described in a lecture I attended on Aboriginal Australian radicalism as a white man’s “ooga booga” view of land that holds, just as the Coolabah cask did in the home of my childhood, that Aboriginal Australians do not know what to do with capital.
As Foley, one of the founders of the Tent Embassy, has it, this is a mythology far more useful to white Australia than it is to anyone else. Foley, who is algorithmic in his judgement that each act of faux spirituality instigated by white people form the 1967 referendum to the Native Title Act to Rudd’s apology can be plotted against a descending line to represent the material conditions of Aboriginal Australians, has no time for emotion. Foley wrote in Melbourne Historical Journalin 2008:
“The emotional response to Rudd’s apology, which was evident everywhere in Australia, well, in south-eastern Australia, makes it inevitable that this as an event will be a part of future white Australian mythology about how wonderfully they have always treated the Aboriginal people. It will become part of white Australia’s long history of denial.”
Just as women are held to be better moral guardians or homosexual men more “in touch” with their emotions, the relationship of Aboriginal Australians to country functions in the hands of the ruling classes as a means of reproducing material privilege. Sure, the thing we call Australia did not have a market-based economy 226 years ago. There was no central banking system, nor were there fully documented title deeds before 1788. I am not saying that there is doubt that the off-cuts of an emerging Western liberal democracy were very different to what was inflicted upon this country in 1788.
But I am saying that it’s time to stop the idea that it is “emotion” and “understanding” that will clear up this horrible mess, when the only thing that will really fix it is proper accounting.
The popular macro designed by a well-meaning schoolteacher says that “ignorance and hate” are the only impediments to a better Australia. The problem is, all humans believe themselves to be lacking in both ignorance and hate. Some people, for example, genuinely believe that prevailing theories of the market are neither ignorant nor hateful. It is likely that Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand guided the more literate men of the First Fleet toward the new colony even as it guides so many today who believe in capital as our nation’s just organising principle.
Feelings, including those that are in opposition to “ignorance and hate” and support the idea of a noble attachment to the land, are useless.
I am not for a minute questioning the sanctity and complexity of the esteem in which many Aboriginal Australians hold country. I am, however, saying that nice, white progressive schoolteachers tend to offer it up as a kind of booby prize. We stole your land and we built all these lovely houses on it and consequently formed an economy that produced the world’s sixth most-traded currency and we’re all doing very well. You’re not. The “gap” has widened on many measures, including lifespan and health and education and incarceration and suicide, these past decades. Sorry about that, but thanks for the land, which you won’t be needing use of in a Corrupt White Man way because, after all, you have such a lofty relationship to it.
Oh. Shut the fuck up and pay the rent, Whitey. Let’s really Say Sorry in our traditional way and offer up the thing we hold most sacred: capital.
There are things that can’t be said on a macro. As I found when I asked a colleague to remake the “ignorance and hate” slogan to my suggestion …
Helen Razer is a writer whose work appears in The Saturday Paper, Daily Review, SBS Online, The Big Issue, and Frankie. She has previously worked as a columnist for The Age and The Australian and as a broadcaster for ABC radio.