Harry M Miller, one of Australia’s best-known “positioning” experts, writes:

I have been involved for the last 12 years on a number of projects with three Aboriginal communities, and the type of things I have learnt over the years – as listed below – seemed to have substance.

Firstly, I think it’s just bullsh-t to have public relations consultants telling black people how to reposition themselves.

What it’s all about to me is for all of us “whitefellas” to understand that, as Indigenous people say, “white man writes … black man talks”. What it’s really all about from my experience is sitting down and talking with people, quite often with no agenda but just trying to expose oneself to where things are going.

I think that over the last few years with some of my black colleagues, the greatest gift that I have been given by them is to have earned their trust. We have been working for a long time in a cultural area to produce something which I believe will finally lead non-Indigenous people (both Australians and visitors) into a better understanding of the Aboriginal culture.

I can remember going to my first Aboriginal funeral, miles from nowhere at Docker River near the Western Australian border with NSW. They had the night before an area that they call a “sorry camp” where people slept in sleeping bags etc. around the fire waiting for the morning for what was in fact an Anglican funeral service.

It wasn’t until I was sitting by the fire talking to one of my black friends the morning of the funeral that I actually realised what “sorry camp” was about. It certainly wasn’t about John Howard being advised by an army of bureaucrats, not to say sorry in case he had to shell out some dough, it was about people generally expressing their sorrow of the situation that existed around the funeral. That was the day that I realised that the “sorry camp” was about the expression of sorrow, not refusing to apologise in case it cost somebody some money.

One of the difficulties that I always see is that lots of the white community (both business and individuals) are far too paternalistic in their attitude and actions to our black friends and this is where it all goes wrong. My view is “sit down and talk” and keeps remembering “white man writes … black man talks”.

Response by Larissa Behrendt, Professor of Law and Director of Research at Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning.

Harry makes some important points about the personal aspects of reconciliation — that it’s not something that can be achieved without people building relationships with each other at the local level.

He’s also right in saying that the most profound vehicle for lifting someone’s awareness of the circumstances faced by Indigenous Australians is for them to learn through personal experience and contact. One real, grassroots experience can demystify everything a person has seen or heard or read about Indigenous people, and break down a whole lot of prejudices and stereotypes. Personal contact changes hearts and minds, as it did for Harry.

Essential though it may be, the personal reconciliation journey must be backed by a systemic, national effort if we are to change community attitudes and behaviour, and achieve reconciliation. It’s not going to be enough that individuals go out there and meet blackfellas so they can understand us better.

That’s not going to happen on a wide enough scale, and on a small scale all it often achieves is to make the individual feel better about themselves.

That’s why the personal journey has to be a national journey as well, where governments don’t get away with serial underspending on Indigenous health. And where it stops being acceptable that the life expectancy of an Indigenous child is 17 years lower than that of a non-Indigenous child.

Change has to happen at the personal and the national level concurrently. Only that kind of holistic approach recognises that the issues confronting Indigenous people are the result of a complex series of events and circumstances.

That necessarily means that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have to work together to drive it. I understand what Harry means when he says that Indigenous people should take the lead and, yes, there needs to be Indigenous leadership in all of this. But there also needs to be leadership from non-Indigenous people in all sectors.

Reconciliation is not just about making sure Indigenous people are better off. It’s about having a society that recognises our shared fate. Being too deferential about the role of Indigenous people in reconciliation runs the risk of letting the rest of the community off the hook.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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