The labelling by comedian Robin Williams of Australians as English rednecks struck a collective Australian nerve. The severity of the cringe signifies a reflected vision we thought banished to the extent of forgetfulness, even by ourselves. There are a myriad of ways of interpreting that reflection, of portraying Australia in the mirror.
My own take is the image of Australia found in the terrain of non-Indigenous/Indigenous race relations. This is not a pretty picture but evasion is damaging. As shown by our redneck comment response, avoidance does not improve our visage; it only allows us to forget, briefly, the extent of the unpleasant picture. I also want to use this ugly reality as a springboard to a reimagining of Australia; one proposing an evolutionary new picture of what it is to be Australian.
The reflection of Indigenous positioning with Australian society is one of unremitting disadvantage. This uniquely Indigenous pattern of poverty emanates from on-going exclusion from a relative share of this society’s resources and opportunities. Socio-economic deprivation accrues and accumulates across and into the life chances of Indigenous individuals, families and communities.
For many Indigenous people, families and communities the result is a separation from hope for a different future: a fatalism towards a poor deal. The dramatically circumscribed life chances of this generation and the ones that came before are too often founded on ill-health, substance abuse, early and pointless deaths. Hard daily reality has become a normalised aspect of Indigenous life.
More insidiously in the reflection of Australia I see, Indigenous poverty where absence from the nation’s wealth is normalised and even viewed as appropriate. Notions of Indigenous prosperity can cause affront; despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary many Australians claim Indigenous people get too much already and rights, royalties or sovereignty are always contested.
The reflective picture also shows an Australia ill at ease with the place of Indigeneity in its national consciousness. Indigeneity remains unreconciled with everyday concepts of Australian society. This separation extends to the business of state, where Indigenous people are ever present as cultural icons but absent physically and symbolically from spheres of influence.
Despite the harshness of this portrayal, most non-Indigenous Australians are horrified at the idea of being cast as racist, and largely are not. Racist attitudes can be observed empirically but most research, including my own, finds a (slight) majority of non-Indigenous Australians hold racially egalitarian attitudes. Indeed, I believe a majority of Australians would welcome an Australia where Aboriginal people are equally represented across social, cultural and political domains. But it is a disengaged egalitarianism; one that does not feel individually connected to Indigenous people or the direness of Indigenous inequality.
Indeed public discussion on the issue of race in Australia is silenced in a way not seen in other western countries. Like religion and politics, Indigenous talk is a social faux pas. Equally, there is a generalised lack of knowledge of or interaction with Indigenous people and issues.
Day to day national life is marked by spatial and social separations. Over two thirds of Aboriginal people live in regional and metropolitan areas but Indigenous lives are lived outside the view of non-Indigenous lives even in the same geographic location. In this separated space it just not important for non-Indigenous Australians to know much about Indigenous Australia; even among those working in areas of influence: policy; academia, or the media.
This normalised disconnection allows the serial epiphanies, the regular rediscovery of Aboriginal poverty, marginality and abject lack of services, in all these arenas. This disengagement is not a deliberate social artefact, but it is highly functional. It allows non-Indigenous Australia, especially advantaged non-Indigenous Australia, to hold a picture of themselves and the nation that facilitate the living of individual and national life in ways that prevent the huge social, political and economic inequities of Indigenous life from having to be witnessed.
So, can the picture be different? I think it can. But to evince sustainable change we need a dramatic revision in how we think about Australia, the country and its people, non-Indigenous as well as Indigenous. What I am proposing is imagining an alternative narrative; one that provides a different national reflection. In this reimagined Australia the old ways of thinking need to be abandoned, not reworked. Concepts of what it is to be Australian and our heritage need to be radically reconceptualised.
The starting place for this radical reimagining is to swing the evolutionary gaze 180 degrees from the Indigene to the non-Indigene; exploring the self concept of non-Indigenous Australia. Who are these people and nation? This is a quandary.
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