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Legitimising white supremacy

By Irene Watson - posted Tuesday, 28 August 2007

The belief in European supremacy legitimised the violent theft of all things Aboriginal - our lands, our lives, our laws and our culture. It was a way of knowing the world, a way which continues to underpin the continuing displacement of Aboriginal peoples.

The legal foundation of the Australian state was based on the white supremacist doctrine of terra nullius, and the idea of backward black savages roaming over vast tracts of open wastelands. Until the High Court decision in Mabo, terra nullius applied in Australian law. The doctrine applied even though Aboriginal people had been here for many thousands of years; our histories were long. Terra nullius made black invisible; the question of “Aborigines” being free to roam was irrelevant, for in law we were non-existent.

Now that terra nullius is rejected in law and no longer applies as the legal foundation for Australia’s settlement, how visible is the Aborigine and what is our capacity to roam the lands of our ancestors? In the aftermath of terra nullius, what changed and what continues to go on as before? Speaking of colonialism and the possibility of its passing, Franz Fanon saw “the smoking ashes of a burnt-down house after the fire has been put out, [but] which still threaten to burst into flames again”. I ask the reader: in relation to Australia, has there even been an attempt to put the fire out? Or have we witnessed merely the illusion of change?


Is the land post-Mabo peacefully settled, allowing the freedom for all to roam? The answer depends on what space one situates, and we know - or should know - where those unsettled spaces were for Aboriginal peoples, and where they remain today. Look into prisons and juvenile detention centres - what are the Aboriginal statistics? What capacity do Aboriginal peoples in custody even have to posit the question or speak of the answers?

Ziauddin Sardar writes:

Colonialism was about the physical occupation of non-western cultures. Modernity was about displacing the present and occupying the minds of non-western cultures. Postmodernism is about appropriating the history and identity of non-western cultures as an integral facet of itself, colonising their future and occupying their being.

How is the Australian “native” placed in Sardar’s analysis? We can trace a history from the appropriation of our Aboriginal lands, our displacement and movement onto reserve mission stations and into prisons, to a displaced Aboriginal identity resisting absorption. In the process of absorption, we are to be consumed by the state and its citizens and, in their consumption of us, they are to become us. They anticipate coming into their own state of lawfulness through the consuming of our sovereign Aboriginality.

In this colonising process of us becoming white and white becoming Indigenous, white settlement deems itself as coming into its own legitimacy, as whites come into the space of our freedom to roam as Aboriginal peoples over our Aboriginal places and spaces. We become cannibalised. But can we enter into a conversation on the cannibalism of our self, with the cannibal being the cannibal who is yet to see and know itself in its eating of us? How does the cannibal recognise itself? Is there a safe conversational space where we can have a close encounter without our own appropriation?

How is it that we are being eaten?


There are many examples of appropriation since the advent of colonialism in 1492. The most recent appropriation is in the form of biopiracy. Aboriginal knowledge is stolen and Aboriginal resources and knowledge marketed and profited from.

Sadar makes reference to the occupation of our being. This can be seen along with the absorption of our Aboriginal being, and raises the question: how white are we, the Aborigine, becoming? And what is the potential for the indigenisation of a white settled Australia?

Germaine Greer (2003), in her essay Whitefella Jump Up: The Shortest Way to Nationhood, invites a rethinking of Aboriginality and the repositioning of the Australian state as an Aboriginal one. I don’t disagree: it is a thought Aboriginal peoples have held for some time. Greer invokes the idea of Aboriginality coming into being through the sharing of traditions; this is a philosophical tradition that Aboriginal peoples have always lived by. It is a good suggestion for moving forward, but in this process of hybridisation what happens to the Aborigine? Do we become cannibalised, digested and absorbed by a white, settled Australia that is to become embodied in our black Aboriginal being?

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This is an extract from Sovereign Subjects, edited by Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Chapter 1, "Settled and unsettled spaces: Are we free to roam?" by Irene Watson, (Allen & Unwin, 2007). For more about sovereign subjects, please see the Allen & Unwin website.

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About the Author

Dr Irene Watson is an Indigenous woman of Tanganekald and Meintangk peoples, the traditional owners of the Coorong and lower southeast of SA, a lawyer and academic. She is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sydney Law School.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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