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After the Apology: still keeping our distance

By Maggie Walter - posted Thursday, 26 February 2009

This article is not about the apology itself. What I want to talk about is “the where and how to from here” in the murky and politically undiscussed terrain of race relations in Australia.

In mid November 2009, Foreign Editor for The Australian, Greg Sheridan, stepped out of his usual world affairs role and wrote a short article based on his visit to Hopevale in Cape York. By referring to Sheridan’s article my aim is not to talk about Northern Queensland, but to focus on what the article says between its lines about the relationship between of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. Along with acknowledging his inexperience of Aboriginal Australia, Sheridan makes a poignant statement: he says “I wish I had more Aboriginal friends, more contact with the communities”. This statement is obviously genuinely felt, and I would hazard, resonates with the feelings of many other non-Indigenous Australians.

The question for me is why Greg Sheridan doesn’t, especially given his long-standing prominent position of one of Australia’s leading journalists, have more knowledge and have more Aboriginal friends. And to take the focus off Sheridan, this question can be extended to the vast majority of other non-Indigenous Australians. Why don’t Australians know more about, and know more, Aboriginal people than they do?


Because they don’t. The limited data available indicates very clearly that Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia occupy different social and spatial realms: we live in different places even when living next door to each other. In the 2007 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes I posed a series of social proximity questions asking about respondents’ level of interaction with Aboriginal people. More than 90 per cent do not interact with Aboriginal people regularly and in Victoria; just 3 per cent said they interacted regularly with Aboriginal people: that is 97 people out of 100 don’t.

Why? While Indigenous Australians are certainly only a small minority of the Australian population, in every 100 Australians two or three will be Indigenous. Most people know several hundred people reasonably well and have daily interactions with hundreds more - so why aren’t at last some of these Aboriginal? And we can’t attribute this absence to population distribution either - although Indigenous Australians are more likely to live in remote areas, three quarters live in regional or urban centres and Sydney, where Greg Sheridan lives, has the largest Aboriginal population in Australia. Yet it is only when he visits Hopevale that he becomes aware of his lack of understanding and knowledge of Indigenous Australia.

Why? Because in post-apology Australia the social separations and the terrain of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations are 4WD territory. Because while I consider the fact that Sheridan and I hope other non-Indigenous Australians have had the insight to notice that they don’t have many, or any, Aboriginal friends, is a hopeful sign, the chances of such friendships and interactions as daily Australian life; the knowing and mixing with Aboriginal people as a normal part of being Australian remain far away.

The spatial disjuncture between black and white lives underpins a socio-spatial construction of Australian reality. Regardless of the fact that a predominantly urban Aboriginal population lives alongside the predominantly urban non-Aboriginal population, Aboriginal lives remain out of sight and mind, spatially politically, socially and culturally absent from non-Indigenous Australia. Despite largely occupying the same geographic spaces the vast majority of Australians live in an Indigenous free zone. Aboriginal people are invisible, as people, in conceptions of everyday Australian life except as remote pejorative stereotypes.

This invisibility extends to the nation state’s concept of itself and the business of state. After the Indigenous dancers or didgeridoo playing at the opening, the Indigenous agenda is strictly corralled into the equity discussion. The possibility that Indigenous people might have a stake or a contribution in national issues such as productivity, workforce, national defence is unconsidered, and any suggestion that discussion of Indigenous people move away from a deficit model causes discomfort.

As someone who regularly participates in national meetings with senior government advisers I am well used to this omnipresent white cultural faux pas that continually excludes by omission Indigenous people from the mainstream business of Australia society, physically and symbolically. And, while not purposively achieved, such a sustained absence does require a dedicated and practised commitment to ignorance.


This spatial and social disjuncture has another insidious effect. The political and spatial marginalisation of Aboriginal lives to the daily life of Australia, allow an exaggeration of a sense of Aboriginal lives as something “other” different, unknowable and negatively, dysfunctionally exotic.

This allows the abject life chances of Aboriginal people in Australia, including the three quarters who are urban, to be distanced from ordinary Australian lives and Australia’s view of itself.

It is not important for white Australians to know much about Aboriginal Australia; ignorance is normal. This mind-set allows the regular re-discovery of Aboriginal poverty, marginality and abject lack of services that are basic to other Australian lives to be repeatedly expressed by an on-going line of public officials, policy makers and, dare I say it, journalists, who express their surprise at what they see when confronted with the reality of contemporary Aboriginal lives: what I refer to as serial epiphanies.

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This paper is an edited version of one of a set of four panel papers delivered at the After the Apology: Perspective from Indigenous Speakers public forum on December 3, 2008 at the Charles Pearson Theatre at the University of Melbourne. The forum was part of the Re-Orienting Whiteness Conference convened by the School of Historical Studies at the University of Melbourne. 

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About the Author

Dr Maggie Walter is Deputy Director of the National Indigenous Researcher and Knowledges Network and Associate Professor in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Tasmania.

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