This piece came out of a reading group we organised a couple of months ago around the topic of non-Aboriginal support for Aboriginal rights. We explored how non-Aboriginal people relate to Aboriginal justice politics and the dynamics of whiteness in relation to Aboriginal struggle.
We used these 2 videos of Aboriginal activist Gary Foley speaking at a forum on the same topic as a springboard for the discussion:
as well as Foley’s history of the Aboriginal justice movement
Afterwards we asked participants to write a response to the following 3 questions. There were a number of diverse experiences and perspectives in the room and it was interesting to reflect on this diversity, as well as what we have in common.
- Where are you from?
- Why are you involved in supporting Aboriginal justice?
- How can non-Aboriginal people support Aboriginal struggles for justice?
- Like a lot of anglo-celtic white australians, i grew up not knowing very much about my cultural heritage or my family history. I had a comfortable white suburban middle-class upbringing and it didnt seem important to know about where i was from. More recently I’ve learned that I’m descended from Irish and Scottish convicts who were sent to Australia from the 1820s. My mother’s family settled at Kurrajong on the Hawkesbury river, in the immediate aftermath of a bloody frontier war between settlers and Dharug people. My father’s family have a similar story starting further west about a decade later. My father’s grandfather served in France in world war 2, after which he was given a soldier settlement grant in south-west sydney. It’s difficult to find out all the details but it seems quite likely that the land he was granted, like many other soldier settlers, came from a former Aboriginal reserve which had been revoked and sold off.
- My first exposure to Aboriginal issues came from my parents, who were both involved professionally in Aboriginal affairs as part of their public service careers and who both take the keating-era discourse of reconciliation quite seriously. I also went to primary school in Waterloo for a couple of years, which was my first exposure to Aboriginal culture and politics in a community setting. I quickly got a sense of how different my life was to that the Aboriginal and Islander kids at the school. At uni I became involved in student activism, chiefly around environmental/climate issues but also feminist, queer and anti-racist campaigns. Over time I was exposed to Aboriginal critiques of environmental activism in particular and came to understand the importance of a place-based environmental justice politics. Such a politics is hollow without a serious concern for redressing colonial injustice, and I started to research about the colonial history of the places i’ve lived in all my life and the colonial society I inhabit more broadly. Through the activist scene at uni I met Kyol, a Gomeroi student and activist who urged us to support various Aboriginal campaigns such as the campaign against the NT Intervention and a student campaign to oppose funding cuts to the indigenous education centre at usyd. Through Kyol i became involved in supporting the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy. This was a formative experience in that it was an Aboriginal-controlled space based around a very powerful anti-colonial politics. Non-Aboriginal supporters were made aware of exactly what our role was and what the boundaries were. I learned an enormous amount in a very short amount of time at the Embassy, also learning how to organise students to support the campaign. After 15 months of involvement I felt that I would have to keep supporting the activists who ran the Embassy and building on the community connections I made there.
- I think the starting point for non-Aboriginal people should be a process of self-reflection and self-education. White people in particular are usually quite alienated from a sense of connection to our heritage and our personal connection with history. Learning about where we come from is a precursor to understanding where we stand in relation to Aboriginal justice issues. Engagement with our own histories also allows us to come to terms with our privilege, and our enormous ignorance about the history of this country and the social reality that Aboriginal people face every day.
Non-Aboriginal supporters should educate ourselves also about the complexities of Aboriginal politics, and understand the political differences between different Aboriginal groups, organisations etc. Aboriginal community politics can be very complicated and it’s important not to rush in thinking everyone will agree with each other. The principle of taking direction from Aboriginal leadership can be quite complex in practice and patience and self-reflexivity are the only way for an outsider to navigate this. We should reflect on our own values and assumptions and start from there.
Ultimately, this self reflection and self-education must be backed up by outward-looking support for Aboriginal justice causes. Though this might take many forms, I personally gravitate towards organisations and campaigns that have a strong grassroots character rather than those run by larger organisations.
- My dad is Aboriginal from Gadigal land while my mum is a what I consider a boring mix of white (5th Generation Australian before that a mix of all of the U.K). My dad spent some early years in Glebe before moving out to South-West Sydney where he and eventually I grew up.
- I think the easy answer to why I’m involved in this stuff would be because I’m Aboriginal and while it’s true I think it is part of a more complex story. I feel the need to use my voice and my privilege to stand up in a way my Nanna couldn’t because of the racism she faced. I think i’ve always be aware of injustice but when I came to Usyd and meet Kyol and number of other Indigenous students at Gadigal Orientation I began to learn about more Indigenous struggles and activism. I feel like from there I just fell down the rabbit hole and now I’m here and I can’t go back (not that I would want to).
- By being prepared to step back. Sometimes you aren’t needed. The idea that Gary points out, “coming to term with their own whiteness”. It is often over said in political or activist circles but seriously check your privilege… “[the] lack of insight by white Australians regarding their own condition and privilege in both colonial and a supposedly post-colonial Australia” (Gary).
- I’m a white Australian who has grown up in the inner city on Gadigal land. My ancestry is primarily Irish, but I also have British roots, including a convict on the First Fleet. I don’t know a lot about the specifics of my family history but I would like to learn – especially in relation to the tension between British and Irish histories, as well as the ways in which my ancestors came here and established families during successive waves of colonisation.
- It was relatively recently – only a couple of years ago – that I got involved in Indigenous justice work. Before that I hadn’t really thought about my privilege as a white settler of this land, but as I explored that privilege more, I came to see it as a duty to use it for the benefit of anti-racist and anti-colonial movements. I’ve spent time trying to educate myself about the history of Australian settlement and contemporary Indigenous justice struggles as a way of working through anxiety about my relation to the movement. Through my engagement in feminist activism, I’m also especially interested in the specific challenges facing Indigenous women, like incarceration, sexual violence and the removal of children, and how these issues manifest colonial attitudes in gendered ways.
- I think education is really crucial for non-Indigenous supporters of the movement. The history involved is incredibly complex and multifaceted, so you need to learn this before you jump in. Thinking that you have the solutions before you’ve done your homework is a mark of entitlement and privilege, and can undermine the difficult and important work done by Aboriginal activists in asserting their own claims to self-determination and autonomy. It’s also important to think about the power relations within progressive movements, and who is assuming positions of leadership and responsibility in Indigenous justice campaigns. I think it’s easy for ‘progressive’ people to assume that they aren’t racist and are not perpetuating structures of colonial dominance, but without serious work and reflexivity this is assumption is unfounded. As Gary Foley said, you need to educate yourselves before you educate others. He also points out that the problem of racism is one that lies in non-Indigenous communities, therefore it’s up to non-Indigenous people to tackle it. This means that you don’t necessarily need to go out to far-flung Indigenous communities to do decolonising work – you can start by challenging your own assumptions and internalised racism, and that of the people around you.
- I’m Lebanese. I’ve only been to Lebanon once, most of my family lives there but Australia is pretty much my home.
- As I began articulating my experiences of race and racism in Australia and re-engaging with anti-colonial and Muslim politics, I also began to identify how whiteness had informed my interactions with Aboriginal peoples and communities.. even when I thought I was being progressive. I realised that my support of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation was meaningless if I continued to partake in the benefits of colonisation in Australia. I was interested in these issues for quite a while, but I was very slow in becoming involved in activism. I had studied a lot of European colonial history, often focusing on the relationships between humanitarianism and oppression, and I gradually moved towards Australian history. By the end of 2014 I had reached a point where I knew online rants and disconnected academic papers weren’t cutting it – I had to move beyond simply writing about the ongoing impacts of colonisation and start doing something. Hence 2015 Freedom Ride involvement > dissatisfaction with the trip shared by many of the other students involved > my honours research on the limitations of symbolic gestures.
- I think Gary Foley’s point about pausing and reflecting about your own identity issues is such an important first step.. Also, as non-Indigenous Australians we should be using our positions within our own societies to challenge the beliefs and actions of those closest to us, rather than trying to ~change Aboriginal societies. Foley’s history of non-Indigenous support for Aboriginal welfare and activism gives a really good indication of the pitfalls of not listening to and respecting the people you want to help.
- I’m Kurdish from Turkey. Being born, raised up and educated in a colonial setting that did not recognized my identity as a Kurd led me to question my existence. Before coming here, I was involved in politics and activism against the colonialist and, of course, assimilative agenda of the Turkish State imposed on non-Turkish minorities, particularly against Kurdish population. By the time I was forced to leave my hometown and consequently my homeland in 2011, the individual and collective traumas were already showing their disruptive effects on me, and people around me.
- I haven’t been part of any movement in Australia, although often visited Redfern Tents, marched in some demonstrations and attended some talks by Aboriginal Elders. Rather, I’ve been part of an ongoing-process of self-education in which I’ve dedicated time, value and will. The utter disgust and excruciating shame that I feel about everything that is part of me, my skin, my thoughts and my gender and sexuality, obliges me to condemn and to be critical of myself. When I look into the mirror I do not want to see a ‘happy fellow’ who has accepted the privileges that comes rather arbitrarily, by birth, cultural, etc. Lastly, against, and despite of, all the favourable odds, a white person should be critical of themselves and question their taken-for-granted privileges. Since ‘wrong life cannot be lived rightly’, any genuine and sincere societal reconciliation must, initially, start with oneself.
For a detailed discussion of the dynamics of non-Aboriginal support for Aboriginal rights, see Clare Land’s book ‘Decolonising Solidarity’.