Where there is separateness there are feelings of disconnectedness. Where there are feelings of disconnectedness there is vulnerability, and where there is vulnerability there is fear. Where there is fear there is defensiveness and attack. Relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people cannot succeed when differences are valued more than similarities – especially given that the similarities between any two races far outweigh the differences.
In this article I wish to explore a theme that I believe is fundamental to improving the problems facing Aboriginal people. What I discuss here is consistent with what I have written before, and is not intended as something new and original; it is just a repackaging of what I have written elsewhere: Aboriginal people are people first, Aboriginal second. This means seeing Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in terms of their commonalities rather than pretending that Aboriginal people are distinct and separate from other Australians. It means recognising our common humanity. It means recognising that we are one. The good book says “If a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3: 25). For a group of people to be divided results in both physical and spiritual destruction. It is time to cease this destruction.
To set the scene, consider the following quotes:
I see people. Not categories, divisions, or races (Alison Anderson).
I do not believe we Australians want our children to grow up in divided societies. Divided societies do not happen by accident (Kevin Rudd).
The way forward has to be a unified effort; not an ‘us and them’ approach but an open and honest journey together (Jacinta Price).
We are connected and we are one. This is the very opposite of separatism. And until the gatekeepers of Indigenous affairs realise this, Aboriginal people will continue to suffer.
Separatism or Oneness?
When the British arrived and took over, it certainly was an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality that prevailed, and I believe it most likely would have been led by the British, and not the Aborigine. Given the stark differences in physical appearance, it is somewhat understandable that some hesitation on the part of both races was likely in their initial dealings. Fast forward more than two centuries later and race relations have markedly improved. The majority of Aborigines and non-Aborigines live with and alongside one another peacefully. They have mostly moved on from the destructive us/them mentality. Many of today’s Aborigines were born into a world where they were exposed to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people; many are the product of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal unions (like myself). However, not all those who identify as Aboriginal feel at ease with the integration of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. There are some who believe a degree of separateness is utterly desirable, and unavoidably and naturally present - or if it is not, then they believe it should be.
Interestingly, some of those Aboriginal people wanting to be separate from other Australians have relatively minimal Aboriginal ancestry themselves, so it does become a bit of a joke. With modern identity politics, it seems sufficient to have any Aboriginal ancestry and make flimsy claims such as “I feel in my heart that I am Aboriginal” to claim to be Aboriginal, and therefore separate from other Australians. Such is Aboriginal identity politics.
According to one of the twentieth century’s outstanding theoretical physicists, David Bohm, much of the world’s problems came from the perception that people are separate from each other, which results in us wanting to defend ourselves against perceived ‘others.’ Compare the ideas of a physicist with that of what Australian social scientist Hugh Mackay has stated: “The starting point [for a good life] is the recognition that we are all inseparably part of each other and that our human destiny is to accept and nurture our connection.” I don’t believe that the connections we have with others can ever be severed. However, people, to their own detriment, can act as if they are not connected with others.
I struggle to find an antonym for the term ‘separate development’, which is what is needed when thinking about how Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people can mix (as many are already doing). I would suggest ‘integration’ as the appropriate term, but some activists quickly deride it as ‘assimilation’ – a term which at one time was seen as a neutral word but has come to have strong negative connotations. Janet Albrechtsen describes how people, whom she refers to as ‘malcontents’, can twist the meaning of words. In her excellent article entitled Leftist Jargon is Village Idiocy, she states: “They [the malcontents] know how to steal a word, make it their own, and then flog it to stop progress … And don’t dare mention other words like ‘assimilation’. That’s the other tactic. Find a word and demonise it, to demonise your opponents.” Sadly, it has become all too common for anyone who wants to see Aboriginal kids in school, parents in jobs, and families living in safe homes, to be accused of promoting ‘assimilation.’ The reality is, however, that many Aboriginal people are happily leading lives that are largely indistinguishable from non-Aboriginal people. They don’t feel ‘assimilated’ - they just feel like normal Aussies.
Do Aboriginal People have Different Problems to Non-Aboriginal People?
The desire and justification for separatism is fuelled in part by the belief that Aboriginal people have problems that are significantly different from those of non-Aboriginal people. I do not believe that the problems facing Aboriginal people are unique to them. I do not see the problems of poverty, sickness, etc., as the results of colonisation or an assumed racist society. When the problems facing Aborigines are viewed as ‘Aboriginal problems’, this helps legitimise the need for an ‘Aboriginal Industry’ which in turn further promotes the view that Aboriginal people are a people having vastly different needs to other Australians.
I do not see ‘Aboriginal problems’ or ‘cultural problems’, but rather I see ‘people problems’. The problems therefore require ‘people solutions.’ Many of the problems faced by Indigenous people today are similar to those faced by many non-Aboriginal people. It is true that these problems may be more common among Aboriginal people, but they are not an inherent trait of Aboriginal people. These same problems (or variations of them) are also typically encountered by members of low socio-economic groups and people living in rural and remote localities.
The Hidden Racism
Contributing to the separatist paradigm is the assumption that Aboriginal people are a homogeneous race of people who all think alike, or at least have more in common with each other than they do with non-Aboriginal Australians. This is a very tenuous argument and I have not seen any sound evidence offered in its support, though I have seen some people build their careers on it. For some small communities, where traditional customs and practices are adhered to, there may be an element of truth to this. However, to extrapolate this belief to the Aboriginal race as a whole is not justifiable, nor is it helpful. Anyone who has spent time with any significantly sized group of Aboriginal people will immediately recognise the huge diversity among its members. In fact, they often vehemently disagree with one another on matters that impact on them significantly. In this respect, they are no different to non-Aboriginal Australians.
But is this view that they are homogenous a racist view? I think Jacinta Price nails it here in Issue 66 of The Quarterly Essay:
The media go looking for an “Aboriginal viewpoint,” talk to some radical from a city with absolutely no knowledge of, or interest in, my part of the world, and then present that opinion as authentic, and somehow generalised. The media’s acceptance of one view as “the Aboriginal view” is a bit like “They all look the same to me,” only now it’s “They all think the same as me.” Yes, I call it a racist attitude.
I could only add, that in addition to media’s acceptance, much of academia accept and promote this nonsense.
By all means, recognise the differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and celebrate them, but only after understanding and appreciating the commonalities. When we see ourselves as spiritually separate from others, we become aware of the observable differences. Focusing on differences leads to comparisons with others, and eventually feelings of being threatened because someone else will always be perceived as better, bigger, stronger, or more deserving. It also leads to the ‘us vs. them’ mentality which is the basis for not only competition, success etc., but also racism, conflict, fear, and war. So instead of being seen as brothers and sisters, others are seen as a threat when separatism is embraced. This separatist mentality, though embraced by activists who are fixated on Aboriginal identity, as well as the racists (both black and white), who are prisoners of their own fear-driven flawed ethnocentric paradigm, is in stark contrast to the principle of oneness and interconnectedness once embraced by many traditional Aboriginal peoples around the world. Encouragingly, there are still some Aboriginal people who embrace the principle of oneness and interconnectedness. Typically, they are not the loud voices, but the quiet achievers. They may not be out marching and protesting, but their presence, nonetheless, makes a real difference.