I have seen this type of message before from Aboriginal activists, but haven’t responded. I first saw it in a replication of a more detailed list originating from Canada and repeated in Australia. While there were more steps, the core of the message was the same. Sit down, shut up and do as you are told.
While I understand the point, one has to listen to learn and there is and always has been a lot of telling Aboriginal people what to do, it’s actually quite dangerous.
I am not Aboriginal. If I go to an Aboriginal meeting specifically concerned with Aboriginal issues I do shut up unless I have a specific role or am asked for advice. That’s no different from what I would do if I went to a Rotary meeting as a guest. I am not a member of the group.
I also respect the desire of Aboriginal people who wish to control or manage the evolution of their own culture or society, although I am also very aware of the continuing divides within the Aboriginal community, including the way that activists seem to lecture or wish to dictate to their own community. In that sense, they are no different from anyone else. Activists of all stripes are always inclined to do this.
All this said, why do I think that its dangerous?
First of all, its actually very rude. My experience of Aboriginal people is that while prepared to make blunt comments, they are also naturally polite. Sometimes this impedes communication. They make blunt comments to each other afterwards, but don’t express them at the meeting. The way the message is expressed is, to my mind, a breach of Aboriginal courtesy.
I guess that you could say that that’s a style thing. Of more importance, this type of message risks being divisive and, in the end, self defeating. The Aboriginal community is a small percentage of the Australian community. Achievement of certain Aboriginal objectives requires support from the broader Australian community. You don’t get this by ramming this type of message down non-Aboriginal throats. Oh, and by the way, a significant and growing proportion of non-Aboriginal Australia is not white. Does the message apply to Chinese Australians as well?
A further difficulty is that there is no uniformity of view among Aboriginal Australians. Their views vary widely and are very mixed. Some of the most bitter fights are over divisions within the Aboriginal community, divisions that are played to by non-Aboriginal interests from Greens to miners to achieve their own objectives. These varied views are the reason why many Aboriginal activists are actually engaged in a fight for acceptance of their views within the Aboriginal community itself. Their real aim is to capture and energise the Aboriginal community to their view of the Aboriginal struggle.
Beyond all this is a very particular view that only Aboriginal people are really entitled to comment on or engage in Aboriginal issues defined broadly as anything about or affecting Aboriginal people. That’s plain silly.
In the end, all this makes it hard for a non-Aboriginal person to participate in the Aboriginal Struggle however defined. Why bother? I continue to try because I have defined a limited range of things that I think are important and where I can actually make a contribution. Beyond that, I tune out as (I think) do an increasing proportion of the Australian population.
Published in The Australian on 13 December 1838, it was a reaction to the 1838 Myall Creek Massacre. It was then set to music by Isaac Nathan for performance at a full orchestral concert in Sydney in 1841
Eliza Dunlop was an interesting woman. A poet, she was deeply interested in the Aborigines. At Wollombi, she recorded the Aboriginal dialect and the Aboriginal songs given to her by Wallati which she translated into English. One begins:
Our home is the gibber-gunyah (cave in a rock)
Where hill joins hill on high
Where the turramu and berambo (weapons)
Like twisted serpents lie.
I really, really, don’t want to get involved in some of the current discussions about the Aboriginal Struggle, although I retain my general policy interest in Aboriginal issues. It is far more interesting and, I think, useful to continue to focus on recording what was and what happened in the areas where I have most interest.
There was a quick and rather nice comment from Legal Eagle on this post. It’s worth reading in full, But I thought that I should bring up the last part of the comment in the main post. She wrote:
YES, it is really important to listen. And, I would suggest that before you decide to "speak for" Aboriginal people, you should at least meet some and preferably meet a variety of Aboriginal people. BUT I don't think that means I should shut up and not give my view where appropriate AFTER I've listened. Some of my own experiences may give me insight into resolving issues.
Actually the fundamental thing I learned from tutoring Aboriginal people was that you can't fix things for people: but you CAN give people tools to help themselves, and you can form a productive relationship where you learn from each other and listen to each other.
The last sentence captures something I have learned and try to practice. Even where I disagree, I do believe strongly in giving people the tools and information they need to argue their case. I am not thinking just of the Aborigines here. I also find that when I do this, it acts to temper views.