"I first became interested in the idea of culture and cultural change in studying prehistory.
Here culture was defined in simple terms as nurture, not nature, all the things that were learned. Necessarily in pre-history, this had a material focus, but anthropological and sociological studies dealt with culture in a broader sense, including interactions between individuals and societies.
During this period I came in contact with what is now called mirroring, the way in which individuals or minority groups (in this case the Australian Aborigines) could come to reflect or mirror the attitudes held about them in the broader society.
You can see this today in the way I approach Aboriginal policy issues - I argue (among other things) that our focus on Aboriginal disadvantage and failures not only stigmatises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the broader community, but feeds back into attitudes and perceptions within the Aboriginal community". Belshaw, 23 May 2010This post follows from We create the things we most fear - reflections on 13 years of blogging 1.
In all the areas that I write about, the one that I have found most difficult, the one where I have lost most joy, is the history of, and policy relating to, Australia's Aboriginal peoples. I find it all just so complicated, complications that have continued to increase since I wrote the above in 2010.
Looking back over my writing, I can see many things that are worthy of republication, a few that are wrong and deserve retraction. I may look back as part of this series on some of the things I have said that are worthy of repeat or retraction, but in this short post I want to focus on just a few things.
Back on 20 December 2006 I wrote Australia's Aborigines - an introductory post. It was, I suppose, something of a manifesto. Over the thirteen years since I have written 146 posts here, more elsewhere. I have also given one major seminar paper on New England's Aboriginal languages. I really have no idea of the total word length. I guess that it would be well over 200,000 words in all.
When I wrote that first post I had nor met many Aboriginal people. Later, I would work for the NSW Aboriginal Housing Office. I would have an Aboriginal mentee. At AHO we also shared a building with the NSW Aboriginal Land Corporation.
During the four and a bit years I worked with AHO I met many hundreds of Aboriginal people, I attended community meetings, meetings with Aboriginal housing groups. I saw Aboriginal politics and policy making at first hand. I did not change my basic views, but those views were tempered by a better understanding of prejudice and disadvantage.
I respect the right of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to express views about their own communities. This may sound trite, even condescending. Surely it is self-evident that the rights of any group to make comments about their community should be respected? Well yes, but in the Aboriginal cases it goes to something more important, the right of self determination.
Here I am always conscious of the words of my Aboriginal mentee. We had been at a combined session of mentors and mentees and had gathered outside for a fag. "We know our culture must change", Jenny told the assembled group, "but we want to control that change." I accept that viewpoint. I also accept the right of Aboriginal people to point to and highlight the ills of the past. I may disagree on historical fact, but we are dealing with feelings and emotions that must be respected. This bears upon something that I argued for many years ago, the need for a new compact with our Aboriginal peoples.
Reflecting on my historical research over the colonial and post-colonial periods, I have often found myself shaking my head .and saying you could not think that. I am not talking about race, although racial prejudice has been and remains a factor. Rather, I am thinking of those who for the best of reasons wanted to "do something to help" our Aboriginal peoples. Bluntly, the Aborigines would have been better off if none of those things had occurred, if there had been no Aboriginal specific policies at all.
Paternalism, the desire to do good for others, the belief that officials and social reformers knew best, had quite devastating effects. This remains a factor today. The Intervention is an example. I wrote a fair bit on this at the time. I was prepared to suspend judgement. Now, with the passage of time, I'm hard pressed to identify a single positive that might justify the expense or the disruption of people's lives. It's just another failure in a long line of policy failures.
I mentioned mirroring in my introductory quote. I came across this in an article in Oceania in the 1960s, I no longer have the reference, looking at the way that prejudices and stereotypes about Aboriginal people affected the views of those people about themselves. I think that it's an important concept that I have carried with me over the years.
The effects of mirroring combined with paternalism and prejudice have been quite profound. They largely destroyed Aboriginal agency, the affected culture, they created structures and policiesthat were bound to fail. In recent years, their effects have been compounded by "white" guilt which is, in its own way,quite as destructive and paternalistic as its predecessors.
I have been deliberately provocative here to make a simple point. If, as I believe. Aboriginal people have to determine their own future, then they should be allowed to do so. The question of how the broader community responds is a separate question.
My personal view is that we require a treaty to move forward. The creation of that treaty will be a messy process since neither side presently has a common position. Still, I believe that it can be done. I also think that it needs to be done to allow us to put the past aside.