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Why change Aborigines into images of ourselves?

  • 21 August 2006

There are times when we draw a line in the sand and say, ‘enough is enough’. I was reminded of this recently at a public meeting held in Perth on the 17th of July. Enough is Enough! In Defence of Aboriginal Culture, it was called. A large and spirited group gathered at Curtin University to address media portrayals of, and political responses to, Aboriginal people. And, if that wasn’t enough, I then saw the Channel 9 Sunday program on the 30th of July, ‘Inside the Gangs of Wadeye’, a community they described as ‘one of the country’s largest and most dysfunctional Aboriginal communities’.

It has been one thing for some of our politicians to reveal they clearly misunderstand and respect so little about Aboriginal people and their culture. It is quite another thing when a reporter goes to live in a community for ten days and thinks she got the measure of ‘the cultural and social issues at play’. Both events have caused me to reflect on our non-Aboriginal attitudes towards Aboriginal people.

In the Perth meeting, some people suggested that recent government and media portrayals reflected a conspiracy. It seemed far too coincidental that a growing line of government ministers, including the Prime Minister, were following a similar track of negative opinion about Aboriginal culture, well supported by particular media and their often superficial and negative representations.

Personally, I am not sure there is a conspiracy. However, I do believe these recent statements reflect something about us ‘white’ people. I believe they disclose very persistent and dangerous values that have been part of our Australian psyche since the beginning of colonisation. On my good days I like to think we addressed them and put them to bed a long time ago. I like to hope we have moved on and are now more mature about ‘difference’ and ‘culture’. On bad days, however, I fear we are in the process of repeating an old conversation, allowing past attitudes and a violent contact history to repeat itself. As we dredge up ancient stereotypes and justify our latest response to Aboriginal expressions of culture, we find that we are repeating and reliving our fear of difference. Our desire to exert dominance and take control of Aboriginal people’s lives reasserts itself once again. As such, it brings shame upon our leaders and our nation.

Last year, a senior government minister referred to small,