Honesty about history

We need to be honest about our history, writes Kitty-Jean Laginha

This field trip was commissioned by the Australian Museum to document the aboriginal 'keeping places' in various indigenous communities in western NSW.

2003 This field trip was commissioned by the Australian Museum to document the aboriginal 'keeping places' in various indigenous communities in western NSW. 2003

Wide brown stretches of land, dense bushland and muscular rugged mountain ranges stretching along coastlines inspired the emergence of the archetypal battler embedded in the nation’s psyche, alongside a stoic masculinity, mateship, xenophobia and philistinism. The scene is set for the struggle for white Australia to define itself in a new and unfamiliar space.

We often forget that white Australia is relatively ‘new’. And an offshore penal dumping ground for the great Motherland isn’t an encouraging recipe for a strong sense of identity and shared humanity. As members of this fledgling nation, how ought white Australians relate and engage with the history of white Australia?

History is necessarily central to the politics of national identity. The dominant way history is talked about, dealt with and taught belies a rot that lies quietly beneath lies, evasions and silences. Until recently, the existence of Indigenous peoples in Australia’s history was not widely accepted and discussed. History shows that Aboriginal peoples had appeared in Australian history only as regrettable, but inevitable, collateral of the colonial project. As J. A. La Nauze comments, Indigenous people’s claim to recognition is merely as a ‘melancholy anthropological footnote’. However, the traditional view of Australia’s history as one of ‘white progress’ began to come under scrutiny and more critical perspectives began to bleed into the collective consciousness.

The “Black armband” perspective describes the post-1788 history of Australia as one of dispossession and desecration of Indigenous relationship to land and the violation of human rights. Historians – often of a white nationalistic stripe – were quick to chastise this view as decidedly gloomy, belittling achievements and erasing the opportunity for pride and celebration of the great achievements of the Great Southern Land. Their disapproval comes across as cries of “don’t be so negative!”

We ought to be sceptical about the place for nationalistic pride whilst grieving, loss and injustice continues as a result of dispossession. Nationalism is a trouble-ridden and dangerous project for a nation that began as a colony, which, as it turns out, was not uninhabited or unowned at all. If we distance ourselves from shameful acts of the past, how can we eulogise and celebrate prideful parts? Endlessly chasing after the elusive ‘balanced’ view of history is misguided. The quest to see ‘both sides’, (as though there exists balanced power relations), the good and the bad, is a quest that risks not taking seriously the injustices that have occurred; the results of which manifest in inequalities we see today.

This narrative is far from new; familiar patterns of obstinately denialist attitudes to a violent history impedes reconciliation efforts in postcolonial contexts around the world. A lack of genuine remorse and acknowledgement of collective responsibility will hold Australia back. Perhaps this unwillingness comes from clinging onto a colonial mentality – that Australia was settled in an act of beneficence, to help the savage natives and begin the prosperous Newfoundland. Pride is hopeful, effortless, and attractive. Shame is ugly, dark and confronting. But it is also a source of reflection and a powerful motivator for change. To shoulder shame with reflective humility is a response that can acknowledge the pain and loss that has been wrought. To recognise, to then reflect and undo the past wrongs. To this, we have to be honest about history.

A recent subject of such a denialist white-nationalist view of history was the media hysteria that erupted following UNSW’s publishing of a terminology guide for Indigenous Australian studies. The guide, intended to clarify the appropriate language use for the history, society, naming, culture and classifications of Indigenous Australian and Torres Strait Islander people, scandalised commentators, decrying the outrageous ‘rewriting of history’. What they fail to recognise is that the accepted, popular, ‘neutral’ history is – as the adage goes – always written by the winners, by those who dominate now. Indigenous historian Jackie Huggins pointed out the injustice of denying people the truth, saying “We cannot deny our history. It’s a history that’s never fully been taught to us in our country.”

The desecration of the relationship to country catalysed a history of violence, marked by acts of dispossession and the managing controlling and dispersing of Aboriginal peoples. Operating under the belief that the Indigenous population would eventually die out, they were allowed to keep small sections of their land seen as a temporary measure to make life easier for the settlers. Protectionist policies were attempted to smooth the pillow of a dying race. Assimilation followed, where notions of inferiority and inevitable extinction influenced assimilationist policies. No matter what names or packaging policy comes under, they are all methods of transferring Aboriginal land to white ownership. If you think about the rights, opportunities, wages denied, you can see the pattern of deprivation continuing until the present day. Intergenerational inherited traumas and injustices manifest in conditions of inequality today – whether it be differential access to education, language loss, police brutality or disproportionate rates of domestic violence – and thus we must connect present conditions to history; an honest history. I wish policy writers, politicians and white Australian would look at social problems such as these as phenomena that are a result of historical injustices, not as individual problems that speak to some personal deficit or inadequacy.

In the winter break I visited my mother in Katherine, a small town in the Top End of Australia, 320kms south of Darwin. My mother works for a government welfare program; she likens it to putting tiny band aids on gaping and haemorrhaging wounds. In the suburban parts of the town, two or three-metre-high fences wrap around most houses. Why? “To keep the blacks out” is the resounding consensus from white residents. Such instances of blatant racism which we might usually expect to be relics of the past tend to pop up as everyday banalities. If seeing the impact of stubborn racism and ignorance was unsettling and confronting for me, I have no idea how it would feel for those that experience it daily. Such a confrontation of the legacy of the past shows that history stands right in front of us, demanding that we listen and reflect.   

If we aren’t honest about history, we end up paying lip service to Indigenous rights whilst perpetuating colonial relationships, which in many ways is what is happening now.  Shame and guilt might be challenging for a white Australia dyed in the blue with stubbornness, stoicism and hard-headedness, but a reluctance to accept collective responsibility is a silent presence that hangs over further progress and tackling racial injustice.

An honest history can bring people together in remembrance and speak in a language of respect and admiration for the courage, resistance and determination Indigenous peoples have shown as they resist attempts at furthering colonisation.