SLettrine2OME friends and I attended a session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival yesterday. (That’s right, for those of you who hadn’t guessed, I am Australian. (It’s amusing to me occasionally when I realise I keep addressing people who might not really be there…!)). It was entitled “40 years since the referendum,” which for those of you who don’t know your recent antipodean history, refers to the referendum passed by a 90% majority in 1967 officially declaring indigenous Australians as able to be counted in the census and all! This followed on the heels of enfranchisement in 1965 and the moment in 1948 when Aboriginal people became actual whole citizens. What were they before, I hear you ask? Flora and fauna, we are told, so as not to shake the predicate under which Australia was invaded: that this land was terra nullius, that no one was here. (Forgive the wikipedia links. It’s just in case I’m talking to people who know nothing of Australian history and.. y’know, want to.)

There’s little doubt that this was an important, if horrifically belated, moment in the history of the land we live in. Given that the life expectancy of Aboriginal people lags about 20 years behind the rest of the population, and that from being about 2.7% of the total population, they make up some huge, disproportionate proportion of the prison population, and that the government continues to refuse to say ‘sorry’ for so many terrible acts, including the stealing of children, the panel which was made up of Anita Heiss (as a friend of mine put it, ‘I totally have a girl-crush on that woman!’), Richard J Frankland (check out his perfectly hilarious kid’s book, from which he read excerpts), Aden Ridgeway, Aunty Ruby Langford-Ginibi and Lillian Holt had much to talk about. Nowhere near as much as ought to have been changed has changed. The Howard government in particular has taken numerous steps backwards through a policy of “practical reconciliation” which is thinly-disguised assimilation (because the history of the White Australia Policy is clearly not shameful enough for them!)

I’m not going to recount what they said in any great detail, mostly because, as Lillian Holt reminded us, it’s whiteness, not blackness, that really needs marking. Whiteness is so regularly taken as just the way that things are that it’s all too easy to make Aboriginal people “problematic”. So I want to mark a few of the moments that really stuck out for me in emphasising whiteness’s complete incapacity to be even a little self-aware of its own privilege and entitlement.

First, the panel was moved from one location which could hold 400 people, to another location, which could hold 120. It was moved late. There were no notices up on the whiteboard designed for such things. And it was moved because the expected crowds for French “charismatic public intellectual” Michel Onfray (it was on the back of his book, so I figure that’s how he wants to be known) were apparently going to be larger. How the organisers knew that the “40 years since the referendum” panel was not going to get 400 people is anyone’s guess (especially given that extra chairs had to be brought into the room). But the insulting upshot was that they were moved late and without announcement to a room that made it clear the organisers expected quite small crowds compared to the French intellectual. (I have to admit that my friends and I were quite scathing about Onfray, knowing nothing about him (I know, how terrible, a cultural studies student ignorant of a French thinker!) on the basis of this decision). As Anita Heiss said in her opening, “But then, we’ve already been displaced and dispossessed once before…”

Second, the staff on-hand passed a note to the chair (I missed his name, but he was rather lovely) as he opened the floor for questions and the panel for discussion. Given the way his face tightened, I would guess that he had been told to cut the whole session short. He obviously refused, but the point had clearly been made.

Third, a couple of people having a discussion in the audience raised their voices at one point so that the speakers could not be heard. Okay, it was more like an argument, but the rudeness was just incredible! Talk aboout lack of respect and a sense of entitlement to space!

Fourth, and I simply can’t resist putting this in because it’s truly so horrific… the questions. Now I suppose most questions tend to be a bit dodgy: people usually haven’t had time to take everything in and formulate a decent response, so you often end up with either profoundly shallow/sideways questions, or “mememe” comments, or questions which are intended to be deep but display the awful ignorance of the questioner. Now these last ones, in my experience, tend to be few and far between, but there were a couple of breathtaking ones today. One man asked about assimilation, observing that the dress of this particular audience was “very different” to the audience headed to Onfray’s panel, and asking whether the panel would have been welcoming of Onfray had he joined them. Now this tangled web of stuff functioned to ask a question about assimilation (surely, surely this already appears insulting to people who have clearly and repetitively insisted upon the honouring of their difference) and to imply that indigenous people, precisely in refusing to conform or assimilate were hostile to French intellectuals visiting our shores.

But the question that took the cake was this one: a woman stood up and said (I’m so indignant about it, I’m almost sure this is word-for-word, but no promises): “Hi, I’m an American-Australian. I’ve been an Australian for about 9 months, and I don’t know a whole lot about Aborigines, but I’m learning, I’m learning.” So far, so good. Now wait for it: “But I do feel I have a deep connection with Aboriginal culture because I was an Aboriginal in a past life, so I have a great connection with Aboriginal art and dance and… all of that.” Yes, that’s right – appropriation via past life-ness and the dismissal of the complexity and uniqueness of Aboriginal art. But wait, there’s more: “And you know, I think that it’s really important that people be educated, that they can be exposed to Aboriginal culture. And this panel is good, but I really wonder about… you know, whether Aboriginal people could organise festivals to educate us about their culture.” Oh. My. God. (Atheist here. I’m channelling Chandler).

The extraordinary graciousness with which these questions were responded to was just incredible. (I had almost laughed in horror to begin with, and then, as the second question continued, I could feel my face close up, my mouth purse. Anita Heiss’ did something very similar.) To the first one, a reiteration of the impossibility of assimilation. To the second, Aden Ridgeway listed about 10 indigenous performances, festivals and educational forums, one after another. Truly, it was beautiful to have it pointed out to the questioner precisely how much responsibility she was laying at the feet of indigenous people to ‘educate’ her, and how much she was clearly refusing to take up herself in her ignorance of them! And then Lillian Holt said (my memory’s approximation of), “Now you say you were an Aborigine in a past life. Well, I don’t know much about that stuff, but if you do and you know how to control it… well, I want to be white in my next life. Because being black is made to be such a burden, and no matter where I am, I’m the Aboriginal person. At my university: “oh, you have a question about Aboriginal people? She’ll know about that!” And even at 5.30, they’ll come and ask, and I’m just thinking ‘well, you know, I’ve knocked off for the day, I’m not really…'” A clever wise response (she declared that we shouldn’t want to be the “clever country” as PM Hawke suggested in 1990, but a wise one) that demonstrated the attempt at appropriation, the incredible privilege that attended the making of that remark, and the continual refusal of white institutions and people to not reduce an Aboriginal person to their race.

I wanted to speak to Anita Heiss afterwards, both because she spoke beautifully, and because at my graduation she gave the special official speech, and truly, it was so profoundly right to graduate to those words. She spoke – in rhyme, no less – about the great responsibility that each and every graduate from all their different disciplines had to make the world a better and better place, to fight injustices and work for an ethical Australia. (I had my doubts about how heard those words were, but that they were spoke was incredibly significant). I missed her, though (being too busy purchasing a couple of her books, including (grin) the first Aboriginal chick-lit novel evah.). But a friend of mine spoke to her and said, “I’m really, really sorry about those questions. They were just terrible.” And Anita threw back her head and roared with laughter. Just as Lillian Holt had said, humour is key. Pure life in that sound, to counter the deathly effects of whiteness.