FOR the course I’m tutoring this semester, we’re reading Bluff Rock: Autobiography of a Massacre by Katrina Schlunke. It’s an engagement with the stories woven around Bluff Rock, a big granite outcrop in the New England, an area of New South Wales where Schlunke grew up. At the heart is a concern with the engagement between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people around and as part of ‘settlement,’ most particularly the massacre(s) of Aboriginal people that occurred as part of this process. It is, in the end, a thoroughly fictocritical account, a non-fiction novel. Christos Tsiolkas (who wrote Dead Europe and Loaded, later made into a movie called Head On) offers glowing praise:

Bluff Rock is analytical and wise, by which I mean the scholarship and research is rigorous but also committed to the historian’s task of making argument lucid and understandable. The book is also impassioned and honest, by which I mean it is driven by the ethical obligation to explore racist interpretations of the pas tin order to illuminate how racism functions in the words, actions and psyches of our present.

Katrina Schlunke’s book achieves what many of us hope from cultural theory, that through an investigation of language, words and culture, we come to a questioning of history, politics and the treacherous relationship between memory and myth. Her objective terrain is the contested arena of racist war in Australia, but her terrain is also how our ways of seeing race, colonialism, being white and being Aborigine have been formed by cultural forms and expressions that have made us repress signs of both violence and resistance in the landscape.

It’s an interesting book, a beautiful challenge to the deathly whiteness of Keith Windschuttle’s attempts at ‘Australian history,’ valuable also because it demonstrates that an awareness of one’s own whiteness permits a new and different way of doing history, one which need not conclude in guilty paralysis, nor reiterate innocence in the face of destruction.

An excerpt:

The saved child

Coming on them on the side of a deep precipice, the avenging party attacked them and wiped them out, with the exception of one small piccaninny. The little chap ran to Bill Bates and clung to his legs and was spared. William Bates kept and reared him (the boy). He was always grateful and useful to him in after years.

The Aborigines withdrew to higher ground until they found themselves between a precipice and their pursuers. The entire group, women and children were driven over the edge—with the exception of one small boy, the only survivor. This boy, incidentally, was brought up very successfully by one of the white men involved. They developed a strong feeling of devotion to each other.

This was also a story I was told in Tenterfield. The story was that the child grew up, and when dead, was buried at the foot of the Bluff. One might see the grave; I found nothing. William Bates’ son says nothing about having an adopted Aboriginal brother. Campbell (the author of the second quote above, which is from his thesis) acknowledges no source for his statement; it could well have been the collected oral histories from the Tenterfield Historical Society records (as in the first quote above). There is no supporting objective evidence in the shape of graves or in the shape of adults who have come forward to tell of their unusual upbringing, but the story keeps on being told and written. Campbell’s confident assertion—in a thesis, no less—even makes it official history. But if it is not true, why would people invent or believe such a tale? What does this story do?

First, it individualises morality. While a group was chasing and killing, when one child appealed to one of these killers, he ‘saved’ the child. This same man, we assume, could not and did not wish to stop killing all the others, but he did save one child. It wants to tell us that these men were not entirely monsters; that they also had a fundamental humanity. That close up, when appealed to directly, one man’s choice was to save a child. But could we call this ‘humanity’? Is this how the sensibility that led to the more systematic Stolen Generations began? When an Aboriginal child was told it was lucky to have been ‘saved’, stolen up from death, ‘rescued’ from ‘wild blacks’ to become ‘grateful’ and ‘useful’, ‘devoted’ and successfully ‘brought up‘? But if one child could be saved, why not all of the group? One can begin to see why the Romantic imagination strained within colonialism. The innocent child saved but the rest killed—why? The sentiment attached to children frayed and played itself out alongside the raw and unromantic slaughter.

Children were also involved in other massacres. About two hours from Bluff Rock is Myall Creek, where in 1838 (six years before Irby et al. carried out their ‘punishment’ [in the massacre described above]) Kilmeister et al. were slaughtering a group of children, women and men. Some of the perpetrators, all current or ex-convicts, were eventually hanged amongst general outrage that any white man should died for killing Indigenous Australians. They were not found guilty at their first trail, which was for killing an Aboriginal known as ‘Daddy’, but in their second trial they were found guilty on five counts of th e’murder of an Aboriginal Black Child who name was to the Attorney-General unknown.’ This child had been identified by its rib bones, a jaw bone and some teeth. In Tales of Old Times: Early Australian Incident and Adventure (1903), Chomley records Anderson (the hutkeeper) saying about the group on Myall Creek that:

There was a little child at the back of the hut when they were tying this party; and when the blacks and party were going away, this little child as I thought, was going to follow the party with its mother, but I took hold of it and put it into the hut and stopped it from going.

However, in his first sworn statement about the event, Anderson says the following:

All the black at the station were taken away except Davy and his brother Billy, two Black gins a pickininny [a little boy] and two little boys who saved themselves when the horsemen were coming up by jumping into the creek. The Men left a black Gin with me saying she was a good looking Gin. They gave another to Davy. The little child came from behind the hut when they were taking the blacks away as I thought to follow them. I put him into the hut and shut the door—they did not come back after him.

One of the reasons, then, that Anderson (and Davy) didn’t act to stop the larger slaughter was that they were given women to do with what they wished. It could also be said therefore that Kilmeister ‘saved’ two Aboriginal women—but they were saved only to be raped? used? by others. There was another woman ‘saved’ from this massacre by another man. She was the mother of Charly, a small boy (noted for his ‘familiar and friendly way’) whom Davy had tried to save—but ‘he would go along with mammy’. Charly was killed, but his mother, according to other evidence, was picked out by John Blake, who kept her, saved her, for ‘future use’. Like putting pennies in the bank—this woman was ‘saved’ as only the most brutal white economic metaphor can imply. The colonial rationality of economy. Did this lone woman, the mother of at least one of the suggested ten to twelve children killed, imagine that she was saved in any other sense? Was death by slaughter something worse in her psychology and cosmology than knowing all her group had been beheaded, stabbed, burnt? Would it have been better than being taken away from ehr country, used by Blake and perhaps others? Did she think she was saved? Might there also have been Aboriginal women taken from others of the massacres carried out around Tenterfield? And were children also used sexually and economically? What did Bates, of ‘The Bluff Rock Massacre’, intend for his ‘saved’ child? Was the child of Bluff Rock saved because a dead child had hanged the others who had massacred at Myall Creek? Had the word come back from the Sydney—not only don’t tell anyone about killing Aboriginal people, but particularly don’t tell of killing children?

The child of ‘The Bluff Rock Massacre’ had seen (we assume) his closest relations and friends ‘wiped out’, but he ran toward the legs of one of these shooters and was ‘spared’. This little boy ran across and made his physical presence felt to a man holding a gun. The little boy clung to the man’s legs and hte man couldn’t shoot. At that moment the man could have thrown the boy aside and shot him, but at that moemnt he didn’t. And so the story goes that this unnamed boy was always ‘grateful and useful’—he had been saved up for later, careful, use. He didn’t send those who massacred to be hanged.

In the early years of carrying to and from the coast the blacks would occasionally raid the teams. When Bates’ teams were threatened, this boy would help to defend them and would persuade the wild blacks not to attack, so that his [Bates’] loads were never raided.

And so the saved becomes the saviour on a regular basis. (pp. 104-108)

READ it. Where lies the guilt again, and how does it adhere? How to compass this kind of taking advantage of the APEC laws…?

Forgive brevity/superficiality. Mind-grapples wearied by teaching and slow-burned horror (these domestic ones, and the wondrously rendered brutal ones of Dead Europe.) I hope for sharpness again soon.


I can’t think of much to say about the fact that the Senate has passed the legislation permitting the ‘intervention’ in the Northern Territory. It sickens and angers me, and I feel like I can’t capture the multitude of ways it is wrong in any way adequately, least of all in words.

Still. How can it be that political dialogue in this country has reached the point that the moment when indigenous land rights are being utterly undermined, the only response the discursive space of the media will permit is that it is ‘misguided’. Misguided? Yes, if you believe that child sex abuse is actually the target. If not, it’s a precision missile. A racist—oh, no, sorry, so long as *whites* are saying it’s for their benefit, it escapes (the legality) of that label because what *whites* intend is all that is—precision missile.

Tangentially, but relatedly, I was deeply grateful to a man I thought I’d never be grateful to, yesterday: Cameron Stewart took me for the law course that nearly killed me—property law which was seriously the most tediously boring course I’ve done (and which makes me sad, now, because property’s so fascinating!) But at the seminar [pdf] I attended yesterday, in response to Catherine Waldby’s great paper on the commercialisation of biomaterials, Stewart roundly and—this was part of what astonished me, actually—passionately lambasted the government and the courts for their failure to rethink, to reconsider, to reorganise our conception of property, and worse, to fail to recognise the injustices that are being committed in the name of that failure. He spoke at length about the conservatism of Mabo, and the way that that has permitted the gradual undermining of native title; and he decried the astonishing lack of public interrogation of this latest erasure. The conversation that was prompted I’ll post some stuff on later, because it too was interesting, but his swift demonstration of the ways that the rights of indigenous people, of ‘donors’ of organs to biotech companies, and so on are undermined in the name of a deeply conservative notion of property (that conservatism a substantial disavowal of its rather fluid history, I might add!) was inspired and inspiring. I had feared that the day would pass without reference to indigenous rights at all, and this seemed wrong. Then I got home last night, and discovered what had transpired…

… and grief. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. My heart hurts; and the grief and suffering of those involved slips swiftly beyond my imagining.

QUITE often these last couple of days (weeks, months, years!), I am feeling like the world shifted and got ugly while I wasn’t looking. It’s not at all true, of course, just a mark of the ways privilege inflects my life. But I can’t seem to shake the despondency that shudders up a gear into anger occasionally. Well, I’m going to try writing some of it out, and see how that goes. And then I’ll follow it (hopefully) with some notes on ‘The Time of the King’ so my hopefully not too horrible self-indulgence doesn’t sit at the top of the blog.

One of the worst things, actually, about the wake of the announced ‘national emergency’ is the demonstration of how very big the world is. I think WOC Blog is one of the only non-Australian blogs I read that mentioned anything about Howard’s sudden concern for childhood innocence (yeah, I know, it might just be the stuff I read, I get that); the rest of the blogosphere seems to not have recognised that this is happening, or perhaps it’s just not close enough to home to really matter. But the cheerfulness of some of the blogs I read has felt grating the last two days. It’s a bit like grief (and that’s probably not a coincidence): can’t everyone see the world has changed?

And of course it hasn’t, not precisely. To suggest that is to suggest that the plans being put into place for the Northern Territory had no precedent, when probably the scariest thing about them is that they are merely the extension of existing logics. Normalising logics. Assimilatory logics. White logics. The logic of guilt and innocence. The extraordinary thing is that the Liberal government has managed, in the midst of all this, to claim their own innocence. And not least over the latest death in custody horror: the erasure of the death of Mulrunji Doomadjee in this new plan for the NT ensures the acquittal of Hurley (and the government, really) remains uninterrogated; the declaration of innocence gets to stand because those indigenous people are just so guilty. Really. I mean, how long have they been in power? I don’t think I’ve voted in an election where Labour won (altogether too depressing a thought). But the point is, they’ve had more than ten years in which to actually begin (or, you know, not just undermine every single move towards) the amelioration of the sources of justified white Australian guilt. But without a ‘sorry,’ they move cheerfully on, marginalising entire communities of people until they find a space/Cause terrible enough for them to be able to declare their innocence (an innocence that they thereby make to extend back in time), a space which will allow them to deploy race yet again in service of the ‘tough on x’ election spin. All the better when what they’re doing can be ‘tough on Aboriginals’ at the same moment as being ‘tough on child sex abuse.’ You can catch the racists and the little-l liberals that way (and of course the pretty overlap between those two groups); and it’s the perfect way to crack the Labour lead (though given that… what, two? of the recommendations of 96 in the Little Children are Sacred are actually being taken up, you’d think that Labour would be able to suggest something other than manky ‘bipartisanship’! (I can’t remember where I read this, so I’m sorry; if you know/remember/wrote it(!), let me know, and I’ll edit it in.)) Not that I’m recommending those recommendations; just pointing out that there is, actually, an already-legitimised political platform they could use to stand on and perhaps even (gasp!) vaguely against Howard.

But it’s in the sweet dovetail the government has managed between small-l liberals and racists that the real pinch lies, I think. The introduction of draconian* measures which are apparently (though without real causation, as s0metim3s pointed out in the comments on the last post) in aid of ‘obvious’ liberal goods: no child sex abuse (huh! see dot-point 2 for a hint on the fact that we might want a national initiative on this front; can you imagine what that would look like? Rather different, I suspect!), kids attending school, sobriety and ‘proper’ sexuality means that a discussion of and disagreement with the means (let alone the assimilative tendencies of the ends) becomes a querying of that which the ends seek to ‘fix’. That is, it’s all too clear a risk to start asking too many questions. In the current climate, we’ve seen how this works: questions about the why of ‘terrorism’ are cast as disrespectful to the dead; questions about the why and why like this here get cast as a failure to act at best, and an approval of child sex abuse, alcohol and substance abuse, house ‘disrespecting,’ porn use and so on at worst. Or they will do.

In this context, there’s no space for responding the specificity of the situation: there’s no space to wonder about how unambiguous are the goods of education (especially after a Western liberal framework), for example. There’s no space to think critically about the ends we’re implicitly aiming to engender (it’s really not just about child sex abuse now, is it?), about how and why we can’t conceive of subjectivity let alone community done differently. Now, I know there’s complexities here that I’m treading all over with very big boots, but these are just the pained turning over of ideas: why is it so impossible to find spaces and ways to think the intersections of cultures? I know it’s very complicated, truly, and I’m not anywhere near well-versed enough in critical race studies to know if there are answers already (fill my parentheses in the comments, please!), but in amongst the discussions I am reading, I can’t help but wonder: are there really no ways to think through and negotiate the relations between cultures and communities (and I don’t just mean the ‘white’ and the ‘indigenous’ because they are already too homogenising and leave out a rather large chunk of the population besides (kinda my point)) in ways that don’t simply become assimilative, that don’t merely attempt through differently violent means (is that too strong?) to attempt to produce the same, the Same, the Same? Is it so impossible to enable (and I mean big-p politically, I’m not so naive as to imagine it’s not already happening) the envisaging of indigeneity, whiteness and community in ways that neither erase difference nor reify or romanticise it? In the end, I get the need to move forward; I’m just worried the PM is up to his usual tricks of leading us into the past in the name of a future comforting only because it’s familiar, because it’s already envisaged on the fantasies of that past, one we (well, some of us) know too well was and is a problem. We can only move forward from here, and I get that the intentions of some—perhaps even most, though I don’t really feel that generous—arise from the concern to make a viable future; but I think that to forget the past that brought us here can mean that we forget the specificity of the future we continue to envisage; and worse, to forget that what is actually needed is to find other (non-assimilative? hey, I can dream!) ways to think, dream, live, be other (and maybe unknown) futures.

Sigh. And my heart hurts.

*(y’know, I really like that word, but the context it’s used in means it almost always has bad associations. But dragons, really, on the whole, I suspect would do a better job)

SO apparently when Crikey links to you (for something which was really pretty ordinary, I have to say!), it blows all stats out of the water! Half of me is deeply grateful (hi to all those who’ve come by to say hi from crikey) and half of me knows that the little graph gives me each day is going to look a lot sadder from now on coz the scale’s been messed with. Still… I’m grateful.

I’m actually (when I’m not marking) just starting to read Derrida’s Given Time, which I know, should already be read before now. But expect some posts full of excerpts soon. The concept of the gift is kinda key to my thesis, so it’ll make for interesting reading, methinks, and hooks in rather nicely to the idea I and others have been kicking around of bodies and body politics being formed through contract…or are they? And I might even be able to find something to say about temporality! (I’m crossing fingers, because that’s chapter 4!).

But for today, I’m just going to feel a little horrible; my gut curls around itself and the lines between my brows won’t ease. Nor should they. As it turns out, the title of my last post was a little too accurate, as s0metim3s pointed out in the comments. Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley was yesterday (I think) acquitted not just of manslaughter but even of the assault of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004. He died of internal bleeding caused because his liver was split in half by his spine being shoved through it. Yet another death in custody that remains legally OK’d. I can’t think of much to say about it, really, except to point you here for some clear observations of the patterning of guilt and innocence, and to just repeat that there’s something truly hideous about the way that the innocence of ‘Australia/ns’ is earned and reiterated in and through death.

NEAR the end of s0metim3s’ post about the creepily titled “Little Children Are Sacred” report on child sex abuse in Aboriginal communities, she draws attention to a disturbing dynamic which emphasised how much the guilt/innocence binary works to homologously inform and reinforce the function of so many others. In this case, the distinction between ‘Australia/ns’ (designating the intertwining of white Australian bodies with the imagining of the body politic; see earlier posts for clarification) and Aboriginal/s works, as s0metim3s points out, to ensure the innocence of ‘Australia/ns’ with regard to sex abuse. It informs the horror expressed at the way ‘Muslims’ ‘treat their women’ (a phrase intriguing for the proprietorial inflection produced). Especially, as was pointed out at a forum at UTS a while ago (the ad for which I, under my pre-blogger pseudonym and with probably terrible blog etiquette, stuck in a comment on the archive (linking coz I can’t remember which speaker said it)) in the Sheikh Taj El-Din Hamid Hilaly case (see October 2006 comments; and please don’t take this link as advocating a position, I didn’t read the details): Howard expressed horror at the comments made, as if the well-she-wore-a-short-skirt-so-she-deserved-it rhetoric weren’t alive and well in ‘Australia/ns’ and affecting our truly horrifying rape conviction rates (estimated 1% of all sexual assault ends in conviction). It informs the proposed new cut-welfare regime for Aboriginal people, because innocent ‘Australia/ns’ always ‘respect housing’ (giggle: I’m sorry, that’s just such a ridiculous concept!), make sure their kids attend school and never ‘abuse substances’ in contrast to guilty indigenous communities. It informs the characterisation of pedophilia as merely a product of ‘monstrous individuals’ in the churches (“no, no, we are innocent; they, they are guilty, nothing to do with us or how we produce sexuality! (And we don’t like that Foucault guy!)”). The scapegoating of the already-othered other as a way of disowning responsibility for issues entire tangles of cultures and people and economies are actually responsible for is horribly problematic most of all because it works, appealing to and reinforcing bodily (in)tolerances, appealing to and reinforcing the imagined body of ‘Australia/ns.’ Over and again, innocence is claimed merely in the act of pointing out the guilty; and the configuring of the innocent as innocent in and through that move is never drawn attention to, because everyone’s too busy looking at the awful people they’re pointing at.

It reminds me a little of some comments the totally awesome Susan Stryker made at a conference in Brisbane in April, when discussing (an image taken from) 300. I didn’t see the movie, so I can’t speak to it directly, but she pointed out the characterisation of Xerxes (with his hand on the Spartan dude’s shoulder): kinda camp, kinda queer, kinda feminine, kinda giant, kinda animalistic, kinda Oriental and always hedonistic. The horror of a totally-guilty other composited of all the others against which the Spartans became innocent and good; and authentic, and straight, and masculine, and normal, and human, and white (implicitly, at least) and disciplined. An image for our times (and no, I didn’t keep up with the Zizek debate, sorry, so if I’m repeating/crossing debates I’m unaware of, feel free to comment and fill in my unexamined parentheses!)

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.