10 questions I get from non-Indigenous students

In BlogX by Luke Pearson

Author: Amy Thunig

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Amy Thunig is a Kamilaroi woman, PhD candidate, and an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Educational Studies at Macquarie University. Juggling parenting and partnering, Amy’s interests and writing centre around family, Indigenous rights, social justice, academia, and education. She is the recipient of the 2018 Margaret Dooley Fellowship for Emerging Indigenous Writers.

I have been working as an academic for a couple of years now, and have found that every semester many of my students bring in to the course any number of stereotypical or misguided assumptions or beliefs about Indigenous people and history. This can inhibit their learning in my courses, so to help address this I run an anonymous question system where students can ask anything relevant to the course, and I will do my best to answer them. This exercise is not without its challenges, but it always provides some interesting questions

Here’s ten of the most common.

  1. Do you think Aboriginal people have been helped to survive to this point because of white people?

As the oldest, continuous living people group in the entire world, the First Nations People of this land did not require ‘help’ to survive. We were already thriving, having developed and established trade, farming, ecologically sustainable practices, appropriate technology, and complex social, political, language, and cultural systems over 60,000 years. The First Fleet invading this land some 230 years ago, which quickly led to the massacring of our people, stealing of our lands, introduction of disease, small pox, rape, and alcohol. The criminalising of our lives and languages, stealing of our children, and attempted genocide are not acts of help.

I find that this question is generally connected with an attempt to give British colonisation credit for any and all technological/scientific advancements in the past two centuries, as though Indigenous Australia was not already trading and communicating with other Nations. It is also often connected to grossly outdated ‘Dying Race Theory’, which is essentially the idea that Aboriginal peoples were ‘naturally dying off’ due to some Darwinian Survival of the Fittest idea, whereby white people had just coincidentally arrived in Australia at the right time to witness this ‘natural phenomena’.

This misguided belief, presented at the time and in the history books as unbiased and scientific, was of course not accurate but it was used in part to justify stealing Aboriginal children and placing Aboriginal people on missions and reserves, where it was posited that the old people would die off (often referred to as ‘smoothing the dying pillow’), and the young could be absorbed and assimilated into the wider population. The term ‘smooth the dying pillow’ goes back as far as 1860 where a Chief Protector was appointed to ‘watch over the interests of Aboriginal people’ and to ‘smooth the dying pillow’.

But we did not die off, we persist, and our culture and people live on.

  1. Have you encountered someone that was offended when called ‘white’ or ‘white woman/man’?

Yes, but this usually comes down to either their understanding of the term ‘white’ when used in this context, or their feeling personally attacked at being ‘labelled’ (which in itself reflects the comfort being in the position of privilege which whiteness grants them). ‘Whiteness’ refers to a position of power, the privileges which accompany being in a system which privileges whiteness, in Australia white privilege and supremacy is well established since Invasion within the legislative and social history i.e. the ‘White Australia policy’.

  1. How much Aboriginal are you? What part of you is Aboriginal?

‘My green eyes…my hair when I don’t straighten it… and my height (I am over 6ft)’ is a joke response I tend to give, as I am aware that this question stems from the students trying to understand my Indigeneity when I have light skin and freckles.

The idea of a person being a percentage Indigenous, or speaking in terms of blood-quantum is out dated, offensive, and linked heavily to historical trauma and classifications imposed by colonising governments against First Nations People around the world. Within Australia ‘blood-quantum’ classifications entered the legislation of New South Wales in 1839, South Australia in 1844, Victoria in 1864, Queensland in 1865, Western Australia in 1874 and Tasmania in 1912.

The following quote from, taken from https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/Publications_Archive/CIB/cib0203/03Cib10#blood, does a decent job of explaining this history:

These classifications were relied on until the late 1950s with States regularly legislating all forms of inclusion and exclusion (to and from benefits, rights, places etc.) by reference to degrees of Aboriginal blood. Such legislation produced capricious and inconsistent results based, in practice, on nothing more than an observation of skin colour. 

“To illustrate the inconsistencies the historian Peter Read, drawing on documented sources, has offered the following conflation:

In 1935 a fair-skinned Australian of part-indigenous descent was ejected from a hotel for being an Aboriginal. He returned to his home on the mission station to find himself refused entry because he was not an Aboriginal. He tried to remove his children but was told he could not because they were Aboriginal. He walked to the next town where he was arrested for being an Aboriginal vagrant and placed on the local reserve. During the Second World War he tried to enlist but was told he could not because he was Aboriginal. He went interstate and joined up as a non-Aboriginal. After the war he could not acquire a passport without permission because he was Aboriginal. He received exemption from the Aborigines Protection Act and was told that he could no longer visit his relations on the reserve because he was not an Aboriginal. He was denied permission to enter the Returned Servicemen’s Club because he was.

There were surprisingly few challenges to the appropriateness of these definitions (those there were came mostly from Europeans charged with supplying liquor to Aborigines) and few judicial pronouncements on their appropriateness (and those there were seemed to support the classifications).

Federal legislation was quick to endorse State discrimination (the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 effectively disqualified ‘aboriginal natives’ who were not already on State electoral rolls) and the Federal Government was quick to accept the administrative usefulness of the preponderance of ‘blood’ criteria (e.g. for deciding if an individual was Aboriginal for the purposes of being counted under section 127 of the Constitution or ‘white only’ labour laws as in the Excise Tariff Act 1902)” 

So, if you find yourself about to ask someone ‘what percentage’ or ‘how much Aboriginal are you?’ I advise you to first ask yourself, why are you asking? And then, given the historical context of these forms of questions, consider, do you really want to go there?

  1. Are you just as proud, connected, and celebratory of your other ancestry?

No, I am not equally ‘connected’ to my ‘other’ ancestry, as I do not live on that land, and do not identify with those cultures. I was born on, raised on, and live on Aboriginal land, as were my parents, their parents, and their parents before them. This is all Aboriginal land, I identify as Aboriginal (Gamilaroi), I am deeply proud of and honour the connection my family has had to this land for some 60,000 years. And ultimately, in this land now known as Australia, whiteness is celebrated everyday so I don’t have to do anything to engage with advocating for, or celebrating whiteness as that already takes place daily in the formal systems, governance, leadership, legislation.

  1. Is it true that dot paintings should only be done by Elders?

No –

Dot paintings are not a traditional style of all Aboriginal peoples though, and I am no art expert so I won’t talk in any great detail about who should or should not paint in them, other than to say that non-Indigenous people should not profit from styles they appropriate from other cultures. There are a number of protocols and permissions attached to a range of styles and designs of Indigenous artworks, and Australian law is often far behind in adequately addressing these issues, which is why there is a growing movement of people opposing fake Aboriginal art, be it didgeridoos, paintings or other artworks or artefacts – See work by Terri Janke for more detail.

If you want to incorporate Indigenous artwork in your home, school, office, etc. then be sure to purchase ethically by sourcing these works directly from Indigenous people, and Indigenous businesses. If you wish to incorporate Indigenous artwork into your classroom planning, then be sure to collaborate with, and consult with the Indigenous community where your school and classroom are located.

  1. Why are the majority of Aboriginals less intelligent, making poor life choices such as alcohol and drug use?

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not ‘less intelligent’ than non-Indigenous people. How intelligence is defined and assessed varies between cultures, but measures of intelligence via standardised testing and statistics are deeply problematic for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, within Australia these tests are generally Eurocentric and do not reflect the intelligence or value of the whole person. There is no valid scientific evidence that suggests any groups of humans are collectively more or less intelligent than any other groups. Unfortunately, there are a number of ‘psuedo-science’ arguments around IQ, often based largely of Eugenics beliefs around ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ groups, and used to position First Nations People and People of Colour as inferior. This is nonsense.

As for alcohol and drug use, there is also no data that suggests substance abuse is linked to intelligence.

Common factors for substance abuse though often include poverty, unemployment, trauma, and self-medication, which affect far more Indigenous people than non-Indigenous in this country due to the trauma inflicted through colonisation, Stolen Generations, and more.   

Additionally, consider the intentional exclusion of Indigenous people from formal education over the past two centuries, yet in the few short decades since this began to change, many Indigenous academics, PhDs, medical professionals, lawyers, journalists, teachers etc. have emerged – having succeeded in what is a pervasively Eurocentric system. When you consider how many Indigenous people have succeeded within these systems which were designed to exclude us, there isn’t a foundation beyond racism to believe that we are ‘less intelligent’ that non-Indigenous people. 

Use of alcohol and drugs are not reflective of ‘intelligence’ but if they were, what does that say about the binge drinking culture which white Australia is known for?

Or the wine culture which is rife on social media?

I don’t draw attention to these spaces to throw judgement, but to highlight the way Indigenous people are demonised as though drinking alcohol, or binge drinking are isolated to our communities. When it comes to substance consumption, let alone substance abuse, it is bizarre the way Indigenous people are isolated as though the Sydney lockout laws aren’t reflective of the alcohol problems among broader Australia. In terms of harmful substance abuse, any consideration of Indigenous people should also include an understanding of the generational trauma experienced since invasion.

  1. How do you react when someone looks at you in disbelief, or challenges you, when you tell them that you are Indigenous?

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My reaction depends on who they are, what our relationship is, where we are, and what I think their intention is. If they are in a position of authority e.g. my employer, my lecturer, my child’s teacher etc. then my response is dictated by needing to preserve mine or my family’s safety with that person. Within Australia Indigenous identity is ‘defined’ as requiring an individual to satisfy three criteria, firstly you need proof of genealogy, secondly you must personally identify as Indigenous, and thirdly you must be accepted by the Indigenous community as being Indigenous. The politics of identity are complex, but essentially when someone chooses to challenge my Indigeneity based on their visual assessment of my skin and hair, it indicates that they do not understand the history of Australia, the Stolen Generations, the legislation and acts enforced by ‘white Australia’ to ‘breed out’ the blackness of Aboriginal Australia.

If they are a student of mine, then I tend to be very patient, as my specific role does involve engaging with these kinds of conversations. But I do not have the emotional energy, or time, to constantly be educating strangers on the history of the land on which they live so I have to consider three things before I respond: 

1) is it safe for me to engage with you? 

2) Is it worthwhile giving you my labour for free? 

3) Do I have the emotionally energy and time to gift to you, in order to go through the history of generation trauma inflicted on my family and this land, for you to then understand my identity – and if so, do I want to?

  1. What does Noongar mean? Is it offensive?

This is a strangely specific, but common question I get, I suspect they get the word confused with a slur. But no, Noongar (noongarculture.org.au) is not an offensive term, Noongar country is a collection of people groups located in south-western parts of the area now known as Western Australia.

  1. Do you find it offensive if a white/non-Aboriginal person has pride in being Australian?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: This depends on their definition and understanding of ‘Australian’.

As mentioned in Q2, whiteness is often made invisible and can easily be intended while unstated. As such, many people who say they are proud to be Australian, specifically mean ‘White Australia’, or they are proud of ‘White Australian history’.

Every Australian PM – guess what they all have in common?

We cannot undo the 230 years of violence and oppression since invasion, but together we can acknowledge and redress it. As people inhabiting this land we now have a shared history, if that history is taught and understood honestly, if identifying as ‘Australian’ doesn’t rely on the erasure of the bodies, lives, history, rights, and truths of the First Nations People of this land, then of course I do not find it offensive for each person who calls this land home to identify as Australian.

We can have an incredible future together, but that future does not only belong to white bodies and perspectives.

  1. In an ideal world, what do Indigenous people want from Australia/the government etc?

I cannot, and do not speak for all Indigenous people – this idea of there being a pan-Indigenous identity is one of the many problems I have with the current knowledge systems taught and perpetuated within formal structures in Australia. But I would point to the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ as a good start for someone wanting to develop an understanding of what some First Nations people seek.

This is only the most recent in decades of comparable statements, petitions, and agendas led by Indigenous people, which include the Redfern Statement, calls for Treaty, bark petitions, delegations and petitions. From there I suggest you seek out writing by Indigenous people who are also authors, academics, journalists, podcasters, activists, and politicians.

If you want to learn about us, do not do it without us.

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