The socio-economic status of Aboriginals is shifting
In 2015 I was invited to join a university research hub steering committee. The national research consortium involving a number of universities was established to improve environmental outcomes in cities. A key objective was to increase Indigenous engagement and representation in urban research. For me, an urban planner of Ballardong Noongar descent, their interest in Indigenous knowledge was exciting. But from the first meeting my enthusiasm was shaken. I wasn’t sure what to say and the engagement felt superficial. I couldn’t offer neat answers to their questions about connecting to country in urban environments. Cities were tools of colonisation and finding the dreamtime hidden among skyscrapers, heavy traffic and boutique retail wasn’t straightforward.
An Indigenous engagement plan was written, filled with broad statements and little action. Increasing employment was referenced but there was no budget or timeline indicating when or how. The project pushed on clumsily. I was told there must be Aboriginal speakers at the official launch, and having just accepted a reference letter from one of the academics I felt I owed them something.
A speech was written for me, accompanied by an email on how to behave. I took my mum for support and we were both dumbfounded by the absurdity of it all. There were no other Aboriginal people apart from the young man who performed the Welcome to Country, who disappeared as soon as he was done. A sickening superfluity filled the air as I was ushered to the reserved-seating area for presenters. My nametag was ripped off my shirt. It wouldn’t look good on camera.
After the launch my body filled with guilt and anger. I had become a puppet in a political circus where Aboriginality was flavour of the month. Sadly it seems more of us are caught in these complex professional environments, where personal gain requires compromising our values. At the Sydney Opera House ‘Homeground Talks’, Marcia Langton proclaimed once Indigenous people have had a job in mining for two years the gap is closed. Her rationalist approach to solving inequality felt cold. As if wealth and a successful public career had separated her from culture and our vital relationship to the land.
Aboriginal people are increasingly offered mainstream opportunities and public platforms unimaginable to earlier generations, but our values are undermined, subsumed by economic rationalism. While certain individuals profit, gaining prestigious public appointments and regular slots on TV shows, many of us will walk away from these opportunities while others stay, finding ways to make it work. But as we allow our culture to become a commodity, we risk losing our identity as we remould ourselves to suit the mainstream. Whatever we choose, we must remember our history and those of us who will always be ignored.
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Growing up I saw my mother in simple terms, a woman with a fierce work ethic and unwavering love. Our Aboriginality was important; but living away from country in middle-class south-eastern Melbourne our identity as Indigenous Australians was layered, refusing to conform to any of the categories or clichés Australia often clings to. As Stan Grant recently wrote, ‘Australians—many whom have never met an Indigenous person—often find our identities baffling.’ Our neighbours never knew how to place us, and their small acts of kindness had a tinge of charity. As Grant suggests, ‘It seems many non-Indigenous people find it easier to identify us if we are poor.’1
For my mother, who had transcended her working-class roots, there were pressures to prove herself and affirm a new identity. In the 1950s her parents had been allocated social housing in York, two hours east of Perth. The arrival of an Aboriginal family to the street was met with protest by white neighbours who refused to live next to blacks. But now that she could afford her own home, there was a desire to fit in. So she made sacrifices to meet mortgage repayments and provide me with opportunities she had lived without, and any suggestion of difference, that we might need something, stung.
Australia has an uneasy relationship with class and social status, which often affects those on the margins the most. We continue to pretend we are all given a fair go but in an astute observation of our current system Christos Tsiolkas argues that ‘such a universalism obscures economic violence and social contradictions’.2 My mother and I felt these contradictions. While our dreams and aspirations may have been the same as our neighbours there was a sense that we weren’t quite good enough, hadn’t quite made it yet. They drove expensive cars, installed swimming pools and sent their kids to private schools, choices that weren’t available to us yet.
In his novel Barracuda Tsiolkas explores the complexity of socio-economic aspirations. The central character, Danny, receives a scholarship to attend a private school, developing his talent as a swimmer. My own social experience mirrored Danny’s. He deserves to be there but his mother can’t always give him what the others have. His ‘swimmers were from Forges—there was no way his mum was going to spend half a day’s pay on a piece of lycra. And good on her. Good on her, but he still felt like shit.’3 Like Danny, I understood my mother’s situation and never expected things out of her reach. But I still felt different to the other kids in the street.
For my mum and me these contradictions were exacerbated by our race. At times our middle-class status had the opposite effect, erasing our Aboriginality completely. I still remember the shocked expression when my mum told a waitress she was Aboriginal—the woman had assumed my mum was Indian. She didn’t think Aboriginals lived in Caulfield. In the mainstream consciousness of Australia, Aboriginal people didn’t belong in expensive suburbs, have professions or wear nice clothes.
More than ever the socio-economic status of Aboriginals is shifting, with many of us becoming middle class. But as levels of education and professional status rise, misconceptions continue to mark us and new tensions emerge. Aboriginal people have worked tirelessly to overcome injustice and dispossession. While this fight has improved the lives of many, poor health outcomes, deaths in custody and racism remain at appallingly high levels.
Extreme socio-economic difference within Aboriginal Australia is growing. And disjointedness between our past and present is felt as some of us start to mirror the values of people we once fought against. As Gary Foley laments, ‘There are some Indigenous “leaders” who have their own agenda to push, and what they say reflects more about what their agenda is today than what it does about the actual history of the Aboriginal struggle.’4
Exploring similar challenges facing African-American communities, bell hooks acknowledges the confusing relationship between her upper middle-class status and racial heritage. While career success brought her money, there weren’t always clear ways to work alongside her community. ‘I can give money. But rarely is money enough. I cannot give instant psychological makeovers.’5 This hints at the deeper problems facing the new middle class of black Australia. How do we negotiate our absorption into the system that dismantled our heritage? Australian author Lauren Carroll Harris echoes these confounding thoughts in an essay in Kill Your Darlings: ‘The cruellest irony is that class was only introduced to Australia with colonialism: Indigenous societies were entirely free of its structure.’6
I remember sitting in a café with a friend in 2011 after launching Etchings Indigenous, a literary journal celebrating Aboriginal art and writing, at Readings bookstore in Melbourne. It felt good; the journal was well received by the wider literary community and Aboriginal culture seemed to be rising from the margins. As we sat there discussing contemporary Indigenous art and the success of our acquaintances, an older Aboriginal man appeared. He meandered around the tables asking for money, drunk and poorly clothed. Other patrons avoided his eye but as they turned away he banged his fists on their tables. His need for money abruptly broke the self-congratulatory tone of our conversation.
Some months later I was offered an Aboriginal-identified position with the state government. It was a good opportunity and an end to scraping by on Centrelink while finishing my Masters. Just minutes after I walked out of the Spring Street interview an Aboriginal woman approached me, tugging at my arm. She was heavily pregnant and dishevelled, breathing wearily as she asked me for money and explained how she’d been sleeping at Westall station the last few nights. She’d tried a few shelters but was turned away; they were all full. She was petrified as I scraped together $10, relatively broke myself.
I walked away quickly, flushed with shame and self-loathing. Aboriginal academic Bronwyn Carlson acknowledges how common these feelings are as the economic gap between Indigenous people widens. In her recent book exploring the politics of contemporary Aboriginal identity, she states how ‘There’s an anxiety that “dual heritage” and relatively “advantaged” Aboriginal people feel as they participate in Australian social institutions.’7 My participation in the workforce matched this anxiety. The relative advantage I had was of little consequence to the young pregnant woman with urgent needs.
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After years in the public service I was pleasantly surprised to get an email advertising a guest lecture by Gary Foley. There was a strong Aboriginal staff network in my department and a push to develop more Indigenous projects but government didn’t feel like a place you would find an activist like Foley. When I told my housemates they joked that even the most radical occasionally take a job for the money. I was curious and keen to see whether he would dilute his views for a public service audience. His presence felt like a rare meeting point between Aboriginal activism and those of us who had settled into conventional working lives.
Foley didn’t falter. He was resolute, confronting the ironies of lecturing to a group of bureaucrats. He offered some tips for the budding activist and then apologised with a grin, ‘Sorry, I forgot there won’t be any here.’ As he passionately recalled the impact of the Tent Embassy he also talked about a time when there wasn’t a black middle class. And while the new middle class represented progress, if their values align with the right, he argued, we lose direction and agency. His disdain was particularly pointed towards high-profile Aboriginal leaders such as Noel Pearson, who Foley believed adopt conservative positions in order to progress their own careers.
It wasn’t Foley’s open criticism of government policies that unnerved many in the room. As the event closed, quiet murmurs circulated as people discussed the black middle class with confusion. Just as we’d experienced from our neighbours all those years ago, clichés about the character and lifestyle of Aboriginal people persisted. Middle-class Aboriginals don’t exist in the popular imagining of Australia.
Foley isn’t the first to identify growing disparities within the Aboriginal community. Reflecting on the ways Aboriginal people reconceptualise Australia Day celebrations, Aboriginal writer and arts worker Eugenia Flynn identified a shift from Invasion Day to the gentler concept of Survival Day, ‘symptomatic of a broader movement by indigenous Australians to be accepted by the mainstream’.8 These palatable ways to commemorate culture and bring Aboriginal people together are becoming increasingly popular, driven by a sector of Aboriginal Australia choosing socially acceptable ways to honour their heritage.
Not long after Foley’s talk a colleague invited me to an Aboriginal Women’s forum. Since it was aimed at young professionals and organised by an Indigenous not for profit, I was startled by the $130 ticket. Who was this for? The two-hour event, which included light refreshments and speakers I had never heard of, was out of my price range. I scrolled the invite hoping to understand what the event was trying to achieve. At the very least the money must be going towards a significant project improving Aboriginal outcomes. But there was no indication, which was alarming considering the event was being sponsored by PricewaterhouseCoopers. It appeared to be a networking opportunity for Aboriginal women who could spare $130 for an inspiring speaker and Devonshire tea.
Acclaimed Waanji author Alexis Wright confronts this irony, identifying how in capitalist Australia ‘our desire to survive as people in our own right, with a plan for our cultural future, has been impossible to achieve’. 9 Instead the nightmare of colonisation lives on and we are so focused on making money we don’t even notice or care. Wright argues that we have become ‘a society with a stubborn presumption of prosperity and security; dumbed down by institutions that breed and grow richer by selling ignorance, which ensures that the majority refuses to look at difference’.10
Wright’s criticism of economic rationalism and the lifestyles it coerces Aboriginal people into resonates whenever I am invited to flashy events like the Aboriginal networking forum. I can’t stop thinking about the pregnant woman and the future of her child, wondering whether my own good fortune plays some role in her ruin.
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Australia may struggle to understand a black middle class, and growing affluence in Aboriginal communities certainly causes tensions; but there is no stopping the growing popularity of Aboriginal culture in the mainstream. In her novel Heat and Light, Ellen van Neerven imagines an Australian future where ‘the anthem has been changed to the 2012 Jess Mauboy hit “Gotcha” and Aboriginal art has almost wiped out all other Australian art—if you’re not black forget it’.11 More than ever I am approached by mainstream organisations seeking Aboriginal input into projects. Everywhere I look somebody wants Aboriginal ideas. Van Neerven’s words are becoming real.
At the initial steering committee meeting, leading academics, senior bureaucrats and peak industry representatives passionately agreed that Aboriginal people must play a crucial role in how we make cities sustainable. But no-one was willing to confront how colonisation has fractured our knowledge and communities. People wanted to ensure the redevelopment of Fishermans Bend protected native species, such as southern brown tree frogs and micro-bats. But no-one wanted to talk about lost culture and the dark histories hidden beneath the industrialised concrete landscape. Like the characters in van Neerven’s world, I felt sad understanding how they ‘cracked under the enormous pressure, from the commodification of their work’.12 It was gratifying to be approached by a research committee but troubling to watch the simplistic ways they repackaged my statements. Culture is complex yet everyone wanted quick wins and easy solutions.
It was clear their interest in Aboriginal knowledge was hollow but I didn’t leave immediately, and agreed to speak at the launch. It may have been the opportunities they promised: a PhD scholarship, guest lectures and conferences. I began to see how it happens, the lure of an exciting career as a spokesperson for my people.
Theses tensions are explored in Cleverman, the hit TV series gaining international acclaim. The character Waru advocates for his community trapped in ‘the zone’ while benefiting from a high-profile government position and all the spoils of city life. In one of the most gruelling scenes we witness his affair with a corrupt white journalist. Having been entwined in the crisp bed linen of a luxury hotel, he returns home to his wife, happily slipping back into his role of loving father and community leader.
Van Neervan describes Waru as ‘a handy example of a blackfella with a strong, self-created sense of working for his community, vexed by the fact he is an employee of the government’.13 His story painfully resonates as I am regularly stuck between professional responsibilities and commitment to community. Cleverman’s explosive debut is a crucial opportunity for Australia to re-examine our priorities. If the show’s popularity is further evidence of the growing appetite for Aboriginal culture, I can only hope it forces mainstream Australia to confront the ironies that pierce our nation.
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The Wheeler Centre’s ‘The F Word: Feminism and Aboriginality’ event sells out weeks in advance. An Aboriginal colleague and I head down Little Lonsdale Street after work feeling lucky we managed to get tickets as the icy Melbourne wind hits our faces. The forum, hosted by Maxine Beneba Clarke, features Celeste Liddle and Melissa Lucashenko. The speakers confront the need for intersectionality, explaining how mainstream feminism often neglects women of colour.
It’s reassuring to see three women I admire unpack the complexities of race and feminism, but it is Lucashenko’s reflections on her own privilege that stay with me. She is candid about the benefits it affords her, recognising that while as an Aboriginal she has felt prejudice, she will never experience the sort of racism encountered by those who are visibly black. Sitting in the crowded forum, in the comfort of creative professionals and the inner-city left, I feel a rush of relief as Lucashenko tells us, ‘It doesn’t actually have to destroy you to acknowledge that you have strengths and privileges as well as weakness and exclusions.’ Her words remind those of us who have privilege to use it and while we continue to feel excluded there are many of us who have the strength to challenge injustice.
I often skim through Koori newsletters checking out scholarships and other opportunities and it’s easy to take this privilege for granted. My mother grew up in a time where Aboriginals weren’t allowed to vote; where my grandmother had to beg to get her kids enrolled in school. Lucashenko reminds us that while circumstances have shifted dramatically, we need to engage with history and use our strengths to support those who are still struggling. As Foley says, ‘the past is always present. The past is always with us. We are all defined by our past. Those who forget or deny that are destined to keep repeating the mistakes.’14
1. Stan Grant, ‘The politics of identity: We are trapped in the imaginations of White Australia’, Guardian, 14 December 2015.
2. Christos Tsiolkas, ‘On the Concept of Tolerance’, in Tsiolkas, Gideon Haigh and Alexis Wright, Tolerance, Prejudice and Fear, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2008, p. 20.
3. Christos Tsiolkas, Barracuda, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2013, p. 10.
4. Gary Foley, ‘Duplicity and Deceit: Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations’, Melbourne Historical Journal, no. 36 (2008), p. 3.
5. Bell Hooks, Where We Stand: Class Matters, Routledge, New York, 2000, p. 157.
6. Lauren Carroll Harris, ‘Kangaroo and the Life of Australian Classlessness’, Kill Your Darlings, no. 24 (2016), p. 135.
7. Bronwyn Carlson, The Politics of Identity: Who counts as Aboriginal today?, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2016, p. 111.
8. Eugenia Flynn, ‘Friend or foe of Indigenous culture? Jessica Mauboy as Australia Day poster girl,’ Daily Review, 22 January 2015.
9. Alexis Wright, ‘A Question of Fear’, in Tolerance, Prejudice and Fear, p. 144.
10. Wright, ‘A Question of Fear’, p. 164.
11. Ellen van Neerven, Heat and Light, UQP, Brisbane, 2012, p. 73.
12. van Neerven, Heat and Light.
13. Ellen van Neervan, ‘Zones of Exclusion in Cleverman’, Lifted Brow, 3 June 2016.
14. Foley, ‘Duplicity and Deceit’, p. 4.