New study shows how Aboriginal people view white Australians

December 3, 2016
The Larrakia Nation Aboriginal Corporation and the University of Tasmania have joined forces for a study on Black–white relations.

The Larrakia Nation Aboriginal Corporation and the University of Tasmania have joined forces for a refreshing new study on Black–white relations in Darwin.

Telling it like it is: Aboriginal perspectives on race and race relations is the “first study to undertake comprehensive research on how Aboriginal people view settler Australians and settler Australian culture”, according to UTas’s announcement of the study’s early findings.

As someone who lives in Darwin, surrounded by Aboriginal people speaking their own languages and inevitably confronted almost daily by the racist attitudes that abound in towns with high populations of Aboriginal people, reading the report is particularly humbling, heartbreaking and vital.

Shelves and shelves have been filled with non-Aboriginal perspectives on the crucial issue: anthropological writings about the First Nations peoples and cultures, exposes on government neglect and institutionalised racism, memoirs written by non-Aboriginal people who have lived with and learned from Aboriginal people.

Telling it like it is puts the shoe firmly on the other foot; the object has become the subject, as Aboriginal people are asked:

* How they view the relationship between themselves and settler Australians;

* Their perceptions of settler Australian politics, values, priorities and lifestyles;

* Their views on arrangements for governance in Australia;

* What can be done to improve race relations.

Telling it like it is is based on 44 in-depth interviews with Aboriginal people living in Darwin, a survey of 474 Aboriginal people who live in or regularly visit Darwin, and a community Facebook page encouraging Aboriginal people to discuss the material that came out of the interviews.

The study found many Aboriginal people are concerned about increasing controls over public space. The ongoing negotiation and discourse about who uses public space around Darwin, and how they use it, is familiar to most people who live here. The report found that Aboriginal people feel most comfortable “in spaces that are predominantly Aboriginal”.

This should come as no surprise to those of us who regularly witness police standing over groups of Aboriginal people, moving them on, putting them in the back of divvy vans.

The NT intervention has led to a movement of people, many of whom come to Darwin to escape the stresses of life under the laws that came down heavily on remote communities.

Some come for a holiday, some choose to stay and some get stuck here, living “in the long grass” (outside, in public spaces) in and around Darwin. For some, alcohol starts to take its toll. For others, being around family drinking is too hard, and they seek out spaces where they will not have to be confronted by it.

But the non-Aboriginal transient community in this town has also grown with the influx of gas and mining industry fly-in fly-out workers, although this has eased off in recent years. Public space is disputed, negotiated, gentrified and commercialised.

“There are already few spaces where Aboriginal people can be themselves without feeling judged or controlled and the influx of people has increased segregation and tensions”, media briefing notes for Telling it like it is said. “A lack of physical and emotional safety was associated with being the only Aboriginal person in a public place or gathering.”

One participant in the study said: “They do a lot of things wrong, the non-Indigenous, and the greatest wrong [is] not acknowledging the Larrakia [the Traditional Owners of the Greater Darwin region].”

Participants were keen to discuss the criminal justice and the child protection systems. They identified the justice system as “deeply racist” and said policing operated under two laws: “one for non-Aboriginal citizens and one for Aboriginal citizens”. Child protection was seen as a means of punishing and controlling parents, not protecting children.

Another theme that emerged was the feeling of loss, of living in a “no-win” situation: Aboriginal people live daily with the legacy of stolen land, stolen family and ongoing harm caused by colonisation.

On the one hand there is pride and strength in holding onto culture and asserting one’s identity, but participants in the study acknowledged that this is often at odds with what they see white Australia values. “Values of individualism and materialism were perceived as problematic and damaging for people and communities,” the report said.

People felt tired of being judged for “not buying into the consumer culture” and saw their valuing of family and community over employment and making money meant they faced discrimination from potential employers.

One participant said: “It always defaults to the expectation that the Aboriginal person must lose, give up that value, that expectation to attend that funeral. That’s what it defaults to: the Aboriginal person must lose that value. [But] you can’t just lose that value.”

Against these values, the people participating in this study identified their culture as a source of strength, stretching back thousands of years and the one constant in the face of changing government policy and non-Aboriginal neighbours. “We get our power from knowing we are connected … knowing who your family is, who your background is, the country, how you’re connected, what your totem is.”

They felt white culture, as a rule, lacks these things, which makes non-Aboriginal people “unhappy, disconnected, hypocritical, selfish and lonely”.

One participant said: “[Aboriginal culture] is so wonderful, but there’s this other culture that says no, that’s not power. Bling bling, diamonds, flash car, big house — that’s power … But that power comes at a cost.”

[Emma Murphy lives in Darwin and works with Aboriginal people in Darwin and Arnhem Land.]

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