What is required, is quite simple.

Professor Michael McDaniel, 2012


It’s 2013. I’m in the backroom of a small library in a town in western New South Wales, scrolling through a microfilm newspaper reader, scribbling notes with a pen I’ve found in the bottom of my bag. Next to me, my daughter’s looking through a book of war records. We’re all there, the five of us together, looking for a family history for which we only have two clues.

The shape of something starts to appear. Names connect. We drive out of town to look at a house, and come back to the cemetery. We fan out and walk carefully up and down all the rows, squinting in the sunlight. Things add up, and then don’t.

There’s someone we’re recommended to visit, who might help us out. Parked outside her house, I say that I’ll go, because whatever this is all going to be about, it’s not about me. Anyhow, it’s a long shot that she’ll know anything.

She’s elderly and white, and doesn’t seem to be surprised that a stranger is at her door. Her garden is tidy. I give her the name. And there it is.

“Yes, I knew about her. She was dark. But not our dark.”

She was my daughters’ great grandmother. And in living language, there is still a form of words that talks about people who are dark as belonging to the people who are not.


The year before we went looking, Professor Michael McDaniel spoke at the law firm Allens Arthur Robinson, to launch their Reconciliation Action Plan. Professor McDaniel is now Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Leadership and Engagement) and Director of Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research at the University of Technology Sydney.

Listen. It’s 18 minutes you won’t regret, at all. Listen to this quiet invitation to acknowledge what it means to live on country that was stolen, in a nation that was set up to benefit the thief.

I was introduced to this remarkable speech by a Wiradjuri psychologist experienced in the generational family trauma of the Stolen Generation. He’s advising scientists I’m also working with, on the cultural safety issues involved in undertaking prison research. As an exercise, he invited all of us to begin by reflecting on the culture that has shaped us: on what is good about it, and what is not. A room full of white people who had never been asked this in a professional setting before started carefully to edge around the question. I heard stories of what it means to be a white Australian, but also to be a scientist, a person of faith, a South African, and to have been raised by nuns.

My own family history passes through the colonial lifeworld of East Africa. My parents met in Kenya, having arrived at that point in their own lives through quite different journeys. This family culture made me a confident traveller; and at the same time it failed to caution me against assuming a moral right to live wherever I want. When I migrated here, I didn’t give Australia’s past a single thought. I did not think that I was walking into someone else’s home.

So here I am. And I’m slowly trying to sort out in my own head what this should mean for me, now that I am also entangled through my Australian family to the history of what has been done, and what was lost.


All of us who work in the humanities in Australia are aware of the offer of a significant endowment to set up a limited-entry undergraduate program in western civilisation. No one who is engaged in this is having an easy time. It’s a sharp turn in Australia’s culture wars, that mostly aren’t very different from the culture wars in the US or the UK.

Except in this one critical respect. As Professor McDaniel points out quietly:

In Australia we had the unique situation where the British took a particularly heartless view, a more heartless view than they did in any of their other colonies, by considering that the Indigenous people here had absolutely no rights at all, to their lands or waters.

Professor Michael McDaniel, 2017.

When Professor McDaniel spoke in 2012 about the moral opportunity of reconciliation in Australia, he addressed himself directly and calmly to non-Indigenous Australians who are living with the long-term gain from this moment. He suggests that we don’t have a deep capacity for collective responsibility. I think he’s right: it’s not in our experience, in fact, it’s precisely what we’ve been trained to avoid.

The champions of western civilisation seem to agree. They place great faith (literal, spiritual faith) in the western ideal of the individual. It’s this specific ideal that holds up the intellectual architecture of western achievements, and excuses us from acknowledging the interconnectedness of our lives with others, and our impact on the environment.

So at one level, this is exactly why we should study the legacy of western civilisation here in Australia. We all need to grasp that this architecture of thought has shaped our institutions and bent our economy, and then maybe we can finally talk about about the damage that it’s doing to the finite resources of the continent where we live.

But here of all places, we can’t do this as an exercise. We can’t neatly peel apart the ideals of western civilisation from its violence. The “blemish” in Australian history, as one advocate puts it, began with massacres, and continues in family trauma and environmental catastrophe. We can’t dance around this like it was a minor thing that we can do away with in small words. We can’t pretend it isn’t in plain sight, in living memory. We can’t act like it wasn’t the plan, established with the full support of our western democratic instruments: government, law, religion, and an education system that came from somewhere else entirely.

So let’s bring undergraduate students across the disciplines into a deep conversation about this civilisational heritage, by all means, and in so doing let’s have the courage to acknowledge precisely how those of us who are non Indigenous Australians came to be living here.


This blog has been quiet for a while. Like many people I follow, I’ve been rethinking what it means to write in public, both as an educator and as someone increasingly dismayed the state of things. I lost my own voice.

But I’m still here, in this country that isn’t mine, and I’m reading and listening, and slowly coming back to putting words together in rows.

I appreciate you reading this. Thank you.

6 Responses

  • The “moral right to live where I want” caught my attention. Been thinking about being an outsider or stranger and wondering which side of this belonging debate fits me. As in being a first generation Canadian settler from first and second gen Scottish and German settlers to America, it still feels I’m the Master and definer of what where I am means. Even living here among Aboriginal people’s who have been here for thousands of years I feel more adept at Being, more sophisticated maybe?

    Anyway, this late in life it seems odd to adopt a questionable identity, but why not? Here’s a quote from Georg Simmel”s The Stranger and I recommend “White Fragility why it’s so hard for with people to talk about Racism” by Robin Diangelo.

    The Stranger
    “If wandering, considered as a state of detachment from very given point in space, is the conceptual opposite of attachment to any point, then the sociological form of “the stranger” presents the synthesis, as it were, of both these properties. (This is another indication that spatial relations not only are determining conditions of relationships among men, but are also symbolic of those relationships.) The stranger will thus not be considered here in the usual sense of the term, as the wanderer who comes today and stays tomorrow–the potential wanderer, so to speak, who, although he has gone no further, has not quite got over the freedom of coming and going. He is fixed within a certain spatial circle–or boundaries–but his position within it is fundamentally affected by the fact that he does not belong in it initially and that he brings qualities into it that are not, and cannot be indigenous to it.”

    • Kate Bowles

      Welcome Scott,

      I’ve been reflecting on your comment for a while, as I think this is really a point that white migrants to places like Canada and Australia need to notice and acknowledge: “it still feels I’m the Master and definer of what where I am means”. This is an idea that is deep in our cultural heritage, so deep we hardly know we have it. I feel this is the point that Professor McDaniel makes when he talks about the difficulty we have in letting our sense of mastery/authority be a flaw, not an advantage. The current evidence of social injustice and planetary catastrophe is that we need to understand this sense of mastery quite urgently, and understand how it came to be.

      This is the only way I can come at the idea that western civilisation needs a special place in the curriculum. Instinctively I think we’ve been prioritising it all along and it needs no further uplift. But when I look at the state of the world, I think perhaps western civilisation is the coal industry of our intellectual system, and we truly need to grasp what it has done and why we have stuck with it.

      • Kate, agree, if I understand you correctly, that constantly asking why western civilization has been responsible for so much inhumanity has been pretty much talked out and now it’s time to act as if we meant to do something. As clever people who are aware and regretful of even the unintentional harm we do, maybe we should skip puzzling over what innocence suits us best and come to what Maja Bali might call “hospitality” as in what we owe others for being themselves?

        Our intellectual systems sound great and seem sophisticated / advanced but is this the best place to meet others who are different? (I do think it’s important to not seek sameness or familiarity as an outcome though I’m not sure why).

  • It’s a familiar voice all the same, and does not sound lost to this reader.

    I am seeing some parallels to the notions of land to Westerners, that it is there for the taking, with a (long) Long Reads piece I read the same day on Climate Change and Walls (https://longreads.com/2019/01/23/the-weather-and-the-wall/) – that as much as industrial nations, in the name of their progress, deny climate change, these contrived needs to wall in, actually affirm it.

    But also, the historical parallels in that Europeans had seen both frontiers of America and Australia as something for them, “the idea that the United States belonged to European settlers instead of its original inhabitants.” That “rugged idea of the individual” ripples right back to manifest destiny.

    I’m going put my hopes on the butterflies.

  • I read this yesterday morning and have come back to it after viewing the lovely video of Prof McDaniel’s speech. I have learned a lot about my ancestors’ experiences through pursuing my genealogy over the last 15 years. The more I discover, the more Irish I become but really, though born in Scotland, I am now very English, having lived here since I was 5 years old. My reflections on your powerful piece led me to think about our current political situation in the UK. Of all the horror, what chills me the most is the goverment’s willingness to risk the Good Friday agreement. Long before colonising other parts of the world, the British establishment was exploiting natural and human resources with cruelty. The self-interest of the powerful is revealed in so much of British history from the Tudors (and before), to the whole history of Ireland. I recommend watching the film Peterloo. Mike Leigh reveals https://www.theguardian.com/film/video/2018/nov/01/a-well-kept-secret-mike-leigh-on-the-peterloo-massacre-video that though he grew up close to its site, he learned nothing of its history at school, and neither did I.
    You are so right Kate. It’s not whether or not we study western civilisation, it’s how, and from whom, as Prof McDaniel has agrued so powerfully.

    • Kate Bowles

      This is a prompt to think, Frances, thank you. Who do we learn most from, about western civilisation? Whose experience, whose great books, whose “great conversation” help us see what has been done here, and what continues in a way that is sustained by this heritage? This is so important. I think this is a very difficult conversation for anyone from an Anglo cultural background to let happen without defensiveness, but the one small thing we can all do is acknowledge that it has set things up for us to profit — even if for many individuals and families the experience of being white and the experience of being wealthy don’t go hand in hand. But the set up is there, the system is there, and if it sometimes also fails people who are white, it doesn’t fail us first.


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