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.