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QUARTERLY ESSAY 64 The Australian Dream

 

Correspondence

Amy McQuire

Stan Grant says he does not want to seem “immodest” when he mentions his long career as a reporter – a career that has spanned three decades and some of the greatest events of our time. He goes on to give part of the credit for his success to the fact he did not seek the Indigenous round as a young, up-and-coming journalist. Thus, he was not “marginalised” by it, he writes in his Quarterly Essay. 

Grant says the ABC “has been recruiting and training Indigenous people “for decades,” but it is “still to produce a single Indigenous foreign correspondent, Four Corners reporter or host of a prime-time national program.” He finishes: “I suspect, though, that is about to change.” If there is one thing Grant got right in his essay, it was that. This year he began fronting the summer edition of 7.30

In his essay, Grant looks at his own privilege and that of the black “middle class,” and asks: “The Australian Dream works for most of us; isn’t it time to ask if it can work for all of us?” But Grant’s version of the Australian Dream is a world away from the aspirations of many Aboriginal people. It is a dream fixated on the individual and “agency” – if by “agency” we mean choices that are about economic development. 

This is a very limited view of black success, and that is probably because it is tied so heavily to Grant’s own journey and identity. 

According to Grant, the diplomacy for which some people, including me, have criticised him is a “reflection of the life I have made – the life my parents and grandparents prepared for me. I have moved from the fringes to the centre. I don’t want to live in a country fractured by its history. I want to share in a sense of the possibilities of our nation. But nor do I want to live in a country that shrouds its past in silence.” 

But Grant has a different view of history to many other mob, some of whom he claims cling to this past to foster an identity of victimhood. He says memory and history “can embolden a sense of victimhood, a superiority of suffering. History, suffering and culture can each encourage a narrowly conceived, ‘essentialist’ identity.” But to remember the history of dispossession is not to make suffering and victimhood an integral part of Aboriginal identity. It is to acknowledge what came before – the phenomenal cultures and knowledge that existed on this continent long before the arrival of the British – and still survives today. This remembering is essential to Aboriginal identity. 

We acknowledge the past, and call for others to remember it, because we understand how it seeps into the present. We see how successive governments have built up their own privileges on the backs of Aboriginal people, entrenching black disadvantage rather than eliminating it. 

We remember history because it is the foundation on which any solution will have to be built. 

Grant’s own solutions are enmeshed in the ideas of the “migration” of mob into the mainstream economy and getting “a seat at the table,” a share of the prosperity that is a result of this dispossession. His essay reads as a more eloquent version of the common plea that we should “get over it and move on.”

One of its most jarring aspects is the characterisation of Aboriginal people as “economic migrants.” Grant does admit he feels uncomfortable with this. It is strange to describe Indigenous peoples as being migrants in their own land: our experience will always be fundamentally different to that of later arrivals. He claims that even in the days of the frontier, “Indigenous people started to connect with the colonial economy.” But he ignores the fact that Aboriginal people were slaves or earned unequal wages, and that their lives were completely controlled – surely important aspects to mention. 

To glide over the psychological impact of being treated as slaves after having your own land stolen from you, of being classified as “flora and fauna,” and then being expected to “assimilate” into the mainstream economy, even though access to this economy is extremely limited, seems like an incredible oversight. We still feel the echoes of this past mistreatment in official government policy (such as the Community Development Programme). 

Grant characterises historical and intergenerational trauma as a convenient excuse, but it is extremely inconvenient for many Aboriginal people. It is not a historical fact that we have the luxury of forgetting, but a reality many have to deal with every day. 

Early childhood development expert Dr Jan Hammill says, “People have heard the words trauma and intergenerational trauma and it becomes hackneyed, [but] we need to put it into a biological context. There are actual physiological changes going on.” Biological, psychological and physiological changes began within the first generation of the invasion and have continued until the present. They have a direct impact on Indigenous Australians’ capacity to move towards the mainstream economy. That is not to be defeatist, but rather to acknowledge that we must talk about the genesis of this trauma to understand for whom the Australian Dream works, and those whom it works actively against. 

These are the mob who are being locked up at higher and higher rates, who are dying before their time, who are struggling to feed their families. They are the mob who are most likely to face the institutionalised racism Grant feels he has been able to rise above through his own ingenuity. This is the institutionalised racism entrenched in our health, education and justice systems, which often acts as a barrier to the very limited kind of success he espouses. 

There is no point having an emerging black middle class and an “elite” if we still have Aboriginal people struggling at the grassroots level. They are dealing with the consequences of policies that directly target them, policies we are supposed to accept in order to do our own ladder-climbing. 

Grant singles out a young female activist who “rejects” whiteness, acting out an “anti-white superiority,” and argues that such thinking is “foolish” and “can lead to divisiveness.” He writes that such identity politics are dangerous and claims that there is something “performative” about trying to revive and live culture – by, for instance, speaking “Aboriginal English” or wearing “possum-skin coats.” But in fact it is whiteness that is divisive and violent. Yet it undergirds Australian institutions and culture. 

In his essay, Grant takes us through the disastrous impacts of whiteness on Aboriginal people throughout Australia’s history. Non-Indigenous Australia branded us the “other”; white has consistently been seen as the norm to aspire to. “White” is the norm in popular culture, in language and in the national holidays Australia has chosen to celebrate. White Australia controls Aboriginal policy, and what “self-determination” we have is very limited, almost caricaturised. Frequently television and radio segments on racism have all-white panels. 

Grant thinks discussing this is “divisive,” but I don’t know how we can not discuss it. We must try to overcome it, as in the example Grant offers – of the Aboriginal people who chose to pass as white in order to gain access to the mainstream economy – those who saw the potential of the “Australian Dream.” 

Deconstructing whiteness is not about refusing knowledge, as Grant claims. It is about re-centring Aboriginal aspirations, rather than kowtowing to the historically catastrophic white Australian “dream” for us. 

Grant says, “There are those among us – black and white – who eschew economic development and social uplift as a new, disguised form of assimilation, preferring instead a story of failure and blame – as though culture and spirituality are antithetical to a modern globalised world. To their minds, success is not ‘black.’”

This is simplistic. No one chooses “failure and blame” – but this is where Grant’s view of what constitutes “success” directly collides with that of many others. Few Aboriginal people would deny the right of other mob to engage with the economy. We celebrate many of our mob who have achieved the heights of fame and fortune. They, including Grant, are seen as role models. But the perception of “assimilation” arises when it seems like they are selling out their own people for their personal benefit; selling out the collective to strengthen the individual. This is antithetical to Aboriginal ways of life. 

We are already seeing that the modern globalised world is simply not sustainable. It has thrived off feeding the rich while starving the poor, catering to the individual at the expense of the collective. It is killing the earth while filling the pockets of a select few. 

Australia has built its prosperity on the foundation of Aboriginal poverty, and white Australians are still profiting from the destruction of Aboriginal lands. In many areas of the country, big miners continue to get rich from digging up the land, with Aboriginal people reaping very little financial reward. 

The mob standing up to this are against the neoliberalism that has infiltrated Aboriginal policy over the past decades. This is where I find examples of Aboriginal agency, Aboriginal success and strength, even if they don’t fit the conservative, neoliberal version of the Australian Dream. 

Grant does not talk about the collective nature of Aboriginal politics and community; his essay is largely concerned with the individual – and most notably with himself. 

That’s why he sees becoming the first Aboriginal presenter of an ABC prime-time show as “success,” while I look instead to the many Aboriginal people who have spent a lifetime building up the underfunded but crucial black media space so that we all have a voice, rather than just a select few. 

 

Amy McQuire is a Darumbal and South Sea Islander woman. A former editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine, she writes for New Matilda, the Monthly online and the Guardian.

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This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 64, The Australian Dream. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 65, The White Queen.


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