Saturday, December 1, 2012

Review: Beyond White Guilt

Beyond White Guilt
Sarah Maddison
Allen & Unwin 2011 $27.99
Reviewed by: Dr Lawrence Bamblett

John Howard was prime minister when I attended university. The little creep was using his arrogant refusal to apologise to Aboriginal people to play politics. People were talking about it. But, when a lecturer, an American, asked my class to discuss this issue the room went silent. Some people looked at the ground. Some looked straight ahead. A few looked at me. Finally, one mature-aged student said that he didn’t think he should have to apologise for something that happened, ‘a long time ago’ and that, ‘he didn’t do it’. Everyone looked at me. I said that an apology was an expression of understanding and acknowledgement of what his people had done to mine. The room went silent again and the discussion died.

I wish Sarah Maddison’s, Beyond white guilt had been published then. I could have recommended it to the group. Some of them might have gone away and read it later. They’d have read a clear explanation of the ‘balance sheet’ (p. 58) of Australian history. Maddison clearly explains that people who are willing to accept that Gallipoli and Kakoda (events from a long time ago that few today were part of) and other examples of military heroism are part of the national identity then they must also accept that less palatable events are also part of this identity. Oodgeroo’s  words about the past being about and within - that open the book – echo through its pages.

This is not a book about the joys of life in Koori communities. It’s about the unchecked brutality of colonisation. Maddison disregards silly ideas from conservatives and their lackeys who think we will ever be convinced that our culture is the problem. She doesn’t pay too much attention to their argument that we should abandon our cultures, give up on self-determination and assimilate. Maddison blames such ‘high identifiers’ with a mythical Australian identity for a lack of progress toward reconciliation. Her argument can be summed up in two sentences:

Yet the feeling of moral disgust at the recognition of ourselves as perpetrators of human injustices jars with our national identity and the official nationalism that is propped up by a more celebratory telling of our national story (p. 55).


But there continues to be great resistance to advancing these proposals; resistance that is grounded in our collective guilt and the fear that fully acknowledging past wrongs will somehow diminish us as a nation. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is only when we find a way to more fully engage in the adaptive work we have to do that we will be able to reshape our national identity – perhaps not always with pride, but at least with acceptance (p. 141).

The book takes its title from a developing policy debate. One participant in this debate, Noel Pearson, argues for a focus on responsibility as well as rights (guilt being associated with the rights agenda). Pearson borrowed the phrase – as well as the use of personal narrative – from African-American Shelby Steele. Maddison also uses personal narrative to explain where she is coming from. This is a good way to locate a writer’s words. Steele, Pearson and now Maddison have used personal narrative well in writing about the need move beyond white guilt. Madison uses repetition. Toward the end of the book she repeats her ideas about the ‘work’ to be done, ‘work avoidance’, ‘our adaptive work’ and the need to ‘engage in this work’.

So, what does this book say about us? Many of the words of deficit are there. We are vanquished, victims, degraded, disadvantaged, dispossessed, sufferers, we are problems to be solved, we are traumatised and impoverished. All the words I hate are still used to describe us. This book repeats that we are all these things. It also says that gubbas are the wrongdoers. It says that they must accept that this is part of their history and move forward to do the work of reconciliation.

Dr Lawrence Bamblett, a Wiradjuri man who works in community development at Erambie, NSW. Lawrence is also an AIATSIS Indigenous Research Fellow, and his mss titled Sport and cultural continuity on Erambie Mission was Highly Commended in the 2011 Stanner Award. His previous review King Brown Country: The Betrayal of Papunya can be read here!

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