The final day of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival brought Beyond White Guilt, taken from the name of author Sarah Maddison’s Beyond White Guilt: The Real Challenge for Black-White Relations in Australia and hosted by Tony Birch.
Maddison and Birch spoke about the crux of Maddison’s book, published in June—guilt and shame—and how they can both be “deeply personal experiences” in the way we look at race relations in Australia.
The absence or a certain “whitewashing” of black history in Australia can induce guilt, a feeling of “sick” and “anxiety”, and can “immobilise” us in striving for a more equal Australia.
On this, Birch spoke about being honoured by the Victorian East Timorese community* for doing not a whole lot other than sitting in front of the TV and thinking, “how awful”.
I think a lot of Australians feel this way, whether it be watching World Vision ads on TV, seeing homeless people begging in the street, or watching boats crash and people perish as they try to seek asylum in Australia (although, from the barrage of “fuck off, we’re full” jibes in response to that tragedy, perhaps it is the minority of Australians).
Maddison spoke of Australia’s roots as “a land of people who dig stuff up and chop stuff down”; an “Aussie battler” sentimentality, if you will. And I think that mentality lends itself to the bigotry we express towards the “other”, ie. people trying to get a “free ride” as asylum seekers, the poor and Indigenous on welfare, the homeless, the disabled, etc.
Unfortunately, when this kind of attitude rears its ugly head, such as in the Redfern and Cronulla riots, and the inaugural Indigenous protesting of Australia Day in 1988, as Maddison mentioned, it usually pits “true blue Aussies” against un-Australians. (Birch wrote a 2001 article entitled “The Last Refuge of the Un-Australian”, which is available for download from the University of Melbourne’s website.)
Whichever way you put it, none of us are truly happy with our country. Lefties abhor the way our environmental and human rights sensibilities are heading, whilst conservatives want to stop the boats, abortions, taxing the rich etc. One thing I think we all can agree on, as Maddison noted, is that our current government sucks.
Birch asked, “How are we going to love our country wholly?” An Aboriginal elder in the audience suggested Maddison’s book become compulsory reading for all Australians as a solution. One thing’s for sure: like feminism, we’ve got a long, long way to go, baby.
*Updated 09/09/11: The original version of this post cited Birch as being honoured by a Papua New Guinean community. In actual fact, it was the East Timorese community of Victoria.