The quiet revolution
Australia has not yet noticed the advent of the Indigenous middle class

“Name a revolution that was started without your middle class?” – Warren Mundine


These are the things we don’t talk about in Indigenous communities. These are our inconvenient truths. There is no single Aboriginal community. We are lacerated by class and gender and colour and geography. My life could not be more removed from that of the boys of Don Dale. Just how fractured we are was made plain by then Northern Territory MP Bess Nungarrayi Price, writing in In Black and White:

The great majority of Australians who currently identify as “Indigenous” speak English, live in suburbs, and produce children with Australians who do not identify as Indigenous … Many of them do quite well in the mainstream economy and society, supplying Indigenous Australia with its middle class and the majority of its spokespeople.

Price could well have been describing me. And I am not alone. The report ‘Mapping the Indigenous Program and Funding Maze’ reveals that 65% of Indigenous people in Australia (360,000) are employed and living lives, materially and socio-economically, like those of other Australians. This is three times more than the number living in urban and regional areas who are largely welfare-dependent (22%). Another 70,000 people (13%) are languishing in remote areas, also locked in cycles of dependence and welfare far from regular education or employment opportunities.

There is a story here, a story largely untold. It is a story of success and how it is spurned like an unwanted child. Indigenous lives have been framed by suffering. This resonates because it is rooted in fact. Our land was seized, our rights were extinguished, we were shot down and stricken with disease, our liberty was curtailed and our children taken.

Even writing this feels empowering, I have to admit – a victimhood I can hold over Australia. It is a story of injustice that explains residual anger. This is the “unfinished business” Bronwyn Carlson identified at the heart of black identity. History explains much, but, as the French historiographer Michel de Certeau said, it is only a trace of a trace. The very act of writing our histories is in itself a practice of falsification. They are facts arranged as a treatment for absence – a salve for loss. It is our attempt to make the world intelligible.

Like Robinson Crusoe on the shore of his island before “the vestige of a naked foot imprinted upon the sand”, the historian travels along the shore of his present; he visits those beaches where the other appears only as a trace of what has passed. Here he sets up his industry. On the basis of his imprints which are now definitely mute (that which is past will return no more, and its voice is lost forever) a literature is fabricated.

Anzac Day, Invasion Day: are they not each, in their way, our attempt to make the world intelligible? We render these memorials as quasi-myths to make a devastating loss more bearable. History, myth, memory and forgetting: these are the things of identity. For now, as I trace the footprints on the shoreline of my past, the marks of those who have come and suffered before, it is clear that I and hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people – to take up Certeau’s Crusoe analogy – have emerged from the storm, washed up on our own uncharted island of black success.

Between 1996 and 2006 the Indigenous community was transformed. Numbers of educated, well-paid professionals exploded. In just a decade, they increased by nearly 75%. That was more than double the increase in the non-Indigenous community. By 2006 more than 14,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders between 20 and 64 years of age were employed in professional occupations. The government defines these jobs as analytical, conceptual and creative work in fields that range from the arts and media to engineering, education, health and the law. Put simply, we were using our brains as teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers and journalists. These people comprise 13% of the total Indigenous workforce. This still lags behind the general population, where the number of professionals is nearly 22%, but the gap is closing fast.

Dr Julie Lahn from the Australian National University looked at this change in her paper ‘Aboriginal Professionals: Work, Class and Culture’. She said, “Aboriginal professionals in urban centres remain largely overlooked.” Lahn thought this was a major shortcoming that impedes a fuller understanding of the “processes of transformation which are increasingly evident to Aboriginal people themselves”.

Some Indigenous people have begun to explore the impact of this Aboriginal middle class. They recognise it is a phenomenon that is met with suspicion, even hostility, by some in the Indigenous community. Larissa Behrendt, in an article for the Guardian, ‘Who’s afraid of the Indigenous middle class?’, sees a fracture in Aboriginal communities and politics between an old guard forged in anger and loyal to the power of protest, and a new generation seeking to “work within the system – to join the professions and participate in party politics – to seek to make change”.

The fracture seems reflective of so many divisions in Indigenous politics, from opinions about constitutional recognition, to disagreements about the nature of welfare reform. While almost everyone can agree on the problems, the solutions cause deep ruptures.

The rise of the Aboriginal middle class forms part of this faultline. Behrendt herself is a Harvard-educated professor at the University of Technology Sydney. She is an accomplished writer, publishing both fiction and non-fiction, a film-maker and broadcaster. She has emerged from a family history of forced child removal (her father part of what is now broadly – if still in some circles sceptically – known as the Stolen Generations) to a life of remarkable achievement. Behrendt is emblematic of this changing face of Indigenous Australia. It goes without saying that she is confident, but it is a quiet self-assuredness born of study in the library, not shouting on the picket line. She embraces glamour, invariably perfectly turned out in designer labels and teetering on impossibly high heels.

Behrendt is among those redefining what it means to be Indigenous. It is as much a rejection of black labels as it is of white stereotypes. This is a face seeping into the Australian consciousness, its arrival barely announced; suddenly, it seemed, it was just there: Jessica Mauboy on high rotation on music video channels and topping the charts, Miranda Tapsell clutching two Logie awards. Remember her speech? It won a standing ovation: “Put more beautiful people of colour on TV and connect viewers in ways which transcend race and unite us all.” Hers is a powerful message and one that is becoming more common. It isn’t about what divides us, but about how this nation can find itself in each  other.

What more potent symbol was there than the 2015 National Rugby League grand final, when, for the first time, both teams were captained by Indigenous players: Johnathan Thurston with the North Queensland Cowboys and Justin Hodges leading the Brisbane Broncos? Both are self-aware Indigenous men conscious of their role beyond football. Thurston made a special call-out to the kids of the troubled Aurukun community after a Queensland State of Origin win, but when we see him regularly handing his Aboriginal-patterned headgear to a young white face in the crowd, we know he is making a powerful statement about reconciliation too.

Sporting stars may grab the headlines, but Indigenous people are also making their mark in less media-celebrated professions. There are around 30,000 Indigenous university graduates in Australia; in 1991 there were fewer than 4000. Those students who are breaking through are crafting a new narrative of empowerment and individuality. Dr Sana Nakata is a second- generation Indigenous PhD. Her father, Martin, was the first Torres Strait Islander to complete a doctorate, and his daughter finished hers in 2013. She is now teaching political theory at the University of Melbourne. She is part of a wave of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students earning doctoral degrees. The number has quadrupled in the past 20 years. Between 1990 and 2000 there were 55 Indigenous students awarded PhDs; between 2000 and 2011 there were 219.

When I entered journalism, I made a conscious effort to avoid being typecast. I started as a copyboy for the Canberra Times – cutting a desultory and uninterested figure, frankly – washing cars, fetching meals and running text from desk to desk. I soaked up the last of the old smoke-filled newsrooms and irreverent old men with ink-stained fingers. It still surprises me all these years later that I managed to parlay that unimpressive and modest beginning into a cadetship with the Macquarie Radio Network, writing copy, attending press conferences, covering everything from fires to strikes to court cases. I graduated to the ABC and a position as a political reporter in Canberra. Through it all I tried to avoid covering Indigenous stories. It’s not that I wasn’t interested – I often suggested stories and encouraged others to tell them – I just didn’t want to be marginalised.

I made the right call. At the risk of sounding immodest, I have had a 30-year career in which I have covered the biggest stories of our time – the fall of apartheid in South Africa, the handover of Hong Kong to China, the death of Princess Diana, peace in Northern Ireland, coups and wars from Papua New Guinea to Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of China and the paranoid reclusive regime of North Korea. I have reported from more than 70 countries and lived half of my working life overseas: in London, Hong Kong, Beijing, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I am proud to say I have a mantelpiece of the most prestigious awards in Australian and international journalism. I would not have achieved that had I been identified solely as the “Indigenous reporter”.

Larissa Behrendt bells the cat when it comes to the hard questions posed by this new form of Indigenous success: “How does a community that has partly been defined by its exclusion, disadvantage and poverty redefine itself? How does it increase its participation in the mainstream and not be assimilated?” Behrendt ultimately argues that a person’s cultural identity should not be tied to poverty: “You are not more Aboriginal if you grew up struggling.”

Easy to say, but Larissa knows as well as I that in the eyes of some we are “coconuts”. The lawyer and activist Noel Pearson isn’t as crude as that, but he has written warily of this new black middle class. A decade ago, in ‘Through the class ceiling’, published in the Australian, Pearson warned of “the gulf between the Indigenous middle class and the rest of the mob”. Pearson counts himself among this new professional, educated, high-earning group.

But, he says, the incomes and lifestyles of this new cohort, with its focus on individual achievement, contrast with culturally dense communities, with their “intense” “kinship and demand sharing”. This can create a crisis of identity: “there is something slightly unpalatable or embarrassing about the idea of blackfellas being openly thought of as bourgeois”.

It is beyond trite to suggest that a university degree and a job means someone is no longer – or less – Indigenous. Identity should not be means-tested. We must demand the right to define ourselves and what being Indigenous means. The new black middle class is developing its own consciousness. Some reject the idea of class identity, preferring to cling to race and referring to themselves as “just blackfellas”. Others are embracing a cosmopolitan identity beyond “the mob”. The members of this black bourgeoisie are just as likely as their white neighbours to be attached to the baubles and trinkets of conspicuous consumption; to trawl through Domain.com.au for their next investment, making the rounds of the Saturday auctions; they are just as likely to shop around for private schools; just as likely to book their holiday escape: that Disneyland adventure for the kids or the lazy Mediterranean cruise or the hideaway in the French countryside. This Indigenous middle class is not new; Australia has just not noticed. We are now seeing the second generation of Indigenous people strongly identifying, successful and self-determining, and the profound implications are being felt. To quote academic and 2012 Boyer Lecturer Marcia Langton, herself an accomplished Indigenous woman, this is indeed a “quiet revolution”.


This is an edited extract of Stan Grant’s Quarterly Essay 64, The Australian Dream: Blood, History and Becoming quarterlyessay.com.au

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