August 2015

Arts & Letters

White stigma

By Kim Mahood
Emma Kowal’s ‘Trapped in the Gap’ examines the ‘White anti-racist’ in indigenous Australia

A few years ago, a friend of mine worked as a nurse for a men’s health organisation in a remote Aboriginal community. One of his responsibilities was to accompany the men when they travelled to other communities for ceremonial business, and attend to any illness or injury that occurred. At one of these events, a young Aboriginal man approached him.

“Hey, bro,” the young man said. “You got any cold water?”

“I’ve got water,” my friend said. “It’s not cold, but you’re welcome to it.”

“You got any cup?” the young man said.

“No, mate, sorry, only paper cups and they’ve all been used. There might be one in the bin you can rinse out.”

“You can get it for me?” the young man said. At which point my friend told him what he could do with his drink of water.

“The thing is,” he said, recounting the incident to us back in the community, “there are whitefellas who would have gone through the bin for him. ‘Look, here’s one, will this do? Hang on, there’s a better one further down. Just let me wash it out for you …’”

We laughed. We all knew people like that, the white slaves, abject and ingratiating, whose desire to serve Aboriginal people undermines basic mutual respect. They are at the extreme end of the spectrum Emma Kowal defines as “white stigma” in Trapped in the Gap: Doing good in indigenous Australia (Berghahn; US$24.95), her treatise about white professionals working in the contact zone of remote indigenous health.

Kowal has made an anthropological study of a group of white health professionals working in a Darwin research institute where she herself worked for some time. Among them are people she defines as “White anti-racists”, a category she teases out as a self-conscious positioning by white, left-wing, middle-class professionals who work in indigenous affairs. “White anti-racist” doesn’t roll off the tongue, nor does it work as an acronym, but Kowal’s choice of the term is deliberate. Its requisites are an active stance against racism, a belief that the problems afflicting indigenous Australians are the direct result of colonisation, that the government and society should foot the bill to redress this situation, and that Aboriginal people should control their own destiny, assisted by white professionals who remain inconspicuous and aspire to make themselves redundant. A basic driver is the desire to be recognised as a good white person, set apart from the racist norm.

Trapped in the Gap is an academic work that makes no concessions to the lay reader, and for that reason is unlikely to be read by any but the most committed of them, which is a pity, because the points it raises are central to the dilemma that white Australia tries and fails to negotiate again and again in its encounters with remote Aboriginal Australia. The zone that Kowal’s protagonists enter, and to which I am referring when I use the term “remote”, is a place where cultural beliefs include the primacy of sorcery and the imperatives of payback, where the landscape is seething with presences that are mischievous at best and malevolent at worst, where the pressures and expectations of whitefella society are flotsam in the deep currents of family and country.

One of Kowal’s arguments is that the white anti-racist, to maintain a stance against victim-blaming, will identify structural rather than cultural issues as the cause of poor health (or poor education, unemployment, high crime rates, domestic violence). This position assumes that when the structural obstacles are removed the outcome will be a steady movement towards healthy choices – clean houses, healthy diet, regular work, a commitment to education – in other words, to behave more like the majority of white people. Along with this goes the notion of “remediable difference”, whereby the differences between the Aboriginal people in remote communities and the rest of the predominantly white population is only skin deep, and that a level playing field will put things right.

That this is not what happens suggests that the structural argument doesn’t quite cut it. And this is where the white anti-racist begins to flounder. That Aboriginal people might not want the things that will make them healthier throws into question the purpose of the work the white professional is doing. It also raises the spectre of differences that run much deeper, and are cultural rather than structural in their origins. And if the difference is cultural, and achieving better health outcomes means changing cultural attitudes, then the white health professionals must participate in social engineering, which is the antithesis of what they believe in.

Kowal’s protagonists are confronted with the irreconcilable contradiction that, in order for the “gap” to be closed, Aboriginal people must surrender or dilute their aboriginality, thus relinquishing their power and identity. This is the crippling moral dilemma: in their attempt to do good, they may in fact be doing harm. In a situation desperate for resources and support, the most highly skilled and scrupulous people are hollowed out by the effects of this contradiction.

I put this conundrum to an Aboriginal friend who has worked for some years in the health arena. What did she think about the concerns of white professionals who feared that by trying to improve Aboriginal health they might be joining the long tradition of imposing white values on indigenous people? From her response it was clear that she didn’t lose sleep over the moral scruples of whitefellas. She had encountered them as a zone of ambient anxiety, but they were background noise against the potency of racist slights she experienced as an Aboriginal health worker.

I took my question to one of the white nurses based in Mulan, the Western Australian Aboriginal community to which I have a long-standing connection. A man in his 60s, he had worked in remote-area health for years. Many of his views tallied with the white anti-racist position. But when I pressed him on whether he thought it was necessary to change people’s behaviour, he said yes. To encourage people to practise better hygiene and cut down on fat and sugar intake was part of his job, not an ethical issue.

“I’m not in the job to do good,” he said. He liked the work and the people, and was satisfied to observe incremental changes by individuals. This set him apart from the white anti-racists, although, according to Kowal, some who continue to work in the field arrive at the same position, albeit after a period of soul-searching.

In the chapter titled ‘Mutual Recognition’, Kowal examines the constantly changing boundaries of both Aboriginality and anti-racism, and the sometimes farcical situations that arise from the sensitivities of both parties. In one example, signed consent forms are required for people to take part in a project. Some people want to participate but don’t want to sign the forms. The white project co-ordinator thinks that this is due to a legitimate cultural distrust of forms, while the indigenous adviser believes it makes her mob appear primitive and stupid, and insists that she will convince them to sign the forms.

While the white anti-racists are hyper-vigilant in monitoring their own boundaries, they are also kept in a state of anxiety by the scrutiny of the indigenous professional class. Kowal does not state this explicitly, but it is implicit in the nervousness with which members of her study group attempt to unpick the term “Tribal Council”. Is it a relic of outdated anthropological terminology, or has it been reinstated by Aboriginal people from “down south” (as “blackfella” has been reinstated)?

In the contact zone it is the white person who is on high alert, uncertain of how to interpret the ever-changing rules of engagement, while the Aboriginal people who live there have had long experience extracting what suits them from the plethora of conflicting possibilities.

The most interesting chapter in the book deals with white stigma, unpacking the effects of an excessive attachment to the ideology of anti-racism. White stigma is to perceive “whiteness” as an inescapable contamination for which one must continually make reparation. One manifestation of this is to underplay the contribution of the white professional and overstate the competence of the Aboriginal worker, often to devastating effect. I watched this play out in the south-east Kimberley where an Aboriginal cattle manager was praised and assured by his white advisers that he was doing a great job, while the edifice collapsed around him, along with his pride, his confidence, his identity and his trust in white people. No one was prepared to tell him he wasn’t up to the job.

The Siamese twin of white stigma is the black victim, a crippled partnership between the stigmatised and the victimised that has many refinements and variations, none of them pretty to watch. The committed anti-racist, blinkered by colonial guilt, cannot admit to the suspicion that when an Aboriginal person chooses to go fishing, rather than attend the meeting that has taken weeks and great expense to organise, it is not cultural at all, but casual disrespect. When ideology excuses bad behaviour on cultural grounds something abject enters the relationship.

The rigorous academic language Kowal applies to her research may be necessary to counter the attacks that her ideas will elicit, but it does make the work less useful to the public conversation. After a hard day in the contact zone it was something of a challenge to spend the evenings unpicking the meaning from sentences like the following: “To escape essentialised indigeneity, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people ‘must de-couple Indigeneity from disadvantage and marginality from cultural and physical alterity and from callow moral dichotomies’.”

Translated, Kowal’s argument suggests that the way forward requires the victimised to let go of the advantages of victimhood, and the stigmatised to relinquish the excoriating pleasures of the hairshirt. It’s hard to imagine such ideas gaining traction in the current climate of racial politics, but, as she points out, the existing model is gridlocked in its own contradictions.

From the solitude of my makeshift accommodation in Mulan I can hear the night sounds of the community charged with the energy that ebbs and surges between people. In the years of returning to work in this small settlement on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert, I have learned to interpret those sounds. Everyone is connected through blood or marriage, an intricate network of relationships that coerce and protect, hurt and heal, entrance and terrify, without which life is unimaginable and identity extinguished. And just beyond is the violent enchanted landscape, the domain of sorcerers and spirits and ancestral ghosts.

I wonder if the failure to persuade the people out here to choose safer, healthier, whiter lives is that what we offer, compared to what they have, is just too boring.

Kim Mahood

Kim Mahood is the author of Craft for a Dry Lake, Position Doubtful and the essay ‘Kartiya Are Like Toyotas: White Workers on Australia’s Cultural Frontier’.

‘Majority Rule, Memorial’ by Michael Cook. From the cover of Trapped in the Gap
cover

August 2015

×
×