Scott Gorringe explores how Aboriginal identities have been defined by outdated racial ideologies to assert difference rather than promote and encourage positive relationships.
Scott Gorringe

28 Feb 2017 - 12:27 PM  UPDATED 28 Feb 2017 - 12:42 PM

The problem of racism and racist ideologies in Australia is far more prevalent than what many Australians would like to admit. The maturity of any entity, be it person or country is to firstly recognise and own their problem. After watching the SBS #FU2Racism documentary we clearly still have a long way to go. Racism shifts from one minority group to another and is enabled by political opportunists and popularised by talk-back radio hosts.

The ‘who I am’ (individual), ‘who we are’ (group) focus on identity distracts us from the real issues of power, control, inequity, and greed. 

Often there is a huge gap between the things that we ‘know’ and the things that are actually happening. More specifically, between what we are socialised and culturalised into ‘knowing’ and ‘not knowing’ - how we perceive things to be, compared to what is really going on. These are our perceptions – they shape how we know and construct our world, and all ‘knowns’ are driven by our assumptions, our perceptions, our experiences, and beliefs – influenced by media, other people, and the political climate at the time. For most they stand us in good stead, but what if our assumptions, our ‘knowns’, are wrong; what if what we think we know to be true is not true at all?

The ‘who I am’ (individual), ‘who we are’ (group) focus on identity distracts us from the real issues of power, control, inequity, and greed. Currently we can see around the world how conversations about ‘who we are’ (maintaining our identity), can be used as part of conversations that create and perpetuate division, whether this is in the national, ethnic, or religious context. The conflicts born of such divisiveness have often been violent, and all have caused irreparable devastation to men, women and children.

the ‘how I am’, not ‘who I am’ is the most important factor for me as a global citizen

Similarly, at a national level in Australia today Aboriginal identity, in the context of how most Australians see us, is more than a distraction. I actually think it’s destructive. Let me explain.

Me, and my Aboriginality is already a ‘known’ identity for most Australians, even though they may have never met me, they already ‘know’ me. They know me from their kitchen table conversation, backyard BBQ yarns, school curriculum, pub talks, media interpretations, and Government speak at election time. I am disadvantaged, sick, uneducated, violent, unemployed, lazy, and most likely heading to jail very soon; I am a child abuser and wife basher, and so on. As well, I am good at sport, can play a didj, and sing and dance, oh – and I can paint too. And from an historical and anthropological viewpoint I am savage, ancient, or extinct.

A popular view is also the romantic notion that I have a direct link to mother nature, and am inherently spiritual.  As well I can be described as a ‘real Aborigine', or ‘not a real Aborigine', based on how I behave or what I look like or choose for a dress code. In the minds of others (and, critically, not just non-Indigenous others), my Aboriginal identity is dominated by these frames of perceptions and thinking, and if somehow I don’t fit into this frame, I am either extraordinary, or I am not truly Aboriginal.

As Aboriginal people we are told by everyone else who we are and how we are supposed to behave. We are told by media, mainstream Australia, government, by other Aboriginal people and by elders. Interestingly, my identity as Mithaka is not similarly constrained by this discourse or perceptions, perhaps because a Mithaka identity existed long before ‘Aboriginality’, which itself is a term deeply connected to European identity that was introduced to these shores only a couple of hundred years ago. ‘Aboriginality’ is frequently defined in deficit comparison against the ‘norm’ of European identity, all of which of course has deep connections to 19th century racial thinking, whether people realise this today or not. As Mithaka, I am in control of the ‘who I am’ and I am released from battling with the perceptions of others. Importantly, the understanding of ‘who I am’ is framed through my relationships with myself, country and others – the ‘how I am’, not ‘who I am’ is the most important factor for me as a global citizen.

My group identity as Mithaka is liberating and inclusive, and my identity as ‘Aboriginal’, with all of the constraints imposed by others, is then relegated to a term that others assign to me, which I can choose to either accept or not accept. I use this example to illustrate that while on the surface people may think that there is no real difference between my identity as ‘Mithaka’ and that as ‘Aboriginal’, the perceptions that are wrapped around each are very different. I recognise, of course, that many people stand by their identity as ‘Aboriginal’ and recognise their right to do so. My point is about the constraints that can be shown to exist in perceptions around the term, and how these perceptions play a role in racism. This is linked to the observation that ‘Aboriginal’ is a racial categorisation, whereas ‘Mithaka’ is a cultural categorisation. It is important to consider what challenges this poses for those for whom ‘Aboriginality’ is the only choice if, for example, they have been removed from their people and country.

My focus is on how I am with myself, how do I think and talk about myself. How am I with others, how do I behave with others, what are my relationships like with people around me, and how am I enabling positive robust relationships? And finally, how am with the environment I am in at anytime, and how well am I caring for country? If I get those three things right, the ‘who’ I am will emerge. I am and will be different in the different cultures I live and work in. I believe I am multicultural, I buy into the notion that culture is contextual therefore I see my identity as contextual as well. For me culture means the conscious and sub-conscious patterns of perceiving, thinking, behaving, and responding that characterises any group of people. I belong to many cultures; my footy culture, cricket culture, family culture, Mithaka culture, and so on. So only focusing on identity though the lens of ‘who I am’ limits our abilities to move beyond the perceived barriers of difference.

Racism exists and strives in the separating of people on the basis of their race, and the ill-informed, scientifically redundant, but still current popular notion that race equals culture. The focus on ones identity through the lens of, ‘who I am’ creates division, it can separate us, not unite us as a nation. We see this more frequently now with patriotic banter (‘that’s just un-Australian’) that can, and so often does, quickly turn to racial abuse. As soon as we start to identify ‘who I am,’ we must, of course, then start to identify ‘who I am not’, and thus ‘who you are not’, as compared to me. We focus on what makes us different and then we focus that difference in competition, better than, worse than – more than, less than – have got, haven’t got – blacker, whiter and so on.

I’m not suggesting ‘who I am’ and identity isn’t significant, because clearly it has salience in a number of contexts – whether the ‘big ticket’ ones such as gender, ethnicity, and religion, or those which receive less contentious such as career type, sporting endeavour or demographic. Yet, if the question of ‘who we are’ is our starting point I strongly believe we are limiting our potential, increasing our vulnerability to extremism (from whatever corner), and would go as far to say that with such a starting point we will never get to the point of true collaboration and the benefits it brings. Rather, racism, with all its terrible consequences, wins out.

To avoid this socially erosive condition, I strongly suggest that we should instead focus on ‘how we are’ as our starting point, be less anxious to affirm identities that constrain and accuse, and not allow ourselves to be distracted from the real issues of power, control, inequity, and greed that underlie so much of the whole stereotyping exercise.


About the author

My name is Scott Gorringe, my mob is Kurrithalla Tjimpa, Black Hawk, from Kirrenderri, Mithaka Country, if you’re struggling to work out where Mithaka Country is, it’s borders are the Cooper Creek on the east and the Diamantina River on the west, in far western Queensland. These waterways flow into the iconic Lake Eyre and as well as being important to Australia’s environment, and its heritage, this region is the heart of local Aboriginal mobs, Wankanguru, Boonthamurra, Wankamudla, Wankamurra, Deiri, Yallulandi, and us. I am Mithaka, that country and its stories inform me how I am supposed to be, and who I am. 

Face Up To Racism #FU2Racism with a season of stories and programs challenging preconceptions around race and prejudice.

Tune in to watch Is Australia Racist? (airs on Sunday 26 February at 8.30pm), Date My Race (airs Monday 27 February at 8.30pm) and The Truth About Racism (airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm).

Watch all the documentaries online after they air on SBS On Demand.  

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