• Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti (left) and Mark Baguley high-five at MCG match between Geelong Cats and Essendon Bombers, May 5, 2019. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)Source: AAP Image/Julian Smith
Academic Dr Chelsea Bond describes how and why the Reconciliation movement frequently falls short on its promise. Spoiler alert – there will be no centring of good intentions in this conversation.
Chelsea Bond

30 May 2019 - 4:09 PM  UPDATED 30 May 2019 - 7:42 PM

It seems 2019 has been declared by Blackfullas as the year of truth-telling, both in NAIDOC Week, and this week as we commemorate Reconciliation Week.

Truth is something that is fundamental to all relationships and it is both an act of love, and a test of it.

And this week, at morning teas across the country, Blackfullas are testing this nation’s capacity to be truthful about the foundation in which our relationship is built, as Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. On the matter of truth, in the interests of transparency, I do have a small confession I need to make.

I’ve never really been in to reconciliation.

I never walked a bridge for it, though in my defence, in the year 2000, when close to half a million Australians marched in capital cities across the country, I was in country Qld dealing with an overt kind of in your face racism in my everyday life, and the walk for reconciliation felt so very far away from me, philosophically and geographically.

This is not to say I’m not up for a kind of peaceful co-existence…or that I’m not inspired by the sheer volume of support for reconciliation across the country.  But inasmuch as I haven’t marched for reconciliation, I also haven’t joined a committee for one and yes I’m sorry, but I’ve also dodged the morning teas. But if I can explain, via Bell’s Theorem, and I’m not talking of the quantum physics kind. I’m talking about the Richard Bell kind.

Richard Bell, the Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Gurang Gurang artist, in his 2003 Telstra Award winning artwork Scientia E Metaphysica (also known as Bell’s Theorem) asserts that Aboriginal art has become a product of the times – literally a product, a commodity, to be consumed, much like a reconciliation cup cake. While being something created by Blackfullas it largely suits the interests of whitefullas and is controlled by them.

I often wonder, like Bell, whether reconciliation, like Aboriginal art, is a white thing?

And again, in asking this question, this is not that I don’t think that we need to work toward positive two-way relationships built on trust and respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, rather I worry about the risk that the existing power imbalance in this relationship gets reproduced rather than reconfigured in reconciliation work. It is thus not the idea of reconciliation but instead the operationalisation of it that worries me and the ideological foundations that inform them. And it is this that I want to address, how we think, rather than how we feel about it. Typically reconciliation is talked about in terms of hearts, but I want us to engage critically with the ideologies that are informing current articulations of it in our minds.

I often wonder, like Bell, whether reconciliation, like Aboriginal art, is a white thing?

I want to take a trip down memory lane, back to 1997 and the National Reconciliation Convention, where the new PM John Howard (our 2nd longest serving PM) infamously provided that opening address, in which he claimed he was really “optimistic” about reconciliation, only after he had completely refashioned it on his terms.

And look it didn’t go down to well – while the Hon Patrick Dodson is affectionately referred to as the Father of reconciliation, Howard appeared like the Grim Reaper. Some in the crowd booed and others turned their backs on then PM. And despite the spectacle, it was not how he spoke that was the biggest problem, it was how he had reinvented reconciliation and the ideological assumptions it was based on.

It was here that Howard brought us the term “practical reconciliation”, which Pat Dodson insisted was “the most virulent kind”. Howard juxtaposed it with “symbolic reconciliation” creating a false binary, that suggested among other things, that the recognition of our rights had no practical purpose. But Howard was the master of dog whistle politics, effectively weaponizing reconciliation against us.

John Howard brought us the term “practical reconciliation”, which Pat Dodson insisted was “the most virulent kind”.

In his speech, he spoke in his words “frankly” about what he considered to be “true reconciliation”. Here he insisted that the brutality of colonisation was nothing more than a blemish of our past, that historical truth telling should focus on the positives, so as to not inspire guilt and shame for non-Indigenous people, and that we should centre our efforts on the current disadvantage experienced by Indigenous peoples rather than historical oppression (with no sense of irony that the two are inextricably linked). 

Howard insisted that we enjoy the same rights at the expense of our unique rights as first nation’s peoples, and in a pre-Trump era proclaimed to the Convention “we need to reject extremist views on all sides”.

As if Indigenous peoples protesting for land rights was extremist. But it was this same ideology deployed by former PM Malcolm Turnbull, when he denounced the Uluru Statement as a radical proposition.  

It was at the Reconciliation Convention that Howard tried to sell his 10 point plan, aimed at watering down Native Title rights after the Wik judgement. It was via reconciliation that he sought to rationalise the ongoing erasure of Indigenous rights, while insisting that Indigenous peoples were unreasonable and irrational.

Under Howard, reconciliation was almost definitely a white thing.

Now I refer to this moment, not to demonise Howard in the national reconciliation narrative but rather to highlight the uncomfortable truth about reconciliation, its limitations and contradictions. Howard’s form of reconciliation centred the feelings and rights of non-Indigenous peoples at the expense of ours, while performing a pragmatic approach that was supposedly benevolent to us. But it was a lie, and a fairly unconvincing one. Despite this, many of these ideas persist in Indigenous affairs and in those damn reconciliation committee meetings. And yes, I know I said I haven’t been to the meetings – but I’ve seen the minutes.

Howard’s form of reconciliation centred the feelings and rights of non-Indigenous peoples at the expense of ours

So I’m going to tell you 3 key truths about reconciliation as I see it…and don’t worry I’m not gonna pound on the lectern.

Reconciliation that emphasises equal rights at the expense of our unique rights is not reconciliation.

It is just a more pleasant articulation of colonisation.

True reconciliation foregrounds Indigenous sovereignty and attends to our needs and aspirations, as well as the ongoing practices and processes that impede our ability to achieve them.  These must be defined by Indigenous peoples who have bloodline connections to the lands on which you are operating on.

Our identity as Indigenous peoples is after all defined by where we are from, and is not well-served via statistical measures within HR departments that see us as diversity projects disconnected from a place. Becoming numerically just like them is not reconciliation, it is assimilation.

This is not to say Indigenous employment is not an important part of demonstrating a shift in relationships between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous organisations or institutions, it is just that it only tells part of the story.  And look the absence, and/or particular location of Indigenous peoples within your organisation does tells a truth about the relationship it has with Indigenous peoples. But it is not a truth about Indigenous incapability or lack. 

Reconciliation without critical conversations about race is not reconciliation.

It is window dressing. 

It is murals on toilet blocks at schools that refuse to embed Indigenous knowledges in curriculum, its artwork on uniforms of a predominantly non-Indigenous workforce, it is those nice morning teas that I just don’t attend.  Accessorising one’s institution with Aboriginal art and culture at the expense of uncomfortable conversations about how power operates in and through our relationships within and outside of our institutions operates to mask the very structure that continues to bear down heavy on our bodies. And I just can’t stomach it.

Talking about race, requires a shift away from centring feelings and intentions  – whether that be about Aboriginal peoples or cultures, or about whether one feels racism exists. Instead it demands a preparedness to face head on, the reality and brutality of race as part of the air that we breath, and then, do something about it. It is disruptive and people won’t like it – but if social change was easy, we would have solved so many of society’s ills. Not talking about a social problem, does not eradicate it. Talking about our culture too, does not eradicate the realness of race and racism.

Talking about race, requires a shift away from centring feelings and intentions  – whether that be about Aboriginal peoples or cultures, or about whether one feels racism exists.

We have to think about what capacity there really is for truth-telling in the colony and its institutions.

This is not about whether Blackfullas can be courageous to tell it, rather whether non-Indigenous peoples will be able to hear it; whether there is a willingness to shift beyond feelings, to a commitment to shifting how power operates. This is hard work, but one that I can assure you, the Blackfulla in your organisation, that lowest paid one, turns up each day, working tirelessly to undermine it. And I can also assure you, shifting relationships of power from the bottom rung is much harder than simply talking about it. 

Finally, reconciliation without truth is abuse.

And we need to name it.

Colonisation for Blackfullas is itself an abusive relationship and one that we are trapped in. So understandably, we are committed to making the best of this. We have no other place to go.

The barrier to reconciliation, of the true kind, is not optimism or our apparent lack of it. It is the insistence that we lie about this relationship, both in its historic and present state, that hinders our ability to secure a respectful relationship with the settlers.

Colonisation for Blackfullas is itself an abusive relationship and one that we are trapped in.

The insistence that we should lie or have lied about our existence, and our relationship to this place is a violence we encounter on the daily, yet legally, politically, culturally, and intellectually we have made the case, that, in the words of Gangulu and Birra Gubba Elder and philosopher, Dr Lilla Watson, this is the land that we became human in.

It is now time for us to be believed, and our relationship be founded on this truth.

There is a real irony, in imposing upon a people, a notion of respectful relationship that calls upon us to forget our relationship to this place.  There is also a real irony, in imposing an articulation of ‘respectful relationships’ in a land, in which Dr Lilla Watson points out in her articulation of Indigenous Terms of Reference, hundreds of nations and language groups had already negotiated a form of non-colonising co-existence.

I reckon reconciliation would feel a lot less like a white thing if it was founded on Indigenous Terms of Reference. But just as this nation has had to face the truth that Terra Nullius was a lie, we are still trying to disprove what Narungga, Kaurna, Ngarrindjeri man, Prof Lester Rigney has termed “Indigenous intellectual nullius”.

Here he refers to the privileging of western knowledge systems, that insist we are incapable of knowing. The struggle for Indigenous intellectual sovereignty he explains, “is to move our humanness, our scholarship, our identities and our knowledge systems from invisible to visible”.

I wonder how more meaningful reconciliation might be, if we had the courage to radically reimagine respectful relationships in such a way that centred and privileged Indigenous knowledges, rather than settler feelings in forging respectful relationships?

And if truth be told, we’re actually not that radical after all. In fact, we are actually pretty reasonable.

We have not called for boats to be turned back, either then or now, we have not incarcerated those who came to our shores, we have never said f off were full, or we grew here, you flew here. Rather, we have reminded this nation, that we are still here - literally every year and profoundly on the day this nation continues to celebrate as its birth erasing our existence as well as our pain, resilience and resistance.

It is in this context, that it is really is difficult for me to stomach that reconciliation cup cake, despite how appealing and culturally safe it looks. 

This week, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across the country are making an appeal to truth. This appeal, is not a call for Indigenous people to tell the truth about the brutality we’ve experienced, rather it is a continued call for this nation to finally tell the truth about itself, its real beginnings and its very real present, not just within its institutions, but in its very foundation.

Cause if truth be told… this is what true reconciliation looks like.


Dr Chelsea Bond is one half of the Wild Black Women radio program (with Angelina Hurley) on Brisbane’s 98.9FM. She is an academic and writer, focusing on content about Black women, for Black women. Follow Chelsea @drcbond

The author wishes to thank the Kaurna people and Reconciliation SA, including co-chairs Professor Peter Buckskin and Helen Connolly as well as Executive Director Shona Reid for extending a warm welcome and invitation to address the annual Reconciliation Week Breakfast held at the Adelaide Convention Centre on 27th May 2019.