Where To Now? – A Reflection on the Failure of Cultural Education, Reconciliation and Recognition Politics.

9 May

Paper presented at the Sacred Edge Conference, Queenscliff, May 2024.

In the lead up to the October 24 referendum I spent almost 9 months travelling Australia, speaking to some 7+ thousand Australians on 123 occasions. It became very clear early on what the outcome would be, but as Thomas Mayo said to me, “We can’t give up. We must give it everything we have.”

And I did.

Unlike others, I rarely spoke to fan clubs – gatherings of supporters – my audiences were hostile and generally unwelcoming – churches and service clubs, in particular. I took on the task because I naively thought that with good information and rational argument the people identified as hard no’s could be moved to a yes. I also naively thought that the churches, the followers of the Prince of Peace and Reconciliation, would automatically support the Yes case.

You see, like many in the Government and the Yes campaign we thought the baseline of our relationship with you had moved. It was, we believed, no longer welded on to the 1901 ethic of White Supremacy.  We were wrong.

We had received the vote, fought in 2 world wars and several others include Vietnam alongside white Australians, were counted in the census and received numerous apologies. Our country had undertaken 50 years of reconciliation action plans (50% of Australian workers work in companies and institutions that have a RAP), cultural awareness training and education, as well as Welcome to Country and Acknowledgements to Country protocols. Australia even developed an art form specifically for us which they love to put on their walls (while never considering having the artist stay over for the weekend!). Australians also warmly welcomed and applauded the poetic beauty of the Statement from the Heart. We were/are to be celebrated, as numerous politicians, dignitaries, media and text-books remind us, as the Oldest Continuous Living Culture on Earth.

So, what went wrong?

Three simple words – Fear, Ignorance and Racism – the result of the failure of cultural education, reconciliation, and recognition.

Cultural education and awareness, like recognition politics, relies on those on the inside learning about and recognising those on the outside. Those on the outside have little or no agency in this process. It is offered to us as being good for us, it rarely is, and that it is the only way, father knows best. Reconciliation Australia, responsible for much of this was a government idea, not ours, and despite having our people working within it at all levels it is designed to fulfil the governments kpi’s, not ours.

The model of cultural awareness used defines us as something to be studied and understood so that those participating will feel better about engaging with the unknown. They won’t embarrass themselves when they engage with those unlike them. It simply gives them more tools and adds to their sense of superiority for they now know about us because they magnanimously decided to recognise us.

It hasn’t worked and it wont work, nor will the idea that by putting us in the school curriculum we will build a better educated group of young people leading us in the future. Yes, they will know more, but they will carry their culture with them because they do not know it is there.

Here is the issue. The culture you carry in your bodies. You do not know you are fearful, ignorant, and racist because you do not know your own story, and it is and remains based on those three words – Fear, Ignorance and Racism. You do not know what you bring with you into this country and how that plays out in your day-to-day existence here.

A consistent retort on my journey for the Voice was, “I wasn’t there, I didn’t do it, it has nothing to do with me.” But you were and you do and still are and still do, vicariously and actively.

Every human being carries cross-generational baggage which some refer to as trauma. We know that Aboriginal people suffer from this, and we know how it plays out in places like Alice Springs, relationship violence, and self-harm. But we do not recognize that each person here, in this room today, is impacted by what went before them, in the lives of their forebears before and when they came to this country.

This is what influences how you think, what you do, how you feel but unaware of the baseline you never see.

Baggage or trauma comes in a couple of forms, familial and geographical. Take for example the Scots who found themselves on a boat to Australia. They had, most of them, been dispossessed of their land and livelihood by the English lords, people had died, families destroyed and then they find themselves in this inhospitable place, the Great Southland.

In each of those stories are family stories of personal trauma and tragedy which remain with them and is passed on in story and genes to those who follow, even to today. These family ‘legends’ or ‘myths’ (meaning making myths) are retold repeatedly in the oral tradition of story and song and become embedded in our psyche. We can’t let them go and they can’t let us go. They allow the formation of the other as something to fear, not able to be known and not like us. Our response? To demonise and then destroy if the other, even if it is numerically and technologically insignificant, in our case 3% of the population, threaten to impact our hard-fought privilege and entitlement. Read David Marr’s “Killing for Country”.

The only Good Shepherd was the one who stayed in Scotland with their sheep!

Geographical trauma speaks of the loss of place and a sense of belonging. Dispossessed of all that makes meaning for you, you respond with the only thing you have on, your body. You move, you go somewhere else, and you make that place yours. It becomes a substitute for your inherited home, your place of birth out of the ground embedded with the blood, sweat and tears of your people over millennia. But you are always looking over your shoulder at what you left behind in the Old Country. You plant the plants and flowers making the country like the familiar you miss by removing anything that is not yours. This applies to culture, people, fauna, and flora.

Yet it is never home, and it is never yours. This sense remains within, unvoiced, unknown, unseen but influencing how you live here. It’s not in your blood for your blood comes from somewhere else, it’s not in your body because your body wants to be somewhere else. It’s not in your DNA.

You respond with your body in violence to those who call this place home. You take it away with the strength of arms and you maintain control in the same way. Our present-day discussion on gendered violence (which doesn’t include violence against blak women!) has its roots in the violence that made and continue to make this country what it is today. (A topic for another day).

Violence is never far from the surface. I faced it every time I stood up at each of those 123 sessions. It was designed to disempower, dismiss, destroy, disappear me and my people. It was bodily violence – violence from a fearful body– directed to me and those like me deemed to be a threat to their right to possess this place and us.

Questions like “What part of you is Aboriginal?” – my reply, “Do you want me to show you?


“What percentage Aboriginal are you?” – my reply, “What percentage Australian are you? Oh, that’s right, there is no DNA marker for Australian. You come from somewhere else. You self-identify as Australian because you were born here like your parents.”

Which brings us back to cultural awareness and what it should be. You cannot understand our culture until you understand your own. You cannot engage with us until you have resolved the cross generational familial and geographical trauma embedded in your body. You cannot understand our culture until you understand the philosophical foundations of colonization – privilege, power, entitlement – embedded in the universals that under pin whiteness.

These universals include one universal language, economic model, and religion. Unless you begin to unpack the right of one signified by the word privilege you cannot understand our culture which is diametrically opposed to yours. Privilege cannot be shared but must be relinquished completely to allow the re-existence of the particular and the communal.

(Take the mug)

Here I have my coffee counselling mug I used when I was a school chaplain. On it is printed, “Here’s A Hint, I Don’t Care.” When a child, usually of the male variety who had behaved particularly badly was sent to me for support I would have this, full of coffee, placed strategically in front of him. Without failure they would say, “But you have to care, you’re the chaplain.” To which I would reply “No. I don’t”. When they protested or just looked puzzled, I would explain. “It will do no good if I do care. At this moment it is obvious you don’t care, so it will do no good for me to. Now if you decide to care, come back and we can work together. Until then, I don’t care”.

Where to now? I don’t care is my reply.

Our people will not continue the process of assimilation that is reconciliation and recognition politics. Our people cannot continue to be lumbered with the task of making you feel good by doing all the hard work. Our people cannot continue to be blamed for the ills of society and of our own communities until you take responsibility for your actions, past and present. It is time for you to commit yourself to your own cultural awareness through the unpacking of what Walter Mingolo from Duke University refers to as global coloniality based on the false universals you now take for granted.

My response is it is not about us. We have 65,000 years of evidence-based research and practice which means we will be here when you are not. My response is about helping you to save yourself from your fear, ignorance, and racism, for as certain as the sun goes down over the You Yang’s, you will find yourself dispossessed by another empire and world order. It is already happening. Your fear that, having stolen this land from us, someone will steal it from you may well be fulfilled either by another empire (likely China) or by a new world order ushered in by climate change (2030) according to academic and author Walter McCoy.

I don’t care because when we did care for you and ourselves, inviting you to walk with us for a better future for all, you said no.

So, it’s now up to you.







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