While non-Aboriginal Australians squirm with guilt over their ‘privilege’, a cabal of middle-class Aboriginals have proven adept at pretending their own privilege doesn’t exist.
It started with Stan Grant’s ‘boiling’, ‘simmering’, ‘pulsating’, and ‘coursing’ fury at the ABC’s exposé of abuse within the Northern Territory’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre:
‘This is an anger that comes from the certainty of being. This is an anger that speaks to my soul… this week my people have been reminded that our place is so often behind this nation’s bars,’ Grant said.
‘Our’ place behind bars, Stan? Unless mangling of metaphors becomes a criminal offence (what exactly does ‘the howl of the Australian dream’, mean anyway?), Stan is in as much danger of being incarcerated as I am. I note that Stan was venting all this anger in the course of accepting an honorary doctorate of letters at the University of New South Wales. The man certainly knows his way around a thesaurus and apparently he can even type with fists ‘clenched in rage’, so the honour is well-deserved.
Stan went on: ‘This week Australia is Aboriginal boys tear gassed, locked down and beaten. These are the images on our television screens. The boys who look like my boys.’
Please. The boys in the Don Dale centre might ‘look like’ Stan’s kids, but that is where the resemblance ends. Unlike the Don Dale kids, Stan’s boys have experienced parenting, nurturing and safety. In his speech, Stan said his teenaged son ‘wondered at the difference between himself and the boys on the screen.’ Despite all their missed schooling, the NT boys could probably enlighten Stan’s son on their differing life experiences with great eloquence, perhaps whilst relieving him of his lunch money and shoes.
A few days after the Four Corners report, Bill Leak drew a cartoon depicting an Aboriginal cop telling an Aboriginal deadbeat dad he should talk to his miscreant son about ‘personal responsibility’. The dad says ‘Yeah righto, what’s his name then?’. And then a whole lot of people lost their minds. ‘It’s a racist stereotype!’ they said. (Clearly they were upset about the depiction of the Aboriginal dad, not the Aboriginal cop.) Then came this impressive leap of logic:
‘Bill Leak is saying all Aboriginal dads are hopeless drunks who don’t know their own kid’s names! What a racist!’. Perhaps if Leak were thoughtful enough to provide footnotes explaining that his cartoons don’t necessarily represent the entire world in all its rich diversity, he might have been spared a week-long headache. Or perhaps Leak has a quaint faith in his audience’s ability to interpret a political cartoon in an intelligent way.
Predictably, a bunch of middle-class Aboriginals felt that they had been unfairly represented by Leak’s cartoon. They felt personally insulted because the figure in the cartoon was Aboriginal, and they too were Aboriginal. Never mind that these educated, successful Aboriginal movers-and-shakers were a world away – in terms of class, culture, community and actual geography – from the pathetic figure in the picture. This cartoon, they decided, was somehow about them.
In response, they launched the #indigenousdads Twitter campaign, sharing images of Aboriginal dads doing dad things, complete with captions that ranged from the proud (‘When I graduated from Uni my Dad was right by my side – as always’) to the peevish (‘Don’t even drink beer and know all the names of my sons. That “cartoon” labelled me otherwise’) to the passive-aggressive (‘This is my indigenous dad… And no, that’s not beer in his hand, it’s a Helpmann award’).
In some quarters, #indigenousdads was rapturously received as a righteous smackdown to racist, nasty ol’ Bill. Others saw it as a timely reminder of Aboriginal diversity, and as a heartfelt and heart-warming message sorely needed in these troubled times. A few intrepid souls suggested that the #indigenousdads seemed to be missing the point, while a hard-hearted few, myself included, saw the campaign as gobsmackingly narcissistic and callous.
Leak’s cartoon depicted the awful state of Aboriginal family dysfunction that far too many Aboriginal children live within, to which successful and prosperous Aboriginals responded with a series of smug, ‘look at me and my nice family’ selfies. What to make of this new vanguard of Aboriginal elites, who talk solidarity and shared suffering with ‘our people’ in remote and marginalised Aboriginal communities the one minute, and then mount a PR campaign to emphatically distance themselves from distasteful Aboriginal realities the next?
Here’s what I make of it. Their complaint that Leak’s cartoon somehow portrayed them in a negative light was patent rubbish and they know it. They chose to proclaim themselves as victimised, but not because they are genuinely worried that the world sees them as hopeless drunks and deadbeat parents, which they obviously aren’t. No, the biggest fear of Aboriginal elites is that the world doesn’t see them as ‘real’ Aboriginals at all. Bill Leak is merely the latest ‘racist’ bogeyman invented as a means for middle-class Aboriginals to assert their increasingly diffuse identities. ‘Bill Leak says we are all drunks and bad parents’ they claim, ‘and we are proud to prove him wrong.’ Get real, fellas: You know, and anyone else with half a brain knows, that Bill Leak wasn’t talking about you at all.
The #indigenousdads campaign took the chaos and hopelessness of Aboriginal underclass life and used it as a backdrop to assert a middle-class Aboriginal identity. The debate quickly shifted from a question of how to deal with the actual problem, to a question of ‘How does the debate around this problem make Aboriginal people feel?’ By no small coincidence, the Aboriginal media personalities and thought-leaders who contributed to #indigenousdads were promptly available to provide insights on this burning question, and on strategies to indulge Aboriginal sensitivities.
The confected victimisation of #indigenousdads was not merely a spurt of urban Aboriginal identity angst; it was an industry mobilising its useful idiots to regain control over the narrative. Get the picture?
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