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What it means to be “Australian” cannot be understood without appreciation of how race, as a marker of difference, has permeated the colonial and national psyche. In Australia, “race” once implied a difference of appearance perceived as inferior, unworthy, polluting, or threatening, but it has increasingly come to simply mean “different.” Two parallel histories interweave to ensure the hegemony of whiteness: one of the exploitation of indigenous peoples, and the other of the vulnerability of a settler colony and nation distant from its founding metropolis.


Although imaginings of Australia held throughout the world are predominantly of a “white” nation, it has been and remains one of the most multiethnic nations in the world. The appropriation of an entire continental land mass—with its hundreds of distinct peoples, languages, and cultural expressions—by the British in the late 1700s meant the colony, and later the nation, would always be multiethnic. Military force ensured the suppression of resistance from peoples indigenous to the continent. In homogenizing hundreds of thousands of people as a single “Aboriginal” Other, the diversity of cultural practice was camouflaged, as were the distinctive experiences of colonialism’s violent displacements, including the genocide of whole societies.

Different cultural traditions are subsumed under the notion of “indigenous,” including the hundreds of societies on the mainland and in Tasmania glossed as Aboriginal peoples, as well as the maritime Torres Strait Island societies that lie between Cape York and Papua New Guinea. It is impossible to do justice to cultural and historical differences here, but they should be borne in mind, for pan-continental generalizations do not serve them well. None of Australia’s indigenous peoples developed theories of human social difference based on race. They distinguished “us” from the “other” on the basis of cultural or religious difference. The “us” were linked through relations to kin and country, which established rights and legitimacy. To have neither kin nor country— which might happen to someone fleeing because of serious transgressions—left a person without rights and at the mercy of the society that took in him or her. The first infants of mixed white-indigenous ancestry (generally from white fathers and Aboriginal mothers) were often killed as evidence of abnormality, as were deformed or twinned infants. In time, these children began to be accepted by their stepfathers into the wider Aboriginal social world. It was rare for white fathers to acknowledge their children, preventing acceptance of such children in white Australia.


The British colonists brought labor to Australia in the form of convicts. They had little need of Aboriginal workers, therefore, but they did need knowledge. The Dharug people of the Sydney area were unimpressed by the new arrivals and kept their distance, so much so that Captain Arthur Phillip arranged for adult men to be kidnapped so he could learn more about them and the harsh country in which he had arrived. Although Aboriginal people found new foods and artifacts attractive, they evidenced little desire to enter into social relations with the colonists or change their own ways of life and belief. Within five years, Phillip gave up trying, commencing a century of government indifference. By the twentieth century, if Aboriginal people appeared at all in Australian history books, it was as an ethereal presence drifting into the mists of time. It was not until the 1970s that historians started to address the silence about the high price Aboriginal peoples had been paying for the building of the Australian nation.

The appropriation of land and the exploitation of women led to hostile retaliation by Aboriginal men, although this was remarkable for its targeting of the actual people who had done them harm. This was not the case for the British, however, whose responses were indiscriminate and often included women and children. The British had the firepower to subdue armed resistance, and one society after another found itself repeating the pattern of resistance, casualties, and eventual accommodation as British pastoralists took over Aboriginal lands.

Labor shortages were common in the rural sector, for heat, loneliness, and a life without luxuries were not attractive to British colonists. As hostilities ceased, Aboriginal people found opportunities to stay on their own land by developing relations with pastoralists. Those pastoralists prepared to accept an Aboriginal presence found themselves with valued workers, and these relations were often reproduced over generations. Aboriginal workers came into their own in the 1850s with the beginning of a half century of gold rushes, the announcement of which would deplete a sheep station of its non-indigenous workers in an hour. Aboriginal labor kept the vital wool industry healthy on one station after another.

The gold rushes also attracted migrants, a large number of whom were nonwhite (particularly Chinese), and this intensified concerns that nonwhite labor would erode working conditions. Racism in the workforce became entrenched and was upheld by trade unions for the next century. Aboriginal workers had better conditions in the Southeast because they were a nonthreatening, and Australian, minority. Equal wages were legislated in New South Wales in the late 1920s. The North, dependent on Aboriginal labor, was very different. Conditions ranged from tough to slave-like, and workers were kept in line by a harsh regime. Equal wages came to the Northern Territory in the mid-1960s, but not without much protest from property owners. This decade also saw mechanization replace many rural workers, including a high percentage of Aboriginal people. Aboriginal employment opportunities have been in decline ever since, statistically camouflaged by a “work for the dole” scheme (the Community Development Employment Program) that records participants as employed.

As the colonies of Australia were being established, liberal democratic and humanist ideas that stressed the equality of all people were developing in Europe. Slavery became anathema, as did repressive regimes. The appropriation of land and exploitation of labor in the colonies clearly contradicted these values, but a concurrent idea, that of progress, sustained the contradiction. “Progress” was a search for purity that encouraged an obsession with social diversity and origins. When Lewis Henry Morgan categorized human societies in 1877 as being in states of savagery, barbarism or civilization, he placed Australian Aborigines into the “middle status of savagery,” thus feeding Australia’s version of “social Darwinism.” On the basis of this retrospective confirmation of the legitimacy of British rule, Britain affirmed the rightness of its appropriation of Aboriginal lands on the grounds that savages didn’t have systems of law, governance, property, or religion. Aboriginal people were depicted as the evolutionary forebears of the civilized English, from whom one could learn one’s origins, but who were inevitably doomed by their encounter with the modern.


The racializing of Aboriginal peoples’ differences constituted them as “less than human” and thus justified excluding them from a modern state. When Australia decolonized from Britain in 1901, Federation further entrenched Aboriginal peoples as Other. Although the Australian Constitution accorded the rights of citizens to all, it explicitly restricted Aboriginal people from certain of those rights by excluding them from the Commonwealth census. The Constitution’s “race clauses” protected the colonial hegemony, for citizenship implied judicial equality and the right to vote, an alarming prospect for states with large Aboriginal populations. Aboriginal people who, according to the state in which they lived, had been able to work, vote, buy land, develop small farms and businesses, marry as they chose, and choose their own lifestyle were now denied such rights throughout Australia. Because Commonwealth legislation did not apply to them, individual states had a carte blanche to treat Aboriginal peoples as they wished. Subsequently, they became some of the most legislatively restricted people in history, ensuring their segregation from the developmental prospects of the nation.

One of best known of Australia’s racist laws is the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, known colloquially as the “White Australia policy.” It symbolizes Australia’s preoccupation with racial purity and was designed to exclude nonwhite migrants. So, while the Constitution targeted the racialized Other within, this act targeted the racialized external Other. Both reinforced a nationalist discourse about white superiority, which was now assured by institutions of the state. Even the fiercely egalitarian Australian Labor Party committed itself to cultivating an Australian ethos “based upon the maintenance of racial purity.” In the half century to follow, Australia strove to remain the most monoethnic nation in the world. Excluding indigenous peoples, less than 2 percent of the population was nonwhite by the time of World War II.


Two contemporary movements in the early twenty-first century threaten boundaries that have maintained Aboriginal people as Australia’s Other. One is migration into urban areas, which is collapsing two centuries of spatial segregation. The second is the recognition of the rights of those maligned as part-Aborigines to call themselves Aboriginal. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1997) held an inquiry into the practices of forcibly taking thousands of Aboriginal children from their families for “a better life,” highlighting the personal and social trauma this caused, as well as the denial of cultural inheritance. Although acknowledging the pain of this history, the federal government refused the opportunity for an apology, seen by Aboriginal peoples as a fundamental requirement for reconciliation.

This inquiry did open up greater understanding within Australia to the colonial and recent histories of those of mixed blood. Many who had wanted to pass as white to avoid discrimination, or who had not known they had “Aboriginal blood,” were able to identify as Aboriginal. This would have been hard to imagine in an earlier Australia, so intense was the stigma. Now even well-known white Australians refer to their Aboriginal ancestry. However, this “whitening” of Aboriginality is cultural as well as genetic, and it is becoming an issue for “grass roots” Aboriginal people, who now have to deal with people claiming Aboriginality (sometimes through having lately discovered an Aboriginal great-great-grandparent), even though they have no cultural knowledge of what this means. Aboriginal cultural practice, focused primarily on the qualities of social relatedness, is not necessarily visually or materially different. Thus, the assumption that mixed-ancestry people are not different because they are lighter-skinned, wear clothes, or live in houses, which has been commonly but erroneously made by politicians and social workers, is now often made by newly identifying people who are eligible for influential Aboriginal-designated jobs.

A small, educated, and well-known Aboriginal elite is emerging. They do not constitute a single voice and rarely gain widespread pan-Aboriginal support but they do have positions of influence. These are people who understand themselves not as challengers to the state but as legitimate leaders of moves to modernize indigenous lives and reduce poverty and marginalization. Indigenous initiatives are still, however, tightly controlled by governments that hold the reins through funding. A nationally elected Aboriginal political voice, through the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), was silenced when it was disbanded by the federal government in 2004. With no economic autonomy, political autonomy is vulnerable. Federal and state governments have been successful in turning around movements for political autonomy by focusing on the deplorable social and health conditions that persist throughout the nation.

The act of racializing is thus being reconceptualized through the pathologizing of the marginal Other. Accusations of substance abuse, violence, hopelessness, and laziness are common—and not without cause, as conditions in Aboriginal communities are becoming worse than they have ever been. Increasingly marginalised by conditions not of their own making, they are accorded little respect by Australians being encouraged to greater individualism and consumerism as hallmarks of success. Otherness is reinforced by an apparently concerned but nevertheless pathologizing discourse that represents “rights” as unimportant, or even as being causal (as in the “failure” of self-management programs), in the face of these escalating social and health crises. The modernist discourse that stressed the inevitability of the demise of different other remains influential. It is an approach that legitimates further state intervention but does not deliver long-term economic viability.


An irony of Australian history making was the choice of January 26 as Australia Day, celebrating the landing of the First Fleet from Britain in 1788. In the 1980s Australia Day was reconceptualized in response to Aboriginal activism, bringing greater recognition of the act of injustice it also represented. By the early 1980s, Aboriginal peoples were sufficiently outspoken to fuel fears about how they would respond to the bicentennial celebrations in 1988. In the end, the largest ever pan-Aboriginal protest, when it culminated in a march through the streets of Sydney, was sufficiently peaceful, noisy and colorful that it was co-opted into the overall festivities and reported as just another event in an eventful day. In the mid-1990s federal politicians started to refocus the nation toward the commemoration of Anzac Day, thus de-emphasizing the contradictions of Australia Day and the multicultural ethos. Anzac Day recalls the first major loss of life of the Australian army at Gallipoli during World War I. It has allowed for a more conventional “blood and soil” form of nationalism, with the soil conveniently overseas in Turkey. Yet Aboriginal peoples who have served in the defense forces have struggled to gain recognition and even receive their medals.

The struggle for an inclusive Australianness that admits a painful past and ongoing diversity has led to the recent “history wars.” How Australia tells its national story is at stake. On the one hand are those who discredit reports of Aboriginal land appropriation on the basis of state-sanctioned, often genocidal, violence, while others argue that only by looking honestly at one’s history does one come to terms with the present and enable a shared future. The history wars have emerged in the context of the 9/11 catastrophe in the United States. Since then, Australian politicians have been faced with waves of refugees from the Middle East. Many have successfully played the “race card” in response, demonstrating the ease and rapidity with which a nation’s sentiments can be turned around. Support for Aboriginal people has significantly declined over the same period, as ongoing Aboriginal demands for justice are defused by the simple strategy of pathologizing. Poor housing, inadequate health care and schooling, and the lack of employment opportunities are creating an unprecedented social malaise, and it is not difficult to point to people in dire circumstances and render them a problem of their own making. The media is full of concerned stories about child sexual abuse, domestic violence, organizational failures, and corruption, with Aboriginal people angry at this homogenization and the suggestion that these are uniquely “Aboriginal problems.” The late 1990s and the early 2000s were a reminder in Australia that racializing is still an effective political tool, and one that continues to speak loudly to the hip pocket.

The fear of being subsumed by the Other (internal or external) in the Australian psyche is legitimate. As a settler nation, Australians know only too well the violence, denial, and destruction involved in the colonization process. White Australians certainly do not want to become the Other. Ideas of “race” as a means of legitimizing difference change over time, but this history is so little known that the concept is able to be naturalized, as are the injustices and inequalities that “race” theories sustain. The mystification of the origins of the race concept—as an arbitrary categorization of human beings who can be exploited and excluded—works to convince Aboriginal people that if they improve their social and material conditions, the racism will cease. But racism is not the problem, it is the strategy and the symptom. By focusing on it as a problem, one risks believing in it and denying what it serves to conceal; namely the structures of power and privilege that are the reason for selective denigration and exclusion. Race and racism will not be eliminated while they serve the interests of those in power and while those in power control history.

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