‘Most Australians, and our international visitors, first learn about Indigenous people through conversations that are often grounded in disadvantage’ Photograph: IndigenousX

Todd Fernando: As Indigenous people we exist outside of sporting arenas and welfare dependency

 ‘Most Australians, and our international visitors, first learn about Indigenous people through conversations that are often grounded in disadvantage’ Photograph: IndigenousX

‘Most Australians, and our international visitors, first learn about Indigenous people through conversations that are often grounded in disadvantage’ Photograph: IndigenousX

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Todd Fernando is a descendant of the Wiradjuri peoples and a PhD candidate specialising in medical anthropology with the Centre for Health Equity at the University of Melbourne. His academic interest is in Indigenous queer theory, health policy, racial literacy, whiteness studies, and Indigenous global politics. .

Indigenous and mainstream Australians often have very different ideas about the concept of “success”. For non-Indigenous Australians success opportunities are almost exclusively economic concepts, based on stolen and inherited resources and privilege. For Indigenous people, achieving this normative conceptualisation of success involves abandoning our home cultures and assimilating into the dominant culture, usually without any of the advantages of inherited wealth and privilege.

Indeed, success for Indigenous people involves coming face-to-face with the reality that we start out at the very bottom of the economic ladder because our assets and resources were stripped from our nations during Australia’s violent colonial history. Indigenous Australian activists have fought back against this structural disadvantage over the last century or so, particularly in more recent decades, and this has resulted in some wider recognition of this glaring economic reality.

Yet despite this transformation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders continue to experience some of the highest incarceration, suicide and ill-health rates in the world. For these Indigenous Australians, the barriers to success are still real and visceral. In many cases, exclusion is still the reality. There are all too often hidden – or not so hidden – barriers that prevent some Indigenous people from feeling comfortable in places of overwhelming whiteness.

When Indigenous people enter Australian boarding schools, universities or workforce, they often carry historical baggage. They are still often the first in their families to attend these institutions, gain formal education and participate in the Australian economy. These opportunities simply were not widely available to our older generations. And when they position their lives according to the foreign values of these institutions, many fail due to this cultural difference. That failure can produce a tension between Indigenous people and these organisations or institutions. This is how Australian nation-building can negatively impact Indigenous communities and values.

The “last of his tribe” imperialist trope has now been replaced with “the first of her tribe” as an indicator to Indigenous people entering elite institutions solely by merit and fortitude. This new narrative causes a subtle racism of low expectation in the fact that each instance of success is considered remarkable, an exception to the rule. Their accomplishments elevate them above their peers as role models and are used to send the message that any individual can succeed, so those experiencing poverty and oppression have only themselves to blame. This brand of shaming has the potential to cause more economic marginalisation and social isolation.

Framing positive narratives of Indigenous life can place pressure on an Indigenous social presence in mainstream Australian culture. When Indigenous success invokes a political or ideological agenda, tensions rise because it applies Australian mainstream’s concept of success as the roadmap. Such traps are avoided when an Indigenous concept of success is viewed equally. When considering Indigenous employment statistics in areas of health, education, business, economics, law, the presence of Indigenous participation emerges. But the other side of these statistics shows how much more work is required. When narratives lead with the latter, deficit discourse seems to always prevail.

Native Alaskan academic Eve Tuck argues “that the research on our communities has historically been damage centered, intent on portraying us [Indigenous] as defeated and broken.” Therefore, we must forge new narratives to sit alongside as indicators of achievement. But how do we shift deficit discourse and allow Indigenous success to be seen, heard and told first? While there is no one correct answer, a practical solution is the rise of an Indigenous intelligentsia.

Intelligentsia is a term to describe a collection of people who push the boundaries of critical thinking. For Indigenous Australia, this intelligentsia includes Indigenous academics, lawyers, doctors, CEOs, consultants and a lot of young leaders and entrepreneurs. Indigenous intelligentsia should be understood, at least in part, as a cure to the crisis of low expectations and an end to the thought that Indigenous anything is first and foremost deficit, damaged or broken. To do this, however, we must affirm the growth of this intelligentsia in both Indigenous and Australian cultures.

Some believe that Indigenous achievements in Australian mainstream culture are merely markers of assimilation. Some stir the pot by assuming any goal toward economic stability is to “sell out,” while others obsess over the emerging black bourgeoisie by using them to prop up their social capital. When this way of thinking is normalised, it shadows the brilliance of Indigenous success discourse by confirming disadvantage as the only margin from which Aboriginality can be performed. It redefines Australia’s tall poppy syndrome with the idea that there are too many crabs in the bucket.

This group of intelligentsia must guide and harness an archetype of Indigenous leadership in Australian society’s culture and polity to allow Indigenous people stand on the other side of the door entirely while contributing to the Australian economy. Professor Marcia Langton captures and propels the sentiment knowingly: “with one gate open, we should now think about removing the fences.” 

The building of an intellectual community should be seen as an incredible and exciting journey that cultivates the thought that Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal people can exist outside of deficit narratives, sporting arenas, and art exhibitions. That they too can capitalise on Indigenous ways of knowing to guide and shape the positive rather than continue the primitive, negative silhouette. These truths are not told to mask the areas of despair in Indigenous affairs, but to highlight that transformation and revolution occur when success outweighs deficit. 

We must go beyond the idea that sport, art or welfare dependency is the only avenue to “success” and change the narrative through education and career-making. This logic goes beyond the superficial symbolism that sometimes results from reconciliation efforts. While it seems like an easy task to do, what makes this so complex is challenging the idea that Indigenous people are inherently disadvantaged and marginal rather than capable and successful, as, increasingly, so many are. It demands that we have to do better and it starts by challenging the notion that success is exclusively white.

This article was first published by Guardian Australia on 25 October as part of their collaboration with IndigenousX

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