Victims and Vultures – the profitability of problematising the Aborigine

15 Jan 2018

As a health researcher I am troubled by the predatory possibilities of “the Aboriginal problem”. Many a mortgage has been paid off the back of knowing “the Aboriginal problem” or claiming to solve “the Aboriginal problem” as advancing new knowledge. Within Indigenous health research, people (and by people, I mean predominantly white people) make money from knowing “the Aboriginal problem” under the premise that a deeper understanding of “the Aboriginal problem” will somehow fix it.

As a health researcher I am troubled by the predatory possibilities of “the Aboriginal problem”. Many a mortgage has been paid off the back of knowing “the Aboriginal problem” or claiming to solve “the Aboriginal problem” as advancing new knowledge. Within Indigenous health research, people (and by people, I mean predominantly white people) make money from knowing “the Aboriginal problem” under the premise that a deeper understanding of “the Aboriginal problem” will somehow fix it. You’ll be hard pressed to find health research that has Aboriginal people as it subjects (as opposed to chief investigators) that doesn’t explicitly or implicitly attend to “the Aboriginal problem”. And when the research is done, what we also find is that the actual solution to “the Aboriginal problem” is “too complex” “beyond our control” or “lacks the necessary political commitment” to repair. So we find a new problem, a new ailment among the native folk, and secure another research grant and build another career which provides the financial means for acquiring a new property, built, of course, on stolen land.

I remember a colleague sarcastically bemoaning why a certain prestigious research institution hadn’t cured scabies in remote Aboriginal Australia already, given how much money they’d been given over the last few decades researching it. They had a point. Name a body part and I reckon I could name a researcher or research institution who has made a living from articulating the Aborigine’s problem with it – they haven’t solved it, they just have a more nuanced understanding of “the Aboriginal problem”, which is far more sophisticated than the native’s articulation of it (at least that’s what they’ll claim).

Author’s note (for the white folk and their allies): Of course, there are good white people making a decent contribution to Indigenous health and of course, health research can result in improved health outcomes, however these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Show me a great white health researcher in our space and I will bet you that there is an underpaid overqualified Aboriginal person(s) who has walked beside them, persevered through their everyday racism, and been cleaning up behind them, in the faint hope that more good than harm will be done for their mob.

But I digress, the crux of my discomfort is the almost predatory or parasitic relationship of “the Aboriginal problem”.

Now of course this tension is not just found within the domain of health research and “the Aboriginal problem” is not just a stereotype. “The Aboriginal problem” is the very foundation of the relationship between us and the state, serving the interests of the colony financially and politically.  One such example is the recent discussion surrounding GST revenue allocation where it was claimed that the big population of Aborigines outside of the Northern Territory didn’t experience big enough problems and thus should not be calculated for the purposes of distributing revenue among the States and Territories for Indigenous services.

What a conundrum – the insistence that our existence should only count (literally and figuratively) when we adhere to “the Aboriginal problem”.  Under this proposal, the States or Territories able to claim that they were legitimately suffering from “the Aboriginal problem” would serve to benefit financially. The Northern Territory, it was argued should get more money for their “Aboriginal problem” despite the fact they were “found to have not spent the extra $500M in GST revenue it was allocated for its ‘disadvantaged remote indigenous (sic) population’ directly on services for Aboriginal people”.

Appearing to know and care about the problem of Aborigines is a profitable business in this country, sometimes even for Blackfullas.

Enter Aboriginal commentator, advisor, spokesperson, Warren “my mates call me a media tart” Mundine who last week (singlehandedly?) told us the problem and solution to…you guessed it “the Aboriginal problem”.  His latest pearl of wisdom was posted by his wife Elizabeth Henderson on the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce Yaabubiin Institute of Disruptive Thinking blog, of which they are both Directors.  Titled “Step out of the cage” his piece is neither disruptive nor thoughtful.

Essentially Mundine give us his take on “the Aboriginal problem”, which he has repackaged as “Aboriginal victimhood” and according to him, is the very cause of “the Aboriginal problem” (stay with me). This is not the first time that Mundine has spoken about victimhood, in fact he talks about it a fair bit –  so much so, sometimes I feel like it’s all he ever talks about. It’s not like he came up with it though. I’m fairly certain Pearson first articulated this almost two decades ago in his declaration of ‘Our Right to Take Responsibility’, though sadly, Warren’s work lacks the sophistication of Pearson’s.

According to Warren’s world, the Aborigine is stuck in one of two mindsets. One is the victimhood culture which ‘focuses on past wrongdoings and “institutionalised racism”’ and ‘is explained by history’s wrongdoings and the inherent racism of “the system”’.

Author’s note: Mundine’s use of air quotations above is his way of saying that racism of the systemic or institutional kind, isn’t actually real.

The other mindset, Mundine tells us, exhibited by the exceptional Aborigines (among whom he places himself) is that ‘one can decide our path’. Sound a little simplistic? Well that’s because it is. The evidence base for supporting the construction of his imaginary binary is an opinion piece he discovered on social media by Psychotherapist Lisa Marchiano, whose peer-reviewed scholarly work I am unfamiliar with. Not surprisingly, Mundine does not consider the problems or pitfalls of binary thinking politically or psychologically.

Mundine insists that the multiple, complex and persisting disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal Australia are all a result of a singular poor choice. Now I’m not dismissing the significance of self-perception and self-efficacy but perhaps both our disadvantage and our intellect is a little more complex than he imagines. The real and profound inequalities between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia across almost every indicator is not because we have chosen the wrong side in the agency versus structure debate.

What is confusing about the logic of Warren’s world is that he seems to suggest that Aboriginal disadvantage isn’t real, but he then goes on to argue that we make it real by how we think about ourselves, which then in turn means that there are a whole lot of Aborgines who really are disadvantaged.

Confusing is one thing – but there is also something disturbing about Warren’s theory. If our disadvantage is a product of how we think about ourselves, it follows that whitefellas must be doing better because they just have a better way of thinking (about themselves of course). Gee, if only we could think more like them, then maybe, just maybe, we could be more like them.

Mundine refers to the story of hardship and resilience of his parents and what they had to overcome (without sounding like a victimmind you) which is not an unfamiliar story to most Blackfulllas I know. For a moment I could see where Mundine was coming from. I too was raised in a home of “rise above” and “hold your head high” regardless of circumstance. In our home we were not allowed to think of ourselves as less than whitefellas, with my father assuring us that being better off than others did not make one better than another.  And it is that ideology to this day, that I hold in my head and my heart. I refuse to accept that the superior social standing of whitefellas is a result of their superior way of thinking or being in the world. It is this refusal to accept the racialized logics that are inscribed upon our bodies that ensures we are not agent-less subjects or victims.

Mundine’s call for us to reject victimhood by likening us to “animals in a cage” (yes his direct quote) is most telling. In seeing us as animals (because remember he told us, he is not in this group), he denies us the capacity for complex thought (which really is nothing new for Blackfullas in this country).  Of the half million Blackfullas across this continent, of the hundreds of language groups and nations, Mundine insists that we fall into one of two tribes – those that see themselves as victims (or “animals in a cage”) and those who are the victors. The victors according to Mundine are the Blackfullas that are doing great because they just pretend everything is great.

Yet I know too many Blackfullas who don’t belong to Warren’s tribes. I know too many Blackfullas who are simultaneously rising above oppression and hardship while also calling out the processes and structures that have tried to keep us in our place. We call these out in the hope that those who come after us won’t have to jump so high just to get a seat at the table, or the crumbs that fall off it. That’s not victimhood. That’s being a good ancestor.

And if we are going to be really honest, it’s not a sense of victimhood that is holding our people back Warren  – it is one of the things that has been propping up your career of late.

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