Fake white benevolence stifles truth-telling

7 Dec 2023

Natalie Cromb writes, marginalised communities' efforts for truth-telling are too often silenced by the dominating insistence of white ‘benevolence’. But change will only come from our refusal to speak anything other than the truth for us, and all marginalised peoples throughout the world.

Fake white benevolence

I learnt to swim in the Castlereagh, Peel and Macdonald rivers as a kid on Gomeroi country. Rivers that were once abundant and flowing and you would squeal when a carp would brush against you; rivers that held story and sounds; rivers that taught me lessons I carry with me.  Sure, we had those learn to swim programs in primary school, but do you ever really learn to swim unless you have to swim against the rapids and hold your breath long enough to free your feet from the river reeds they are tangled in? 

When I was swimming in the Macdonald River at Bendemeer as a kid, surrounded by mob from our school and white friends we were allowed to invite on our school camp, I remember my legs getting tangled in the river reeds and panicking. I remember looking at the adults on the bank of the river keeping a careful eye on me, but not panicking. I, on the other hand, was panicking, kicking and flapping and doing that breathing that sounds more like moaning than breathing. 

Despite me clearly not having things under control, they didn’t jump in and panic, they looked at an older kid, crooked their neck to indicate me and, as is the natural order, the older kids paused their game and swam to me. They showed me how to get my legs free and moved me to the bank to catch my breath and swam back out to resume their game. 

I remember sitting there watching on, gulping back air and calming my heart rate. I wasn’t upset, I wasn’t scared and even though I panicked to get free, not once did I think I would drown. That safety in community is something that still makes me marvel at its power. The confidence to explore, learn, fail and do things that may even be a bit dangerous to someone learning their limits. This is only possible because of the calm and protective presence of the community of adults (and older kids) around me. 

Even with the lessons of my childhood, the conditions of my learning and the fact that in that moment I knew I could save myself if I needed to, I would not consider myself a strong swimmer. The truth is, I know how to swim. The truth is, I could also drown in certain circumstances. 

Truth is something that we grapple with early on, we are doing ourselves no favours to embellish and exaggerate, because we learned the hard way that childish confidence and bravado is fleeting and country humbles us. The kid who overstates his swimming ability but is thrust into deep water off the tube he could no longer cling to is treading water for only so long until he is calling for help (true story). 

We find the truth through observation and experience. When mob speak the truth, it is not a truth we read in a book written by someone with a narrow lens intended to teach us we are ‘lucky’ to be who we are, living in the country we live in, with the ‘society’ that we have. Our truth is raw.

However, our propensity for honesty often chafes against the people around us, the institutions and the leaders. 

In a world where ‘how’ you present is more important than what you say; we are understandably alienated from the western machine. In a country where your skin colour, your elocution, your clothing and your gender identity are just some of the things that will be weighed against the words that come from your mouth in deciding whether you are to be believed, and whether you have value. Your vindication lies in whether you fit the mold of this settler benevolence that is synonymous with innocence, or whether you are currency to be used to demonstrate said settler benevolence.

How are we to trust a benevolent  country  forged on the lie of terra nullius? How are we to engage in a system where murders and negligence are investigated by the institutions that perpetrate them? How are we to expect integrity from people who hold elected positions of power when they receive parliamentary privilege? How are we to be informed when the institutions charged with keeping society informed are complicit in the lies that gave rise to the Intervention and who vilify children as criminals?

When Indigenous people call for truth telling, it is within a framework where every single time we tell the truth, it is drowned out by mainstream media’s determined maintenance of the narrative of white benevolence. 

It is difficult to articulate the emotions that have been churning throughout the last several months. While we all have had to grapple with the everyday grind of taking care of our families, communities and ourselves, we have also been fodder for the media (and increasingly the axe grinders on social media) throughout the Referendum and fallout of it. Where the value of what we have to say was placed into the hands of the voters in this country and rejected with vehemence. Despite one of the Voice co-designers Noel Pearson, stating “Frankly, the voice is a proposal so pathetically understated that I’m amazed most Indigenous people are settling for it. After all, I helped design it as something so modest that no reasonable non-Indigenous Australian could reject it. More fool me.”

We have since October been witness to war in real time. While we rally and show solidarity in spirit and with economics; we are being forced to helplessly witness  horror. Trauma compounds, and the only truth we can say to ourselves in the quiet moments is that we know that the power structures of the world were created through violence, so it stands to precedent that violence reinforces it.

There continues to be this naiveté among settlers that there is purpose, that there is rationale, that the power systems and structures will set to right the world from the current turmoil, tragedy and trauma.  

I don’t have the same hope, nor do any Indigenous people I know, because we do not all have the same formative education as those non-Indigenous around us. We certainly do not have the same experience from within the systemically racist institutions within this country. 

I know that those in power are not there to create systemic change to  the wrongs of the past while creating a better world for the future in accountable ways. It comes from the same place of knowing I am not a strong swimmer – experience. 

The structures and people that operate within them maintain the status quo. 

Change will not come from within the structures of power currently deciding our fate, it will come from the people throughout the world who are unified in the necessity of change, of the protection of people and planet regardless of where and to whom they were born. This change should be led by the Indigenous communities throughout the world who have and continue to survive and can lead the way in decolonising structures to re-centre people and community wellbeing as the measure of success.

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