This Reconciliation Week, take some time to learn about Whiteness

29 May 2018

It isn't enough to learn about Aboriginal history to create true understanding. We also need to examine the lens through which history is viewed... White supremacy (and Social Darwinism) still shapes much of the way White Australia sees Aboriginal peoples, cultures and history.

This article was first published in May 2018 and updated May 2023.


As you are probably aware, this week is Reconciliation Week.

If you have followed me on Twitter for a few years you might also be aware that I, and many other Indigenous people, have mixed feelings about how this week often plays out.

Me looking at all the #reconciliation tweets from politicians and corporations…

— Pearson In The Wind (@LukeLPearson) May 28, 2018

It seems to be taken as a given that Reconciliation means Indigenous people doing the labour, and white people getting to feel good about it. Reconciliation used to evoke images of a white hand shaking a black hand, but now it seems to represent a black hand holding a shovel and getting to work and a white hand giving either a thumbs up, or a middle finger.

That #settlercolonial #reconciliation be like:

— Gubs don’t @ me (@nogubs88) May 28, 2018

So, I tweeted my refusal to participate in the education of White people this Rec Week, which was pointed out to me later was still a form of education, for those cluey enough to get the message.

I’m not educating white ppl about shit this Rec Week because I am, to quote Yasiin Bey, too busy surviving to argue ’bout Darwin…

— Pearson In The Wind (@LukeLPearson) May 28, 2018

As you can see from that tweet, it was not just a moral stand but also a practical one – I’ve been gainfully unemployed for a bit over a month now as I chose to come back fulltime to IndigenousX, which means going back to freelancing and trying to get enough work to survive and still have enough time to grow IndigenousX. It’s going pretty well so far to be honest, but there is a certain type of stress that comes from not having a secure income source when you have kids to feed and bills to pay, and you’re trying to grow a business to a point that you can actually hire a couple of people to work with you… but I digress, *cough* support IndigenousX on Patreon *cough*

Every Indigenous person on Twitter who is sharing their knowledge has stuff to do too, and I am painfully aware that there is also a dangerous fallacy in the belief that education alone can cure racism. Or at least, that education in the form of individual pieces of knowledge about Aboriginal peoples and cultures can cure racism.

This is not just because racism is primarily about power and privilege, but also because there needs to also be education about the lens of whiteness through which white people and traditionally viewed Indigenous peoples and cultures.

I went on an extended twitter rant about this, but rather than embed the dozen or so tweets for you to read, I will just paste the text of it below:

“It isn’t enough to learn about Aboriginal history to create true understanding. We also need to examine the lens through which history is viewed… White supremacy (and Social Darwinism) still shapes much of the way White Australia sees Aboriginal peoples, cultures and history.

There are few better examples of this than @philipruddockmp‘s comments back in 2000, when he was the Minister for Reconciliation *cough*, and was in France promoting the Olympic Games.

Ruddock was asked by French newspaper, Le Monde, about why Aboriginal Australians ‘are so disadvantaged compared with other Indigenous peoples around the world’.

Ruddock explained that Aboriginal people didn’t come into contact with ‘developed civilisations’ until much later than many other Indigenous groups, and as such were simply taking that much longer to catch up.

“We’re dealing with an Indigenous population that had little contact with the rest of the world. We’re dealing with people who were essentially hunter-gatherers. They didn’t have chariots. I don’t think they invented the wheel.” Ruddock was quoted as saying at the time.

The assertion being that Aboriginal disadvantage is not created by the impacts of ongoing colonisation, oppression, and racism, but simply that it takes many centuries for such a primitive peoples to ‘catch up’ to the rest of the world.

If you hold this as a core belief, then it doesn’t matter how much you learn about Aboriginal ingenuity or philosophy, or about Australia’s shameful history – everything you learn will be tainted by that outdated racist belief.

Through this lens it doesn’t matter that we didn’t have horses to make chariots useful, or that we didn’t have a use for a wheel, or that white people didn’t invent the wheel either… It doesn’t matter that there is no part of Western civilisation that takes 400 years to learn.

Everything you see or hear will be explained away by the idea that Aboriginal peoples are primitive, and that the atrocities of white people are justified as part of the white man’s burden – well-intentioned attempts to civilise the savage.

It justifies the belief that Aboriginal people are unfit to raise their own children, have no rights to their own lands or resources, cannot even be trusted with money, are unemployable, and do not deserve a say in the laws and policies that affect us.

It justifies any and all policy failings in health, education, housing, employment, incarceration etc, because nothing you do really matters anyway – it takes centuries to civilise the savage.

So, please do take some time this week to learn about Aboriginal history, but also take some time to learn about white history and the outdated, unscientific, ahistorical racist beliefs that still shape much of the national discourse and policy approaches to Indigenous affairs.”

Then, when I thought about turning that rant into an article, I started to think about all the other related lenses through which we are viewed. The romanticised, the nostalgic, the deficit discourses, the search for white and black saviours alike (but mostly for white saviours).

Unfortunately, Australia doesn’t do very well as critical race discourse (and to be fair there are plenty of Aboriginal academics far better versed in it than I am).

This is why there is currently a push for a Centre for Western Civilisation instead of a Centre for Western Civilisation Studies.

Western civilisation in Australia is either glorified in painfully unrealistic ways, or it is kept invisible and its myriad influences ignored or downplayed. Either way, it’s strongest proponents don’t want anyone to look at it in too much detail. They just want us to celebrate it blindly.

Some want this for Aboriginal knowledges and identities too, so that we can ‘all just be Australian’, or can hold up Indigenous cultures as magical without actually taking the time to understand it.

These too are lenses of whiteness through which we are viewed.

Others argue that Aboriginal knowledges can be of benefit to the rest of the world, which they undoubtedly can, but this view risks falling into the trap of promoting a purely utilitarian view that says our knowledges are only of value if they can directly value other people – there is enough history of our knowledges being stolen for the profit of others to throw up an instant red flag and this view. It also takes a strip mining approach to culture, where people sift through looking for such pieces of ‘valuable’ knowledge, meaning that the rest can readily be destroyed or disregarded.

I could go on, but I’m already way over word count here. The point is, before White people try to learn about Indigenous peoples, cultures or knowledges they first need to look at the lens through which they are to view us, and recognise that there is no such thing as objectivity in this process.

Hopefully this will help some people to realise that they have just as much to unlearn as they do to learn, and that they probably need to do one before  seriously attempting the other.

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