Who planted them seeds?

22 Mar 2022

Now, if we are to recognise that shame is an exterior thing, it is both natural and instructive to then ask: who planted them seeds? I ask this question not at all as part of the process of discarding shame, as some have suggested is the best course of action. The shedding of shame, from my standpoint, is in fact at best lazy thinking and at worst wasteful.

I am uninterested in most theory or writing that does not help me navigate life in the colony. That may be writing that makes the day-to-day easier or more joyful, or it may mean things much grander – the slow but intentional unravelling of the colony itself. Either way, what is important, is a sort of lightning of the load. That noted, it is probably unsurprising that I have little to no interest in creating writing that does not serve this purpose. This is all to say that, if you are not a Blackfulla, then this is not for you. If you get something out of it, then I am pleased. If you don’t, well, I will lose no sleep. All that said I can now get on: I want to talk about the importance of shame. 

Now, shame is a funny sort of thing. In trying to describe it, I am tempted to say that it is a type of guilt. But that’s not quite right: guilt, for me, is something that grows inside. It blooms as an unwanted but necessary reminder that I have done something, or left something undone, that grates against the interior of me. Shame, on the other hand, while also being a reminder grows elsewhere. More precisely, I suspect that if it is a thing that blooms at all, it flowers, so to speak, on the other side of the fence. 

Now, if we are to recognise that shame is an exterior thing, it is both natural and instructive to then ask: who planted them seeds? I ask this question not at all as part of the process of discarding shame, as some have suggested is the best course of action. The shedding of shame, from my standpoint, is in fact at best lazy thinking and at worst wasteful. It is also a privilege the colonised, if we wish to remain ourselves, do not have. The reason I ask it, and in fact most Blackfullas do, is instead because we appreciate the following truth: there is shame that is bad and there is shame that is good. 


While I have hinted at the importance of good shame, I first want to talk about bad shame. Shame that, for the colonised and others near the fringe, is usually planted by the colony. For me, this type expressed itself in several ways when I was younger. The ugliest, and in my opinion most serious, was a discomfort with the dark colour of my skin. The outside, in this instance, was the 90s media landscape – from billboard to primetime, from magazine to movie – skin like mine was rarely, even approximately, positioned close to beauty. Instead, it was more or less just to the right of criminality. Positioning aide, it also I’m sure did not help that I was raised in the Blue Mountains. If you’ve spent time there you will understand what I mean. The naming, truth be told, is entirely off because it is more plateau than mountains, and more white than blue.  

I understand now, of course, that my skin is a gift. I mean this in the sense that, while for some, the sun here is a dangerous thing, for me and mine it is closer to kin. I also mean it is a gift in the very concrete sense that it came from my ancestors.  This was an extremely fruitful realisation for young me to have because a gift, even if you do not initially like it, must at least be met with gratitude. That gratitude, then, grew into something that’s hard to articulate but easy to see; a sort of swagger in my step. Now, it is not lost on me that this place does not need yet another essay waxing over the woes of colour, in relative comfort– and that such writing, especially if you are lighter-skinned, ought to be a source of good shame. The purpose of my words was to emphasise the following: despite the swagger, I have very intentionally held tight onto this shame. 

The reason, of course, is simple: if I discard it, I cannot shape it. If I cannot shape it, then I cannot make it do work for me. If we blissfully throw shame away we may feel lighter, yes, but we cannot inspect its origins, its workings, nor its purpose. For instance, my people did not feel shame because of our shade prior to colonisation: there are its origins. The environment, both media and schooling: there are its workings. And for sure and certain, the colonised anywhere would do well to be weary of both. Its purpose, given its origins and workings, are also plain to see: the great crumpling of our feathers. This seems, I know, a funny purpose to point out but if you have had the misfortune of seeing a beaten dog you will understand the gravity of that crumpling, and its serious function in control. Shame discarded, if you are colonised or close to the edge, is for this reason shame wasted. It is wasted because if instead you poke and pry, it squirms into a lens to see other things. Indeed, properly scrutinised, bad shame makes its other instances much easier to see and therefore less able to harm. 


Now good shame is not planted by the colony but instead sown, with a great deal of love, by our Aunties and Uncles and older cousins. Good shame, or what I’m tempted to call sovereign shame – for it reminds us who we are –  is what is cultivated in the absence of guilt. To clarify, the absence I’m speaking of here is the one that exists because either it was not needed prior to our colonisation or because the colony may have prevented its growth. This feels vague, I understand, so let me give an example. 

There is, of late, a frightening increase of so-called Indigenous art in the style of desert mob, coming from people who are not desert mob. Of course, some have received permission to paint – and story tell—in this style and with them I take no issue. The vast majority, however, I suspect saw it on a plane or bus and decided to give it a go, as if Indigenous ancestry gives access to anything slightly labelled Indigenous. Now, a lot of this is happening because of historical removals from lands, denied access to culture and so on. Otherwise put, it is happening precisely because of colonisation and that’s a sad thing indeed. However, this does not change one bit the fact that their actions cheapen the lore of desert mob. 

This is where good, loving shame comes in. It is felt by those who had the fortune to have it planted by those around them. The discomfort it creates holds them to account and cautions against this overstep, this painting  – often for the white dollar – in a lore-informed style that is not their own. Good shame, more than anything, is a gift that reminds us who we are and who we are not. It is needed precisely, and only, because we are colonised. For what gave those non-desert mob false permission to paint in this way, if not the idea of the Indigenous identity, which cannot exist without the idea of the non-Indigenous? Our old people, in planting this shame, recognised this homogenous notion of Indigeneity for the convenient fiction it is: a tool, amongst things, to define away a great many displacements.  


Now, when I say that bad shame is often planted by the colony what I mean is that it serves the colony.  In turn, this means that those same Aunties and Uncles and older cousins may also be the source of bad shame. The reason for this, of course, is because we are all colonised. It is important to note, however, that we are colonised in different ways. Those that may hate us Gulu-wii or something like Blackfulla queers (almost certainly because of the church) may still have a great deal of good shame, and those that do not may have a great many other varieties of the bad type. Because of these differences, and this is crucial, good shame can be patchworked.  Though it is difficult, accepting good shame from those that have harmed us, is truly colony disrupting work. 

While I have noted that some our Old People, due to colonisation, can sometimes harm us I do not want to downplay the ways they have also prepared us. For instance, when you hear an old Aunty say ‘ngurragah got no shame’ it serves, to my mind, two very important purposes. The first is a direct call to investigate who, in a given context, does not have it at all. The reason for this is that the answer is often just as instructive, if not more, as finding out who planted the seeds. The second, equally important function is to suggest that there are some, quite obviously, who are lacking said shame when they ought to have it. What is beneath that suggestion, in turn, is the urge to be generous. Which is to say, to share your good shame in the hope it might take root, and remind the individual in question of their misstep.  

I am conscious that this idea, of sharing good shame, will be counter-intuitive to many. Some, I’m certain, will reject it wholeheartedly. But before you do, and case by case, you should ask the following question: what precisely is being reminded? If the answer, and more importantly the changes that result, make of you a better ancestor the next question should be: who benefits if this seed is unplanted? 


Authour’s Note: Gaba nginda to Dr Melinda Mann for a critical read of the first draft of this. Many many thanks also to the incomparable Gomeroi multitasker Alison Whittaker, who prompted the writing of this essay: I hope it helps even a little. 



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