Monday, 27 February 2012

On tokenism and white people writing about indigenous peoples

Two weeks ago, the Australian Parliament held an event to show its official institutional support for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution. A link to a short video of the event is here, and contains brief glimpses of indigenous individuals speaking about their hopes and aspirations for the recognition process. Is this tokenism? Well, to a certain extent, it is. Most of the people that appear on this video are both indigenous and part of a “white-person-relatable” middle class. Which begs the question: why should their views matter, if they are to a certain extent assimilated (and, therefore, no longer “truly” indigenous)?

For one, there is no such thing as “truly” indigenous. Just like there is no such thing as “authentic” culture or cultural heritage. To think of indigeneity, or culture more broadly, in terms of authenticity implies a degree of essentialization that, to be quite honest, is counterproductive at its best, and plain evil at its worst. Allow me to explain that a bit further: by allowing people to be divided along lines of “authentic” and “non-authentic”, one necessarily creates the other, thereby playing into the hands of the racist policies one should be countering. Identity is not, by any standard, a watertight category, it is fluid, constantly evolving, multi-faceted. The fact that, back in the 1980s, Sandra Lovelace, and indigenous woman from Canada, got married to a white man, meant she lost her indigeneity, for legal purposes. Is that the way things should go? The UN Human Rights Committee said “no” back then, and it is surprising that things have not changed that much in the past 30 years, despite that forceful statement about identity not depending on one single factor, and one facet of identity not meaning the exclusion of others. But I digress.

Back to tokenism in the Australian process, the second reason why those peoples’ opinions should matter is precisely because, as Aboriginal peoples who got, for one reason or another, to be part of both worlds (the Aboriginal and the settler society), they are in a better place to mediate tensions, to understand both languages, to be themselves the catalysts for this important change. Without their presence, the whole process might be jeopardized simply by the inability to find a common language, or by finding a shadow of a common language that is plain condescending and paternalistic (reminiscent of early indigenous recognition processes in many Latin American constitutions).

So, these participants in the process are at least every bit as important as the “real” Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, if not more so. This in turn relates to one of Sarah’s recent posts, about her place as a white person writing about indigenous issues. While I am in the same position (a non-indigenous person wildly interested in indigenous issues), and I am very careful not to essentialize, not to be paternalistic, and not to assume that I can any way fully comprehend the depth of the indigenous experience (just as I don’t think indigenous individuals can fully grasp the non-indigenous experience), I think my attempts at it are valid, precisely because of this “bridge” capacity of my interventions (however modest). Plus, it is by trying to step into one’s shoes that we develop empathy, something that is clearly in short supply in so many areas of human activity.

Written by Lucas Lixinski.

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