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Introduction: representing racial issues.


The contributors to this collection are all interested in the politics of representation and how this impinges on the politics of identity. Some of the work reflects a fruitful dialogue between anthropology and cultural studies. The concern is not merely with representations in the sense of describing or defining some Other people, but rather with situating acts of knowledge about these Others. As anthropologists we also interpret and represent events, the past, violence and ourselves. Those things which we do not name are rendered passive, indeterminant, irrelevant. The knowledge produced by the practice of field-work is premised on a number of such exclusions. The absence of white Australians from many accounts of the social world of black Australians is one example. The erasure of racism as a lived structure of domination is another and reversals, appropriations and subversions of power relations are also rendered invisible.

When the slaves in southern U.S.A. ate the master's pig it tasted especially good. Genovese's rendering of such events includes the slaves' impeccable logic that, in eating the master's hog, they had only transformed his property from one form into another, much as they did when they fed the master's corn to the master's chickens (1976:602). In doing so they turned the logic of slavery, that a certain category of people are no more than chattels, back on itself. The ideological reversal produced a delicious sauce. It also presented a more irksome challenge to the plantation regime than the mere threat to property. To the slave holders, such thefts were held to reaffirm the essential irredeemable character of the 'negro', the 'thieving nigger', and such activities when slaves were caught in the act, were dealt with severely. Yet they were a familiar element in the slave regimes. Genovese's analysis of the power relations that pervaded the world of slaves and slave holders captures the extra-culinery conditions that rendered the master's hog delicious to eat.

A different inversion of the principles of private property by those that have none is visible in rural NSW. When Aborigines catch a sheep which they find on the road there is a sense of gourmet delight and also a joking representation of the event as today's form of hunting. Appropriating the property of the white man can thus be the basis of affirming Aboriginality. Another case of appropriation of White's property was the theft of poultry from the cold-store in Bourke by a group of Aboriginal boys so that the proper Christmas feasting could be observed. Part of the interpretation of the event among Aborigines was as a balancing the scales of justice (Cowlishaw. 1988:235-6). In the public discourse, as articulated by pastoralists, publicans and police, such actions are merely crimes to be punished, or at best, self-destructive actions of a depressed group with only negative political intentions and repercussions. Some social scientists would more sympathetically see them as part of a culture of poverty enacted by a people who cannot postpone immediate rewards in favour of their long term interests. But they contain other meanings which are part of a general understanding of the relationship with the Gubbahs (Whites) and their institutions, and which are generated and expressed through the circulation of these narratives in Aboriginal communities.

As academics we may dispute, but we do not control the interpretation of such events in the public arena. Our interpretations challenge a public opinion which, in rural Australia at least, is constructed around an aggressive hostility to Aboriginal difference which is seen as breaching the canons of populist egalitarianism (Morris 1990). Only recently has the offer of formally equal status been extended to Aborigines; their subsequent assertion of a continuing difference is taken to be an insult. In such local settings an implacable cultural domination, a coercive value consensus, is hidden behind a benign egalitarian rhetoric. Any interpretation of the cultural underpinnings of the events described above must take account of this racialised public discourse. The patterns of local rhetoric and reasoning, as well as violence, conflict, confusion and hostility, are the background of all Aborigines' lives in the racially divided suburbs, towns and isolated communities of Australia. To put it simply, one cannot represent Aborigines without representing the dialectical relations of domination. Further, the way academic work impacts on, to either challenge or to authorise and entrench certain elements of public knowledge and racial practice, is a political as well as an intellectual matter. There are no simple answers or comfortable positions we can adopt in answer to these problems of representation and discourse.

This collection(1) was first conceived out of a debate about the adequacy, the usefulness and the significance of the concept of 'oppositional culture' and the notion of 'resistance' in the analysis of contemporary indigenous cultures and contemporary race relations in Australia. One aim was to develop this debate by moving beyond the trivialisation involved in the use of the terms 'resistance' and 'accommodation' as binary opposites. Responses to colonial occupation can rarely be designated as exclusively one or the other. People's lives are not lived in a c|eft stick between dissent and assent. Crises of loyalty or identity created by a racialised environment, are rarely specified as having the political meaning they may accrue in hindsight or on reflection. Yet there are alternative meanings being generated constantly and any representation must favour the meanings generated by one or another segment of the population.

Jeremy Beckett pioneered the analysis of cultural forms of resistance among Aborigines in his interpretation of the lives of Aborigines in Wilcannla and Murrin Bridge for his MA thesis in the 1950s. The thesis was not published (but cf. Beckett 1964, 1965) and, until recently, no-one followed him in this path-finding research. Ronald Berndt (1962, 1969) described instances of Aboriginal protest and active attempts to change their relations with colonisers. Much later came other attempts to deal ethnographically with contemporary Aboriginal cultural responses, in the work of Jeff Collmann (1979, 1988) and more recently Eric Michaels (1989) Barry Morris (1989, 1990) Maggie Brady (1992) and myself (Cowlishaw, 1988). Until very recently these anthropologists were isolated scholars, not supported by a body of Australian literature or an institutional base.


In order to situate some of the debates in this collection I will briefly set out my argument about oppositional culture which has led to some controversy which was aired at the Australian Anthropology Society conference in 1992. The recirculation of certain criticisms among a number of authors indicates a discomfort with the analysis and a defensive reaction among anthropologists which was evident when the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was alerted to the supposed dangers and/or unimportance of the concept of 'oppositional culture'.(2)

The term 'oppositional culture' came from a body of literature and debates in Britain which linked sub-cultures and cultures of working-class and black Britons with their subordination to show how these cultures subverted and challenged dominant systems of meaning. The logic of these cultural forms could thus be partly understood through their dialectical relationship with more powerful, established cultural forms. The interpretation of racism as a 'common-sense' cultural practice began to emerge (eg. CCCS 1982). The search for sources of power in alternative cultural forms, and the politics generated by the complexity and ambiguity of cultural hierachies, generated a rich ethnographic literature which is still appearing (cf. Grossberg, Nelson and Treichler, 1992). The deployment of these concepts in Australia offers an alternative to the simplistic ideas, sympathetic or sorrowful, which so often accompany the examination of the contemporary situation of Aborigines in both public and academic discussion and an alternative to notions of individual pathologies or the collective pathologies of groups and families associated with Oscar Lewis's 'culture of poverty'.(3)

In many parts of Australia, especially in country towns, local Aboriginal communities, surrounded by contemptuous or patronising Whites and alien institutions, attempt to establish an arena of dignity independent of the judgements of the wider society. Within these communities, where experience with police, goal and welfare agencies is part of everyday life, the determination of social worth is measured on a different scale from the one that operates outside. Oppositional culture refers to the active protection and recreation of this arena of social meaning which is grounded in knowledge of a different history from that which the white community knows and celebrates.

The attempt to achieve closure, that is to retain a separate social domain free from Whites' intrusion and scrutiny, faces challenges both from within and from without the black community. Normalising processes instigated by the law, the education system, the local council and so-called 'do-gooders' (Cowlishaw 1988:215), constantly intrude upon Aboriginal communities, and there are powerful, seductive rewards for those who find an opportunity to abandon the traditions of opposition. Many people have to straddle the racial divide and live with divided loyalties. Painful crises and small local tragedies are generated daily (ibid, 242 ff).(4)

Rather than being accorded dignity, the world of Aboriginality is usually disliked, disdained or pitied by white residents. Aborigines are not all silent and passive in the face of such judgements. Some shamelessly display their despised differences and drink and shout in the street. Some appear untidy; the children may not be nicely mannered; they demand better treatment and complain about discrimination. These often innocent disruptions cause apopleptic anger and aggressive threats among respectable white citizens (ibid, 254). Aggressive Aboriginal responses are met of course with the force of the police and with a set of normalising codes which define the anger and disruptions as pathological.(5)

'Oppositional culture' encompasses more than behaviour which is overtly and intentionally defiant.(6) The concept refers centrally to the existence of a world of meaning and practice other than that which dominates the institutions of the wider society. When Aborigines joke about going to gaol they are also expressing a subversive view of the power of punishment and control which the state can exercise over their lives. They are asserting that the ultimate sanction of the white legal system will not act as a deterrent to their actions. When they parody or exaggerate notions of propriety which dominate their town they are challenging the legitimacy of these social forms. There is often ambivalence in such oppositional practices and some Aborigines oppose the opposition (ibid, 233). Nevertheless I believe that the lively world of subversive interpretation, and the running commentary on 'Gubbahs', justifies the notion of 'oppositional culture.'(7)

The oppositional nature of Aboriginal culture is clear to local rural populations. The entrenched hostility of many Whites towards the Aboriginal population and to any assertion of Black rights or policies which are intended to advantage Blacks indicates that Whites perceive a threat to their hegemony.(8) Their anxieties do not reflect a crude economistic understanding of their power but are conditioned by the specificities of racial tensions and hierarchy. It was the common and public expressions of racial hostility against what seemed like a powerless minority that first led me to examine the structure of racism. Without some notion of hegemony, a term which also refers to incomplete and contested domination, the well-documented, regular, active and aggressive expressions of enmity towards Aborigines in rural Australia is hard to comprehend (Carrington 1991; Edmunds 1990, Morris and Cowlishaw 1990). Such overt forms of racism are readily observed in the pubs of Darwin and Katherine as well as those of Bourke, Wilcannia and Cairns (cf. Langton this collection).

To deny that contemporary Aboriginal culture is steeped in racial politics seems perverse. While academics may feel they can ignore what is said by angry or drunken people on the streets of Redfern or Arakun, similar messages are conveyed in the words of black intellectuals, poets and activists. In the scarifying logic of Mudrooroo's harsh poems in 'The Song Circle of Jacky' (Mudrooroo, 1986), there is a powerful cultural expression of resistance and opposition which only makes sense as a product of colonial experience. Then there is Frank Doolan, a young poet from Bourke where I did much of my later field work. His attempt to 'laugh at you white man' and to assert that 'you don't hurt me with your knife' (1988:91) is an expression of pain which many anthropologists must see reflected in other forms. Years ago Dennis Walker's experiences showed how painful were attempts to link the anger of Aborigines resulting from harassment on the street of Brisbane with more conventional political activity and protest (McNally, 1973). What Aboriginal writing, music or visual art is there that does not show an awareness of its social context? The most 'traditional' painters working in isolated communities are forced to an awareness of the market for their works and having to deal with an alien audience (cf. Michaels 1989).(9) These struggles at the fringes of society are seldom dealt with by anthropologists, though the encapsulated lives of their 'informants' must be part of their field-work experience.

The political aspect of mundane Aboriginal culture need not be due to any intention to be 'political'. Cultural expression can often develop a sharp political edge because of the white response. For instance unrestrained public sociality does alarm Whites, whatever its intention, as attested by the numbers of Blacks in police custody. Defiance and overt resistance are merely the outer edge, the most visible margins of a world that is largely hidden from outsiders' scrutiny. Attendance at too many, too distant, funerals also outrages Whites and is in opposition to the demands of the dominant social forms (Cowlishaw 1988:236). Academic critics who seize upon an alleged approval of public drinking rather than other characteristics of this cultural world, are echoing popular anxieties among rural Whites.

The fact that socially disruptive behaviours do not achieve positive outcomes leads to the denial of their oppositional nature. But there is a logical problem here. Self-destruction and resistance are being presented as necessary opposites. Can we assume that resistance always succeeds or that self-destruction can never be a form of protest against regimes of power? Surely there are powerful precedents to deny both these assertions. Should we fear that recognising a political meaning behind the sometimes self-destructive anger in Aboriginal communities will encourage more of it? Surely it is more important to reveal the social reality that is driving people sometimes to suicidal despair rather than to fear that a political interpretation may legitimise 'bad behaviour'! It was the murderous intent inspired in Whites by various forms of Aboriginal behaviour which evoked the fears of violence which influenced the establishment of the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.


For some, essentialism has become the primary sin of anthropologists and 'political essentialism' is a strain of the virus which is apparently infecting some contemporary interpretations of Aboriginal society (Rowse 1990:188; Moreton, 1992; Hollinsworth, 1992).(10) Essentialism refers to the error of imputing essences, fixed and necessary characteristics, to a category of people. Because such essentialism has been a cornerstone of scientific racism (which tried to specify exact racial characteristics) and of state instigated genocidal regimes (such as Nazism), as well as of many colonial regimes (including Australia), social scientists fear that any essentialist notions are dangerous. But while examples of the political uses of essentialist thinking in the domains of gender and race are legion, it needs to be emphasised that essentialist thinking is not a fixed political phenomenon and is not the sole cause of oppressive racist politics. One can have racism without essentialism, and some forms of essentialism can act to subvert racism, as Lattas shows in this collection.

However, I would assert there are characteristics and consequences of the structural position of Aborigines in contemporary Australia which can be identified. (cf. Webster on the Maori in this collection).(11) It can be asserted that cultural reproduction among Aborigines in Australia today always occurs in a context of opposition, official and unofficial, in Arnhem Land as well as in Bourke. Surveillance of domestic and community Aboriginal life occurs throughout Australia. In urban settings and country towns this is largely due to overpolicing (Cunneen, 1990; Goodall, 1990), while in more remote communities it is state instigated attempts ostensibly to improve the welfare of Aborigines which lead to innumerable visits of officials and demands for accountability (the CDEP programmes as discussed by Rowse in this collection is one occasion for such demands). The fact that these remote communities are regularly being taught to fit in with alien practices means that ceremonial life, painting, language use, as well as everyday practices are marked as distinctively Aboriginal rather than as normal.(12) It is not that 'traditional' practices have any oppositional intent, but that they come to define 'Us', Rembarrnga or Pintubi, as different from 'Them'. A self-consciousness arises in relation to quite other practices which colours all aspects of life. Further, the society where racial images and stereotypes circulate widely through newspaper cartoons (cf. James in this collection), impinges directly or indirectly on all Aboriginal communities.

The involvement of Aboriginal people in the institutions of the state is not a contrary instance. Rowse's account of the CDEP programme in central Australia does not argue that local Aborigines conceived and adopted this programme; rather they cooperated in its establishment as an improvement on conditions they could not otherwise influence. Further research could show the way local cultural forms impact on CDEP programmes and perhaps disrupt or resist some of the effects of, for instance, individual pay packets.(13)

I have argued that Aboriginal social life is encapsulated within alien institutions. The consequent tension in the social environment is visible to varying degrees and the recognition of that tension pervades Aboriginal culture in more or less conscious ways. This is not a positivist statement about the observable characteristics of an authentic Aboriginal contemporary culture. Nor was it essentialising to give a systematic account of the opposition to Aborigines, so characteristic of rural white culture. This account, which comprised the major part of my study of racism (Cowlishaw, 1988), attracted little criticism or comment.

A final point concerns the speaking positions white academics adopt in relation to black issues. There seems to be an assumption in much contemporary writing in Aboriginal studies (eg. Attwood, Hollinsworth, Morton, Muecke, Pettmann, Rowse, Theile) that if we get our theoretical framework right we can speak safely, free from political anxieties. However I do not think we can set out a correct political line on what should and should not be said. No theory can guarantee polical correctness, as it is in the uses of theory that its effects are manifested. We inhabit a world saturated with racialised, and indeed gendered, discourse and one use of theory is to continually subvert complacencies and find sources of unease by questioning what is taken for granted in our theories and discursive strategies. Our own position within a cultural milieu can in fact be a source of insight, especially when we feel unease.

It was probably the irony in my comment (that 'do-gooders' explain the causes of Aboriginal disadvantage at 'tedious length' to the 'hard-line' racists), that annoyed those with serious political concerns.(14) But the irony was not a mask for disapproval. It was an acceptance of the futility of such explanations in the face of an entrenched and contrasting orthodox knowledge of quite another kind. I was aware of the futility precisely because it reflected my own impulses. I do not consider my position as an educated white bougeois woman, sharing more of the experiences of the do-gooders and blow-ins than of the Blacks in Bourke, Katherine, Redfern or Arnhem Land, as a disabling analytical perspective, especially in relation to issues of racism.

Nor do I see the possibility of positioning myself nervously in the wake of Aboriginal spokespersons.(15) To merely pay homage to black intellectuals by agreeing with them is somewhat patronising. Further it would involve us in some intellectual contortions given the varied political positions emerging among Aborigines on major political issues. Further, there is no political formula which links Aboriginal struggles to a conventional left-wing wisdom. The left cannot easily align itself with Aboriginal causes any more than anyone else can, as many have found to their dismay.(16)

Some anthropologists see the call for attention to the politics of the text as compromising the truths we want to tell, or limiting the freedom from any constraint that scholars should be striving for. But we are already constrained and it is the making visible of those constraints and the power they serve that can save us from complicity with those forces we want to undermine. Knowledge is not independent of social effects, as anthropologists surely must recognise, and as Saldivar has recently spelt out. He cites Retamar's account of the way Western culture dominated what he calls 'Our America'. Latin Americans were embroiled in the images emanating from North America, for instance through the Hollywood myth-making industry, where aspects of genocidal racism on the Nazi model were 'applauded as a healthy diversion in Westerns and Tarzan films'. He adds that, when watching these Hollywood Westerns, 'even those of us who are kin to the communities under attack -- rejoiced in their evocation of their own extermination' (Saldivar 1991:15)

The adoption by many rural Aborigines of the style and images of the outback stockman, and of course of the Hollywood-generated cowboy, partakes of the same embroiling. Saldivar's analysis of the politics and restrictive modes of expression of the dominant North American culture further reveals the power of intellectual production in shaping the cultural world of those in its sphere of influence. He documents the hard work that has gone into providing alternative images and subversions of the dominating culture to make room for other expression, and he challenges intellectuals and writers of a postcolonial world to declare their allegiances.

Homi Bhaba is another who discusses theoretical strategies that are necessary to combat 'ethnocentrism', saying that 'they |we?~ cannot of themselves, unreconstructed, represent that otherness. There can be no inevitable sliding from semiotic activity to the unproblematic reading of other cultural and discursive systems. There is in such readings a will to power and knowledge that, in failing to specify the limits of their own field of enunciation and effectivity, proceeds to individualise otherness as the discovery of their own assumptions' (1983:22-3). Besides extending our critial and political objectives, Bhaba says we must 'change the object of analysis itself'(ibid). This collection represents both the changing objects and objectives of anthropology.

Anthropologists no longer dominate the field of Aboriginal studies, and indeed the body of Australian ethnographic writings seems to be worn out and is denied legitimacy among those who have recently discovered Aborigines. Historians are using their skills not only to unearth the entrenched racial violence of the past but to unearth the sins of the anthropologists. Literary and cultural studies have also discovered anthropology's culpability. The temptation to defend the good and often brave intentions of our varied anthropological ancestors is strong, but a consideration of the continuing value of ethnographic work may be of greater significance.

Anthropologists in the past were trying to represent Aboriginal culture to the wider society when no-one else was doing so. One can hardly argue that they were engaged in silencing Aboriginal voices; Aborigines were silenced by far more powerful means. But, as they were producing careful detailed accounts of complex Aboriginal social organisation and ceremonial life and trying to show the ineluctably human qualities of Aborigines when these were widely denied, their work has never mounted a serious challenge to the romantic primitivism that has now become the gloss on Aboriginal existence, and which has put Aboriginal writers in such a double bind (cf. Lattas 1990; Mudrooroo Narogin 1990).

The public hunger for histories of colonial blood and horror is apparent in the bookshops. Further, both traditional culture and bloody colonial history have become important elements in contemporary Aboriginal political rhetoric which is itself an illustration of the embeddedness, the mingling and mimicry, which is the consequence of the way Aboriginal life is saturated with colonial power. Recognition of this fact may save anthropology in Australia from becoming an anachronism.


The articles in this volume take up varied positions concerning issues of representation and of politics. James and Langton in very different ways, discuss the racialised environment of contemporary Australia in relation to Aborigines. Webster and Lattas both criticise fashionable notions in academic analyses, but from very different perspectives. Webster attacks the definition of culture stemming from post-modernist thought and Lattas takes issue with those who try to determine 'good' indigenous politics. They locate the 'invention' of culture at different points and value it very differently. These two articles also give valuable insights into the contrast between anthropological practice in New Zealand and Australia. Rowse is critical of certain concepts which Lattas is defending.

Stephen Webster's article describes an academic dispute about the nature of Maori culture to illustrate his critique of post-modernist representations. This dispute at Auckland University centred on the notion of the 'invention' of culture, and Maori and Pakeha academics were on each side. The debate was partly about traditionalism, represented for instance by the acclaimed Te Maori art exhibition which toured America in the mid 1980s. Webster's concern is that post-modernist notions that anything and everything can be part of a culture has empowered academic 'experts' over the bulk of the Maori population whose culture, Webster says, is best described as a 'whole way of struggle' in the context of colonial dispossession. Webster detects a degree of self-interest among those anthropologists and powerful Maori leaders who want to privilege the grand Maori traditions over the actual culture of contemporary Maori. He suggests that a part of that contemporary culture may be a sense of loss of that grand tradition.

Webster's tendency to deny any contemporary social meaning to ancient traditions is in stark contrast to Lattas who is mounting a quite different critique of the way the field of Aboriginal Studies is being recolonised by white academics in the post-colonial era. Like Webster, he argues that there is little appreciation of what the indigenous people are saying and doing, whether facing police in the streets or writing. But far from seeing traditionalism as purely a confining invention of colonial power, Lattas argues that it can also be a source of dreams and imaginings, and one to which Aborigines themselves claim privileged access. The affirmation of a racial essence can be the source of an identity which has the potential to subvert racial discourse. Bodies come to be imbued with knowledge and culture, so that the positive naming and claiming of this black body becomes an act of inversion of the codes which normally subjugate it.

Lattas shows that recent attacks on essentialism are part of the way white intellectuals try to determine what should count as legitimate politics. These attacks do not come to grips with the cultural specificities of Aboriginal life and representations. They have thrown out the body and imagined essence of Aboriginality while wanting to keep the bathwater of a pure disembodied culture. He also mounts a vigorous defence of the theoretical notions of 'oppositional culture' and resistance as used by myself and Barry Morris in the analysis of racism, concepts which have attracted censure from a number of Aboriginalists. He defends the interpretation of outrageous behaviour as a form of resistance, arguing that white academics fail to appreciate the contextual and local forms of politics which are operating in Aboriginal communities. He concludes with an exegesis on the politics of identity and liberation in the work of Mudrooroo Narogin.

Rowse gives a detailed account of the conflicts arising between the urban elites who construct policies intended to assimilate Aborigines and the local Whites who attempt to implement them. He shows that certain culturally specific local practices which have arisen out of this conflict affect the contemporary CDEP programmes. Rather than the category 'Aborigines' resisting these policies, he argues that it is the hinterland culture which is resistant to the plans and policies of the centre. In an attempt to get away from racial categories he points out that some members of the hinterland culture are white and some elite bureaucrats are black. While providing a valuable account of the dilemmas and convolutions of a government policy which says Aboriginal self-determination must also mean self-betterment (as recognised by the elite), he also provides evidence that local and elite non-Aborigines, in complementary ways even when in dispute, have always been intent on shaping both the minds and bodies of Papunya Aboriginal residents through a mixture of bribery and tutelage.

Rowse also provides glimpses of Papunya people's responses to notions of pay and work schedules and their uses of money, and it seems to have been these practices which excite the bureaucratic desire to control, shape, measure, enumerate and name. Rowse says that the local culture in central Australia is a mixture of 'surviving Aboriginal traditions' and 'new Aboriginal desires' together with 'the perspectives' of non-Aboriginal locals and elites. It would be interesting to know more about how these elements combine in this emergent cultural milieu and whether surviving traditions are recalcitrant to assimilationist forces.

This collection opens with Marcia Langton's question: why is the 'drunken Abo' such a powerful icon in Australian national imagery? She takes up intentionality from the other side of the racial divide, arguing that alcohol was a tool in the colonial regimen. In the attempt to avoid accusations of simple minded conspiracy theory, social scientists ignore the fact that there have been, since the first fleet, deliberate attempts to destroy or to debase Aborigines. She indicates how this occurred, first in the early days of the colony through details from Tench's account, and attests to equivalent processes today. The icon of the drunken Aborigine is central to the racist discourse, and it has eluded analysis. We need also to recognise the complex ways Aborigines themselves are affected by the stereotype, resisting or surrendering, mimicing or parodying, but always haunted by its power.

Langton's article amounts to a powerful demand that we theorise race relations and this is echoed in Roberta James' article. After examining the newspaper cartoons from the bicentennial year, we can no longer deny that a racialised discourse saturates Australian life. The interpretation of racial conflict in these cartoons leaves no room for innocence. She shows that the cartoons make multiple reading positions available, but that any position in relation to Aborigines, whether taken up by Whites or Blacks, can be interpreted as self-interested, hypocritical, contradictory and racist. James exposes the way satire relies on familiar racial images, and on the positioning of stereotypes of different kinds of people in their stereotypical places. The importance of racialised themes in Australian culture are particularly obvious to women such as James and Langton. Through her ambiguous ethnicity, James lives out the politics of ambiguity. As an Aboriginal anthropologist Langton deals daily with the contrasting and intersecting place of race in public and academic domains.


I am grateful for the useful comments of Jeremy Beckett, Barry Morris and Andrew Lattas on an earlier draft of this article.


1. Some papers read at the AAS conference session on this topic (ANU Nov. 1992) were relevant to this debate, but as the conference actually followed the decision to put together this special issue of Oceania, sufficient contributions to fill the pages had already been invited.

2. This occurred at a meeting in Canberra in 1989 where the Royal Commission sought some insight into contemporary Aboriginal life from anthropologists.

3. Ethnographies focussing on Aboriginal 'traditional' cultures are becoming rare. A major scholarly approach in anthropology now focuses on contemporary Aboriginal groups who do not use a traditional language or ceremonies. One approach is concerned with cultural specificities and continuities in a worthy, if ill-conceived, effort to rescue what are known as 'urban Aborigines' from the charge that they are not REAL Aborigines (eg. Keen, 1988).

4. The complexity of racial identities fuels anxieties which are evident in the racialised rhetoric which accepts only two orthodox racial categories. The orthodox lines of political demarcation and loyalty are similarly simplified in the face of a complex heritage from both Black and White forebears. Peoples' very bodies resist the binary opposition of White and Black, and can be used to subvert dominant evaluations.

5. These critics provide no alternative view of this violent arena of social life. For instance Pettman earnestly warns against 'romanticising the oppressed' and forbids the representation of 'oppositional behaviour generated by racism and poverty' as 'collective political action' because it 'may be highly destructive both to participants and to those closest to them, and may have the effect of further disrupting and immobilising the powerless' (1991:191) See also Larbalestier (1990). To imply that writers who are developing these perspectives are unaware of the destructive effects of alcohol and violence, is specious.

6. Rowse wrongly asserts that the 'culture of opposition' is 'characterised prominently if not exclusively, by alcohol abuse, outlandish public behaviour' (1990a:186).

7. Trigger (1990) is worried that the emphasis on 'resistance' ignores 'accommodation'. His fondness for binary oppositions blinds him to the fact that many events could be interpreted as either, or both. I find it puzzling that he attributes to me a 'materialist' analysis which leaves out the 'consciousness of social actors', given that other critics accuse me of privileging culture.

8. Rowse says 'It is hard to see how Brindleton Aborigines are or have ever been a threat' (1990a:190). Larbalestier says that oppositional behaviour 'reinforces the prevailing racial order' because 'any counter hegemonic impact' is 'undermined by its self-fulfilling effects' (1990:158). The fury and disgust regularly evinced against Aborigines seems to indicate otherwise.

9. Mowaljarlai (SMH Sept. 3, 1991) a Ngarinyun of the Kimberley region when receiving the Aboriginal of the year award said, 'What the white Government and the white people have to realise is that there are two laws in this country. If they want us to recognise their laws, they have to recognise ours. We are people of this land that can never be rubbed out'. Rose 1992 has shown the way the state intrudes on the people of Yarralin.

10. Emphasis on resistance and opposition as ubiquitous aspects of Aboriginal culture is said to imply 'political essentialism'. Other accusations of essentialism seem to rely on misreadings, eg. 'cultural reproduction only arises out of opposition' (Keen, 1990; Keen's emphasis); 'Aboriginality equals resistance and other strategies are 'aberrations from Aboriginality's basic historical trajectory' (Rowse, 1990a:190). The careful effort I made to reveal the absurdity and the vicious effects of white essentialising racial discourse and practice in rural Australia, was apparently cancelled out by a misinterpreted footnote. My comment about 'those politically active people whose views are not representative' was read as an arrogant judgment on my part. Had I meant that such people were somehow not authentic members of the Aboriginal community it would indeed have been an extraordinarily arrogant judgment. In fact I was reiterating a consequence of the kind of racist environment where they CANNOT represent the oppositional position of Aboriginal culture. To be heard by the white institutions they must employ the language, metaphors and moral stance that are often not known, rarely accepted and certainly not the lingua franca of the black community. In the face of white racism all politically active people are caught in this dilemma.

11. The defining of a group in terms of a political allegiance can be a legitimate and productive position. Defining 'ethnic' or 'national' groups in terms of an ideology is not uncommon. Paine suggests the Fourth World 'refers to a strategy for the achievement of a cultural goal' (1985:49-51) because of their relationship to the colonial world, and their consciousness of it. The voluntarism embedded in identifying as an Aboriginal person in this country itself entails a political element.

12. Keen (1990) is concerned that I 'deny the autonomy of a distinct Aboriginal habitus' and that I am 'denying any link between present and pre-colonial practices'. I am not sure what 'pre-colonial practices' are but note that even the memories of Aboriginal communities are intruded upon by historians and anthropologists, museums, books and television programmes. Aboriginality has emerged through the reshaping of old memories and forming of new ones.

13. The CDEP programme at Bulugadru, a small outstation in Arnhem Land, is understood by the local community in ways that affirm family relationships rather than the system of wage labour. Other small communities I am familiar with are enthusiastic supporters of CDEP, but there are tensions generated at the level of management concerning different understandings of work, pay and authority.

14. Rowse (1990a) said I lack an assured position of enunciation, and Andrew Metcalf, at the end of a complimentary review, accuses me of bad faith in what he calls my 'cynical treatment of 'do-gooders' and 'enlightenment' policies' (1990). Both fail to appreciate that the whole book intended to show why some recognisable 'right political line' was not possible.

15. Rowse questions my position of enunciation in terms of its relationship with what is known as 'The Aboriginal Voice' as enunciated by Cliff Warego (1990a:185). I doubt that Watego wants to silence all white voices, for instance academic writing on racism. Moreton (1989:13) takes up the objection of some black writers to certain forms of analysis. This reliance on others to enunciate his arguments must save some reading and does not inspire confidence in his knowledge of the literature or his reasoning concerning race politics today. His careless misreadings are evident in his comment that I was 'documenting Aboriginality'(1989:12) and that I 'describe' a variety of 'factors' 'impinging on' 'race relations' (ibid., 11). The problem of being misrepresented often turns on such terminological imprecision which points to wholly different intentions.

16. Several reviewers took me to task for referring to class. Moreton accused me of pouring the complexities of Brindleton 'into the mould of class relations' and aligning the situation of Aborigines with the working class (1989:12-3). My detailed empirical and theoretical discussion must have missed his attention (inter alia 42-51, 64ff, 192, 121ff, 228ff). Sykes also rejects my use of class analysis which she asserts leads to the 'view of black struggle as a struggle either for equal rights or for revolutionary change of the capitalist system' (Sykes 1989). I certainly would not want to see the black struggle in either way (cf. Cowlishaw, 1990) and nor do I argue that 'it is fundamentally relations of social class which determine racial ideology' as Trigger (1990) says. Some objections are to accepting that Australia should be represented as a class based society, with inequality structured around property relations. This proposition seems supported by Sykes' view of land alienation being at the root of Aboriginal disadvantage, and is fundamental to any class analysis. Others question whether race relations can be simply read off as predetermined by class relations, and I believe my book shows that they cannot. Reynolds expresses a different view: 'As racism gradually ebbs -- as it has done in the last twenty years -- class will increasingly determine the life chances of black Australians' (Reynolds 1989). I have not seen signs of this ebb (Morris and Cowlishaw 1990).


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Date:Mar 1, 1993
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