Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Indigenous Exceptionalism - MWF review

Article written for Right Now, and appears on the website with other human rights reviews here.

Is ‘race’ is an inherently negative word and is it time we stopped using it?

‘Racism’ has been a useful term for defining and addressing undesirable attitudes and conduct, but race – a term devised by European explorers – is often a simplistic, generalised method of identification that relies on physical appearance, rather than nationality, culture, ancestry or any meaningful feature of identity. We are, after all, members of a single human race, comprised of millions of ethnicities.

Professor Marcia Langton, Chair of Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, was part of an expert panel set up by the federal government to look into recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Australian Constitution. In a Melbourne Writers Festival address, titled Indigenous Exceptionalism, she discussed race and the need to remove reference to it in the Constitution.

Until 1967, the Constitution allowed the parliament to legislate in the interests of “the people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”.

Following the referendum of 1967 the words “other than the aboriginal race in any State” were removed.

However, the lingering reference to ‘race’ remains problematic, and the panel’s recommendations, handed down in January this year, included removing it, as well as acknowledging Indigenous Australians as the first peoples of Australia and the aspiration for cultural maintenance, including languages.

Professor Langton called recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution “a large, fraught topic full of legal, as well as moral, challenges.”

She called race an out-dated, crude concept – historically used to justify colonialism by portraying non-white peoples as inferior – and one that is “such a discredited biological and social construct that its citation in a democratic constitution is undesirable.”

“Defining Aboriginal people as a race, as the Constitution does,” she said “sets up the conditions for Indigenous people to be treated, not just as different, but exceptional and, moreover, inherently incapable of joining the Australian polity and society.”

“In the slowly building campaign for constitutional recognition of Indigenous people, it is vital that we broaden the understanding that the constitutional tradition of treating Aborigines as a race must be replaced with the idea of first peoples,” Professor Langton said.

The problem of race is evident in comments such as those by Andrew Bolt, who was found guilty of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) in 2011, for implying that some fair-skinned Aboriginals were not true Aboriginals. Such perceptions are based on appearance rather than lineage and ties to place and culture.

Professor Langton actually shares Bolt’s cynicism towards some claims to Aboriginality by people seeking access to special treatment. The difference is, however, that her criticism is not based on skin tone but abuses of special treatment by those who cannot be described as disadvantaged, and those who claim Aboriginality on paper to claim benefit, but not in public.

Where temporary special assistance is required, she argued, the test for assistance must be economic disadvantage not Aboriginal ancestry. Aboriginality does not automatically equate to economic disadvantage and Professor Langton believes the entitlement mentality that has developed is poisoning Aboriginal society just as much as it is poisoning Australian attitudes towards Indigenous people.

The challenge ahead is addressing “the poorly understood friction between bringing Indigenous Australians firmly into the national polity and, on the other hand, maintaining their exceptional status as inextricably different.”

Despite her strong stance, Professor Langton believes a referendum should not be rushed, citing Australia’s record of rejecting constitutional change and the potentially harmful outcomes a negative result would have. Not only does she fear defeat would prevent the change being made in her lifetime, but she believes it would also lead to disappointment and bitterness among the Indigenous community, and Australia being seen internationally as racist.

Whether you agree with her views or not, Professor Langton is a formidable speaker and one of those wonderfully fascinating and considered people who seem impossible to pin down on the traditional political spectrum, making it all the more difficult to dismiss her argument’s challenge to one’s own perceptions. On such an important issue, even if a symbolic one, it is important for us all to keep an open mind and consider our own perceptions.

1 comment: