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white over black Arrow vol 3 no 2 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 2, 2004


White Over Black: Discourses of Whiteness in Australian Culture

Jan Larbalestier
University of Sydney

This essay focuses on debates about representing Australia’s colonial history, along with spirited controversy, informing discussion of government policies towards Indigenous Australians, specifically in regard to child removal. In short, I’m asking why aspects of the colonisation of Australia and its aftermath continue to be strongly disputed. I conclude that these disputes in academia, politics and popular culture are not simply about differing interpretations of past events and practices. Such disputes are embedded in hegemonic processes reflecting ways of imagining Australia and Australians (Anderson 1983). Such imaginings are at the heart of the matter.

In the autumn of 1914, when it seemed certain that von Kluck’s armies would soon be in Paris and that Kultur would soon come to France, Mr Norman Angell, the author of the long- forgotten book The Great Illusion, sought to comfort himself and others by stating his belief that military conquest had a natural limit. He said that if Paris, and then France, should fall nevertheless French civilisation would survive, because a conqueror could not injure or extinguish the culture of the conquered. Mr. G.K. Chesterton told him he was wrong: the culture of the conquered can be injured and extinguished ‘simply because it can be explained by the conqueror’. If Paris and France should fall, what would come into existence would be ‘the German picture of France’. Henceforth, Germany would ‘claim to interpret all the people to themselves’ (Stanner, 1979 [1972], 299).

Whiteness…It means you’re not black…What it means to be white, is you give all the rest of us a problem. Because we’re not white. White men, they’re not different, they’re just what is, the standard that the rest of us is judged by (Baker, 2003, 209).

1. Ideas about whiteness circulate widely, in all forms of media, in fiction and in academia. The above epigrams, from academia and fiction, signify my approach to whiteness as a metaphor for relations of domination, as a circulating power enabling and constraining identities and as a normative framework for comprehending the world. White identity in dominance has been a taken-for-granted reference point for classifying all other Australians. The circulation of whiteness as a component of social relations is not always recognised, or if recognised, not always acknowledged. Such racialised understandings of identities in Australia are highly visible and have been subject to extensive discussion and critique. The discussion of whiteness itself in this country, however, is a relatively recent academic endeavour.

2. My concerns in this paper reflect a long preoccupation with our cultural imaginaries. The persistence of the past in the present is, and has been, particularly important for such imaginaries. Ideas about the past are integral to both our individual and collective understandings of who we are, what we have been and what Australia is to become. Not surprisingly, specific evocations of the past in the present generate passionate responses.

3. Discussion and debate before and after Federation in 1901, saw the dominance of views proclaiming that it was desirable, even necessary, for the Australian community to be populated by people of common appearance and imbued with a common culture (Irving 1999). The illusion of, and desire for, sameness saw cultural diversity initially construed as antithetical to a community of equal subjects (Irving 1999). Culture was embodied and that embodiment was racialised (Anderson, W. 2002). Community, culture and embodiment morphed to become a site of whiteness: a space of real Australians. At the time of Federation whiteness was equated with being British, clearly designated as white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. In this context whiteness was marked but unexamined (Chambers 1997).

4. In the contemporary world of multicultural Australia this racialised space of whiteness, of the real Australia and Australians, is more amorphous, more inclusive of diverse cultural embodiment: a shift from a whiter shade of pale to darker shades of white. At the same time this imagined space of whiteness is still conjured up as the unmarked marker of alterity. John Barker’s character in White Skin Man, explains: ‘white subjects are what is, the standard and problem, for everyone else’ (2003, 209; see also Chambers 1997).

5. Although I would like to see the end of all racialised marking, for the purposes of this paper, I’m marking myself as a white woman. Such racialised cultural marking, however, is often incidental to my everyday encounters. A point at issue for those marked otherwise. Thus, in interrogating whiteness, I am unlikely as Jacques Derrida infers to transcend the terms of its constitution (1982). Racism, however, is more than skin deep. Notions of ‘whiteness’, irrespective of their diversity or authorial intentions, are invariably implicated in a racialised ordering of knowledge (see below). Here, I discuss the idea of whiteness, as a hegemonic discursive framework for the constitution of knowledge.

Racialised Knowledge

6. David Goldberg (1993) argues that modernity became increasingly to be defined by and through race. For Goldberg, race was normalised in terms of modern moral reason. He sees the shift from medieval premodernity to modernity as being in part a shift from a religiously defined human identity and personhood to a racially defined identity and personhood. Race and reason are intertwined in Enlightenment thought. Thus, Eurocentrism, as racialised knowledge, was a central focus of meaning in the constitution of ‘modernity’, including what it means to be human. Class relations and the individualisation of subjects are similarly embedded in the development of modernity. Despite the conditions of its emergence, Eurocentric knowledge was construed as being scientific, objective and impartial - white scientists, (predominantly male and bourgeois), in their pursuit of knowledge saw themselves as neutral observers of the human condition.

7. I am not suggesting that other knowledge systems are any less fallible. The point of significance here is that Western knowledge claims went hand in hand with processes of imperialism, conquest and colonialism. Consequently western knowledge claims are embedded in relations of domination - of conflict between imperialists and imperialised -between the conquerors and the conquered - between the colonists and the colonised. In short, as a means of, ‘interpreting all the people to themselves’, Europeans were making, ‘a world in their own image’ (Marx and Engels 1970 [1848], 39).

8. Relations of governance in Australia, as in other former British colonies, are informed by racialised knowledge and its associated understandings of difference. Such knowledge permeates social relations of inequality and notions of Australian identity, both as subjects and as a nation.

Producing Knowledge

9. As Derrida has argued, making meaning in the pursuit of knowledge, despite attempts at closure, is something incomplete, continually in progress, transient, slippery, contested. It is the stuff of all intellectual endeavours. It is a passionate, political and ethical endeavour embedded ‘in the politics of truth’ (Foucault, in Rabinow 1984, 73). For Foucault, the ‘effects of truth are produced in discourses which are neither true nor false’ (Foucault, in Rabinow 1984, 60).

10. Academic discourses provide numerous examples of truth seeking, of the contestation and negotiation of narratives and, of diverse interventions in the pursuit of knowledge. Narratives of sex, gender and sexuality are obvious examples of these processes (eg. Butler 1993; Connell 1987; Foucault 1990; Gatens 1996). Narratives of ‘whiteness’ are similarly illustrative of ‘the politics of truth’: the diverse and complex processes of knowledge production, of attempts at both closure and unassailable ways of knowing.

11. I am not suggesting that we cannot critically evaluate ways of knowing. After all such a critique is integral to all academic discourse. Social relations of inequality, however, ensure that some people are more likely to be listened to than others. Challenges to dominant ways of thinking may be set aside and or demeaned simply because they are challenges. Further, some forms of knowledge are considered to be more reliably attained, and because of their reliability are more valued as revealing of truth. How issues are thought about is a major concern here. There may be no disagreement about specific ‘realities’, for example, that Australia is a multicultural society. What is contested are the ways in which ‘multiculturalism’ is construed and evaluated: in social policy, in law, in everyday living and in imagining Australia as a nation (eg Hage 1998; Martin 1991; White 1981).

12. The pursuit of knowledge is not an exclusive academic endeavour. We are all producers of knowledge, or, as Antonio Gramsci would have it, we are all intellectuals (Hoare & Smith 1971, 9). Knowledge is revealed by diverse and numerous narrators who construct and exemplify simple, complex and diverse accounts of reality. Most importantly, the constitution of knowledge evinces an endless seeking after truth, whether or not the seeker believes there is an absolute truth to be revealed: a seeking to find a safe and assured space of authentic being and knowing. Arguably there is no such safe space.

13. In seeking safe and assured spaces of authentic being and knowing the importance of telling our own stories, of authorising our own lives, cannot be overstated. Narrating our lives gives us a sense of affirmation and control. Story telling allows us to contain our being in the world, to put boundaries around what is in effect shifting, fluid and boundless. Narratives about past events provide even greater opportunities for an authorial sense of knowledge, power and control. The controversies I discuss here focus on narratives of past events, people and places and have generated passionate and contested responses. In dispute are both, experiential knowledge and academically framed, research findings. Such debate and discussion attest to both the importance, and powerful effects, of narratives in our lives and for our sense of self. Further, and most importantly, as Chesterton reminds us, the meaning given to actions and events depends on one's narrative positioning, both in and outside of the action, and on who is doing the positioning to whom.

14. Narratives of Australia take many forms, including all modes of popular culture and media, public rituals, academic discourse and political discussion and debate. For Stanner, Chesterton’s claim that the conquerors (colonists/invaders), those of the dominating group, are able to injure the culture of the dominated by, ‘interpreting all the people to themselves’, has ‘long been the case in Australia’. The colonists and their inheritors interpret the world through ideas and values ‘drawn predominantly from their society and culture’ (1975, 300).

15. Indigenous Australians were abjectly interpellated in Western discourses and interpretations of British colonialism were entirely one-sided. Indigenous people, in telling stories of themselves, of others, of colonialism and its consequences for them, have struggled to obtain mutually recognized assured and authentic spaces of being and knowing (Langton 1993, 37). These challenges to white hegemony, these struggles for mutual recognition, have been most difficult and controversial when Indigenous people attempt to assert their claims to authority and control, whether in regard to land ownership, or to ownership of their selfhood, their history, and their life stories.

16. Representations of events from the point of view of the colonised are not new. However, it is only relatively recently that some Indigenous views have been widely disseminated and generally accepted by non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous interventions have been multifaceted, and in telling their Australian stories, representations of their lives through their, art, dance, film, music, theatre, and both academic and non-academic writing, are seen as valued contributions to the national story. At the very least, such interventions are not seen to be antithetical to a multicultural Australia (Gilbert 1977; Huggins, R. & Huggins, J. 1994: Jonas & Langton 1994; Langton 1993; Langford 1988; Perkins 1975; Purcell 2002).

17. More controversial are interventions on the part of Indigenous Australians that, in stressing their own authority, are seen to threaten white hegemony. Such controversial and less generally acceptable Indigenous interventions into narratives of Australia have been generated through a long history of struggle and protest, from physical attacks against the colonists, to petitions, demonstrations, strikes, marches and representations of their claims through the legal justice system (see for example Attwood & Markus 1999; Bandler 1989; Biskup 1973; Broome 1982; Gilbert 1973; Goodall 1996; Hardy 1968; Miller 1985).

18. Struggles over land reflect critical points of divergence between Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations to land, both in regard to ownership and notions of belonging to country (see for example Moreton-Robinson 2003). Stanner’s argument was first presented, as his Presidential address to the Australian Anthropological Society in 1972, following the Northern Territory Supreme Court’s failure in 1971 (Millirpum v. Nabalco) to recognise Indigenous land ownership within the ambit of Australia law. Stanner reflects on the inability of many people to recognise and accept Indigenous cultural differences. The Mabo decision of 1992 is a significant advancement in processes of cultural recognition and accommodation. This legal recognition and acceptance of Indigenous ownership of land, an ownership in common law not erased by British colonialism, generated heated public debate and discussion. In the wake of such responses considerable strategic political manoeuvring and compromise was needed to ensure the successful passing of the Keating Labor Government’s Native Title Act in 1993. Although the sovereignty of the Commonwealth Government over land was never in question, terra nullius was acknowledged as a legal fiction. Ironically, recent scholarship indicates that although the dispossession of Indigenous Australians was consistent with the idea of terra nullius, at the time of colonisation, the term was never systematically used by British officials to justify their occupation of Australia (Beattie, 2000).

19. A striking instance of hegemonic struggle is seen with the reception of Indigenous people’s narratives of their lives. These narratives were heard before the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s (HREOC) National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, and some of their stories were included in the 1997 Report of the Inquiry, Bringing Them Home. Indigenous Australians, in authoring their own lives, in presenting their side of the story on separation before the very public arena of HREOC, explicitly challenged the rationale (that it was ‘in their interest’) underpinning government policies and practices that directly disrupted and displaced Indigenous families and their communities. Indigenous views were also seen to impute the reputation and integrity of both those who formulated policies and those who carried them out (see below).

20. Despite Indigenous interventions into the narrating of Australia, and despite the Mabo decision, the pervasiveness of colonialism’s culture, of the legacy of non-Indigenous people representing all people’s to themselves, remains. In the rest of this paper I illustrate ways in which this legacy, this white hegemony, pervades contemporary discussion and debate.

Discourses of Whiteness: An Australian Story

21. As already noted, in the telling and exposition of colonisation, the colonists had the upper hand: ‘the pen has been in their hands’ (cf. Austen [1817] 1988, 234) and from the time of Captain Cook’s proclamation of British sovereignty in 1770, the British explained Indigenous people, their culture and the colonial story, to the colonised and to themselves. The British colonists of 1788 confronted another land and another people. Land and people became the imaginative landscape for a European makeover. The colonists were to tame the land and civilise its black inhabitants. European representations of black and white people, along with processes of colonisation, became integral to ways of thinking about Australia and its subjects.

22. There are many narratives describing and interpreting Australia’s colonial history and its aftermath. Debates over the making of history, how to comprehend past events, and the nature of historical knowledge itself, are not new and neither are they restricted to any one discipline or country (eg. Asad 1973;Klein 1997). I am not concerned here with these debates as such, nor do I provide a systematic critical review of any of the substantive arguments of the protagonists discussed below. For such a review see the articles in Curthoys and Docker (2001) and Manne (2003). My focus here is on issues of representation as ways of imagining Australia, and Australians.

23. At the moment of colonisation there was a state of mutual incomprehension between colonist and colonised. (Clendinnen 2003; Stanner 1979, 154-164). Official British narratives described Australia as a land of few inhabitants, and the original inhabitants as non-land owning nomads, possessed of neither politics, government nor religion. Consequently, for the colonists, Australia was settled, not ceded nor conquered. For colonial authorities, the original inhabitants instantly became British citizens, and any opposition to the British endeavour was considered illegal. Further, colonial intentions claimed to be honourable and peaceful, after all the colonial office did instruct the first governor, Captain Arthur Philip, to ‘live in amity and kindness with the natives’. Similar instructions were given during the early nineteenth century, including instructions to the first Governor of South Australia, despite both evidence and acknowledgment of violent frontier encounters on the east coast (Beattie 2000; Rowley 1970, 24). From its onset, then, the colonisation of Australia was framed in terms of the good intentions of the colonists.

24. Imagining Australia as a settler colony is reassuring for non-indigenous Australians. It is comforting for many people to assume that it is possible to colonise a country peacefully or even relatively peacefully, to simply settle in. Australia became a settler colony, is a settler colony, because the colonists proclaimed it to be so. Notions of settlement evoke gentle, passive and non-confronting images. Analogous to such images are those evoked by views, expressed in the nineteenth century, that the original inhabitants were somehow ‘dying out’ and all that was needed was a comforting ‘pillow’ for the dying (Reynolds 1987; Rowley 1972). In this scenario the main causes of Indigenous death were not attributed to deliberate attacks by the colonists. Instead, the real killers of Indigenous people were claimed to be starvation, disease, and acts of inter-group and individual conflict between Indigenous people themselves. This inevitable fate of the colonised was considered to be part of a cultural clash, wherein an inferior primitive people encountered a superior civilised nation.

25. Despite accounts diverging from the above scenario, including those of violent encounters on the frontier from the colonists themselves, conflicting and continuing interpretation, internal contradictions, and challenges, a dominant story prevails. This story, integral to relations of governance and ways of imagining Australia as a nation, continues to be a normative framework for comprehending the past in the present. Two constant and overriding themes shape this story: the mode of taking over the country and the reputation of the colonists and their inheritors. In brief, the settlement of Australia, if not entirely devoid of violence, was comparatively peaceful, and furthermore, the majority of colonists (pioneers) and those that came after them are good people. The pioneers in particular were characterised by bravery, integrity and compassion. Most importantly, they were imbued with the best of intentions while developing the country for future generations. The most recent variation of this scenario is found in Keith Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Australian History (2002).

26. Such constructions of the settlers are embedded in what is referred to as ‘the pioneer legend’ (Hirst 1978). Accounts of colonisation shaped by an emphasis on: individual achievement, the moral worthiness of the majority of pioneers and the unquestioned good of colonial occupation and development are found in all regions in Australia, and indeed, in other former British colonies (eg. Klein 1997). I have discussed elsewhere how accounts by various writers, and Jeannie Gunn in particular, present a clear and enduring picture of worthy pioneers in the context of Black/White relations in the Northern Territory in general and the pastoral regions in particular (see Larbalestier 1990; Gunn 1905 &1908). Versions of the pioneer legend and the legitimacy of Australia as a settler colony have combined to generate ways of imagining Australia that submerge inevitable outcomes of colonisation irrespective of the motives, or individual characteristics, of the settlers.

27. In other words, narratives of Australian history shaped by an emphasis on individual achievement serve to elide colonial structures and the contexts in which such achievement is enacted. When such individualised accounts of the past are carried over to the present, they work to enable proponents of a different focus to be accused of undermining the work of the pioneers and to be promoting a black armband view of history i.e. to be representing (and imagining) Australia negatively (Maine 2001; Tatz 1999, 41-42).

Contesting the Past

28. In representing Indigenous people to themselves the ground was laid for inevitable controversy. The possibility for Indigenous Australians to force colonial authorities to deal with them on their own terms was near impossible. There is no history of mutual recognition, of continuing dialogue at the level of policy and practice between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians. There are, however, histories of various forms of protest and challenge on the part of Indigenous peoples and their non-Indigenous supporters, to the prevailing policies and practices circumscribing their lives, livelihood and status as Australians.

29. The 1970s saw significant changes in the governance of Indigenous Australians. For example there was the enactment of land rights legislation, in the Northern Territory in 1976 and in 1966 the establishment of the Aboriginal Land’s Trust of South Australia. Also established was The National Aboriginal Consultative Committee the forerunner of what was to become the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), seen by governments as a means of Indigenous representation and control of their own affairs. The late 1960s and 1970s also saw increasing interest in, and research into, what is now labelled Aboriginal history, on the part of non-Indigenous historians (eg. Blainey 1975; Corris 1968; Ryan 1976).

30. Current controversy about Australia’s colonial past is embedded in the themes mentioned above: the dynamics of colonisation and the integrity of the colonists. Professional reputations in the present are also at stake. Australia’s frontier history, its culture, and its legacy are contested (eg. Blainey 1999; Manne 2003; Tatz 1999; Windshuttle 2002). This contestation focuses on various sites of interpretation and representation. For example an exhibition at Sydney’s Power House Museum generated media publicity when the colonial takeover was referred to as an ‘invasion’. Objections were made to the use of the term and it was removed, however, objections were then made to its removal and the term was restored (Larbalestier 1989). Colin Tatz reminds his readers that Wayne Goss, as Premier of Queensland, ‘insisted on the removal of such "offending" words as "invasion" and "resistance" from Queensland text books’ (1999, 38).

31. Noted historian, Geoffrey Blainey, exemplifies the idea of the good colonists, and the good nation, while berating writers for presenting what he terms a ‘black armband’ view of Australian history: a history stressing the devastation colonisation brought to the original inhabitants, while undermining the positive work associated with the development of Australia (1997). Similar criticisms were levelled at the representation of Australian history at the National Museum of Australia (Martin, L. 2004). Also, in a similar vein to Blainey, was Windschuttle’s accusation that, historians ‘fabricated ’ history in exaggerating claims about the extent of frontier violence and the numbers of Indigenous people killed (2002). The interventions of both Blainey and Windschuttle into the ‘history wars’ received considerable media attention (see Manne 2003, 1-13), along with many spirited academic interventions (Macintyre & Clarke 2003; Manne 2001& 2003, see also paper by Standfield in this issue).

32. Responses to Blainey and other debates among historians, labelled the ‘culture or history wars’, continue to receive media coverage. Last year, however, because he was no longer asked for an apology, Prime Minister John Howard was reported as declaring ‘victory’ in the ‘so-called culture wars over the past treatment of Aborigines’ (SMH 10 July, 2003; see also Macintyre & Clark 2003). Previously, in 1996, Howard had complained that some Australians would be insulted to be told that they ‘have a racist and bigoted past’ (quoted in Tatz 1999, 41). Despite the Prime Minister’s complaint and later declaration, debate and discussion continue.

Bringing Them Home and Its Non-indigenous Interlocutors

33. The passion, politics, and ethical endeavours of all kinds of intellectual pursuits, academic and otherwise, are clearly evident with the reception of the report of the HEROC Inquiry, Bringing them Home, mentioned above. Most of the hearings were presided over by the then HEROC President, Sir Ronald Wilson and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Michael Dodson. I am primarily concerned here with non-indigenous responses to the report.

34. A publication edited by Carmel Bird, The Stolen Children: Their Stories, which includes extracts from Bringing then Home, was published in 1998 with an enclosed ‘Erratum Slip’. The slip reads:

The publisher has been contacted by a party that denies certain allegations made in the Report of the National Inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. This party states the Inquiry process did not allow it to respond to the allegations made in the Report. The nature of the Inquiry process and of the information sought and provided meant that evidence and submissions could not be treated as thoroughly as would occur in a courtroom. This applies to all the evidence.

The reliability of the evidence before the Inquiry has been subjected to other criticism (eg, Attwood 2000 and see below). Inga Clendinnen pithily sums up the process of responses to the Report when she writes that, after initial positive reactions there has developed an ‘increasingly bitter debate over the report’s methodology, its conceptual frame, its findings, its recommendations and its motives’ (2001,103).

35. One of the most sustained and well-publicised criticisms was presented by Ron Brunton, the Director of the Indigenous Issues Unit of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), in Betraying the Victims (1998). The former President of HREOC who presided over the Inquiry refers to some of Brunton’s concerns in a letter to the editor (Weekend Australian 7-8 March 1998). In this correspondence Wilson notes that Brunton’s letter to the Courier-Mail (26 February 1998) suggests that the evidence from Indigenous people may have been ‘mistaken, confused, lacking in credibility and unrepresentative’. Wilson, however, reassures his readers that the findings of the Report were not based on people’s ‘childhood memories’ but were based on ‘legislation and policy documents of the times’ and that ‘intellectual rigour’ was exerted in ‘applying legal principles to these objectively ascertained facts’.

36. Brunton explains his problems with Bringing them Home to SMH readers (9 March, 1998:17). He is responding to Robert Manne’s criticisms of Betraying the Victims (SMH 2 March 1998 & see also Manne 2001). Brunton declares his strong personal interest in maintaining his ‘intellectual credibility’ and states that he ‘would not risk making an unsustainable attack on a report that has been treated so reverentially’. He finds charges of genocide ‘outrageous’ and reasons that the:

only proper response to injustice is a passionate commitment to presenting an account that cannot be dismissed. The truth is bad enough, and exaggerating it, or suppressing details..., feeds public distrust and encourages indifference or worse.

For Brunton the Report lacks balance and simplifies what is a very complex picture of child removal. It ‘omits crucial evidence, misrepresents major sources, makes false assertions, and confuses "forced" separations from voluntary separations in order to establish the worst possible case against Australia’. One such omission is the failure to record that with the formulation of assimilation policy in the 1930s ‘Aboriginal spokespersons in the south’ shared common ground in the ‘desire for incorporation into white society’. For Brunton this point is crucial as ‘genocide’ charges hinge on the ‘assimilation objective of child removals’. The assumption here by Brunton seems to be that these ‘spokespersons’ associated such incorporation with the loss of an Aboriginal identity.

37. Brunton (2001) recounts the basis of his position when replying to Robert Manne’s In Denial, an inaugural essay for the new publication, The Australian Quarterly Essay, (2001). According to Brunton the Report ‘dealt irresponsibly with a very serious issue’ (2001, 91). For Brunton, to suggest that policies and practices directed at Indigenous Australians were underpinned by genocidal motives is to evoke questions about the moral integrity of the colonists and their intentions. In short, it is a matter of both truth and reason. Conclusions based primarily on Indigenous accounts are flawed. Thus, the Report’s conclusions are unsatisfactory, in that they are not based on a reasoned examination of extensive evidence, but based on limited knowledge so that the ’realities of the situation’ are not understood. According to Brunton, each Indigenous story printed in the report should have been accompanied by ‘vital summary information about those witnesses who were taken, such as official reasons for original removal, whether the child was later returned to his or her family, and so on’ (2001, 93).

38. For Wilson, the Report is based on written documents of the time, not only on oral evidence of ‘childhood memories’ (my emphasis). Further, Wilson stresses the importance of the accounts from Indigenous Australians, suggesting that their stories told to the Commission, provide an opportunity for non-Indigenous Australians to listen and understand the past, and so work towards processes of reconciliation (HEROC Report 1997, 3).

39. The professional reputations of both men are at stake. Brunton reassures readers that he would not lightly undertake criticism of a report that has been received ‘so reverentially’. Both adhere to notions of ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’, and appeal to Reason, (‘intellectual rigour’ and ‘intellectual credibility’ respectively), to support their position. Most importantly, Indigenous views are not to be taken in their own right. (see also Attwood 2000). Wilson, although strongly emphasising the importance of Indigenous accounts of the past in Bringing Them Home, like Brunton, subordinates them when defending the reports objectivity and academic rigour. Such subordination is in the interests of accountability to western knowledge claims (see also paper in this issue by Moreton-Robinson in relation to Indigenous land claims and the call for ‘proof’).

40. Similarly with debates over Australia’s colonial history, the antagonists feel strongly, even passionately, about the basis of their interventions. Supporters of the Windschuttle approach to frontier violence accept that some Indigenous Australians were killed, and in relation to Bringing them Home, everyone agrees that the original inhabitants suffered injustice. Apart from accusations of irresponsible or sloppy methodology, poor and reconstructive scholarship, disagreements centre on degrees of harm, good intentions, and the appropriateness of the language used to describe events. For example Michael Duffy in responding to Manne’s In Denial essay writes that, he inclines toward ‘scepticism when considering stories of oppression of Aboriginal people in the past, whereas Manne has a tendency to exaggerate’ (2001, 109). Arguably one of the most passionately contested issues is the use of the term genocide in reference to policies and practices aimed at Indigenous Australians (Brunton 1998; Curthoys & Docker 2001; Manne 2001; Neill 2002, 172-198; Tatz 1999, Wootten, 1998). This usage of genocide in the Australian context is seen by some to be particularly provocative in that it is both inappropriate and counter productive.

41. Rosemary Neill describes how the term was also hotly disputed in the ‘accountability and literature’ session at the Adelaide Writer’s Festival, in 2000. One participant claiming that talk of genocide was ‘very cheap’, while doing a ‘disservice to earlier generations of teachers, doctors, churchmen and women who thought they were doing the right thing in attempting to assimilate indigenous people’ (Neill 2002,174). For Clendinnen, ‘the persistent invocation of the term ‘genocide’ by the authors of the report and their later supporters to describe any phase of Australian policies was not only ill-judged, but a moral, intellectual and (as it is turning out to be) a political disaster’ (2001, 107). Genocide, for Clendinnen, evokes pictures of ‘deliberate mass murder’, for example in regard to Jews, Gypsies and Armenians: it is ‘innocent people being identified by their killers as a distinct entity being done to death by organised authority’ (2001,106). For Brunton the use of the term is ‘outrageous’. Hal Woottten writes of the ‘pointless controversy’ engendered by the finding of genocide in Bringing Them Home (1998). In contrast Colin Tatz, in supporting its application to the governance of Indigenous Australians, writes of the ‘emotional’, even ‘hysterical response to the word genocide’ (1999,48). Manne, another supporter of the appropriateness of the term in the Australian context, is guided by Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. There, she argues that genocide occurred when ‘one people decided it had the right to eliminate another people, in its entirety, and when it began to take action on that belief’ (2001: 37). Consequently Manne distinguishes between ‘the genocidal dimension in the thinking of the inter war generation’ when ‘full-bloods’ were thought to be on the road to extinction and the ‘half-castes’ were to be biologically ‘absorbed’, and the ‘post-war child removal policies’ associated with ‘assimilation’, which in Bringing them Home, were ‘misleadingly’ claimed to be genocidal (2001: 40).

42. Neither claims of ‘intellectual rigour’, nor attempts to defend one’s ‘intellectual credibility’ are sufficient guarantees of producing narratives that are above criticism, or assured of finding agreement on the use of specific terms. Nor will such claims ensure a safe and assured space of authentic knowing. While Wilson is temperate in his comments, both Brunton and Manne are disparaging of each other’s position. Manne, for example refers to Brunton’s, ‘sneering and contemptuous tone’ (2001,41). In turn, Brunton claims that Manne ‘shows that he is indifferent to factual evidence, apparently believing that he can make reckless claims which are demonstrably false without being called to account’ (2001,89). Given the tenor of their attacks, and counter attacks, along with the parameters of their arguments, they are unlikely to resolve their strongly held differences. Both Clendinnen and Wilson, who express their very strongly held views more moderately, are just as unlikely to change their positions on the use of genocide in the Australian context.

43. On the surface it seems that the focus of disagreement is about degrees of discrimination and disadvantage. For both sides, however, the use of genocide to describe what happened in Australia, whether considered to be inopportune or salutary, generates comparative evaluation of oppression and oppressors. Such a comparison is seen to reflect on the Australia character and national identity. Opponents of the use of the term genocide in the Australian context see it very specifically, particularly in regard to Nazi aims and practices in attempting to exterminate all Jews (the Holocaust). For Brunton its usage is ‘a means of making the worst possible case against Australia’. In contrast, Manne and Tatz deliberately associate the Holocaust with the treatment of Indigenous Australians, not to make a worse case scenario, but from their perspectives, in the interest of accurately describing what happened. Clendinnen, Manne and Tatz take a structural approach to its definition, that the aims and outcomes were deliberately organised, to reach contrasting opinions.

44. In a review of the special edition on genocide in Aboriginal History (Cuthoys & Docker 2001), Kay Schaffer (2002) suggests that debates over colonial history and the appropriateness or otherwise of the term genocide, could ‘eclipse the experience and interpretation of the Indigenous actors’. If not eclipsed, their views are clearly subordinated. In the spirited interactions between non-indigenous academics and commentators recounted above, views of Indigenous scholars on genocide are not raised. Further, there is no suggestion that Dodson, an Indigenous Australian, and as ATSI Social Justice Commissioner, a central player with Wilson in the HEROC Inquiry, disagreed with the use of the term in the Australian context. Apart from Wilson, who presumably had numerous conversations with Dodson, during the course of the Inquiry, and with the writing of Bringing Them Home, the so-called culture/history wars are primarily wars between non-Indigenous writers.

45. Robert Manne suggests that opposition to the report, under Quadrant editorship, amounted to ‘a serious and effective political campaign’ (2001, 6). There may well have been such a galvanising of opinion. But that doesn’t explain the reason for such negative and often emotionally charged responses. Objections to the status of the evidence and to the use of the term genocide came from other than Quadrant sponsorship (eg Attwood 2000; Clendinnen 2001). Bain Attwood, for example, is in agreement with Brunton, in arguing that Indigenous testimony, among other things, needs to be corroborated by further research. In their introduction to Genocide: Definitions, questions, settler-colonies, Ann Curthoys and John Docker suggest that it is important, among other things, ‘to recognise the limits of our current historical knowledge and that conceptual and theoretical considerations and discussions have barely begun’ (2001, 3). The application of the term genocide in Australia remains an unresolved issue for them.

‘Fictions Nettles, Freedoms’: A Never Ending Story

46. I find the strongly expressed negative responses to the oral evidence before the HEROC Inquiry rather surprising. Academics have happily managed to incorporate verbal accounts (informants’ stories) into their research and indeed, in both Anthropology and Sociology, such first hand accounts have formed a basic component of their research. Historians and others have debated how to use narrative (oral) histories along with the operation of memories of the past in the present. There have been ongoing debates, across the humanities and social sciences, about ‘experience’ as a concept in the production of knowledge. This is particularly the case in regard to feminist engagements with women’s experience (eg. Kruks 2001). Accounts of the past (or even current events) are never simple or unmediated renditions of what happened, but then neither are written accounts. So although experiential knowledge and memory remain subjects of ongoing discussion, the use of either is hardly neither novel nor cause for alarm. A cause for alarm is the increasing politicising of debate over representing the past in the present and the positioning of Indigenous Australians in such representations.

47. Non-indigenous historian, Dirk Moses, suggests that a national discussion about Australia’s past should not be the exclusive preserve of historians. Such a discussion needs to be inclusive of all; it also needs to be a conversation rather than a war (2004). Indigenous academic, Greg Lehman, makes a similar suggestion specifically in regard to Tasmania. He suggests an inclusive participation so as to construct a new negotiated place called Tasmania, ‘a place that we can imagine into existence’ (2003, 183). How is such a negotiated space called Australia to be achieved? How are Indigenous viewpoints, and non-Indigenous viewpoints, in all their respective diversity, to be part of a negotiated space of equals in which Australia is to be imagined? Is such a proposed conversation possible?

48. The struggle for Indigenous Australians to make a world in their own image and present it to non-indigenous Australians is ongoing. In her article, Genocide: The distance between law and life, Indigenous academic, Larissa Berhendt points out that descriptions,

of dispossession and the forced removal of children from the point of view of the victim/survivor of historical and colonial processes is hard to fit into academic and legal discourse (2001, 132).

She finds that the

chasm between the use of the term ‘genocide’ as a descriptor of experience by Indigenous people and the refusal of the legal system to consider those acts as amounting to genocide says more about the conceptual leaps that still need to be made in the institutions of Australian society and those in positions of power than any delusion about the past by Indigenous people. We live with the legacies of those practices everyday, as the Bringing Them Home report evidenced and concluded (2001, 146).

49. Are such conceptual leaps possible? How is the colonisation of Australia to be understood? How are Indigenous accounts of their experiences of the impact of policies of separation from their family, their community and thus cultural heritage to be articulated? Why are Indigenous attempts to tell their own Australian stories, to authorise, affirm and control the telling of their life stories, to own their lives, a matter of such heated academic controversy? What is at stake for non-indigenous Australians who respond in disbelief or incredulity to Indigenous accounts of their experiences? If Indigenous people think the term genocide is in keeping with what happened why is that not acceptable? Why should non-Indigenous writers determine language usage? Is it necessary to conflate all genocides?

50. I have no ready answers to any of these questions. What became clear to me in researching and writing this paper is that discussion and debate about understanding, representing and describing aspects of Australia’s past is also about racialised privilege and the political shaping of knowledge production. Whiteness, as a metaphor for relations of domination, as a normative framework for comprehending the world is clearly pervasive in debates about the past. Appeals to academic standards, on the part of some participants in debates, specifically in relation to Indigenous evidence before the HEROC Inquiry, serves to submerge that privilege. This is not to suggest any deliberate submerging per se, but rather an enactment of what Bourdieu calls habitus, as part of our unself-conscious ways of being in the world. In the case of the HEROC inquiry, a taken for granted aspect of white privilege in construing what is. It is non-indigenous Australians telling Indigenous Australians how to understand their experiences.

51. There is no question that policies and practices of assimilation aimed to eradicate all Indigenous modes of identification and ways of being in the world. Although dispossession was considered to be complete, attempts to obliterate specific Indigenous identities were most notable failures. Attempts to do so, however, caused considerable harm. This harm is exacerbated when non-indigenous narratives dominate the framing of Australian stories. The very domain, Aboriginal History, is an instance of this framing. Since the time of colonisation Indigenous and non-indigenous histories collided. Histories of colonists and colonised are intertwined. At the same time the positions from which people narrate their histories and ways of positioning people and events within those historical narratives will differ. So, while the domain of colonial history belongs to both, non-indigenous stories have shaped this domain.

52. Indigenous Australians did not agree to be colonised. Their lands were taken (an act of violence in and of itself), and in so doing the colonists deprived them of their independence, including control over the means of production and reproduction of their conditions of existence. Colonists, of whatever moral probity, killed them and treated them in ways, whatever their intentions, which contributed to their loss of independence and control. The interests of the colonists prevailed. Indigenous counter-attacks were meet with violence. Whole groups were annihilated. Policies and practices directed towards civilising the original inhabitants, whether to breed out the colour, or to assimilate the survivors of colonial endeavours, were unequivocally aimed at an extreme cultural makeover. Indigenous Australians were to become black ‘whitefellas’. A quotation from a Government pamphlet of 1958 will suffice to illustrate this point. The sentiments are well known:

In its simplest terms assimilation means that, to survive and prosper, the aborigines must live and work and think as white Australians do so that they can take their place in social, economic, and political equality with the rest of the Australian community. (Assimilation of Our Aborigines, my emphasis)

53. Indigenous people were not consulted in the development or implementation of assimilation policies, although they had a history of variously making claims to be treated as equal citizens. To be equal with other Australians, as Indigenous Australians. To be all the same but different, however, was an idea either resisted or beyond the comprehension of policy makers at the time. Ideas of assimilation were based on various means of imagining Australia, similar to the time of Federation, as a space of cultural and social homogeneity. Such an accord of living, working and thinking at the time, is clearly rhetorical. Prevailing are ideas (ideals) of sameness that submerge diversity of class, geographical location, cultural background and identifications (eg. German, Italian, Irish), religion and so on. In similar rhetorical ways, migrants to Australia in the 1940s and 1950s were to become like the non-indigenous majority in order to inhabit an imagined space of Australia. Even under the cover of a multicultural Australia, being simultaneously different and equal is variously seen to be, and experienced as, problematic (eg. Bottomley 1992;Hage & Couch 1999; Hindess 1993).

54. There is no easy, non-destructive, or even relatively non-destructive, means to deprive people of their land, livelihood and lives, subordinate them to the interests of the colonists, subject them to racially based discriminatory policies and practices, and then attempt to make them over to be like ‘all other Australians’.

55. Colonisation is inherently violent. Ward Churchill makes an even stronger statement in arguing that all settler colonies established with European expansion from 1492 are inherently genocidal (in Curthoys and Docker 2001,13). Alison Palmer makes a similar point in her study, Colonial Genocide (2000). She undertakes a comparative study of the colonisation of Queensland and South West Africa in order to establish,

whether or not there are grounds for conflating genocides which occurred during the period of world history known as European colonisation into a single category of "colonial genocide" (2000, 191).

She concludes there are not grounds for such a conflation, and that not all colonialism was genocidal, for example the British in India. Places of colonisation included in her conception of genocide (‘near-annihilation by the gun or diseases’) however, were the Americas, the Caribbean and Australia (2000, 191). She suggests that ‘analysis of earlier cases of genocide is highly constructive for understanding modern, contemporary genocide, as well as genocide more generally’ (2000, 210-211). Curthoys and Docker also make an argument for the importance of a comparative approach to the issue (2001).

56. At stake in all of these debates is academic scholarship along with the intellectual integrity in general of all non-indigenous participants as producers of normative frameworks for comprehending the world. Despite the tone and substance of the above debates, no matter what side of the debate anyone is on, non-indigenous writers are still interpreting Indigenous people to themselves. A counter to this is that all academic pursuits work to interpret people to themselves. The point, however, is the context of interpretation and the ways in which non-Indigenous accounts serve to maintain and reproduce white hegemony. In the Weekend Australian Magazine (17-18 July 2004), Prime Minister John Howard reiterated his perspectives on the past in reference to ‘guilt about the Aborigines’. He is reported as saying ‘let’s forget the past, start again, and just concentrate on making things better for the Aborigines’.

57. The past may well be another place for some commentators but it is certainly not dead as current debates affirm. The past is always with us: it is part of our present and future. Debates about interpreting and understanding the past will continue. I think this is both an inevitable and positive process. Further, Indigenous interventions into the narrating of Australia have changed the ways in which Australia is imagined, and even worked to unsettle non-indigenous views. At the same time, in ways of imagining Australia, there are few assured and authentic places of being and knowing for Indigenous Australians.

58. The contradictions of colonial intentions and practices, the differing views of colonised and coloniser are inescapable dynamics of Australia’s past. Colonisation is not a good thing for those colonised. The inevitabilities of colonial destruction are an inescapable part of our colonial past. Acknowledgment and acceptance of this past in the present could enable all Australians to imagine an inclusive multicultural domain of mutual recognition. Until we are able to construct something approaching Greg Lehman’s new negotiated space of Australia our cultural diversity, our past, present and future continues to be injured.


Jan Larbalestier is Honorary Associate in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy and the School of Social Work and Policy Studies. She was an editor and contributor to the 1998 ‘Companion to Australian Feminism’, OUP, and has published extensively on issues of representation, identity and difference in Australian Culture. Her current project is on representation and whiteness.


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