As we get ready to usher into law marriage equality for any two consenting adults irrespective of gender, transgender or non-specific gender, it is difficult to believe that just 13 years ago our fearless leader John Howard was so fearful that our Constitution did not expressly forbid same-sex marriage that he changed the law to include (what seemed to be even then) an antiquated clause that marriage could only take place between a man and a woman. Despite loud protests from many that a country with our track record on discrimination was not yet progressive enough to consider all people equal under the law, Howard, Gillard and Abbott were content to have their names associated with a dying set of values that would (at least on the issue of equality for everyone) forever position them on the wrong side of history.
I wonder what the generations to come will think about us when they read how long it took us as a nation to agree that our LGBTI family members and friends were entitled to enjoy the same rights we enjoy.
It is difficult to look back on our history of race relations and not feel a similar sense of incredulity at the staggering prejudices that prevailed. In the year I was born—1966—the First Australians were not yet formally recognised as citizens ‘enough’ to be counted in our official population statistics. Some of the wealthier states had resisted this, effectively since 1901, because if they included indigenous Australians in their population count, the wealth of this land would have to be shared among the people who had a better claim to it than we did — the people who had cared for its precious resources since time immemorial. That’s what the ’67 referendum changed — thankfully with a resounding and record-breaking YES from 91 percent of the nation.
But change had been slow in coming. It breaks my heart to acknowledge that my mother and her mother, my great-grandparents and my great-grand-grandparents were content to benefit economically from our country’s racist policies and not moved enough to rally for change much, much earlier. And so the First Australians suffered.
Of course the First Australians always were and always will be the first people to have walked upon this land, to have swum in its seas and rivers, to have left footsteps and handprints in the red ochre, to have listened to and learned the continent’s secrets, passing the knowledge from one generation to the next through their stories and dances: honouring their elders and the spirits who came to settle down here too—in the desert, bush and coastal regions for more than 60,000 years. More years than that even. Who knows how many more? The First Australians do not need a constitution nor even a construction like linear time to have been born with the great honour that resides in their hearts.
At this moment in our history, though, I think it is also timely for 'white' Australians (of course, the reality is that so many of us, like myself, are multi-coloured) to acknowledge that we have a different honour to attend to: an honour born of out of an obligation to our ancestors, as well as to the First Australians. The honour of being the first generation of white Australians (or in some cases the second: I shall always be moved by that beautiful image of Gough Whitlam in 1975 pouring the Daguragu soil back into the right hand of traditional owner Vincent Lingiari) who are able to openly acknowledge that we carry the guilt for our ancestors actions in our collective veins.
To carry this guilt is very painful but it is a mark of our strength – our equanimity – when we are able to carry it consciously. It need not become just another source of self-hatred.
It is up to us to find a way to resolve these complex feelings — it can no longer be the job of the First Australians to bear the brunt of our repression of them. At the risk of sounding like a martyr, I personally feel it is an honour to experience the palpable and embodied manifestation of this guilt because I can — the guilt that my mother and her mother had no capacity to speak about let alone feel; nor any contemporary psychological model in which to comprehend what I mean. When we allow the pain to sit there in our hearts and give it the space and the light of day; when we can have compassion for ourselves that it has become part our destiny to experience this pain, as well as compassion for our parents’ at their inability to acknowledge their participation in a harmful system — we will come closer to healing white Australia’s collective shadow.
Repression of our shadow dehumanises the First Australians: we can fail to fully appreciate the extent to which human beings were hurt and by which we benefitted from this economical and social system that our forebears sanctioned. Until we feel our own discomfort, how can we possibly have empathy for the suffering of the First Australians? Until we sit with these feelings in our own bodies, feeling the sadness in our hearts, our understanding of our history remains merely an intellectual understanding and we risk being complicit in further acts of institutionalised racism by our police, courts and parliamentarians.
Writing this blog does indeed make my heart sad. I wonder how my forebears were able to tolerate a system that saw terrified children dragged from their ancestral lands; stolen from the safety of their mothers’ breasts; torn from their fathers’ protective arms, never again to be reunited. I don’t have any answers for this. Let me pause and breathe because the pain of reflecting upon this is tangible. I am sorry. So many hundreds of thousands of unspeakable tortures and injustices that better writers than me have documented. And that the First Australians had to live through.
I am cognisant that my pain in reflecting upon my ancestors' complicity can have no moral equivalency with the pain of experiencing this system through the being of a First Australian.
I apologise. I apologise that this looms large in our collective history: it is there in the DNA that I’ve inherited. I can’t escape it and nor would I want to. At the moment it feels important for it to be there. This is part of the privilege of having been born at this time in this place — or even the privilege of having been born at all. Along with the joy and the connection to this land and its people that I have grown to love, these painful and complicated feelings are part of my inheritance.
This white guilt that I hold tenderly.
Peace happens in its own time. The First Australians will forgive us in their own time. Healing happens in its own time. Nothing can be rushed. Everything must be allowed to be felt in the body for it to pass away. Our shared humanity; our love and connection to each other; our wounds — they are all integrated through the body.
All we have to do is pause. And experience the reality of whatever is unfolding—whether joyful or painful—in this precious moment. It is beautiful when we begin to recognise that have the strength to hold it all.