Sunday, October 07, 2007

Noel Pearson: White guilt, victimhood and the quest for a radical centre

I have just listened to a podcast speech given by Noel Pearson at the Art Gallery of New South Wales as part of a series called Big Ideas: Art Gallery Society of NSW in collaboration with Griffith REVIEW. This was recorded at the Art Gallery of NSW on Thursday 31 May 2007 before an audience.

Noel Pearson: White guilt, victimhood and the quest for a radical centre. Link to the mp3 file.

His ideas are confronting because they made me re-think some of my own ideas about Indigenous Australia.

Welfare. Paternalistic policies are needed, to a certain extent. Inalienable welfare doesn't work for people who have developed an addiction. Conditionality is needed on income support. Don't give money if it is going to be spent on drugs, alcohol and gambling instead of housing, food, clothing and education for yourself and your kids. Instead have structures in place where a responsible adult or welfare agency will ensure the money is used where it is needed.

What is needed is a safe place to live in which indigenous Australians can support themselves.

Victimhood. Much of white and black Australia have inculcated ourselves with the notion that indigenous Australians are victims that need to be helped.

We took the consoling hand of a kind romantic and empathetic Australia. The Australia of those Drysdale paintings with the big hats and the forlorn black figures. I just get a sense that much of that empathy [...] did us no good.

I first came across this idea in Naomi Wolf's book "Fire with Fire" (1994 - ISBN 0449909514) which spoke about women empowering themselves. The idea is that I am the only one who can improve my life. I need to make opportunities for myself. I cannot rely on being given opportunities because society owes me something.

How do these two ideas work together? This is the most valuable question I obtained from Noel Pearson's speech. The two notions of empowerment and paternalism are at odds. How can empowerment be encouraged by policies implemented by white society where, in the main, it will be white people deciding who gets the money? How do you implement paternalistic policies and allow for self determination at the same time?

I feel privileged that I have a job and resources to look after my family, and I want everybody in Australia to have the chance for the same thing. I do feel some sense of collective guilt that "white society" has a lot to answer for. We should make up for it but not by fostering a sense of indigenous Australians as victims we should send money to.

How do we, as a society, ensure that paternalism allows empowerment? I see two goals here. The first is that society has an obligation to itself to provide all members with safety and means for support. The other is that indigenous Australians have a right to maintain their own society, their own culture. Perhaps we need to start with conditional welfare. Then encourage (require?) indigenous Australians to take up those jobs of looking after their own groups. Perhaps we should not be scared to try other things like indigenous courts, ways to let indigenous Australians look after themselves, according to their own culture, to decide how they want to live responsibly for themselves.

I am going to read more by Noel Pearson. I am going to think more about this issue, and who I vote for, based on what policies they put forward for the black fella.

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