This post was inspired by talented Aboriginal writer Siv Parker‘s piece raising some of the issues around whether white writers can write black characters.
She has a point. It’s a minefield and as a non-Aboriginal writer you risk doing a Keneally – blundering in with an attempt to help but ending up creating a rampaging serial killer, which you later come to regret and have to apologise for at every opportunity.
But perhaps there’s room for collaboration when it is done well? Playwright Alana Valentine has an utterly selfless passion for bringing to life stories of the disenfranchised, teasing out the humans behind the stereotype. I met her once and asked her something that had troubled me for a long time, which was: as a writer, do you have the right to speak in other people’s voices and appropriate their stories? She said the question had thrown her and it wasn’t something she’d thought of before. (I don’t know, perhaps she was being nice and it was the centre of everything she did?)
Valentine’s play “Head Full of Love” was about an indigenous woman who knits for the Beanie Festival of Alice Springs. Alana workshopped the script extensively with these wonderful women themselves, and was able to take a little bit of their lives around Australia. It’s a beautiful, sensitive piece of writing, with the blessing, I believe of the women who modeled the characters. Wesley Enoch, a proud Noonuccal Nuugi man, staged the play in Brisbane in 2012 to great acclaim. It seems to be a positive outcome.
The issue is of course much broader than characters that appear on screen – every single interaction and information exchange between members of white population about indigenous people is moulded by the stereotypes that have been passed on by school curricula, museums, history books, word-of-mouth and taught directly by social circles and family (as Siv Parker points out). I don’t think anyone can deny that in general over the years White Australia has made a complete hash of representing Aboriginal characters, and every cliched character hammers in an aspect of the stereotype.
It is impossible to erase the stereotypes and privilege immediately or even quickly. But it is so important, SO important, to try, and keep trying. White privileged society has a responsibility to try to fix the mess.
Excuse a diversion to explain what I know from experience about absorbing negative stereotypes without even realising it. I had strange and conflicting images of Aboriginal people fed to me as a child. My dad taught me that Aboriginal people were kinder and more accepting than white people. My parents taught me racism of any kind was wrong.
But of course, it’s completely possible to hold two mutually exclusive belief systems, particularly if you don’t know they’re there. For stories I had a 1960s collection of Aboriginal stories, told through a white mouthpiece (cue weird, mystical trope). Of fictional characters, there was only David Gulpilil in Storm Boy, Ernie Dingo and Jimmy Blacksmith (cue mystical, happy-go-lucky and black-bloke-on-a-rampage tropes).
There was history. In the late 70s and early 80s teachers were very into playing up the harshness of colonial life. We were taught it was oh, so rough back then in the bare-floored shanties, hiding from snakes, cooking damper, and avoiding swaggies who slept in logs. Convicts, floggings, escapes, cannibalism, Port Arthur, penal colonial Sydney at its rummest.
The full-fledged war following invasion, massacres, stolen children and attempted genocide were all quietly forgotten. Let alone Vincent Lingiari and the land rights movement.
And then there were the documentaries and news reports, which variously showed bearded traditional men standing on one leg with a spear, or intrusive, undignified exposes of people in squalor, sniffing petrol and becoming brain-damaged–reports full of the language of “them” and “they” and other intimations of lack of personhood. Even Chris Masters in his 4 Corners episode attempting to clear the name of an Aboriginal man convicted of murder, managed to condescend. This continues to this day, with the politically motivated Aboriginal child abuse debate of 2007, reports of which as Marcia Langton pointed out were an exploitation of suffering to produce a kind of misery porn. (Oh, and hasn’t it gone quiet since then?)
And there was one boy who came briefly to my school, from whom the rest of us were sheltered. Because he “was trouble” and “was an Aborigine”. (Was he stolen from his family? No bloody wonder the poor kid was trouble.)
There you have it – that’s components of the image of Aboriginality I carried until adulthood. Those are only the things I can pull out of the air in a potted summary. Pitiful, tragic, inarticulate characters, trouble, deserving to be looked after because they couldn’t look after themselves. It doesn’t come close to the intangible prejudices we non-indigenous all will have absorbed at an unconscious level. This was despite my being pro-Treaty, pro-land rights, and my cheering on the Aboriginal protests in 1988. There wasn’t any deliberate malice there–I was just completely and utterly wrong, in every way. Idiotically wrong, even.
A very large part of that image though was the lack of positive Aboriginal characters on television and in the media. If I had heard intelligent, articulate Aboriginal voices in the media earlier, it might have sunk through my thick skull that intelligent, articulate Aboriginal people existed.
Let’s shift for a moment to Tongan culture and Chris Lilley’s Jonah from Tonga. I’m going to defer to the Tongan community and researcher Helen Lee that the character is racist and offensive. Pacific Islanders are not a very large part of Australia’s population (although I note large and “scary” enough for John Howard to change migration laws with New Zealand to prevent Islanders and other brown people getting into Australia through the “back door”.) So it’s entirely possible that the only thing some teenagers would know about Tonga and Tongan culture would be Lilley being an arsehole in a stupid wig and black face. It’s going to take a lot to overwrite the damage from that one show. Now, that’s just the one show. It’s a thousand times harder with Aboriginal stereotypes.
Ideally, what needs to happen is positive Aboriginal characters in as many places as possible. Redfern Now was utterly brilliant, up there with any series this country has produced, but it was easily avoided by commercial TV viewers. Where are the Aboriginal doctor and lawyer characters? They exist in real life. Has there ever been an indigenous team on any reality TV? What not MKR? Where are our mainstream news readers who happen to be Aboriginal? Why don’t kids’ shows employ indigenous culture consultants like they do in NZ? Why was Deb Mailman the first and last indigenous face on Play School?
White writers will in general balls up getting inside Indigenous peoples’ heads, especially if they do it without extensive collaboration and perhaps even then. The very start point is getting cultural advisers and writers on the payroll, at least of current affairs and children’s shows. But if white Australians are to work on our received “wisdoms” and unconscious stereotyping, they have to see positive Aboriginal characters on their TVs and movie screens – Indigenous academics, lawyers, writers, activists, engineers, teachers, cops, living in rural towns, regions, cities, townships, everywhere. The more indigenous writers involved in this process, the better.
To get that breadth happening, it’s likely that some characters are going to have to be penned by non-indigenous writers. That said, it will only ever be worth it if done with as much sensitivity as Alana Valentine. Without that, what’s left is a rehash of the same old damaging tripe.
Screen Australia has published Pathway and Protocols – a filmmaker’s guide to working with Indigenous people, culture and concepts. Is the guide enough? What do you think? Is it a pipe dream?