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EFAC Australia

Book Review: Trapped in the Gap: Doing Good in Indigenous Australia
By Emma Kowal
Berghahn 2015

Emma Kowal describes herself as a ‘native ethnographer’, by which she means an anthropologist studying her own kind. Her own kind in this book are ‘White anti-racists’, a term she defines carefully. By ‘White’ she doesn't necessarily refer to skin colour, rather it applies to those who ‘willingly and unwillingly, knowingly and unknowingly, participate in the racialised societal structure that positions them as 'White' and accordingly grants them privileges associated with the dominant Australian culture.’ (11). Anti-racist is defined from an anthropological perspective as ‘a culture, discourse and identity’.

Kowal is studying a group of health workers like herself (she worked in the Northern Territory as a doctor and is now Associate Professor of Anthropology at Deakin University). These are 'White anti-racists' who are trying to do good in Indigenous communities, and who want to be distinguished from past attempts by colonial settlers such as missionaries and the Assimilationists. Her own experience of working in the field led her to see that there was deep questioning as to whether they were actually doing anything to 'close the gap'. Was it just another colonial enterprise? One of the workers she tells of critiques herself by saying, ‘nearly every health promotion message she advocates conflicts with the social practices of the Aboriginal people she works with.’ (7).

There is a gap between the promises of liberal multiculturalism and the experiences of Whites who seek to help the Indigenous minorities. That is where many of those most committed to do good are trapped. Why are they trapped? Partly because of the way they understand themselves.
The understanding of 'difference' between Indigenous and non–Indigenous is part of a set of beliefs held by ‘non– Indigenous, left-wing, middle-class professionals who work in Indigenous affairs’. Kowal's term is 'remediable difference' – ‘a difference that can be improved.’ These beliefs affirm the positive value of the culture of Indigenous people, recognize the problems that stem from dispossession, displacement, intergenerational trauma, and the responsibility of the Australian people and governments for the problems and the obligation to help. 'Self-determination' and 'community consultation' are crucial to this set of beliefs.

One of the tensions for White anti-racists is between equality and difference. ‘...the beliefs of White anti-racists are underpinned by the idea that Indigenous people are distinctively different from White people (difference), and … that White people have both the ability and an obligation to improve the lives of Indigenous people (equality).’ There are distinctions in 'difference'. Some difference is good (the traditional culture), some is bad (the things that need to be erased in order to 'close the gap').

Serious questions arise at this point. ‘..when we close the gap and make Indigenous people statistically equal to non-Indigenous people, could we be making them less Indigenous?’ Is this a form of assimilation? One of the ways out of this dilemma is to see the problems as essentially structural. We are not changing the people only the structures that cause their disadvantage.

But what if 'agency' was also a significant factor? Remediable difference assumes that Indigenous agency (choice) will mirror the values and choices of White anti-racists. But what if Indigenous people were 'radically different'? What if they had radically different priorities and values to White people? One of the difficulties is that Indigenous people don't always seem to want to follow the values and behaviours that White anti-racists think they should.

A paradigm shift away from self-determination is also under way. The Intervention challenged the principles of self-determination. Remedialism has replaced remediable difference. Cultural difference will no longer be relevant.

Another threat to White anti-racists understanding is the concept of the 'authentic Indigenous voice'.  Pearson and Langton have been instrumental in ‘ending the fantasy that Indigenous people at a community, regional or national level present a unified view.’ (163)

‘The dilemmas … described in this book illustrate the broader contradictions of liberal multiculturalism.’ (165) They reflect the crisis of universalism, particularly of a universal human nature.  Culture theory recognises multiple ways of being human. Differences between groups and their behaviours could now be regarded as mere difference. Not difference related to a universal norm or even the norms of another culture. No longer 'remediable difference'. Just 'culture' without any power relations implied.

Possible alternatives? Decouple Indigeneity from disadvantage and marginality. Loosen the definition to include all kinds of Indigenous people. Redefine it to free it from its opposition to whiteness and from its anchor to the past. Perhaps allow multiple identities or layered (Pearson) identity. For White anti-racists an alternative politics could explore non-stigmatised, non-settler identities. ‘A more reasonable goal may be a plurality of identity … which would reject the idea of mutually exclusive categories without abandoning categories altogether.’ (169).

Like Peter Sutton's The Politics of Suffering, Kowal's book confronts a disturbing reality. The Gap is not closing. And the attempts by White anti-racists don't seem to be helping. Her idea is that part of the problem is how White anti-racists define themselves, and part of this problem is how they define the Indigenous people they are trying to help. Her solution lies in the area of new definitions and understandings of identity. Her suggestions are tentative. The debate is still fluid. Christians have something to say about this.

Dale Appleby, WA

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