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History – Who’s Story?
History Writing and the Story of Indigenous Australia

In this essay about writing history you will be presented with a range of ideas which address the broad question of how histories come to be written. In particular it focuses on different approaches to the history of Australia and the Indigenous experience.

As you read the essay you will find a number of Counterpoint footnotes which provide web links to opposing points of view, or which provide a different perspective to some of the ideas that you will encounter. Use the Counterpoint footnotes and resources to help develop and refine your own ideas about the issues that are discussed.

Things to Think About When Reading This Essay

One of the great challenges to people writing histories is the question of objectivity versus subjectivity. Some people argue that if a history is based on historical documents then it must be true because the documents confirm the events being described. Therefore it is an objective historical account. But what if the historical documents - such as letters, diaries, official reports, and so on – deal with personal impressions of the events being described? Does this not mean that these documents are essentially subjective in nature?

Counterpoint 1: In this article titled Science and history: Do the claims of science transcend time and place?, D. Graham Burnett says that the idea that science is objective has been argued for years. Further, he suggests, how we understand the terms “objectivity” and “subjectivity” have also changed over time.

And if history books are objective because they are based on verifiable historical documents, why are so many new books written that deal with the same historical events but give different interpretations? Similarly, when a person tells their life story is this not a subjective process? After all, the person’s close relative may describe the same events quite differently.

In spite of these difficulties, most academics who write histories attempt to ensure that they provide documentary evidence for their history: carefully analysing and critiquing the evidence, and providing and discussing points of view that are contrary to or challenge their ideas about the historical events they are discussing. This leads to an historical account which is as true and as objective as is possible from the historian’s particular perspective. Similarly, the good oral historian ensures that the narrator is allowed to own and tell the story in their own way and respects their integrity and personal dignity.

Counterpoint 2: Every researcher has questions about how to record effective oral histories. Oral History Methods and Techniques discusses how to conduct academically rigorous interviews and Discussion of oral history methods and philosophy discusses some the questions and problems students encountered when thinking about oral histories.

It is also important to remember that this essay reflects my personal point of view. I believe that the Indigenous people of Australia have suffered greatly from the impact of invasion and colonialism. I believe that many of them believe their land was invaded and their culture destroyed and that many Aboriginals living today are still suffering the effects of White settlement of their lands. You may not agree with this point of view. Nevertheless, I believe that it is the responsibility of us all to read learn about the history of Australia and expose ourselves to as many points of view as possible before deciding what position we wish to take and defend.

History – Who’s Story?
History Writing and the Story of Indigenous Australia

The Invisible Aboriginal

In an opinion piece published in the Age newspaper on August 23, 2006, Yorta Yorta man Paul Briggs wrote an impassioned opinion piece in which he angrily rejected a proposal by then Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough that Aboriginal culture be “showcased” by employing Aboriginals from remote communities in five-star tourist venues on the Eastern seaboard. Briggs wrote,

“The idea caught many a breath but not just because of its patronising nature. The minister had voiced what many Australians think, and that is that Australia’s ‘genuine’ Indigenous people can only be found in remoter northern and north-western Australia.” i

Briggs said that in large part this was because Aborigines in southern Australia had largely “disappeared” – at least in the eyes and awareness of most of the non-Aboriginal Australian community.

Counterpoint 3: Look at this promotion of Indigenous culture in the state of Victoria prepared by the Government’s tourism body Visit Victoria. How does the site represent Victoria’s Indigenous history and experience? Compare the Visit Victoria site with the website for Bookabee Tours, a company owned and managed by Indigenous Australians.

That most non-Aboriginal Australians in southern Australians believe that Aboriginal culture no longer exists is the result of what Richard Broome describes as a “colonial onslaught” which resulted in Aboriginal people being “significantly remade in the coloniser’s image, culturally, economically, and physically.” According to Broome most Victorian Aboriginal cultural and ceremonial life was destroyed by 1900, language was largely lost by the 1920s, Aboriginal social structure was reshaped by inter-marriage between regional groups and through inter-marriage with non-Indigenous people. He cites a survey conducted in 1994 which found that two-thirds of Victorian Indigenous families had non-Indigenous members. As a result the skin tones of most Victorian Aboriginals have become so “diluted” that many non-Aboriginal Victorians believe that Aboriginals and Aboriginal culture no longer exists. (2005: 375) ii.

Counterpoint 4: The Government of Tasmania believed that the last Tasmanian Aboriginal Trugananner – also known as Truganini - died in 1876. What does Tasmanian woman Debra Hocking think?

This problem of “dilution” is not confined to Victoria: Wiradjuri man Tommy Lyons, who was born in central New South Wales in 1914, described his heritage in the following way:

“My mother was Wiradjuri mob and Irish. My grandfather on my mother’s side, old George Parker, had about 3,500 acres of land. He was a real Irishman. Mum was very fair, real thin-featured. She was very white and her features were different. She had the features more like Grandfather Parker and yet her mother was a full-blood, a Dargin by name. He had three daughters. There was two very fair. Aunty Mary was fair, but Aunty Stella, she threw back to the Dargins. She was dark. Mum was the youngest and was very fair, sharp features. My stepfather was partly Indian, Aborigine-Indian, although his people were pretty bloomin’ fair. It was hard to pick them out as Aborigines.” (cited in Rintoul, 1993: 300 – 301 iii)

Counterpoint 5: Many of the oral histories of The Stolen Generation tell of a similar family experience.

The Bringing Them Home. Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families is a lengthy but important document that traces the history of the practice of removing Aboriginal children from their families. It traces the attitudes and policies toward Aboriginal children from early colonial days to the present.

Some historians, including Keith Windschuttle, believe the claims made in the Bringing Them Home report were overstated and politicised: Think about the arguments put forward by Windschuttle in his article titled How the “Stolen Generations” was sold and the editorial in the National Observer - The Hypocrisy of Aboriginal Claims – and compare them with those put forward the Bringing Them Home report and the oral histories narrated by some the Stolen Generation. Which point of view do you agree with? Why?

The problem has been compounded by politicians, businesses and other individuals actively seeking to deny Aboriginals their heritage. Germaine Greer contends that “whitefella energies have been directed towards confining and distancing Aboriginality.” (2004: 27) iv Greer claims that this happens in such a way that politicians such as Paul Hasluck (who was Minister for Territories in the Menzies Government between 1951 and 1962) actively sought “to narrow down the term Australian Aboriginal to mean only those who do not live like Europeans”. She claims that this attitude is being currently maintained by mining companies attempting to reduce royalties due to Aboriginal landowners by having only those who still live under tribal law being categorised as Aboriginals (ibid).

Counterpoint 6: There has been a lot of heated debate about Germaine Greer’s essay Whitefella Jump Up. You can follow some of the debate and arguments.. Start with this response to the essay by Ian Henderson, follow up with Marcia Langton’s response to Greer’s essay, and Germaine Greer’s response to her critics. Which point of view you agree with? Why you do so?

This position and the attitude towards Aboriginals is held in spite of the fact that in 2010 most people who identified themselves as Aboriginal lived in towns and have intermarried with non-Aboriginals. According to Birrell and Hirst,

"Only a minority of Aboriginals live in rural or remote areas. Most live in urban settings. Nearly one third of Australian residents who self-identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders in the 2001 Census live in the capital cities of the states. …Then there is the issue of with whom Aborigines live, whether within or outside the capital cities. If we look at Aboriginal families in the capital cities we find very few in which an Aboriginal man and an Aboriginal woman are living together. According to data drawn for this analysis from the 2001 Census, 87 per cent of couples with an Aboriginal member were intermixed. That is they were composed of an Aboriginal man with a non-Aboriginal partner or an Aboriginal woman with a non-Aboriginal partner. On this test these metropolitan Aborigines are very well integrated into the wider society. A far greater proportion of first and second generation Greeks and Italians living in Australia marry within their own group than do Aborigines living in the capital cities.

“Outside the state capitals Aboriginals are more likely to have Aboriginal partners, but, nevertheless, 60 per cent of all couples with an Aboriginal member were intermixed. Only outside Perth in Western Australia and Darwin in the Northern Territory are a majority of Aboriginal couple families with an Aboriginal member composed of both an Aboriginal man and an Aboriginal woman. Within the Northern Territory, other than Darwin, the great majority of families – 87 per cent – are purely Aboriginal. But couples with an Aboriginal member in the Northern Territory (other than in Darwin) amount to less than 10 per cent of all such couples in Australia.”
(2002: 23) v

They note further that in 2001 intermixed couples made up 69 per cent of couples with an Aboriginal member. Thus, it seems that the norm in Australia is that most Aboriginals, ‘live like Europeans’ (as termed by Paul Hasluck), are likely to have at least one non-Aboriginal parent or partner, and have limited contact with traditional tribal life.

Counterpoint 7: Larissa Berendt is an Indigenous academic who is frequently asked whether she ever visits Aboriginal communities. Her response is “Everyday, when I go home.” In this paper titled The Urban Aboriginal Landscape she writes about “invisible” Aboriginals who live in urban places. You can read a number of other accounts in Aboriginal Identity: Who is Aboriginal?

Many prominent opinion-makers such as journalist Andrew Bolt believe that many people claiming Aboriginal identity do so in for personal gain. In 2009 Bolt wrote a series of articles on this topic which led to him being sued for being racist. He lost the court case. You can read one of the articles – White is the new black . The article is prefaced by a statement of the Court’s findings. Do you agree or disagree with Bolt’s opinion? I think you might find some of the ideas in this You Tube video – How to tell people they sound racist – useful to help form your ideas. The video makes the distinction between making racist statements or acts and being a racist.

At the macro-level the question of identity is important on at least two levels: political and social. At the political level it is inextricably linked to questions of funding and welfare support. The Federal Government defines an Aboriginal or Torres Strait person as someone who:

Research by Birrell and Hirst found that more Australians than ever are identifying themselves as Aboriginal: in the 2001 census, 410,003 did so, up from 352,970 in 1996 and 227,593 in 1986. (2002: 26). It has been argued by some (such as Pauline Hanson and Andrew Bolt) that by claiming Aboriginal descent it becomes easier for them to get social welfare support. (However, it is also important to note that some Indigenous people such as Noel Pearson - who you will be introduced to in Counterpoint 8 - also sees real problems associated with Indigenous people relying on social welfare.) For the Government, the political and economic implication of this Indigenous population growth lies in a potential increase in the cost of social and welfare support for Aboriginals. Indeed, successive Governments over the past three decades have explored different ways of reducing the cost of Indigenous welfare funding. The Howard Government approach was to introduce the concept of “mutual obligation” whereby,

...the provision of government assistance is not simply a matter of right or entitlement, but something that must be reciprocated by the citizen through meeting a range of obligations and responsibilities. In the context of welfare reform, the onus has shifted from the State’s obligation to provide income support for those citizens unable to exercise their right to work (temporarily or otherwise) to the obligation of the unemployed citizen to perform certain duties - such as seeking work, undertaking training or accepting temporary employment - in exchange for this support. vi

This led to the Department of Employment, Work Relations and Small Business defining the concept of “mutual obligation” as being based“[on] a simple proposition – unemployed job seekers supported financially by the community should:

Counterpoint 8: In this paper titled Mutual Obligation: A Reasonable Policy? Pamela L. Kinnear argues that “despite its popular appeal, the idea of mutual obligation is neither simple nor compelling. Rather, the idea as applied to welfare policy is built on loose philosophical foundations and on a number of popular misconceptions about the nature of unemployment and poverty.” She also argues that there is a danger that the policy of mutual obligation can lead to a punitive situation in which helpless people who receive government assistance are punished if they unable to fulfil expectations such as working for the dole. Do you agree or disagree with Kinnear’s point of view?

Compare Kinnear’s position with that of influential Indigenous leader Noel Pearson who argues that Aboriginal communities must accept the principle of mutual obligation – or reciprocity – if they are to take responsibility for their lives and future.

The question of identity is significant at a social level because while most Australian Aboriginals now live in a way that might perceived by non-Aboriginals as being fully integrated into “mainstream White society”, they nevertheless feel ties to their Aboriginal ancestry. Broome observes that Aboriginal life in Victoria has greatly altered and that Aboriginal culture has been “reshaped” through inter-marriage with non-Aboriginals, but he nevertheless contends that “Aboriginal attachment to country, to cultural group and kin, to family, and to Aboriginal core values remains indelible.” (2005: 375) He quotes Sandra Neilson, a Gunai woman, who states:

You don’t stop being Aboriginal if your skin is lighter, as long as it’s in your heart and you believe you are. It’s basically an insult to Aboriginal people to ask them if they are half caste.” (ibid)


History and a Sense of Identity: Who’s History?

In his condemnation of Mal Brough’s suggestion that Aboriginals be used to staff tourist attractions in Queensland, Yorta Yorta man Briggs suggests that another reason that Aboriginal life has disappeared from the cultural landscape of Southern Victoria – except in negative terms of claiming social welfare and claiming Native Title over Victorian lands - is the mass media’s failure to recognise and acknowledge the existence of Aboriginal culture and identity. Citing research done by Victoria’s Yorta Yorta community, he said that a 12-month survey of Victoria’s major print media found that 68% of reports on Indigenous issues “were devoted to issues and personalities of far north and north-western Indigenous communities. Only 18% of the coverage of Aboriginal issues related to Victorian Indigenous communities, and most of these stories related to problems of, or ‘caused’ by, Indigenous people.”(Briggs, 2006)

For Briggs these findings relate to a far more serious problem facing southern Aboriginals – that of trying to gain – and maintain – their sense of identity. He suggests that an individual’s sense of identity comes from a shared history, a shared tradition and shared cultural values that they can “hold on to and celebrate” A celebration of shared history, tradition and values is almost impossible when the dominant culture refuses to recognise the existence of groups such as Aboriginals which it has marginalised – except as figments of a remote historical past. And, as Briggs states, the notion of Aboriginal identity is further threatened because “our communities are usually tiny minorities embedded in broadly successful and prosperous urban settings.” The Yorta Yorta people failed in their bid for native title, he claims, because the courts deemed that their community no longer existed as a widely-accepted and recognised viable culture with a shared of identity. The effect of the court’s ruling was that Yorta Yorta had disappeared in history.

Counterpoint 9: Look at this video in which several Indigenous people talk about their identity as Aboriginals who live urban lives. Indigenous man Robert Stuurman was adopted by white people as a young child. In Aboriginal Identity in Contemporary Society he offers a very personal insight into the difficulties and heartache suffered by him as he regained his sense of Aboriginal identity.

In Counterpoint 7 you are given the opportunity to follow a link to an article written by Murdoch press columnist Andrew Bolt titled White is the new black. Bolt was successfully sued by a number of Indigenous people over his claims that there were many people who falsely claimed Indigenous identity. This case led to a great deal of debate and Bolt was defended in these two articles: The Trial of Andrew Bolt (I): Designer Ethnicity by John Izzard who argues that some white people claim Aboriginal identity for political reasons – hence the term “designer ethnicity; ” and The Trial of Andrew Bolt (II): Real Aborigines versus Phoneys by Keith Windschuttle who defends Bolt’s allegations that there are many false claims of Aboriginal identity in order to take advantage of government benefits. What do you think of the allegations made by Izzard and Windschuttle? Do you think they are fair? If so, why? If you disagree with them, why do you disagree with them?

Wurundjeri Elder Joy Wandin Murphy talks about her sense of identity as an Aboriginal person.

Writing - and reading - history is never straight forward. The questions that any writer – and reader- of history must confront include:

Counterpoint 10: How to do History is an excellent resource from the BBC written by historian John Arnold that discusses the challenges facing the historian. It deals with issues such as the roles of the historian (note that there are many roles), interpreting history, subjective history, and so on. It is worth reading to understand that writing history is never straightforward.

In an interesting and challenging paper titled "Are you calling me a racist?": Teaching critical whiteness theory in indigenous sovereignty, Fiona Nicoll argues that it is just as important to study and understand why and how being white (ie: of white European background) has become something that is very positive and rarely questioned or challenged. Rather than seeing being black as the problem in race relations, she argues that the problem might lie in being white. What do you think about Nicholls argument in relation to the experiences of urban Aboriginals? If you are a non-Indigenous person do you have a problem with people claiming Aboriginal identity even though they appear “white”? If so, why is it a problem for you?

Mychal Denzel Smith makes an interesting case when he claims that America – which celebrates an annual Black History Month – should also have a White History Month. This not because he agrees with white peoples claims that that they are discriminated against by Black History Month, but rather because he believes that all history – black and white – is frequently based on myths. He argues: “Whiteness has its privileges, and among them is that your view of history is through that of the default, the conqueror, the triumphant. And when you can see history through that lens, you don't have to be burdened with understanding the consequences of your triumph from the perspective of those who were stepped on during the conquest.” Do you agree or disagree with his ideas? Why? Take time to follow the link to the American National Press Club lunch speech with James Baldwin. It provides very important insights into being black in America.

These kinds of questions underline the extent to which the past is always open to interpretation and why histories are constantly being written and rewritten. These questions are essential if we are to understand the nature and implications of the history being written. They imply that histories are fundamentally just versions of events and actions and that there may be more than one version that could be written.


Is Your Story “Mystory”?

The insight into history as not being immutable and as being open to many readings is explored by Gregory Ulmer in his 1989 book Teletheory. Grammatology in the Age of Video viii in which he contends that any account written by an individual is situated or influenced by personal experience and – more specifically - by the medium that is used to tell the story. His central contention is that the way in which we communicate is just as important as what we communicate. Put simply, he argues that when people rely on oral forms of communication the power over the content rests solely with the narrator as that person determines the content of the information.

The effect of oral forms of communication is that it largely limits the audience’s capacity to challenge the content of what is being told. With the introduction of the written word – literacy - the reader is free to access the information at a time of their own choosing and they are able to reflect on the content and challenge it. According to Ulmer we are now moving to an age of electracy in which we will shift from a reliance on just words to also the use of electronic forms of communication –text, sound, film, internet, interactivity - which allows both the creator of the information and the user of the information to use the full range of communications forms and to access them in many different ways. For example, the user can access the information chronologically – or not; they can verify it or test it by engaging in searches for other information on the internet; they can see and interpret the body language of the person conveying the information, and so on.

Counterpoint 11: You can view two videos of Ulmer discussing the shift from orality to electracy. The first he discusses how Plato changes the nature of oral communication and learning with the development of the of the university and philosophy to how the nature of information and thinking changed with the invention of print. The second deals with the shift from literacy to electracy.

Indeed, Smyth goes so far as to say that electracy changes the way we think and that it is ultimately about having us think with images, through images rather than (or as a supplement to) thinking only with words. ix

According to Ulmer, histories, rather being seen as objective accounts which reflect unchallenged “facts” should instead be thought of “mystories” – “my-stories” – which say as much about the writer’s situation in time and place, their life experience, and the context in which their historical account is written, as about the events and issues being portrayed. In particular he talks about the way in which written histories – ie: those that appear in the printed form (books, written essays, etc) have inherent values and characteristics that have been developed over many years: ie: they use language that appears “objective” but nevertheless reflects a particular way of academic thinking; they are “closed” texts because they lead the reader to a particular interpretation and conclusion about the events being discussed, and so on. Ulmer contends that this becomes particular apparent when the technology of communication shifts from the written word to electronic forms of communication. According to Ulmer ,

“A mystory is always specific to its composer, constituting a kind of personal period table of cognitive elements, representing one individual’s intensive reserve. ….Whatever the value might be a stereotype is associated with this ideological interpellation, a mystory assumes that one’s thinking begins not from the generalized classifications of subject formation, but from specific experiences historically situated, and that one always thinks by means of and through these specifics, even if that thinking is directed against the institutions of one’s own formations.” (Ulmer: 1989: vii)

Counterpoint 12: Ulmer talks about how the mystory works in the following two videos: in the first he talks about how literacy splits everything up, electracy is holistic, about how the concept of ficel (or thread) helps us to make sense of the world. In second video he continues the discussion of the thread and how electracy can lead to new insights about then world and how it can change the way we think.

In Ulmer’s view history can be thought of as a set of stories influenced by the situation of both the historian and their subject in time and place. Thus, when Germaine Greer accuses former Minister for Territories Paul Hasluck of bias against the many thousands of Australian citizens who identify as Aboriginal even though they may live urbanised lives and have non-Aboriginal family members, she speaks from the perspective and experience of a feminist woman who takes a postcolonial view of history and society. In her view all women in Australia have also been marginalised by mainstream patriarchal society. It was in part this sense of being marginalised as a woman, as well as the experience of viewing Australian society from a distance while working in Great Britain, that led Greer to recognise that she shared the ignorance about Aboriginals and Aboriginal life held by most Australians. She describes herself as having the “identical” sense of “unknowing” described by Mungo MacCallum in his 2002 autobiography Mungo: The Man Who Laughs, and quotes him at length:

“Of course I knew aborigines existed ...Yet I have no conscious memory of ever seeing a black Australian, let alone actually meeting one. I was vaguely aware that they existed somewhere out there in the bush in squalid and primitive conditions and that they were to be pitied as a Stone Age race clearly unable to adapt to Australian civilisation. Yet I remained completely uninterested ... I didn’t give a stuff about the Australians whose lands had been stolen, whose children had been stolen, whose very existence had been stolen by my ancestors and was still being stolen by my contemporaries. Okay, so none of this was taught at school and not much of it was known to contemporary historians at the time. But sheer commonsense and logic should have made it obvious to all but the cretinous that something terrible had happened. x

Counterpoint 13: Mungo MacCallum was writing about his youth in the This article titled White ignorance about Indigenous issues fails everyone written by Sydney journalist Steve Dow shows that the ignorance continued in 2009. Ignorance about Indigenous language and cultural practices can also lead to Aboriginals being unfairly charged with crime and being discriminated in Queensland courts. Authors Antonia Randles and Mark Lauch’s argue that often Queensland police are guilty of ignorance rather than racism.

In 1992 then Prime Minister Paul Keating gave what has now become known as the The Redfern Address in which he asked Australians to confront their ignorance of Aboriginal history and understand how and why we have formed our attitudes to Australian Indigenous people. You can also find a link to a You Tube video of Yothu Yindi’s song Treaty which calls for justice for Aboriginals on the same page. What do you think of Paul Keating’s call for justice? Do you agree that it is the responsibility of non-Indigenous Australians to change their attitudes or do you think Aboriginals are responsible for their own lives and situation?

Greer says that it was only when she started to work in London that she began to reflect on the inherent contradiction of white Australians demonstrating against South Africa’s apartheid policies that she came to develop a different understanding of the Aboriginal’s situation in Australia: “It was not until I was half a world away that I could suddenly see that what was operating in Australia was apartheid: the separation and alienation South Africa tried desperately and savagely to impose on their black majority, we had achieved, apparently effortlessly, with our black minority.” (ibid: 35-36)

Counterpoint 14: Some Australians, such as Dr Gideon Polya, argue that Australia is still guilty of apartheid. What do you think of the claims he makes in Ongoing Genocide in Apartheid Australia? Do you agree or disagree with his argument? Why? Compare Dr Polya’s position with that taken by in an editorial published in The Weekend Australian in May 2007, Editorial: Time to end our own apartheid. What points of agreement and disagreement can you find between the two articles?

Ironically, Paul Hasluck, the man who Greer criticises for his attitude to Aboriginals, has been regarded as a man who had great sympathy for Aboriginals. Bolton notes that (unlike Greer) Hasluck had a “sustained encounter” with Aboriginals from his early youth and in his young adulthood in the years before World War Two “...became one of a handful of Perth citizens active in movements for Aboriginal advancement”. (Bolton, 2004) xi Bolton notes that Hasluck’s Aboriginal policies during his term as Minister for Territories in the late1950’s “were regarded at the time as the most enlightened in Australia.” Bolton supports this contention with a quote from a letter Hasluck wrote in 1959 to the then Assistant Administrator for the Northern Territory, R.S Leydin:

‘Assimilation is the objective of native welfare measures. This means that the aborigines and persons of mixed blood are expected eventually to attain to the same manner of living and to the same privileges of citizenship as white Australians and to live, if they choose to do so, as members of a single Australian community, observing the same customs and influenced by the same beliefs, hopes, and loyalties as other Australians.’

Bolton takes special note of “the operative phrase: ‘if they choose to do so’, stating, that choice “is not usually an option open to victims of genocide.” Bolton also points out that Hasluck did not believe it was necessary to actively break up traditional communities. In his letter to Leydin, Hasluck states that this was happening as a matter of natural course and that “the movement of the coloured people away from the desert and the bush towards settlement is taking place inevitably”.

Counterpoint 15: The Collaborating for Indigenous Rights 1957 – 1973 site has been produced by the Australian National Museum to record and map the struggle for Indigenous rights in Australia. In the link to the People involved in Australian Indigenous civil rights movement, you will short biographies of key players – most of them Indigenous, but also including Paul Hasluck. While Paul Hasluck believed in the 1940s and 1950s that assimilation would lead to better lives for Aboriginals, there was a strong contemporary belief that this was not desirable. As this discussion of What was assimilation? Points out, many non-Indigenous people believed in a White Australia policy and many Indigenous people did not want to lose their culture. Do you think assimilation is a good option for resolving the differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians? Or should Indigenous Australians be given the right to live their lives in the way they wish?

Whose Version of History Should You Believe?

One useful insight into the problem of writing histories is offered British historian Norman Davies. In his history of the British Isles (The Isles: A History, 2000) xii he reflects about the lack of human face in many approaches to history. He observes that this is in large part the result of the particular disciplinary approach to history taken by archaeologists. He notes that much of the knowledge of so-called “pre-history” – that is, history before the invention of writing – comes from archaeological research which he describes as “a wonderful discipline” which makes excellent and creative uses of science but which “will never fully overcome its fundamental reliance on material evidence, and its inevitable focus on material culture.” The consequence of this, Davies argues, is that while we may come to know a great deal about past technologies economies, societies, and even collective cultural practices … it has little to say about individual human beings – their faces, their personalities, their quirks, their feelings, their ideas, their aspirations.”

Davies suggests that one source for the “human face” of history is mythology, but warns that most historians “demand more reliable sources”, preferring “digs and documents to oral traditions.” (Davies: 2000:30) Davies’ use of the term mythology is intriguing – why use that particular term and not “narrative”? The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines mythology as “the exposition of myths” and defines myth as “a purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions or events, embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena. Often used vaguely to include any narrative including fictitious elements.” Narrative is defined as “that part of a deed or document which narrates the relevant or essential facts.” The implication here is that myths are fictitious and therefore cannot be trusted. The origins of myths rest with oral culture, they are stories that were handed down from generation to generation by persons who committed them to memory and by the time they were able to be committed to paper their veracity or “truth” could no longer be confirmed. According to this view of history Aboriginal accounts of their history are unreliable because they are oral. Secondly, the “stories” are being told by a marginalised people who identify with different cultural values and traditions. Thirdly, the people telling their oral history are not recognised as having any academic status. Implicit in this view is that only written records have historical value.

Counterpoint 16: Film has become a popular way of putting the human face on history. In 2002 The Rabbit-Proof Fence which tells the story of three Aboriginal girls who were taken from their families in the 1930s to be trained as domestic servants in Western Australia. The girls were taken as part of the assimilationist government policies of the time that decreed that ‘half caste” children should be taken from their families in order to be “made white”. The film generated a great deal of discussion with some people claiming that it portrayed a false view of history and that the story was just a myth. Others claimed that the film’s value lay in non-Indigenous people being able to get a human insight into the tragedy of children being taken away from their families. Read some of the discussion included on this site – and see the film if possible – and think about the issues raised in the context of what historian Norman Davies says about history and myth. How do you know if a film tells the “true” story of the events it depicts? Does it matter?

Two more useful papers that deals with history and myth is Some Reflections on Myth, History and Memory as Determinants of Narrative by Anne Holden Rønning and Urban Aboriginal Creation Stories and History: contesting the past and the present by Kristina Everett which deals with how urban Indigenous people reconstruct their Indigenous history.

The question of history is further complicated by the fact that just as interpretation of historical events are influenced by the historian’s disciplinary background (eg: archaeologist), so the historian’s view of history can also be influenced by their ideological position. This issue is highlighted by Young xiii who argues that much of Marxist history is better perceived as “his-story”.

Young’s position was informed by Edward Said’s xiv contention that clear ethnocentric assumptions underlie much of European political and cultural knowledge and that these in turn influence how history is told and how political and economic practices are enacted. Said argued that histories produced in the West and by Westerners inevitably reflected Western/European values and tended to portray the world in terms of “one human history uniting humanity” and was “observed from the vantage point of Europe, or the West.” (Said, 1985:22) In his book White Mythologies (1990), Young took Said’s contention as a starting point to examine the extent to which Marxism – which claims to critique and challenge dominant ideologies – is in fact itself a product of Western values and Euro-centered thinking. According to Young, his intention was to “develop an epistemological critique of the West’s greatest myth – History”. Young says, “I was less interested in the question of imperial ideologies, the limits of which were obvious enough, than in examining the ways in which the West’s most radical dissident, critical perspectives shared the same assumptions.” (Young: 2004: 2) In other words, Young argued that even Marxist history – which made claims of objectivity through its grounding in dialectical theory – “in fact operated within the limits of a fundamentally European perspective”, offering a “single over-arching narrative” which could be contrasted with non-European accounts which perceive history “in terms of networks of discrete, multitudinous histories that are unaccountable within any single Western schema.” (Young: 2004:3).

The extent to which it could be argued that history is often “his-story” is underlined by Young’s observation that the chief critics of his position were what he terms “male Anglo-Saxon Marxist academia” who failed to recognise or acknowledge “the Eurocentrism of that narrative” which Young’s book, White Mythologies “critiques”. Further, he argued, “male Anglo-Saxon Marxist academia” (MAMA) operates as an “exclusively male discourse, with zero to minimal inflection towards issues of gender, let alone other forms of difference.” (Young, 2004:2)

Counterpoint 17: These two papers give you an interesting further insight into the claims made by Said and Young about how Western history is written: the first written by Mike Donaldson - titled What is Masculinist Hegemony? - argues that modern economic practices and social values are premised on the privileging the position of the male over females. The second paper, titled Postcolonial – Not!, argues that Australian Indigenous people are still a colonised people and it is wrong to write about Indigenous issues in the context of Indigenous Australians experiencing the same economic and social privileges as non-Indigenous Australians. Do you agree or disagree with the arguments made in these two papers? Why?

The complexities that underpin writing and reading history are graphically further illustrated by the often heated contemporary debate in Australia between the so-called history revisionists (led by Henry Reynolds) and the history conservatives (led by Geoffrey Blainey and Keith Windschuttle) over what constitutes the “correct” approach to telling Australia’s history. It is generally accepted that this debate started in 1984 when historian Blainey, speaking about the issue of multiculturalism, questioned whether the concept and practice of multiculturalism was in the national interest. While Blainey’s comments were ostensibly directed at questioning Asian immigration, “it became clear that his comments were part of a wider appraisal of contemporary Australian society, identity and history.” (Clark, 2002 xv). Blainey claimed that the approach to Australian history had become dominated by an over-emphasis on atrocities committed against Aborigines:

“Attempts to depict Australian history as mainly a story of exploitation, of racial violence, of oppression and conflict have a measure of truth, but contain a larger measure of untruth.” (1984: 159) xvi

Within a decade he coined the term “black armband” to describe this approach to history which he claimed down-played the achievements of white Australia while “mourning” the situation of Aborigines. According to Anna Clark, “[T]he debate has culminated with the assertion that not only are critical readings of the past coloured or biased, they have been integral to a left-wing programme of negativity and misinformation.” (Clark, 2002). The debate became further politicised when Prime Minister John Howard also rejected what he described as “the black armband view of history”:

“I profoundly reject the black armband view of Australian history. I believe the balance sheet of Australian history is a very generous and benign one. I believe that, like any other nation, we have black marks upon our history but amongst the nations of the world we have a remarkably positive history. I think there is a yearning in the Australian community right across the political divide for its leader to enunciate more pride and sense of achievement in what has gone before us. I think we have been too apologetic about our history in the past. I believe it is tremendously important, particularly as we approach the centenary of the Federation of Australia, that the Australian achievement has been a heroic one, a courageous one and a humanitarian one.” (October 30,1996. Cited in Wimmer: 2002 xvii)

Counterpoint 18: This paper titled Different Perspectives on Black Armband History was written by Dr Mark McKenna of the Politics and Public Administration Group, an advisory group to the Federal Government in 1997. It gives an excellent overview of how the term “black armband view of history” came to be used in Australia and summarises the key positions taken by some of the protagonists in the debate about Australian Indigenous history.

One of the key protagonists of the claim of “left-wing” revisionism of Australian history was Keith Windschuttle xviii who argued in a series of three articles published in Quadrant in 2000 that certain Australian historians were guilty of “a major academic deception”:

“Over the past twenty years, Australian historians have conducted a story of widespread massacres on the frontier of the expanding pastoral industry … However, when it is closely examined, the evidence of these claims turns out to be highly suspect.” (2000:9)

Windschuttle’s approach was to closely re-examine historical accounts of massacres and to question their interpretation by historians such as Reynolds. For example, he asserted that in his 1998 book This Whispering in Our Hearts Reynolds had accepted uncritically accounts by Lancelot Threlkeld in the 1830s to the London Missionary Society that squatters were systematically killing Aborigines. According to Windschuttle none of Threlkeld’s claims were supported by other contemporary accounts and that, indeed, Threlkeld had a vested interest in making them:

“It is clear that Threlkeld had an obsessive desire to create the impression that the colony was suffering from a general condition of lawless violence, of which Aborigines were the principal victims. Throughout his career in New South Wales, he took any rumour, no matter how unreliable its source or how vague the details, and treated it seriously. The reason why his reports are so full of these stories is also evident. He was trying to create a climate of opinion that would regard his own missionary activities as necessary not only for the spiritual wellbeing, but also for the physical security of his Aborigines. Without him, he was arguing, the blacks on his mission would be left unprotected in a cruel and brutal world.” (2000)

The debate about the truth – or other – of Windschuttle’s assertions, or, indeed, of Reynold’s call to reinterpret Australian history to include the Aboriginal experience, should be understood within the context of the changing paradigms of scholarly research.

Counterpoint 19: Keith Windschuttle claims that academic opposition to his interpretation of Australian history which challenged that many Aboriginals were massacred by white settlers has as much to do with the politics of academic research as with genuine disagreement with his point of view. Windschuttle argues that many academics – such as Henry Reynolds – were angry that his challenge of their pro-Aboriginal view of history was based in rigorous examination of historical documents rather than relying – as Reynolds had – on Aboriginal oral accounts of history. Note that Windschuttle refers to himself in the third person. What effect does this have on your reading of this article?

Until approximately the 1960s the history of Australia focused on events that had occurred since the First Fleet landed in 1788 and was essentially the story of British discovery, exploration, settlement and development of an ‘empty’ continent. Its focus was on the British migrant experience and largely ignored the experiences of other cultural groups in Australia, in particular the Aboriginals.

Counterpoint 20: A good example of this Eurocentric approach to Australia’s history can be found at this Australian History site which says in its introduction that it traces back to the ancient times of Gwondaland, the dinosaurs, the Aborigines right through to the colonisation of the country by the English, the World Wars and the modern era. However, if you look at the links to Colonisation and Post-Federation you will notice that very little attention is paid to Aboriginal history and experience. Compare this view of Australian history with that presented by the SBS television series First Australians (you can watch all of the series online) of this Chronology of Major Events in Our Shared History prepared by Indigenous academic Gary Foley.

Most of these stories “were silent on race and ethnicity, referring only infrequently to non-British immigrants, and obscuring the dispossession of indigenous peoples almost entirely. In common with other colonial and settler societies, settler Australians developed narratives of reversal, placing indigenous people as the invaders and seeing the settlers as the defenders of their land”. (Curthoys, 2006:7) xix Indeed, Curthoys argues that most Australian histories engage in a process of role reversal, portraying early British settlers as “victims, not oppressors”.

The absence of Aboriginals in Australian history accounts was significantly noted by Professor W.E.H. Stanner xx in his 1979 ABC Boyer Lectures, “After the Dreaming.” Stanner coined the term the 'Great Australian Silence' (1979: 207) to convey the notion of the incompleteness of Australia’s history. Stanner contended that while the European experience was well documented, Indigenous history was relegated to a "melancholy footnote" (1979: 214). Stanner argued that this exclusion of Indigenous history reflected the dominant ideological approach to history (1979: 214).

Through this assertion Stanner highlighted the extent to which history is written to reflect the dominant ideological and moral frames of the nations. By ‘frames’ he meant the ‘master narrative’- or the beliefs and attitudes that are held as being unquestionably ‘true’ and that already in place before a history is written. A very good example of these kinds of beliefs is the concept of terra nullius which maintained that when Australia was first settled by the British it was an empty land and there were no people existed in it that had a claim upon its ownership. Indeed, academic Elizabeth Povinelli xxi argues that even after the 1901 Federal Constitution, which established Australia as an independent Commonwealth, the “aboriginal native” population existed “as a spectral presence” who were not even counted in the nation’s census until after 1967. It is also important to note that most of the claims for Native Title (ie: Aboriginals claiming then right to own traditional lands) involves proving in the courts that the claimants have an ongoing history.

Counterpoint 21: This presentation by the National Native Title Tribunal includes a useful video that provides the history of Native Title, including a brief description of the term terra nullius.

However, according to the National Native Title Tribunal, even when claims for native title are successful, “[G]enerally speaking, native title must give way to the rights held by others.” xxii Ironically, a significant challenge confronting Indigenous people claiming Native Title is what Everett xxiii describes as the “primitive/modern binary” which means that “for Indigenous Australians to prove they are ‘authentically’ Indigenous they need to show that they are the opposite of other Australians.” That is, in order to claim Aboriginal identity, or be successful in land rights claims, they have to prove that they still engage in traditional Indigenous practices and life-style. (Everett, 2011: 2) The problem is, as Everett notes and Australian Bureau of Statistics show, most of Australia’s Indigenous population is essentially urbanised with little connection to traditional lands much less traditional practices. She adds that “because of drastic social disruption due to colonisation, many groups of urban Indigenous Australians do not have common cultural traditions on which to draw, so they ‘invent’, ‘borrow’, develop and learn ‘new’ traditions based on fragments remembered and passed down from the past.”

The rise of “Aboriginal intellectuality” and the search for Aboriginal identity.

Since the 1960s there has been a strong movement by Indigenous leaders and academics to rewrite Australian history from the Indigenous perspective. This movement has occurred in the context of a shifting consciousness by in particular urban Indigenous since the 1970s in what academic Peter Sutton xxiv refers to as “the emergence of a new form of Aboriginal intellectuality.” According to Sutton there is a growing trend among educated urbanised Indigenous to construct “a metaphysic of identity” which involves “a process of self-realisation: ‘We didn’t know who we were’, or “I had to find out who I was’.(Sutton, 1994: 257) As a result of this process, Sutton argues, that even though many Aboriginals live more like Europeans than Aboriginals, it has no longer become the exception for them to “explicitly proclaim their distinct cultural identity” (p.258).

Although the emergence of the contemporary Aboriginal movement for self-determination and forging self-identity is generally recognised as beginning in the 1960s with the 1967 referendum on the status of Australian Indigenous people in the Australian Constitution and the establishment in 1972 in Canberra of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of Parliament House, the movement for Aboriginal rights goes back as far as the early years of the 20th century.

Counterpoint 22: This timeline on Aboriginal activism for civil rights maps significant events since the beginning of the 20th century. NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee.

The events of the 1960s occurred at a time when Australia was undergoing what Robert Manne xxv refers to as “a genuine cultural revolution” in which “certainties concerning race and gender, authority and sexuality” were being questioned and challenged in a process of national reinvention. Questions being debated included the morality of the white Australia policy and the expectation that migrants should forsake their cultural heritage and assimilate in order to be accepted as Australians. Significantly questions were being asked about the historic treatment of Aboriginals, their representation in Australian histories, and, in particular, their lack of rights as citizens. It was a period when all Australian governments were concerned with addressing and overturning what Stanner referred to as the “Great Australian Silence to convey the notion of the incompleteness of Australia’s history.

Since the mid-1960s Indigenous activists and academics such as Mick Dodson, Marcia Langton, Gary and Ian Anderson have argued that unless Indigenous people start setting cultural debates and agendas non-Indigenous perceptions of Australia’s Indigenous population will remain locked in what Dodson xxvi describes as an “historical landscape full of absolute and timeless truths which have been set in place by self-professed experts and authorities all to ready to tell us, and the world the meaning of Aboriginality” (1994). He argues that in all of these “absolute and timeless truths” Indigenous vision and voices are absent. Further, Indigenous Australians must actively “subvert” the non-Indigenous hegemony over representations of Indigenous life and participate in the creation of a new national narrative that more accurately reflects contemporary Indigenous life and culture.

Langton xxvi asserts that most non-Indigenous Australians learn about Indigenous people and issues from the mass media which present a flawed and biased reality and that that “both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians create Aboriginalities” and that it is the role of Indigenous Australians to determine their own identity. (Langton, 1993:34) Mick Dodson believes that an important strategy through which Indigenous people can determine their own identity is education which should be transformed from what Dodson perceives as being essentially a negative and antagonistic experience for most Aboriginal children into one that is affirming and inclusive and that talks about Aboriginal history and culture from an Aboriginal perspective. (Dodson, 2010).xxviii

The position taken by Indigenous activists and academics concerned with establishing contemporary Australian Indigenous rights and identity such as Dodson, Langton, etc. are grounded in the debates led by post-colonial theorists such as Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak who were concerned with writing about the condition and aftermath experienced by people whose country had been invaded and controlled by an external empire. In particular they wrote about the need for colonised people – such as Australian Aboriginals - to define their own culture and history.

One of the problems facing Australian Indigenous academics is that many Australians of British ancestry may never feel as if they are or have been colonized subjects whereas many Indigenous Australians believe they are still a colonized people. The discrepancy between these two pints of view is what Bhabhaxxix refers to as competing narrative structures within a nation state. According to Bhabha there is an evolvement and negotiation of a continually changing national narrative by different social and political groups within a nation who “assign new meanings and different directions to the process of historical change” (Bhabha, 1990:3)

Stanner’s Boyer lecture was in part motivated by his desire to contribute to the Australian debate about who were are and has implicit in it the belief that national narratives are not fixed and instead undergo a constant process of reinvention and renegotiation according to contemporary national ideologies, needs and interests. This view reflects what Said describes as the problem of “discrepant experiences” xxx whereby different cultural groups within a particular cultural context not only perceive and record their individual cultural experiences differently, but also that they are closed to each other. This involves discourses which juxtapose self/other, civilized/native, us/them. By juxtaposing discrepant experiences Said seeks to make concurrent “those views and experiences that are ideologically and culturally closed to each other and that attempt to suppress other views and experiences.” For Said terra nullius represents the tendency by Western culture to treat the whole of world history as a “kind of Western super-subject” the purpose of which is to “restore” history to “people and cultures “without” history. In this view the colonized subject becomes “the other” because they only exist within the context of a Western-centric history, they have no history of their own. xxxi

Indigenous Australians activists and academics are thus engaged in challenging non-Indigenous Australians to recognize and discard the concept of terra nullius which denies 50,000 years of continuous culture. Since the 1990s there has been an increase in the number of Indigenous Studies centres established within universities which focus on both teaching and research and which are enaged in re-writing the dominant Euro-centric version of history. Indeed, according the Universities Australian website each one of Australia’s 39 universities has an Indigenous Studies centre. xxxii

The Challenge to Rewriting History

While both Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists, academics and politicians may seek to change the narrative regarding Indigenous self-determination and work towards a meaningful reconciliation, this process can change in terms of national priority and broad social interest over time. In a commentary published in The Age on May 2, 2011, Robert Mannexxxiii refers to the conscious process of national reinvention that occurred in Australia during the 1970s and 1980s when “... all Australian governments ...sought a future based on reconciliation and Indigenous self-determination.” Unfortunately, Manne contends, from “the mid-1990s, the period of reinvention and self-criticism began to falter” and in its place there has developed a new sense of national complacency and “mood of national self-congratulation and self-satisfaction” about Australia’s positive place in the world. Randles and Lauchsxxxiv suggest thaht has been particularly se expressed by media editorials and in speeches by Tony Abbot and Julia Gillard.” According to Manne, the positive and optimistic drive to reconciliation of the 1970’s and 1980’s has changed: “The deep hope for reconciliation was gradually abandoned. The always utopian ideal of Aboriginal self-determination was replaced in the public mind by the all too obvious dystopian reality of dysfunctional remote Aboriginal communities.”


As has become clear from the discussion above, writing history is never straight forward. How the history is written can depend on who writes the history, what ideological position they take, when the history was written, why it was written, and so on. The best one can do when reading history is to continue to ask the questions that were put earlier in this essay:



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ii Broome, Richard (2005) Victorian Aboriginals. A History Since 1800. Crows Nest: Allen& Unwin.

iii Lyons Tommy (1993) cited in Stuart Rintoul, The Wailing: A National Black Oral History. Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia.

iv Greer, Germaine. (2004) White Fella Jump Up. The Shortest Way to Nationhood. London: Profile Books.

v Birrell, B. and Hirst, J. 2002. “Aboriginal Couples at the 2001 Census,” People and Place, Vol. 10. No. 3, pp23-28.

vi Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination, 2006. Secretaries' Group Annual Report on Indigenous Affairs, 2004-05.

vii Department of Employment, Work Relations and Small Business ( Accessed January 23, 2002)

viii Ulmer, Gregory (1989) Teletheory. Grammatology in the Age of Video. New York: Routledge.

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x MacCallum, M. (2002) cited in Greer, 2004, op. cit. pp34-35)

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xii Davies, Norman (2000) The Isles. A History. London: Pacmac.

xiii Young, R. J. C. (2004) White Mythologies . London: Routledge.

xiv Said, E. (1993) Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf

xv Clark, Anna. (2002). "History in black and white: a critical analysis of the black armband debate. (pros and cons of sympathetic gestures towards Australian Aborigines). Journal of Australian Studies. Brisbane, University of Queensland Press. Sited 8/06/06.

xvi Blainey, G. (1984) All for Australia. North Ryde: Methuen Haynes.

xvii Wimmer, A. (2002) Why We Need Black Armbands, Journal of Australian Studies, Vol. 75.

xviii Windschuttle, K. (2000). "The Myths of Frontier Massacres in Australia (Part 1)." Quadrant Volume XLIV(Number 11).

xix Curthoys, A. (2006) “Disputing National Histories: Some Recent Australian Debates”, Transforming Cultures eJournal, Vol. 1. Sydney: University of Technology.

xx Stanner, W.E.H. (1979) White Man Got No Dreaming: Essays 1938 – 1973. Canberra: Australian National University Press.

xxi Povinelli, E.A. (2011) “The Governance of the Prior”, in Interventions. The International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, Vol. 13(1), p.19.

xxii National Native Title Tribunal (2012) “Exactly what is Native Title?”

xxiii Everett, K. (2011) “Urban Aboriginal Creation Stories and History: contesting the past and the present.” Coolabah, Vol.7, 2011. Observatori: Centre d’Estudis Australians, Australian Studies Centre, Universitat de Barcelona. Accessed 09/04/2012.

xxiv Sutton, P. (1994) “Myth as History, History as Myth” in I. Keen, (ed.) Being Black. Aboriginal Cultures in ‘Settled’ Australia. Aboriginal Studies Press: Canberra

xxv Manne, R. (2011) “Threat of the new Australian smugness”, in The Age, Monday, May 02, 2011. p.17.

xxvi Dodson, M. (2010) "Challenges and Opportunities in Australian Indigenous Education”
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xxvii Langton, M. (1993) Well, I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television: an essay for the Australian Film Commission on the politics and aesthetics of filmmaking by and about Aboriginal people and things. Sydney: Australian Film Commission.

xxviii Dodson, M. (2002) op. cit.

xxix Bhaba, H.H. (1990) “Introduction: Narrating the Nation,” in Nation and Narration, Homi K. Bhabha (ed). London: Routledge.

xxx . Said, E. (1979) Orientalism. New York: Vintage. p.7.

xxxi Australian Universities. Accessed 24/05/2012.

xxxii Australian Universities. Accessed 24/05/2012.

xxxiii Manne, R. (2011) “Threat of the new Australian smugness”, in The Age, Monday, May 02, 2011. p.17.

xxxiv Randles, Antonia & Lauchs, Mark A. (2012)”Ignorance not racism : the ethical implications of cultural schema theory within polici,” in 19th Annual Conference of the Australian Association of Professional and Applied Ethics, 28 June - 1 July 2012, University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD. Acccessed 29/10/2012.