Like all the world’s most horrific complexes, racism is a difficult thing to describe. You may know it very well when you see it, and, if you’re a person of colour, you will see it vividly and often. But, this does not by necessity mean you can trace its historic origins, or plot the way it is likely to adapt over region and time. This labour is one we must demand from our intellectuals—these are the only people with the time to do it. In a new Quarterly Essay The Australian Dream, journalist Stan Grant obliges. He takes the time to chart a part of that horrific complex as it has played out, and continues to play out, in our nation.
Let it be plainly said: Stan Grant must not be charged by critics, particularly white ones, with the sole responsibility for saying everything ever about Indigenous Australia. He is one guy, no more a representative of “his people” than I am of mine. So, first, any criticism of Grant’s essay here—and, being me, I will make some—must not be mistaken for a criticism of blackness itself. Second, and more importantly, Grant’s noblest goal is for us not to understand Indigenous culture as an undifferentiated mass. “There is no adequate understanding of the full range of the Aboriginal community,” he tells me by phone.
Too right. There is the dreadful tendency in the dominant, overwhelmingly white culture to accept Aboriginal wisdom not just one message, but one voice at a time. Even today, we can see that shift take place. After years of slavish admiration for Noel Pearson, Australian media have turned on him. Not for his open devotion to the privatisation of public good—which can hardly be claimed as a black thing—but for the allegation that he called a white woman politician a dirty word. Frankly, I think politicians should accept being sworn at as part of the job. So should white people, come to that. But in a present with its mania for “anti-bullying”, saying something mean is the worst tyranny we in media can imagine.
“The old construction of Aboriginal identity no longer has authenticity,” Grant tells me.
Pearson’s days are numbered for his crimes of disrespecting a white politician and a white ABC. Seems unfair, really, as I make a living out of doing the same. But, this is a racist country and the former designated One Aboriginal Intellectual has, apparently, had his turn.
Stan Grant is smart and perfectly conscious, I imagine, that this is the racist mechanism of Australian public life. He is explicitly asking for a bigger conversation and is not seeking to take Pearson’s place at all. Even as his ideas are, in my view, an elaboration of Pearson’s, themselves owing a debt to liberal thinking, he urges from the start of his essay for dissonance, not a chorus. This, as you have likely read, is his entire deal: change the conversation. Allow a fuller description of Aboriginal life and theory. “The old construction of Aboriginal identity no longer has authenticity,” Grant tells me, and he urges for a new building site in the essay.
After reproducing his famous speech from the Intelligence Squared debate, Grant directly addresses another important voice. That of Amy McQuire, who, in New Matilda—the only outlet in the nation with a true commitment to tell non-Indigenous Australia about Indigenous Australia—questioned not the content of Grant’s speech, but the way in which it was received. Grant said, “other Indigenous people have delivered speeches similar to mine, frankly more courageous and enlightening”, and McQuire acknowledges that, agreeing but interrogating, as Grant does, the profound need white Australia has for a single acceptable Aboriginal voice.
McQuire and Grant agree that the conversation and the terms of identity it uses must be broadened. Where they differ, however, is in what constitutes a broadening. Grant thinks it is in giving voice to an emerging Aboriginal knowledge class, one that still, he says, inauthentically defines itself as injured, beaten, oppressed. McQuire, who is not especially besotted by the identity politics Grant describes, thinks it lies largely in describing complexes.
Grant gives McQuire half of her due. (Probably less than that—I remind you again: McQuire is the best, young print journalist we have, and I have personally reprimanded her for daring to have a baby, thereby selfishly ignoring my needs as a reader.) But, then, he then tries to drown her out. Or, rather, insists that she herself makes it difficult to be heard with her radicalism. He doesn’t out-and-out accuse McQuire of upholding victimhood—this would, in any case, be a difficult thing to substantiate for a writer like McQuire, so rarely fuelled by personal story and most often by reporting. But he does say her life experience is different to his, and claims that his experience of international reporting makes him a better judge of relative oppression.
This, for mine, is plain what-abboutery. That there are people who endure drone strikes on the planet does not and must not obviate the need to “close the gap” at home. While we can affirm that there have been some gains for Indigenous Australians in the professional class Grant seeks to describe, we cannot say that writers, such as McQuire, have no business focusing on the Aboriginal majority who live in the shit left, and maintained, by white leaders.
What, Grant wants to know, can be achieved by continually overlooking the material success stories of some Indigenous Australians who allow themselves to be cast in rags while wearing couture?
Grant is absolutely right, and principled, to describe the life of upward mobility he and other Aboriginal people have enjoyed. It is, I understand, diminishing to ignore the middle-class experience of people of colour. Author Alice Walker copped it enormously from all critics for daring to write about class within black American communities in The Color Purple. Kanye West still cops it for having money and a college education. Some persons find the idea of black people with money politically inconvenient, others find it morally intolerable. Stuff them. What, Grant wants to know, can be achieved by continually overlooking the material success stories of some Indigenous Australians who allow themselves to be cast in rags while wearing couture?
In describing a life of material riches, Grant, inter alia, wants to point to his resilience, and those of his mobile fellows. “It’s something that goes unnoticed,” he tells me. “There is stratification in our own communities.” And, he reminds us, there are those who occupy the top-tier. He is annoyed that these persons, who, for obvious reasons, have the greatest opportunity to speak, continue to engage in poverty cosplay.
Grant is a good person who is grateful for his life. He does not blindly think he is “self-made” and does not explicitly repeat Pearson-type allegations about the “damage” of welfare. I imagine that over the course of his career, he’s met sufficient recipients of high-end welfare to know that one can be very happy while still receiving benefits from the state, hey, Gina Rinehart. But, Grant is less about money than he is about culture. He acknowledges that economic class exists, and that it does within Indigenous Australia is an essential part of his essay. But he seems to see this largely as an effect of “identity politics” handed down by bourgeois Aboriginal Australians.
Sure. Identity politics is a diminishing business. If you speak continually from a static place, you tempt stasis in speech. If you allow the suffering wrought on you by others to define you, it will continue to define you and, again, we have that situation which permits one kind of voice.
But, there is something that Grant doesn’t consider in his critique of identity politics. In assuming his fluid, liberal identity, he’s engaging in it, too.
The colour of one’s skin and even the tortures of one’s childhood—and Grant had it rough—provide no immunity to the idea that you can think your way into equality in a fundamentally unequal system.
As others are starting to write, “identity politics” is not just the preference of those in culturally disadvantaged categories. Without wishing to diminish Grant’s intellectual rigour at all—the man is an erudite liberal—I propose that the “fluid” identity he claims for himself is another identity. Grant says often in the essay that he is free to speak any language, enjoy any theory, eat any food that he wishes. Even setting aside that these are currently privileges of a class that demand the existence of a class that doesn’t have them, the thing is, Grant speaks a particular theoretical language and swallows a particular truth. His truth is: liberalism will save us all.
“Fluidity” is a stable identity category. It is the latest mutation of the eighteenth century Man of Reason. And, no, I am not suggesting that Grant has been seduced by historic whiteness. I am saying, however, that liberalism is a very seductive, very adaptable set of ideas. The colour of one’s skin and even the tortures of one’s childhood—and Grant had it rough—provide no immunity to the idea that you can think your way into equality in a fundamentally unequal system.
Grant offers the question posed by Warren Mundine, “Name a revolution that was started without your middle class?” Well, you know, I tell him in interview, there was that little skirmish in Russia in October 1917. Sure, some middle-class guys helped it along, studying Hegelian logic in Swiss caves and writing an account of capital in London hovels. But those peasants and workers had something to do with it, right?
Stan laughs when I mention this and says that change is not always down to the well-to-do. But, he says, that it is essential to honestly document the experience and consequent thinking of knowledge and professional class Indigenous Australians.
And, yes, again, yes, we must not obfuscate thinking for the future with recourse to the indignities of the past. But, I do suspect that Grant, who has made some substantial contribution to both discussion on identity politics generally and Indigenous identity in particular, would prefer that everyone, including Amy McQuire, came to the same conclusion. Which is, that liberalism is fine. We just need to think more positively, about it and ourselves. It’s still identity politics. Just a more upbeat style.