Monday, March 15, 2010

Token Hokum

Here in Australia, it has become standard practice for politicians to acknowledge the 'traditional owners' of a venue when they are invited to give guest speeches. The gesture is a mark of respect for Aboriginal people whose actual ownership of their living place was usurped by British colonists nearly two-and-a-half centuries ago.

Now the leader of the federal opposition has called this practice tokenism. In one way, he is right. This is a token. But a token is something that will get you on the train with everyone else and take you to where you would like to go.

Clearly, some politicians don't like doing this. They regard it as a hollow gesture that brings with it a lot of unwanted baggage. Many Australians do not like to be reminded that the indigenous people of this country were always, and continue to be with shameful regularity, appallingly treated by authorities.

But Tony Abbott and the people who agree with him are wrong in one fundamental and important way. The acknowledgement of traditional owners is not intended to be some guilt button or hypocritical protocol. That some politicians choose to read it this way is neither here nor there. It is an act of civility, an extension of hospitality.

We Anglo-Europeans live in houses with front doors that are usually closed. This is a sign to other people that there are some rituals involved in gaining an invitation to our living space. My sister has a key to my mother's front door but she wouldn't dream of using it unless she did not get an answer when she rang the bell. She waits for my mother to open the door at which point they hug and give each other a kiss. Does anyone think this is pointless? I'm guessing not.

Aboriginal people's country is the same as our front door. When you go there for a formal occasion, you will receive a ceremonial 'welcome to country'. A gracious acknowledgement of traditional custodianship is the expected and appropriate response. It's a bit like getting invited to someone's house for the first time. You say, 'what a lovely home you have', even if they have vile puce chintz draped over every possible surface. And they say 'thank you', even if they don't give a toss about your opinion. A lot of what we regard as politeness wouldn't stack up under scrutiny for optimal functionality but that doesn't mean it isn't doing a very important job. It is code for, 'my intentions toward you are benign, (but I can't say the same for your cushions).'

It is a token with an important but single purpose. Just as you cannot use a New York subway token* to get on a plane to Detroit, you cannot pretend that an acknowledgement of traditional owners is a going to solve any of the complex social problems that beset Aboriginal communities. You simply don't open a negotiation with a slap, unless of course your name is N. Campbell.

US-based black British journalist Gary Younge writes in one's adored Guardian today that the appearance of change can sometimes retard real change. Since the election of Barack Obama, the life chances of African-Americans have deteriorated. I have thought this for a while and have written about it before. America cannot rest on its laurels because it ticked a box. Australia cannot rest on its laurels because it has finally extended a long overdue courtesy. Striving for justice and equality is a permanent project and one that none of us will live to see achieved. We have to do the easy things and the hard things simultaneously. Remembering to compliment your hosts on their 'lovely house' does not excuse you from helping with the washing up.

* I am aware that tokens are no longer in use on the New York subway system but the Metrocard does not suit my literary purpose.