White privilege is robbing us blind

White ‘privilege’ is a dangerous misnomer for in it we fail to comprehend our own loss. 

Most of us came to this country as the dregs of another kingdom; convicts and misfits. Displaced in an alien landscape we didn’t know what else to do but somewhat blandly name it things like ‘New South Wales’. We pasted the land-mass with the names of a kingdom that had rejected us or failed to provide what we needed: wealth, opportunity, adventure. Still, we erected monuments to that rejecting kingdom and in doing so we overlooked something criminal.

Recently I visited the rock art of Kakadu National Park. Layer upon layer of ochre and paint mixed with other minerals; the art of generations, thousands and thousands of years before. They painted their hunts, their fights, their food and craft, love and lessons. The art holds the stories of ancestors who came from a land out over the sea; it documents climate change, rivers born, receding and growing again. It paints an ancient landscape with stories still riding through. For at least 50 000 years an intricate society lived here imbedded into the land and sea. 

My skin is a pasty white that burns in the sun and turns a not-so-flattering red. I love this country but still after three decades it remains wild, vast and impenetrable to me. But today I sat at the feet of an old woman whose fingers deftly paint this country’s story. Her words are slow and softly spoken so you have to lean in to hear. Red dust hovered just above the road caught in the twilight of the afternoon’s last sun. Her name is Neela and she is painting my sky. 

I didn’t grow up with the stories of the Jukurrpa. I was taught about Orion’s belt that incidentally looks like a giant saucepan in my southern sky. There’s not a lot dignity in the constellation of a kitchen utensil. But Neela, she can tell me about the Seven Sisters, a story that starts running in the Central Desert and is picked up in different languages as they run across the nation. Old women sing and paint the Seven Sisters’ song, pointing out their existence in the sky. Their songs carve out the mountain ranges and reveal paintings upon a rock of a lecherous man who chased the sisters out of the Western Desert. 

I am from a displaced people who displaced a most ancient culture in my wake. Yet, the truest tragedy is that it lives on and still we do not hear. 

I think we cannot bear to meet the gaze of those who are able to give us this most sacred education. 

To hear the story of our land means to also hear of the blood that has soaked it’s soil. It’s to understand the languages lost because it’s speakers were killed by ‘hunting parties’ who killed to seize land, killed for fear and killed for sport. It means bowing down to the awful truth that the conquering of this land came with rape and pillage and crimes too awful to utter— so we stopped uttering them. 

But these crimes are not forgotten. Our past is not written accurately in history books and we keep it well polished away from the daily papers, but it sings on and on in the communities of our First People. 

Our bloody history is forgotten only by the majority and not by the few. 

Please understand I do not work in Aboriginal communities as a sacrifice, I come for the education. I come for everything they teach me that no one else can. I come for the history that these people are brave enough to remember, because my own people have been coward enough to forget. I come for the gentle rolling tears of an Aboriginal women whose face has been softened from seventy years of perpetual forgiveness. I come for the unspeakable strength that I can only imagines comes from the steep hard cliffs and a deeper wellspring I do not know yet how to drink from.

It is said by the Yunupingu that every Australian Prime Minister has been invited out bush by Tribal Elders to have ‘stardust sprinkled in their eyes.’ That ‘all of them kept their eyes wide shut, except Hawke and Keating who couldn’t see the future for their own tears of self pity and remorse.’ * 

For this is truly the starting place for all of us who are not born from the First People. We have to turn and face our own terrible ancestry of what has been done. Worse, we have to admit our terrible guilt of wilful ignorance. For the disadvantage of our First People has been whispered through our education but when did we ever step out of our comfortable lives to come and see what they truly cost? What we have eradicated from parts of this country and what we now fail to protect? 

I wish I could truly transmit how it is to sit with a group of Aboriginal women who break into song spontaneously while an old man asks me to dance. I wish I could tell you the sacredness of the silent tears of a woman holding together a family spread out with disease and incarceration. The indeterminate strength of the great Aunties who are brave enough to stand straight when hearing the news of sexual abuse perpetuating through her traumatised family. 

I wish you could really see what we are ignoring; what we sent the military in to ‘intervene with’. Wish you would know the hidden rock art tracing it’s way through our country’s wildest places; could experience the truly humbling walk through the Burrup Peninsula’s endless painted gallery of long extinct megafauna.

How could we build a fertiliser plant within eye sight of that place? Only by the wilful acquiescence of a population too insular to drive the hundreds of kilometres from their metropolitan centres and appreciate that the true wealth of this nation lies not in what we can dig up. 

We stand to lose so much blinded by the misnomer of white ‘privilege’. We have here the oldest living culture left on earth and within it lies an indigenous wisdom that we have lost in the frantic whir of our busyness. 

And we are so very busy because we are outrunning our terrible hidden shame. 

What it means to be an Australian far out-spans your own personal lifetime. It reaches right back through history and has repercussions deep into the future. For the sake of this exquisite country and it’s ancient landscape, I urge you, I beg you, seek the education only our First Nations can give.


  1. If you've had a personal experience of the value of our First Nation(s) people and culture, or your own struggle with facing our colonial history and current white privilege I'd love to hear about here. Let's have this important conversation!

  2. I enjoyed your article. You have a beautiful way with words and I wholeheartedly agree wholeheartedly agree with much of what you are saying. However, I object to your use of the phrase 'oldest living culture'. What is a dead culture? Culture is not a static, bounded thing. Societies the world over borrow elements from other others and so culture is constantly evolving, adapting.

    1. That's a really interesting point to pick up on. I think 'old living culture' is a phrase that worked itself into my writing from something we often hear said about Australian Aboriginal culture. I suppose it resonates for me because I'm so in awe of the deep connection to land and country Aboriginal communities have, that continuous connection so that their Law even holds within it the receding ice ages. I wouldn't actually have the research to back it up (good prompt-- thankyou!), but I what I imagine with the phrase 'oldest living culture' is that it has been here, carried orally, on this land for 50 000 years and I don't think anywhere else in the world has been able to trace that lineage? That direct line held in the oral traditions of it's people? Of course culture is alive, moving, unbounded, changing, but what I feel resonating through Aboriginal culture is this huge historical depth to it that is so grounded to the specific country and place. Have you heard the phrase used before? Do you think something different was meant by it?

  3. I hear it used all the time to describe Aboriginal people and I just always wonder where it first came from. I guess why I take exception to the phrase is because I always wonder if some people interpret it to mean that their culture/technologies remained unchanged in that 50k years, which is certainly not the case. And then if people think along those lines, they then jump to the (incorrect) conclusion that Aboriginal people were incapable of 'progressing' (FYI the average Neolithic farmer spent 10-12hrs working a day to survive, while the average hunter-gatherer spent 5-6hrs working...I know which one I'd rather be :) )

    1. I've not spent time in Arnhem Land (yet!) but reading Why Warriors Lay Down and Die, it sounds like pre-colonization they they did a mix of farming and hunting-gathering with taro fields and even seeding pearls to trade with people traveling from Sulawesi. Hardly primitive then or now! But get your point about the misconception that Aboriginal culture is somehow unable to progress and therefore irrelevant to the modern age. Sometimes I wonder if we're just making exactly the same mistakes of the first colonial settlers- failing to listen and really communicate, failing to understand and failing to value a culture that is different from ours but has so much to teach.

  4. All in all though, fantastic article and insights. And thank you for the comments. It is a pleasure to have a mature and non-emotive exchange of ideas with you :)

    1. And thank you for commenting! The longer I spend working with Aboriginal communities, the less I feel I know what I'm doing so I'm always open to ideas!


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