Beyond White Guilt: The Real Challenge for Black-White Relations in Australia

Beyond White Guilt: The Real Challenge for Black-White Relations in Australia

by Sarah Maddison

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A deeply provocative call for white Australians to take personal responsibility for the ongoing impact of colonization on Aboriginal Australians, Sarah Maddison's bold and original take on the running sore of black-white relations offers a genuinely constructive alternative when so many other approaches have failed. Deep in our hearts, Australians know that


A deeply provocative call for white Australians to take personal responsibility for the ongoing impact of colonization on Aboriginal Australians, Sarah Maddison's bold and original take on the running sore of black-white relations offers a genuinely constructive alternative when so many other approaches have failed. Deep in our hearts, Australians know that our nation was built on land that does not belong to us. Some of us now assert that Aboriginal people should simply take advantage of opportunities offered by white society. But many others feel guilt, often turning this guilt inwards, feeling helpless in the face of the appalling conditions in which many of the original inhabitants of this country now live. Successive government policies of obliteration, assimilation, cultural maintenance and intervention have manifestly failed to bridge the gulf between black and white Australians, and to improve the lives of many Aboriginal Australians. Efforts at reconciliation have stalled. In many ways, we are stuck. Sarah Maddison argues that there is no point in looking again to governments for a solution to these challenges. Rather, it is up to us, all of us. We need to acknowledge our collective responsibility, change at a deep level, and develop a revitalized view of our national self. Only then will we develop policies and practical solutions that work.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This book lays out the way modern Australia can right the wrongs that have occurred in the intervening years, and decades, and centuries that have passed since that first dramatic encounter."  —The Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG, from the forward

"An excellent diagnosis of Australia's mind-set."  —Jeff McMullen journalist, author, film maker

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Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited
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Beyond White Guilt

The Real Challenge for Black-White Relations in Australia

By Sarah Maddison

Allen & Unwin

Copyright © 2011 Sarah Maddison
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74269-320-0


The long colonial shadow: Guilt, nationalism and the morality of genocide

A nation, like Australia, exists more in the hearts and minds of its citizens than it does in any constitution or parliament. As the renowned scholar of nationalism Benedict Anderson has suggested, nations are really 'imagined political communities'. Because most of us will never meet — or even hear or know of — the majority of our fellow Australians, we must imagine ourselves as sharing similar values and traits. What we imagine, regardless of any contradictory reality, is a community of equals, joined in shared struggle and blessed by equal opportunities. We are challenged and disturbed by those who disrupt this imagined community and we strive through the telling of national stories to maintain an imagined unity and cohesion.

This imagined nation is in part constituted by the collective memories we share in public and in private. The collective memories that constitute the imagined community of Australia include a history of colonialism; a history over which there has been much debate (as will be discussed in the next chapter). Troubling aspects of this history have produced an insecure nationalism in Australia, the defence of which comprises one aspect of our adaptive challenge. David Williams describes the psychological threat that collective guilt poses to an insecure nationalism as being of 'nuclear proportions' as it indicates that a nation like Australia (or the United States, in the example of which Williams writes) is not only guilty of occasional wrongdoing, but is in fact 'rotten to the root': 'It was born in blood, and it feeds itself on land choked with the bodies of its victims.' As the Australian anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner once pointed out, the tendency to excuse the destructive aspects of the development of European life on this territory now known as 'Australia' 'sticks out like a foot from a shallow grave'. We are more comfortable when we do not confront the extent of our nation's guilt in causing harm in the imagining and creating of the Australian nation. We are more comfortable still when we can deny that current generations carry any trace of guilt for past acts. But despite this denial our experience of collective guilt persists. For reasons that this chapter will explore, our guilt not only persists in the present but is transmitted to each new generation, maintained by a form of defensive nationalism that will not allow an honest attempt to redress past wrongs.

Understanding collective guilt

The word 'guilt' can refer both to feelings of guilt and a determination of responsibility. The dominant understanding of guilt is as an individual experience of (legal) liability, requiring some form of punishment that may lead to possible reform. This conception of guilt has a long history, with roots in Christian theology and Roman law and later consolidated in the individualism of the Enlightenment, which overrode any possibility of collective judgment. In this context, understandings of guilt in connection with 'collective responsibility, liability and atonement' tend only to be recognised by societies and by governments as 'an irrational conceptualisation of guilt', if indeed they are recognised at all.

But collective guilt is a concept that transcends narrow legal individualism. While in the courtroom conceptions of blame may necessarily rest on individual wrongdoing, collective responsibility remains part of people's conception of morality and is therefore a feature of 'everyday justice'. It is a psychological rather than a legal experience, in that it may not involve actually being guilty in any commonly understood sense of that term. Thus, although collective guilt is not the same thing as 'being guilty' in a legal sense, it is connected to feelings of a shared identity — the sort of shared identity that constitutes our imagined nation. Collective guilt, and indeed other shared emotions, is only possible as a social phenomenon — as 'guilt by association' — when people categorise themselves or others at a group level.

But how is it that these feelings of guilt can be shared among a collective when the majority of individuals within that collective have not directly participated in the commission of any crime? German jurist and writer Bernhard Schlink suggests that, rather than collective guilt deriving from a sense of responsibility for someone else's crime, collective guilt arises from a feeling of 'responsibility for one's own solidarity with the criminal'. Schlink suggests that this conception of collective guilt casts a web that is 'high and wide', entangling every person who stands in solidarity with the perpetrators and who maintains solidarity with them after the fact. In the Australian sense it may be useful to think of national identification as a form of solidarity or what Schlink terms a 'community of responsibility'. Such a community is not something intangible or unintelligible, Schlink argues, but rather it is 'the tangible intertwining of relationships by real people as they communicate and interact'. In this sense all of us who identify ourselves as members of the Australian nation may be caught in the web of collective guilt for the sins of our past and present by virtue of our social identification and interactions. The price of this solidarity or national identification is that, for as long as our community of responsibility maintains bonds of solidarity with the perpetrators of historical injustice, all the behaviour for which we might otherwise feel appropriate shame and disgust will also be credited to us. For as long as the options available for severing these bonds, such as restitution or reparations, have not been taken up, then the solidarity — the collective guilt — exists by default.

Group, or national, identity is a crucial component in understandings of collective guilt. Our emotional responses to our national past, whether they be feelings of pride, guilt, or something else, do not stem from our personal participation in past events but rather from our shared membership in the category of offenders. Despite the widely held view that guilty feelings should only be attached to those events for which we are personally responsible, our Australian group or national identity is in fact central to our experience of collective guilt. Australians, and particularly white Australians, are part of the 'ingroup', the dominant social grouping in Australia most strongly associated with the colonisation of this land and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples. This identity is policed and reinforced through suggestions of what constitutes 'un-Australian' attitudes or behaviour. The reverse is also true. Collective pride in past events is often evoked as an important part of Australian national identity, whether or not we as individuals participated in these celebrated events. Very few Australians were actually at Gallipoli or on the Kokoda Track, and yet these events are commemorated as being about all of us, as moments in our history in which we all share, and which have passed on to future generations an important sense of who we are. Collective guilt operates in precisely the same way. When our sense of ourselves is connected to our forebears and ancestors, and where it is known that our forebears and ancestors committed harms and atrocities, it follows that collective guilt may be a salient component of our national identity.

Unlike pride, however, collective guilt produces feelings of distress rather than feelings of euphoria. Research on the phenomenon of collective guilt suggests that it is characterised by three interrelated properties: 'a focus of attention on the group self, a sense of group responsibility for an immoral act, and an extremely unpleasant feeling that people prefer to assuage through restitution or avoidance'. It is this last that is of concern in this book, particularly with regard to the ways in which these unpleasant feelings get in the way of efforts to engage in adaptive work. There is a difference between experiencing collective guilt and accepting collective guilt. It is a salient aspect of Australian struggles in this domain that, despite a commonly experienced feeling of discomfort, we do much to avoid, deny and reject the notion that we are guilty of anything. Indeed some research has suggested that feelings of collective guilt can produce attitudes that are counterproductive to collective efforts to address the source of our guilt, such as the reconciliation process in Australia. One common avoidance strategy is to insist that the crimes of Australia's history were long ago and that current generations have nothing to feel guilty about.

Guilt about the past

Bernhard Schlink suggests that guilt about the past not only infects the entire generation that lives through an era (in his case Nazi Germany), but also 'casts a long shadow over the present, infecting later generations with a sense of guilt, responsibility and self-questioning'. Further, Schlink suggests that by not renouncing the actions of the original guilty parties 'a new sort of guilt is created'; new generations create their own guilt when, in the face of evidence or accusations concerning past atrocities, they maintain their solidarity bonds with the perpetrators. If, as Schlink suggests, a nation of people constitute the sort of community of solidarity through which collective guilt is transmitted, then children and later generations become entwined and entrapped in 'the guilt of non-renunciation', which 'sits in wait for them until they become able to recognise the guilt of others, dissociate or not dissociate themselves from it, and therewith become capable of acquiring their own guilt'.

In other words, the collective guilt of later generations is a distinctly different phenomenon to the guilt of the original perpetrators of an act. Intergenerational guilt involves our individual and collective choices about what we do in response to our knowledge of past atrocities, rather than our responsibility for the original acts. For as long as we choose an identity that is 'saturated by history' — as is very much the case in Australia — we continue to stand in solidarity with past generations and the crimes they have committed. The violence of our history generates a kind of 'psychic deformation' that is passed from generation to generation, able to 'hibernate in the unconscious, only to be transmitted to the next generation like an undetected disease'. Schlink suggests that there is no external authority that can free subsequent generations of their share of the guilt bequeathed to them by their parents, arguing that 'over the generations, collectively experienced historical events become individual varied memories. The task of dissociation from specific historical guilt leads to the creation of one's own identity, an undertaking that every generation has to master.' Collective guilt about historical acts is in fact a constituent part of our contemporary national identity.

In this sense the guilt of later generations is a political rather than a personal guilt. In as much as later generations continue to benefit from the resources and gains produced by historical injustices, and in as much as we choose to deny that the current circumstances experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have causal links to these past injustices, then our response makes us guilty as a new collective, a new community of solidarity, not responsible for the original atrocities but guilty nonetheless. Even if we recognise that we had no control over the original, blameworthy actions, we can perceive ourselves as responsible for the continuing negative repercussions from these historical events. Our identity as contemporary Australians is not detachable from our history, for better or for worse, and there is a strong case to be made that current generations should still pay our nation's 'historical debts'. As Gillian Cowlishaw has suggested, 'worry' about Aboriginal people and the injuries they have suffered in the past has become 'a distinctive element' of Australian national identity.

These arguments about the transmission of guilt through the generations underscore the adaptive challenge facing Australians today. David Williams argues that the appropriate response to the recognition of our guilty inheritance is, indeed, guilt; 'not a soul-destroying, paralysing guilt, but a guilt born from a mature realisation that our past creates moral obligations that we won't ever escape'. This mature realisation is not often in evidence. More common, in Australia and other societies experiencing collective guilt, are efforts by the dominant social group to reinforce their community of solidarity, to minimise past harms and current inequalities in ways that become part of mainstream culture and perpetuate the privilege and dominance of some groups over others. In Australia, our ability to perpetuate this solidarity and deny our collective guilt is maintained through a vigorous form of nationalism that rejects both the sins of our past and our moral obligations in the present.

Guilt and nationalism

Clues about the extent of Australian feelings of collective guilt can be found in our somewhat defensive and often downright hostile expressions of nationalism. It is our collective guilt about Australia's past and present that prevents us from enjoying a more celebratory and generous nationalism. As each Australia Day rolls around there is a certain level of hysteria to the flag-waving insistence that we are a truly great country, the famous land of the 'fair go'. The fact that we choose to celebrate our national day on the anniversary of the European invasion of this country jars with our desire to erase that part of our history and celebrate only the nation-building aspects of it. Even our political leaders have experienced this incongruity. Historian Mark McKenna recalls Prime Minister Bob Hawke's discomfort at Australia's bicentennial 'celebrations'. In the wake of passionate Aboriginal protests and the demands of the 'Treaty '88' campaign, Hawke, addressing a television audience of several million Australians, 'could not bring himself to mention the dispossession of Aboriginal Australians', speaking only of Australia as a successful nation of immigrants. The silences in the prime minister's speech underlined the dilemma of this intended day of celebration, namely that the historical injustices of our past continued to 'undercut any attempt to present Australia Day as the rallying point for national pride'.

In and of itself, nationalism is not a 'moral mistake'. US sociologist Craig Calhoun suggests that we should approach an understanding of nationalism with 'critical attention to its limits, illusions, and potential for abuse' but we should not dismiss it completely. Calhoun draws attention to what he describes as 'everyday nationalism', which 'organises people's sense of belonging in the world', and he rejects the idea that nations are 'mere figments of the imagination'. The wider public likes nationalism, particularly for its role in asserting a positive national identity about which they can feel good. Nevertheless, an understanding of the potential benefits of nationalism in people's daily lives does not diminish the pitfalls of what Benedict Anderson terms 'official nationalism', which he describes as 'a self-protective policy, intimately linked to the preservation of imperial-dynastic interests'. Such policy, he suggests, is designed first and foremost to serve the interests of the state. And while the wider Australian public may dislike the racist and sometimes ugly manifestations of 'official' nationalism, such as were evident at the Cronulla riots in 2005, the separation of these positive and negative aspects is not always possible.

The defensiveness produced by Australia's fragile nationalism leaves us poorly equipped to engage in adaptive work. It is the very form of our nationalism — a settler nationalism — that means our past, present and future are 'intrinsically bound up with the relationship between settlers and Aborigines' making the legitimacy of the nation's connections with the territory on which it was formed our 'most vulnerable point'. The Indian political psychologist Ashis Nandy has suggested that Australia's tendency to see itself as a colonial power, when in actual fact it is a colonised society, means that there has been an ongoing struggle for our supposedly rightful status as 'a European colonial power with a civilising mission'. This struggle has fostered a fear that 'even faint streaks of yellow, black, or brown detract from Australia's nationhood', which in turn has promoted the active denial of cultural space to others. This anxiety is now a feature of Australian political culture, playing out in electoral battles and other ideological contests concerning, for example, our acceptance or rejection of asylum seekers. As will be discussed further in Chapter 3, this anxiety around nationalism in settler colonial states such as Australia and the United States is based in 'a sovereign's dread of a rival sovereign's claims'. Such fear, and the insistence on a uniformity among members of a nation, is outdated and, according to Canadian political philosopher James Tully, 'has no place in the world of today'.


Excerpted from Beyond White Guilt by Sarah Maddison. Copyright © 2011 Sarah Maddison. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Meet the Author

Sarah Maddison is the author of Activist Wisdom and Black Politics.

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