Assimilation and Resistance: Housing Indigenous Australians in the 1970s

Article excerpt

Introduction

For much of the period of white occupation of Australia the failure of indigenous people to take up opportunities to assimilate was generally viewed in racist terms, as demonstrating their biological/genetic unsuitability for `civilised life'. Both the state and sympathetic community groups were only able to see the problem as one of social advancement. The means for pursuing this end ranged from brutal social engineering to the more gentle but no less ethnocentric practices of paternalistic tutelage. In all of these forms of regulation, the assumption that Aboriginal people were culturally deficient was unquestioned. The norms of nuclear family life, of hygiene and childrearing, of education, neat clean housing, of neighbourly respectability are the ideological cornerstones around which assimilationist policies and practices were built. For Aboriginal people to escape from poverty and to acquire citizenship rights, they were required to observe these norms not to resist them. This paper will explore the social and cultural pressures imposed on indigenous people who were tenants of the NSW Housing Commission (HC) in the early 1970s, at the end of what is known as the Assimilation Era.

Public rhetoric at the time stressed the need for non-indigenous Australians to make allowances for cultural difference. However, the everyday practices of the HC were such as to enforce the habits of a life which was foreign to most Aboriginal people. Most offered some resistance to these pressures. The second half of this paper will consider the nature of this resistance and will ask whether it was simply a knee-jerk response to white authority and morality or a pragmatic attempt to accommodate pre-existing cultures and habits of life. I will bring together two bodies of literature dealing with resistance: firstly those studies of youth subcultures which have emerged from British sociology and contemporary cultural studies (Willis 1977; Cohen 1980; Hall and Jefferson 1975), and secondly, anthropological work dealing with the responses of indigenous people to white bureaucratic authority (Collman 1988; Rowse 1998; Ross 1987).

Method

The research material for this article is drawn largely from the files of Aboriginal applicants for HC accommodation, including both those who were successful and those who were not.(1) All such files were kept in a special series, separate from those of mainstream applicants. This series is held in the Kingswood repository of the NSW State Archives and numbers 160 boxes (ST File Boxes 14/1413-97 and 10/41213-89). Of these I chose twenty-eight at random and examined all files (usually between twenty and thirty) in each.(2)

The method of analysis used here is broadly in accord with the principles of critical realism (Sayer 1984; Bhaskar 1989). Filenotes frequently describe situations involving struggle between tenants and their neighbours, the HC, or occasionally other state or community agencies. I treat these notes as surface forms that betray the operation of immanent and generative social relations. Although the categories of class or colonialism were rarely, if ever, used by those who wrote the filenotes, there is ample evidence that such categories are at the basis of the conflicts. I have abstracted from complex and particular situations those elements that appear to influence struggle and structure resolution. This process of abstraction allows us to isolate and distil the social forces that underpin a diverse range of evidence, in order to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the operation of those social relations in concrete situations.

Although this work is based on my reading of a large number of tenancy files, I did not seek to conduct an extensive survey based on quantitative measurements around categories and questions that were entirely predetermined. By contrast, I have undertaken a qualitative study of representations of Aboriginality in official discourse. …