Academic journal article Oceania

Shame and the Embodiment of Boundaries

Academic journal article Oceania

Shame and the Embodiment of Boundaries

Article excerpt

If one is to fathom contemporary Koori (1) relations with the non-Aboriginal world, I would argue, an understanding of shame is key. This paper explores the genealogy of Koori shame and its place in the marking and making of the racial divide.

In part this paper serves to challenge the representation of shame as the anti-heroic antithesis of resistance in the writings of Gillian Cowlishaw. In her analyses, disorderly, destructive and violent behaviours of the indigenous minority are examined for their power to invert, challenge and expose the ideology and practical force of the dominant order (Cowlishaw 1988, 1993, 2004). Shame takes its place at the opposite and less honourable end of subversion, as a capitulation to the powers that be (Cowlishaw 2004:184). The present analysis provides a complement to Cowlishaw's efforts to interrogate a more complex set of causes and meanings for violence and disorderliness by examining the multivalent meanings, effects and strategic operations of shame at the black/white divide. It is my contention that shame represents, on the one hand, the painful embodiment of a social order premised on the subjection and exclusion of a black minority; on the other, a measure and guardian of Koori cultural autonomy.

My focus is the Jerrinja Aboriginal community, a settlement of some 180 people, residents of what was formerly the Roseby Park Aboriginal Reserve on the NSW south coast. Once an isolated, heavily sequestered and closely supervised government station, the community today finds itself closely enveloped within white suburbia. Twenty seven homes, the majority dating from a 1970s housing project, are arranged in suburban fashion about two deeply potholed streets. There is little but narrow grassy strips and a bellicose reputation to buffer the residents from their comfortable middle-class neighbours, yet the occupation of space in this domain takes on a noticeably different tone. Fences, originally designed to cordon off individual plots, lie in varying states of disrepair, facilitating easy traffic between the various homes, while, in contrast to the surrounding neighbourhood, the streets, gardens and verandahs of the 'mission, (2) serve (though decreasingly so) as social and public spaces where people sit, gather, gossip and play.

As home, Jerrinja represents a place of ambivalent values. On the one hand, it engenders feelings of familiar security and fond sentimentality; representing the space where its members live their own world-taken-for-granted. But on the other, it is felt to be the site of a desperate confinement and hopelessness in which the social burdens of their position as a dispossessed minority play out in lives much marked with trouble, conflict, impoverishment and personal trauma.

Although they maintain a sphere of life which they may call their own, Jerrinja people are inexorably incorporated within and dependent upon the institutions of dominant Australian society. By virtue of this fact, their participation in the mainstream is necessary, varied and sustained. One might expect, in an environment of such intense interaction, the lines between black and white would become heavily blurred. In fact the reverse would seem to be true. An attitude of profound shyness is typical. The everyday and mundane nature of interactions belies intense feelings of unease, discomfort and anxiety.

In the public space beyond the mission, where cultural meanings, values and modes of interaction are defined in white terms, Kooris feel themselves highly visible and vulnerable. Shame, as they call it, is the feeling of acute self-consciousness and often painful inadequacy which arises when one is exposed, in the flesh or in the anticipation, to the critical gaze of others, most particularly that experienced under the scrutiny of the 'outside world'. (3) 'Shame's like it's embarrassing. Like it's when you walk in and everyone looks at you. You think "oh shame". …

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