Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Support vs. Solidarity: White Involvement in the Aboriginal Movement

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Support vs. Solidarity: White Involvement in the Aboriginal Movement

Article excerpt

The Aboriginal movement has been one of the most outspoken Australian social movements for nearly a century despite the small Aboriginal population, due partially to the support of many non-Indigenous Australians. This relationship has not always been an easy one, and Aboriginal activists have alternated between welcoming diversity and preferring a more closed movement. This paper looks at the involvement of non-Indigenous people in one Aboriginal movement organisation, the Townsville Indigenous Human Rights Group. The non-Indigenous members of the group were carefully selected by Indigenous activists who have had previous negative experiences with white supporters. All group members were acutely aware of the potential for reproducing colonial power relations, and so the white women in the group made conscious efforts to remain in the background. This strategy allowed for Aboriginal leadership; however it came at the expense of real solidarity and engagement between white and Aboriginal group members.


The past century of Australian activism has been punctuated by movements focused on labour, women's rights, and more recently, the environment, but one movement which has remained strong for nearly a century is the Aboriginal movement. While Indigenous people make up less than 3% of the Australian population (ABS, 2006), their movement has been both long-lived and very vocal. This is likely due to the long involvement of non-Indigenous people in the movement, though this diversity has not been without contention. This paper examines some of the tensions presented by the inclusion of non-Indigenous supporters in an Indigenous movement, exploring the limits of 'supportive' roles and arguing for meaningful relationships of solidarity.

The desire to carefully 'manage' non-Indigenous supporters of Aboriginal groups is long-running. As early as the 1920s, groups such as the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association recognised the need for Aboriginal leadership, ensuring that the executive board was made up of Aboriginal people and white1 members played a supportive role (Maynard, 2007). White members of the Aboriginal movement have wavered between support and dominance throughout the century, most notably in the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), which ruptured in 1970 following intense debate about the role of white people in the organisation (Taffe, 2005, chapter 7). Aboriginal groups are presented with a challenging decision between diversifying - with the risk of white dominance - or remaining homogenous - with the risk of limiting their voice (Petray, 2010).

Some published works illustrate the tensions faced by Indigenous people working with white supporters. For instance, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (quoted in Jones 2003, p. 44) regularly dealt with 'emotional well-meaning "do gooders"' who did not actually listen to what Aboriginal people had to say. Gary Foley (2000, p. 75) shares this sentiment, describing patronising and paternalistic attitudes from people who claim to support Indigenous struggles. These supporters are likely to frame Aboriginal activism 'in ways that suit their own needs and perceptions' (Amadahy, 2007, p. 7). Other Indigenous activists feel that white supporters are unwilling to accept the violent colonialist history of which they are part, but that acceptance is necessary for a successful coalition (Birch, 2004, p. 19; Foley, 2000, p.80). Still others find that non-Indigenous supporters require too much attention and education (Amadahy, 2007).

It is not just Aboriginal people who are aware of the complex history of Australian race relations however. Many white supporters are conscious of their positions of racial privilege and do their best to avoid replicating colonial power relations. To return to the example of FCAATSI, some of the most outspoken supporters of restricting white leadership were themselves white members of the group (Taffe, 2005: chapter 7). …

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