Reconciling Australia: We Need Acknowledgement More Than Apology

984a1b0af5d47f5f81d26ace274913bdIt’s National Reconciliation Week in Australia, a time intended to build relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. The last time I spoke about Reconciliation I called for reconciliation between Aboriginal peoples. Yet as I skim through the posts, tweets, memes, and videos posted in commemoration of this week, a sad irony presents itself: there is still so much bitterness, so much anger, so much hurt, and so much division between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. Reconciliation in Australia seems less likely than ever.

National Reconciliation Week arrives just after National Sorry Day, a day commonly misunderstood to be recognition of the Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. While the two are inextricably linked, National Sorry Day commemorates the tabling of the Bringing them Home report on Australia’s Stolen Generation, and is held to both recognise the injustices of the past, and hold the Australian Government accountable for repairing the damage caused by those injustices. It is a day of mourning and remembrance, in much the same way that ANZAC Day is a day of mourning and remembrance.

However, it’s the ‘sorry’ part that seems to be the sticking point. Many Aboriginal peoples feel that ‘sorry’ isn’t enough; that without reparations ‘sorry’ is just a word non-Indigenous people use to absolve themselves of guilt. On the other hand, many non-Aboriginal Australians do not see the point of continuously saying ‘sorry’; at best they feel their remorse is not being accepted as genuine, and at worst, that an apology isn’t necessary for something they personally have not done – that “the past is in the past”. Could it be that the demand for ‘sorry’ is actually driving a wedge between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, rather than bringing us together?

Perhaps the way towards achieving Reconciliation involves acknowledgement more so than apology. Acknowledgement on both sides of the cultural divide.

The first thing to acknowledge is that Aboriginal peoples are still suffering, in every sense of the word, from the injustices of the past. This does not mean that Aboriginal peoples are “still living in the past”; rather it means that the effects of those injustices are still very much the present, and the immediate foreseeable future, for Aboriginal peoples. It is not the past because Aboriginal peoples are still living it. Non-Aboriginal people don’t need to understand that – in fact it is arguable that anyone not living through that could not truly understand it anyway – but they do need to acknowledge that the suffering experienced by Aboriginal peoples is real, and part of the reason things are the way they are.

By the same token, Aboriginal peoples also need to acknowledge that we are still suffering as well, and this suffering can skew our perceptions of the attitudes of non-Aboriginal peoples towards us. I have seen and heard too many Aboriginal peoples use their suffering as justification for their mistrust of non-Aboriginal people. Sadly, there are still enough non-Aboriginal people whose intolerance and racist attitudes fuel this mistrust, but it is not representative of all – or in my personal belief, even the majority – of non-Aboriginal Australians. Many non-Aboriginal support, or at least want to support, the betterment and empowerment of Aboriginal peoples. We need to acknowledge that, and in doing so let them support us.

There also needs to be acknowledgement on both sides that the disparity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in relation to health, education, social justice, and a whole host of other issues, from a moral and ethical viewpoint, is wrong. Everyone knows about these disparities, however what is becoming increasingly obvious is that many have come to believe that these disparities are unavoidable, even normal or expected. It is in no way normal, and should not be expected, much less accepted. Acknowledging the wrongness of this attitude is not just a task for non-Aboriginal peoples: Aboriginal peoples also need to acknowledge that living with these disparities is not part of Aboriginal identity (read my previous article for more discussion on this topic). Betterment is not about assimilation. It’s about levelling the playing field. No one would expect that non-Aboriginal people should lower their standards of health, education, and so on to the level of Aboriginal peoples. Why should there be any resistance on either side to raising those same standards for Aboriginal peoples to those of the greater Australian society?

We don’t need more apologies to achieve true Reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, we need more acknowledgement.  We need to acknowledge the need for remorse, and the need for forgiveness. We need to acknowledge the problems, and the need to find solutions. We need to acknowledge that our differences can be used to unify rather than divide. And we need to acknowledge that we – all of us – are the only ones who can make Reconciliation happen.

Do you believe in Reconciliation? What do you think we need to make Reconciliation happen? More acknowledgement? More apologies? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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