Yesterday I sat in a public function where we began by acknowledging the Indigenous custodians of our lands, their elders past and present, and recommitting ourselves to the cause of reconciliation.
One of the local members of the Moomairremener nation - once the largest nations in Tasmania and covering thousands of square kilometres around the Derwent and Jordan River Valleys - spoke about his people. He mentioned that the invasion and colonisation of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) was swift, brutal and intended toward the extermination of his people.
The Van Demonian War, between the conquering British and local Aboriginal people, is noted by author and historian Nick Brodie to have been “the story of how the British truly occupied Van Diemen’s Land, deploying regimental soldiers and Special Forces, armed convicts and mercenaries. In the 1820s and 1830s the British deliberately pushed the Aboriginal people out, driving them to the edge of existence. Far from being localised fights between farmers and hunters of popular memory, this was a bigger war of sweeping campaigns and brutal tactics, waged by military and paramilitary forces subject to a Lieutenant Governor who was also Colonel Commanding”.
While this is not my personal history, this invasion is the story of my people and my culture destroying another. Whether it was the free settlement of my Scottish great-grandfather, or the transportation of my mother’s ancestors from England – to Van Diemen’s Land, no less – I need to recognise that it was, and in many ways still is, my people that have brutalised another.
This is hard to hear. It is hard to understand, to grasp and to own.
It adds to the list of things that “I” am culturally part of, being male – therefore privileged in our society, being white and Anglo – being in the dominant culture, being educated, being wealthy (by global standards, at least) and so on. This privilege doesn’t mean that I necessarily live any differently to anyone else, but that the barriers often set before others are not in my way.
In order to begin thinking about this thing that we call ‘privilege’ and its concomitant ‘guilt’ it’s important to point out that privilege is a set of benefits conferred on you without your consent. Nobody asks to be born white or male. There isn’t a pre-natal menu where you get to choose your sexual orientation or gender identity. You don’t pick your parents, your (natural) hair colour, whether or not you have a cleft chin or six fingers. All these things are accidents of birth. I certainly didn’t ask to be 5’7’’ in a world of relative giants.
Consequently, feeling guilty for aspects of your ‘self’ that you were born with is pointless. You can’t apologize your way out of being white or brown, cis-gender or transgender, a left-brain or right-brain thinker, straight or gay, short or tall. If you are some or all those things, you’re stuck with them. So, quit feeling guilty or being defensive about things over which you have no control.
Instead, choose daily to take control of the things that you can. I have a choice every day to utilise the opportunities, advantages and benefits I have. Do I work now toward reconciliation? Do I use the advantages I have in life to seek God’s Kingdom? Do I treat women as peers and friends rather than exercising patriarchy, or reinforcing stereotypes? Do I pursue a just world and challenge the dehumanisation of others? Do I engage with those on the margins? Those who are considered ‘the other’?
Essentially, regardless of my identity (being male, middle class and white), am I part of the solution or part of the problem?