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Drid Williams: The Australian Papers


On the Idea of 'Aboriginality'
[Some Thoughts on the Proposed Curriculum for Eleventh- and Twelfth-Grade Students in New South Wales]

Drid Williams

We might start by asking, "Is there an Aboriginal personality?"1 Can the combined Aboriginal populations of five states and one territory be said to have a 'personality,' given the size of the continent of Australia and the proven ethnic, ecological, cultural, and linguistic diversity of Aboriginal peoples still surviving in Australia? Not with any accuracy, really. But if this is true, how is it, then, that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal writers alike persistently speak of 'Aboriginality' and persistently speak as if there were an 'Aboriginal personality' or an 'Aboriginal mind'?

     The assumption that Aborigines are psychologically homogeneous is due in part to conditions surrounding the social perceptions of Aborigines by outsiders and in part to modern political trends and, more recently, to urban-born, indigenous intellectuals. One of these conditions is sheer ignorance. Aboriginal history and cultural diversity are less well documented and understood than are the histories and cultures of Europe and Asia. Ignorance of cultural and linguistic diversity usually always favors the presumption of homogeneity. The same could be said of populations of North American Indians, Micronesia, Polynesia, New Guinea, and the Torres Strait Islands. Someone who knows Europe but not Aboriginal Australia would consider the notion of a 'European personality' (lumping together Swedes, Italians, Poles and Danes, Sicilians and the Dutch) an absurdity, but the same observer might readily accept the idea of a distinctive 'Aboriginal personality,' a 'North American Indian personality,' or a 'Polynesian personality.'2

     Another but equally misleading condition of an Aboriginal Australian personality is the supposed 'racial' visibility: the diverse but distinctive skin color, hair forms, and facial features of Aborigines are supposed to be their most immediately recognizable characteristics; however, the most superficial examination will show that few observers can tell the difference between a south Indian, a Torres Strait Islander, a Papuan, an Aborigine, and a Fijian. It would be difficult to discern, from contemporary archaeological evidence, what the "racial" characteristics of Aborigines really are. There may be many speculative theories, similar to those which exist about African and Asian peoples, but what needs to be emphasized is that no substantial scientific evidence has ever been presented to show that racial and cultural evolution in human beings is related. There are no inherent racial differences in human mental and behavioral qualities or in the human capacity to develop and maintain culture. Very generalized 'racial' differences of gesture, speech, and other traits may exist, but it is clear that these characteristics have emerged primarily from the social and cultural matrix and are not genetically determined. The presumption, however inaccurate, of homogeneity on visible attributes alone favors the presumption of behavioral homogeneity. The naive observer might even be skeptical about an 'Asian personality,' because he or she has at least heard of India and Japan and knows that there are brown people in one country and yellow people in the other and that they dress and live differently, but he or she would tend more easily to accept that all Aborigines—assumed to be 'black'—have a single personality.

     A third condition is the known history of British colonialism in Australia: Aborigines all over Australia were subordinated to harsh colonial rulers, and this situation produced a superficially common framework within which Aborigines may perceive themselves—and be perceived by others—as essentially similar. From the popular white Australian, European, or American viewpoint, Aborigines are a 'black,' colonized people who were the original inhabitants of an island continent 'down under' who cannot be distinguished from one another on any known historical, cultural, or behavioral basis. Why not, then, believe that they are psychologically homogeneous? This is popular 'wisdom' in its most pristine, untutored form.

     But the concept of 'Aboriginally' or of an 'Aboriginal personality' has persisted not only because of ignorance and intellectual laziness involved in judging people on the most superficial aspects of their appearances and history. There were and are judgments made by those non-Aboriginal people who, seeking politically to justify the original English domination in Australia or an informal racial caste system later on, have found it convenient to postulate an 'Aboriginal mind' or some similar concept to which they could attribute various kinds of mental and cultural inferiority. Then, too, there are the journalists, film-, and video-makers, pornographers, and even some serious novelists who have found profit and popularity in using native peoples all over the world and in Australia as the undifferentiated 'aborigine.'

     This is a composite, fantasy figure of the 'child-of-nature' type with many permutations and variations which are too numerous to list here. Africans have perhaps suffered more from this than others, but that evaluation may simply be a result of my greater familiarity with the literature involving African peoples. Stereotypes of this kind have had long histories in Europe and the United States: it is probably as old as the familiar anti-Semitic stereotype, perhaps even older, but it has been treated with less debunking by intellectuals and so remains current—sad to say, even in literate segments of English-speaking societies.

     These days, there are also Aboriginal political leaders and writers who, in their urgent drive to construct an ideology for opposing white Australian domination and promoting pan-Aboriginal unity, have accepted the psychological homogeneity of Aborigines, while insisting on equality with, or superiority to, white Australians. In some cases they seem to have accepted the content of white Australian stereotypes of themselves, but they have reversed the values from negative to positive. In other cases they generalize their own local cultural backgrounds to the whole continent of Australia or even to all 'black people' everywhere.

     At the same time, however, the term 'Aboriginality' or the phrase 'the Aboriginal people' and other similar classifications is used by Aboriginal leaders more in the sense of 'spirit,' 'tradition,' or 'philosophy' than with reference to the mental or behavioral characteristics of persons, and more as a call for a unified defense of Aboriginal rights and distinctiveness than as a statement of what actually exists. Hence, 'Aboriginality' or 'Aboriginal personality' or 'Aboriginal mind' or simply 'the Aborigines' as most frequently encountered in the newspapers and other mass media tends to be a stereotyped image designed either to denigrate, to dehumanize, or to defend Aborigines, rather than an attempt to understand them.

     So pervasive is the influence of partisan stereotypes on discussions of the purported 'psychology' and 'education' of Aborigines that it is perpetuated by a few (but by no means all) scientific or scholarly treatises. The most notorious of these in the racist tradition in Australia is The Psychology of a Primitive People: A Study of the Australian Aborigine (1931); Primitive Intelligence and Environment (1937), and The Porteus Maze Test: Fifty Years' Application (1965). The author is S. D. Porteus.

     A genre of 'defensive' literature might be characterized by Poor Fellow My Country (1975) and The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1972), whose authors are Xavier Herbert and Thomas Kenneally, respectively. Although not distorted by pseudo-scientific methodology, works like these do little more to shed light on 'Aboriginal Culture' than the racist volumes, partly because the authors of such books are forced into frankly impossible generalizations like "Aboriginal culture is communalist" or "Aborigines are essentialists." They attempt to establish a pan-Aboriginal 'personality' that 'pervades' or 'underlies' all differences. All that these labels do in the end, perhaps, is to provide a nominal and philosophical basis for rambling and speculative reviews of Aboriginal peoples' actual history and current problems. I do not mean to say that one can always depend on an author's academic credentials as a guarantee of scholarly or scientific standards of objectivity, because the topic itself is controversial; there are often vested interests at stake, and concessions are made, not in the interests of knowledge or objectivity but in the interests of political, emotional, or ideological advantage.

     There is another genre of works about Aboriginal people that has much wider influence on belief structures and general theorizing than many people realize. I refer to works like Marshall's Journey among Men (1962) or Harney's Brimming Billabongs (1963) or I. The Aboriginal by Lockwood (1962). Here, what tends to happen to the uninitiated is that events from one author's experience are broadened so that they include much more than was ever envisioned or intended by the individual author, by readers who, as often as not, are extremely naive.

     There are works on Aboriginal peoples which are accurate and which do not depend upon stereotypes. Two excellent examples are Bobbi Sykes's Incentive, Achievement and Community: An Analysis of Black Viewpoints on Issues relating to Black Education (1986) and Markus and Gammage's 1982 collection entitled All That Dirt: Aborigines, 1938.3 The writers of these kinds of work are both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people; however, they are not as appealing as travel and adventure stories, nor are they as emotionally compelling as many novels tend to be.

     Attempts are constantly made in review articles and books in scholarly journals like Oceania and Mankind to sort out the wheat from the chaff, but that sorting process rarely seems to percolate through to the popular press, to the media, or to reach students at eleventh- and twelfth-grade levels. Then, too, these works suffer from a common problem: no matter how 'good' they are, or how accurate or objective, they are highly susceptible to misinterpretation. There are many people 'out there' who do not want their beliefs about Aboriginal people to be cluttered up with facts, so they twist the facts to suit their beliefs, and they distort the author's intentions to suit their emotional, partisan feelings for whichever 'side' to which they feel they belong.

     People like this, whether they are relatively unschooled or whether they are of Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal descent, are simply used. They are used by ideological partisans outside the circles of serious scholars and writers to support their own political positions and prejudices. There is no easy way to eliminate this misinterpretation and abuse in an area of study where issues like racism and inter-ethnic relations are involved. Although not easy, especially in a country where it would appear that 'anthropology-bashing' is practically a national pastime, I think that recognition has to be made of the fact that the scientific study of humankind, especially in fields like archaeology, linguistics, and social and cultural anthropology, is a legitimate and socially constructive activity.

     Moreover, I believe that this recognition has to be made explicit—and positively explicit at that. If the recognition of anthropologists and linguists contributions are to be left to the whims and vagaries of individual teachers, curriculum-planning committees, politicians, or whoever happens to be on hand at the moment, I believe that we must look to the omission of professional recognition of the problem to be the basis for a recipe for disaster, of which eleventh- and twelfth-grade students are going to be the victims.4

     Elsewhere in the world, notably in Africa, we have begun to see how a deeper understanding of individual ethnicities' responses to changing social and cultural environments has been of great value. Most of the documentation of these societies and of the changes comes from the disciplines of anthropology and linguistics. A more complex and realistic view of Aboriginal populations and their cultures can only contribute to—and gain from––this kind of international understanding and enterprise. One benefit would be a more complex and realistic view of Aboriginal populations and their similarities and differences in the socio-linguistic dimensions underlying contemporary social behavior.

     One thing that I believe that the Aboriginal Studies Committee at the University of Sydney should ask the Curriculum Committee to do is to divert their attention from the political implications of the subject of Aboriginal Studies in secondary schools to a consideration of the curriculum that they suggest from more dispassionate points of view. The most striking thing to me about the document that we were asked to review was (a) its partisan nature and (b) the apparent focus of attention on 'local,' direct contact with Aboriginal people. Its lack of bibliographical discussion was also strikingly absent. How are secondary-school teachers who are themselves unschooled in the subject of Aboriginal Studies going to discriminate among the kinds of literature that are available, for a start?

     On the matter of local Aboriginal involvement, I do not mean to say that local people should not be involved, (none of us would say that), but one would want to ask 'how?'5 Of course, I was not the only person to respond negatively to this focus, and I believe that we would all agree about its many possible consequences, not the least among them being the creation of a badly distorted—even false—notion of 'Aboriginality' through the simple mechanism of the 'research' that is suggested, which will, in most cases, simply extrapolate to the whole of Aboriginal Australia the characteristics of local communities where they exist.6

     I wonder if the Curriculum Committee has looked at their proposed document in the light of an attempt to devise a realistic study plan for eleventh and twelfth grade students that reflects no hidden desires to defame—or to defend. Frankly, I doubt it, because, on evidence, there is simply too much bias built into the plan as a whole, starting with the blatant example of 'anthropology-bashing' to be found on p.14.

Problems with the Notion of a 'Collective Personality'

As I understand it, in psychology, the term 'personality' refers to consistencies in the behavior of human individuals, consistencies which cannot be attributed to temporary states of his or her 'organism' or temporary conditions in his or her environment, but which endure over substantial periods of his or her life, making him or her to some degree 'predictable.' There seems to be no real consensus about whether these are organized somehow for each individual, or if they are not simply numerous independent traits. About the only agreement that I have been able to discern is that 'personality' is characteristic of individuals rather than of groups or collective entities. I have been told that personality characteristics vary widely among individuals in a given population, just as physical characteristics do. Like height and weight, personality characteristics (as measured in our own society by standard tests) tend to show a normal bell-shaped distribution in which the majority is clustered near the 'average,' 'middle' range, with relatively few persons landing on either end. I have also been told that these distributions are not identical across all human populations, and I have had many arguments with psychologist friends over the credibility and/or reliability of tests devised in one language and culture when they are used in another. The example cited in this paper is that of the Porteus maze tests. In fact, when one begins to examine some of the methods and procedures used by psychologists to determine 'personality' or 'character traits,' one can conclude that these are very fuzzy, ill-defined notions indeed—so much so that many anthropologists long ago abandoned any interest in their use regarding cultural investigations.

     Moreover, I find the notion that, for example, one might be able to correlate the distribution of environmental differences among several indigenous populations with 'personality' distributions highly suspect. The reasons for my suspicions are based on the study of African anthropology, specifically the peoples of the Nile Basin, where, in the same ecological 'niche' (at the southern fork of the Nile, which is 'Nuerland'), one finds the Shilluk, whose political structure is that of a divine kingship; the Dinka, whose affairs are overseen by 'spearmasters,' having both religious and political significance to that people; the Anuak, whose country is divided into eastern and western halves, with 'nobles' governing the eastern and 'village headmen' governing the western half of the land; and finally, the Nuer, who are acephalous. There are, of course, other differences in modes of transhumance, patrilineal and matrilineal kin systems, pastoralism, languages, etc.

     I am not the only social anthropologist who tends to distrust some of the uses to which, for example, Murdock's 'World Ethnographic Samples' are put, and would want to say that I do not understand the relevance of statements like these:

From these data it can be said that, within the economy, agriculture is overwhelmingly dominant over hunting and gathering and animal husbandry, but it is an agriculture in which male members of the community are less frequently involved than in any cultural region of the world. The association of animal husbandry with men, even where it is not a dominant subsistence activity, is strikingly evident, however, and exceeds that of other world regions. In family and kinship institutions, Africa leads the world in the incidence of polygynous societies, and the associated mother-child household is so widespread that Africa has the lowest frequency on two other household variables that are quite common in other regions (extended household and bilateral descent). Patrilineality, patrilocality, and brideprice prevail among African societies as they do almost nowhere else in the world. Indigenous slavery and hereditary succession to local office are considerably more frequent in Africa than in other regions. Although lacking figures, I would nevertheless argue that aspects of indigenous religion such as ancestor cults and witchcraft and sorcery beliefs have similar high frequencies. (Le Vine 1970: 280)

We are told that this suggests a common context of experience for Africans growing up in diverse parts of the continent and that the socio-economic characteristics of the data is not uniquely African, for they are all found elsewhere as well. Contradictory? No, not really, because such statements are made in aid of saying that it is the particular combination of traits that may be distinctively African and not the traits themselves. Such conclusions seem to me to be either self-evident or strikingly trivial. Perhaps I simply betray my own ignorance when I say that I simply don't understand what such generalizations mean. I do not know what, if anything, is similar about the 'Aboriginal personality' or if the same sorts of generalizations would arise out of studies based on the same kinds of data and approach as are typically found in the discipline of psychology. One finds oneself in the unenviable position of pointing out that the emperor has no clothes!

     I also recognize the (presumed) futility of making statements like those outlined above in the face of apparently overwhelming majority beliefs, and with all odds against having reason rule over the passionate pursuit of political power and short-term expedience. However, one wishes to go on record as one of the 'voices in the wilderness' because future generations may be interested to know that not all of us were such easy pushovers. I quite agree that eleventh- and twelfth-grade students should learn more about Aboriginal people and their various cultures. Having said that, the questions still remain: how will they learn and from whom? What, in the idealistic and extremely sketchy curriculum plans that we were invited to review ensures that students will not have their already (possibly) distorted notions of Aboriginal peoples reinforced? And why, as professional social anthropologists in particular, are we expected to endorse a document which blatantly denigrates our profession and its contributions?

University of Sydney
October 25, 1989


1 This paper was written in response to a draft syllabus for a proposed curriculum for eleventh- and twelfth-grade students in New South Wales which was under discussion by the curriculum committee in Aboriginal Studies at the University of Sydney. It was accompanied by a memo to the coordinator of the Aboriginal Studies course (October 29, 1989).—Editor

2 Someone who knows Europe but not 'white Australia' might consider the notion of a 'white Australian personality' (lumping together Americans, Scots, Irish, Brazilians, and East Europeans, for a start) an absurdity, too.

3 With specific reference to Markus's paper "After the Outward Appearance: Scientists, Administrators and Politicians," in Markus and Gammage 1982.

4 I refer specifically to the document on eleventh- and twelfth-grade curriculum for Aboriginal Studies which the Aboriginal Studies Committee at University of Sydney was asked recently to comment upon at a meeting held in Les Hiatt's office on October 13, 1989.

5 It would appear that no consideration has been given to the uneven population distribution of Aboriginal people, e.g., in Sydney in contrast to outlying districts, in relation to the distribution of the students, a majority of whom will be going to schools in Sydney. One also wonders how Aboriginal people are going to feel when they are besieged, once or twice a year, with untutored "researchers" invading their privacy. There are many other questions as well.

6 Apart from anything else, it is perhaps a measure of our own disciplinary complacency that people actually believe that anthropological fieldwork and research can be done by eleventh and twelfth graders with no preparation whatsoever.

References Cited:

Harney, W. E. (Bill)
1963. Brimming Billabongs. Adelaide: Rigby.

Herbert, Xavier
1975. Poor Fellow My Country. Sydney: Collins.

Le Vine, R. A.
1970. Personality and Change: The African Experience. Vol. 1. (ed. J. Paden and E. Soja). London: Heinemann.

Lockwood, D. W.
1962. I. The Aboriginal. Adelaide: Rigby.

Kenneally, Thomas
1972. The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. New York: Viking Press.

Markus, A. and B. Gammage
1982. All That Dirt: Aborigines 1938. Canberra: Research School of Social Science, Australian National University.

Marshall, Alan
1962. Journey among Men. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Porteus, Stanley David.
1931. The Psychology of a Primitive People: A Study of the Australian Aborigine. London: Arnold.
1937. Primitive Intelligence and Environment. New York: Macmillan. Based on fieldwork done in 1929.
1965. The Porteus Maze Test: Fifty Years' Application. Palo Alto, CA: Pacific Books.

Sykes, Roberta B.
1986. Incentive, Achievement and Community: An Analysis of Black Viewpoints on Issues relating to Black Education. Sydney: University of Sydney Press.



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