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Thanks! Now let’s jump straight into this week’s interview.
I know firsthand that we can all bring so much to these big challenges, so listen in and see where you fit in the solution as we go on to undesign Indigenous empowerment and agency.
When it comes to traditional approaches to empowerment initiatives, particularly where it relates to marginalized or minority groups, we often hear of the importance of everyone having a seat at the table. But do we ever really stop to think about what that actually means? Because when you analyze that statement, in-built into it, essentially an aspirational statement, there are many assumptions.
For example, is having a seat at the table enough? What if people want to build their own table? And if they want to build their own table, does it have to be the same table? What if they don’t even want a table or need a table? The deconstruction of this metaphor is at the heart of what it means for any country’s First Nations and Indigenous peoples choosing for themselves — not only how to meet their current needs in a post-colonial society, but how big they can dream, and what they can do to make those dreams real.
Talking to us about this on today’s episode of Undesign is our special guest, Luke Pearson. Luke is a Gamilaraay man in New South Wales who founded IndigenousX in 2012. IndigenousX is a digital pass-the-mic style platform for upcoming Indigenous writers, creatives and thought-leaders to take control back over their own stories and their own voices. It’s essentially a platform that is borne entirely out of this genuine commitment to Indigenous empowerment. So what does that actually look like, and how should we position ourselves in this aspiration?
As you’ll hear, Luke and I have a deeply personal, thought-provoking conversation that I’m still reflecting on as of this recording. It’s a huge conversation that requires a lot of internal untangling and questioning, even of your own motives and intentions for wanting to be part of the solution.
Truth be told, this episode is less about answers and more about setting the right challenge for ourselves. This is about listening and learning. So if you’re new to this, I invite you to take that journey and really sit with what is discussed. Only then can we hope to build meaningful ways to live alongside one another.
LUKE: Hey, man. I appreciate when you’re on the organizing side, whether it’s an event or a podcast or a meeting. You feel so embarrassed in a moment of, “Oh my god, we’re doing this.”
But when you’re in the audience and someone’s on stage and they stuff up or when I’m in… It adds a lightness. It adds a humanness, so it actually… It does, it takes a lot of the edge off of feeling this is this big formal thing, and it makes you giggle and calms you down.
KOSTA: Yeah, it does. I feel like it just wouldn’t happen any other way, really. It just feels very fitting right now with everything else happening.
LUKE: Yeah, as I was explaining, I think it’s so important when I do these interviews and these recordings. It’s something I think about. One of my first big things that went out there online was, I did a TEDx in 2013. And this was still —
KOSTA: Oh, right.
LUKE: Yeah, it’s an old one.
LUKE: I was still carrying a lot of trauma from my education days and I felt really… I used to be a primary school teacher, and that only lasted a few years, and it didn’t end well for me or my own mental health or sense of self. So I gave this talk as a teacher.
It’s like, “It’s a TEDx. It’s a video. I’ve got to be positive.” I was still trying to work out my public persona. I loved TEDx videos all through my uni, so I’m doing this TED talk and it was this big thing. I don’t know, I’m not embarrassed by it. I mean, I’ve never listened to it. Vaguely from what I remember of it, it was all right.
But I ran into someone, and they were like, “We watched your TED talk at work the other day, or at school the other day.” And I’m like, “The dude who did that talk is gone. That was eight years ago. I’m in completely different headspaces.”
KOSTA: Cool. That seems like a really good time for me to just ask you that question, particularly as it relates to Indigenous empowerment: what has changed in eight years for you? What is that, eight years? More?
LUKE: Well, the TED talk was… So IndigenousX would have been reasonably new at that point. I think it would have only been around for a year. IndigenousX just had its ninth birthday earlier this month.
KOSTA: Oh, happy birthday!
LUKE: Thank you. That was on the 15th, and it’s amazing that we’ve lasted this long. And not just lasted, but really thrived and grown in the last couple of years especially. So for a long time, IndigenousX was this funny base, because it was about empowerment through agency and opportunity.
IndigenousX was this platform we created at a time when media representation was largely non-existent in the broader rise of social media.
Myself and a large number of Indigenous people who are out there, we were all starting our blogs, and we were all doing our thing. As the rise of the blogosphere and the commentator more broadly gained prominence, which a lot of people have attributed to the death of journalism, which it was probably…
KOSTA: Funny that.
LUKE: Funny that. But for Indigenous commentary at the time, it was different in my mind at least. It wasn’t like we were killing Indigenous journalism, because it was few and far between. Again, you had some really crucial community radio, had some really solid Indigenous journos who had been working away tirelessly over the years. But this new beast that popped up, it was huge and I got to be a part of that initial wave.
LUKE: One of the things I used to talk about 10 years ago on Twitter was how if you read an Indigenous opinion piece, it was only by two or three people. It was in The Australian, and they were more conservative Indigenous voices that would usually be published in The Australian. And that was the bulk of it. And so IndigenousX was born out of a desire to have a space and tap into this, what for me at the time was this new, exciting world on Twitter.
LUKE: So the idea for anyone who doesn’t know or isn’t familiar with Twitter or IndigenousX on Twitter, it’s just a different Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander person each week takes the account. Do what you want, it’s your account, talk about whatever. You don’t have to feel compelled to speak on behalf of all Indigenous people, which is a part of that media framing.
And I’ll still get that in, “What do Indigenous people think about this?” And it’s like, “I don’t know, you might have to take a minute to go and ask the 800,000.”
KOSTA: Yeah, right.
LUKE: You can talk in broad strokes and sensibilities and whatever, but it’s that expectation of, “You, random Indigenous person, here, step up and be the spokesperson.” Which media are very keen to do in so many ways.
KOSTA: It’s convenient.
LUKE: And so this was a space of like, “Don’t be a spokesperson. You don’t even have to be a leader, you don’t have to be… Just be you.”
KOSTA: Just be you.
LUKE: And then the idea was that we had a space where we could connect and people could share. And for non-Indigenous people following, they could help break down that homogenous view of Indigenous. They could help shift their expectations.
LUKE: So yeah, in the early days, they’d be like, “What’s the Aboriginal word for this?” And it’s like, “If you’re going to ask a question of a host, it should be in response to what they’ve already been talking about.” If I’m hosting and I’m like, “Well, I’m primary teacher-trained”, ask me about primary teaching, don’t…
LUKE: Not just this broad, generic, “Ask an Aboriginie mindset.”
Ask people as individuals, and treat them as individuals, and hear their story from their perspective and respect that.
And so that’s what led me into the path of being responsible for and having a responsibility towards this space.
Like I said, I was trained as a primary teacher, so I was hoping to empower people through education in the classroom and help kids on their journey to wherever they went. And then thrust very quickly, just through having a good idea of Twitter, or what I thought was a pretty cool idea. But it was like, “Yeah, don’t know if there’s a future in this. Don’t know if there’s a future in Twitter. Who knows how long we’ll be able to get hosts for, or if people will care.”
But like I said, as Twitter grew and as the space grew, we were one of the people who were doing something different and something interesting. And so we grew with that and we got that partnership with the Guardian when they turned up to Australia, like a year or so after we began.
KOSTA: Oh, so really new. I didn’t realize that was so —
LUKE: Yeah, we were from the very first moment.
KOSTA: So just like early on. Yeah, right.
LUKE: Yeah. So they reached out and they’re like, “We want to have a yarn about whatever.” And I thought it was like, the UK Guardian wanted to do a story on IndigenousX as like, “Here’s this interesting thing in Australia.”
I didn’t even know they were coming to Australia, so I went into the meeting, and they were like, “Yeah. No, we’re here. We want a partnership.” And I’m like, “Oh wow, I didn’t expect that.” And we still have that partnership. It’s still going strong.
LUKE: And so over the years, it’s really thrust me, like I said, into this space of, what is my responsibility back to the collective? How do we keep this platform open and accessible and true to its philosophy? But also try to grow and change and adapt to moving times amongst different Indigenous peoples and groups, but also in the media sector?
So it’s been an amazing journey and I always feel, to be honest, like I’m… At the start, like I said, we were pushing boundaries, because I had this idea and we ran with it. It took years just to have it take shape and be comfortable with what it was.
But now the space moves so quick, and I’ve got a family now and doing other things as well, so I always feel like I’m trying to keep up rather than pushing in the way that I used to. But that’s part of the challenge as well. I think as we get older, it’s like, “Is what we’re doing still relevant? Does it still matter? Are we checking in with the right people in the right ways? And are we looking for ways to bring more people on the journey?”
The first seven years of IndigenousX, I was working either freelance work or working other full-time gigs and running IndigenousX in my spare time. I always thought: “It’s a funny thing. I’m sitting there talking about how important this platform is and how powerful it is, and Indigenous empowerment, while I’m doing it all for free on the side, trying to keep afloat off on the side.”
It has only really been the last two years that I took the jump and said, “Actually, IndigenousX should be my full-time job. It should be not just supporting me but other people.” At the time, I was at ABC. James Saunders, a friend of mine for a lot of years, was also at the ABC, and he was getting ready to leave at the same time I was getting ready to leave.
So I took on a big consultancy job and I was like, “Man, I’ve got enough money, I reckon, for about three months for both of us. Let’s see how we go.”
KOSTA: Oh, that’s a big gamble, Luke. Good on you. Talk about backing yourself.
LUKE: It is. Yeah. Well, sometimes you’ve got to take that leap. And I knew James was an amazing operator, so I had a lot of faith in him, had a lot of faith in the idea, and backed myself enough to go, “Yeah, let’s see what we can do.” It took an education-based job, so it was one I knew I could deliver on from the media side and the education side, so I was very much in my wheelhouse.
I was working on Indigenous science with ACARA, the people who do the [Australian] national curriculum.
LUKE: So it was teacher background information for Indigenous science. So part of the job was working on the first round of drafts for what would eventually become the teacher background notes, so putting the old teacher-hat on. But the other half was working with media on how to talk about this, because ACARA hadn’t really done a lot in the space at that time.
Something I’ve done in a lot of the media consultancy work is where a lot of non-Indigenous agencies, when they’re first going into an Indigenous space, will have this language of like, “We’re doing this because we’ve consulted with community and Aboriginal teachers and parents, and this is what they want.”
And that’s great, and you should consult, but you also should have somewhere in there, “We’re doing this because it matters and we believe in it, and it’s the right thing to do.” So much inadvertently by wanting to go, “We did the right thing and we asked” comes out in a language of saying like, “We’ll happily just throw this mob under the bus if it goes bad and go, ‘Well, they wanted it. We were only doing what they wanted.’”
And so there was a lot of talking and understanding about how someone like myself, who was on social media and was very familiar with calling out different organizations and different agencies, would respond and would interpret and would read between the lines. Using words that say what you mean, but also understanding some words that you think mean something might mean something else to black fella Twitter, particularly, but just the mob out there.
And so it was a really interesting two-piece work, and that kept us going for a few months, like I said. And then James had his networks and his old clients from when he’d done consultancy work in the past. We put the word out that we’d jumped ship from ABC. Like I said, barely two years later, two and a half maybe now, now there’s a team of four of us full-time, one part-time, and we’re hoping to keep growing. So it’s been an amazing, amazing journey.
KOSTA: That’s huge, mate. Congrats, because it’s massive.
LUKE: Thank you.
KOSTA: And that’s hard for anyone really, and let alone in a space that’s pretty underrepresented in the media landscape, in the independent landscape. I guess you just touched on a point earlier about the same words meaning very different things to different people, and I think “empowerment” is one of those words. There are a couple of words…
This was actually a really hard topic to research. There’s not necessarily a lot of scholarship on this idea of what Indigenous empowerment means from Indigenous perspectives, from what I could see. So I want to do a quick word association with you about other things that come up when I try to research this issue. It’s not like I couldn’t find anything, but there were definitely some things that seemed to pop up when I tried to look more into it.
I mean firstly, when we’re talking about empowerment, are we only talking about economic or are we talking about other domains of Indigenous life generally?
LUKE: Certainly for me, I’m talking about more than just economic. I’m talking about identity, talking about self-determination. The collective rights of Indigenous peoples, not just the individual goals. I would say, there is a lot of stuff out there about empowerment, but not necessarily always in that language.
LUKE: So certainly if we were talking about Indigenous governance and how we need to have self-determination principles, the rights of Indigenous peoples under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples…
Like I say, there is a lot out there, but I appreciate that a lot of stuff that’s coming out through policy initiatives or through those more mainstream spaces are probably talking about the government support of Indigenous entrepreneurs and businesses and procurement, or a desire to improve employment, even though they’ve had more than enough opportunities to do that and don’t seem to want to do that.
They’ll be on CDP [Community Indigenous Program] and work for the dole over the years. They ought to just give them council jobs, because other people doing that same work, you give a full-time job to. You’re happy to seem to let black fellas work for the dole and keep getting training and no real employment outcomes in a lot of instances. So how serious that is, is very debatable.
But I think that’s that idea for a lot of people, and they can only see Indigenous empowerment through a lens of assimilation. The idea that when we achieve equal status and equal representation, then that’s…
It’s like when every major institute or industry out there is like, “We want to have parity of Indigenous employment. We want to have 3%.” And that’s great, and they should certainly be taking steps to improve their employment and their retention of Indigenous staff and providing cultural safety for their staff.
But as a collective society, it’s like: “If every industry has 3%, and then we’re just equally represented, then we’re just mirroring our 3% model of that society. That’s not necessarily in line with Indigenous aspirations about what people want for themselves individually, or collectively what people want for the collective.”
And so there’s a lot of people who I just think don’t have the imagination or the understanding that Indigenous aspirations often go well beyond the idea of parity.
KOSTA: Right. Yeah, it’s a really fair point. And it’s easy to overlook sometimes. This came from a conversation that we had last week around just having a seat at the table versus building your own table, and what that would look like.
Your founding of IndigenousX is an example of that, where you built your own table, or you and your colleagues built your own table. What’s compelling about this idea of building your own table, so to speak? Or why do you think it is necessary or desirable to have that option?
LUKE: I always liked that people are out there challenging the status quo. I like to think I have my moments of doing that and challenging conventional thought. But you hear other people out there — and unfortunately I don’t have the person in mind, I know this is someone from black fella Twitter. But they were even talking about that idea of it’s like, “In that traditional mindset of thinking, we didn’t have the… The conceptual table would be more about actually just sitting on country and doing our own thing, because…”
KOSTA: Right, sure.
LUKE: And the analogy they were drawing was: “If we’re just making a table that’s the same as their table, then that’s not necessarily any better either. That’s still an assimilationist model, but at least we’re controlling our own version of it, which still might still be better than having a seat at that table.”
And so yeah, it’s always layers deep. But —
KOSTA: Yeah, that’s a really deep abstraction, but it actually makes a ton of sense.
LUKE: It was one of those moments of, “Oh, that’s clever. That’s right.” And that’s something that, as I build IndigenousX and the team grows and we start to bring on employees, people who… One of my employees is also a fella who was best man at my wedding, and vice versa.
So I was managing the social and the cultural relationships in a Western employment hierarchy where it’s like now I’m his boss, he’s my employee. We don’t engage like that or interact like that, but it’s weird to think… Even though I don’t want to blur the friendship or lose the friendship in that dynamic, at the same time, I do now have added responsibilities of care to him and a duty of care to him that is new to our 20-year-plus friendship, and a very close friendship.
So where we have to go, we’ve got to follow the structure either for… I’ve got to pay taxes or they won’t let me keep doing what I’m doing, or I’ve got to provide responsibilities because… Not just legally because someone might be my employee, but also because there is a part of that duty of care of things they shouldn’t have to think about, that I should think about as the person who runs IndigenousX and is ultimately responsible for it.
You have so much of that then, and navigating between the healthiest ideal version of what that looks like versus a Western way of thinking about something that is usually a very unhealthy hierarchy thinking of like, “I’m the boss.” That shit is toxic, and I never want to be that fella.
KOSTA: Yeah. “Power over” relationships, as opposed to “in solidarity with” or “power with” kind of…
LUKE: Yeah, empowering my employees. When I’m talking about Indigenous empowerment, I want to be the sort of employer who, if I’m going to say, “Come and work with me rather than sit at that other fella’s…” For non-Indigenous organizations or mainstream or government or public service or whatever it is.
It’s like, “No, come sit at this IndigenousX table that I’m carving out, and I’m still working out what it means.” It’s got to be a safe one. It’s got to be strong enough to support them. It’s got to empower them through the act of…
So a big part in the early days was, “Well, at least you won’t have a white boss who’s going to cause shit. At least you won’t have to deal with all of that nonsense.”
KOSTA: Right, yeah. Sure.
LUKE: And that is a very appealing aspect for a lot of people. But at the same time, is that enough? Is that? Just the absence of having to deal with the colony, that shouldn’t… That’s a very important part of having an Indigenous-run, Indigenous-led organization, but that can’t be all that it is, surely. That’s just the absence of the trauma of the colony. Sadly, we still have clients, we still have to… It’s not a complete absence, but you know what I mean.
KOSTA: I know what you mean.
LUKE: It’s our own space. But it’s got to be more.
KOSTA: It’s an absence of an oppressive system in some ways.
LUKE: Yeah, yeah. Of directly feeling like you’re a part of that and beholden to that. But then it’s still… So I was like, “So what is the difference between, what are the strengths of an Indigenous organization as opposed to the absence of the failings of a non-Indigenous organization?
KOSTA: Got it.
LUKE: For the first year or so, it was just James and I. We were just able to navigate that dynamic amongst ourselves, and we would have these conversations. But as an organization gets bigger, it gets harder. Like I said, we’re only four people. We’ve got a fifth part-time now.
So it’s very manageable, but it’s something that I’ve started to think about. It’s like, “Well, if we keep growing, then soon we’ll be 20 people. And I’m not just going to be able to hang out and give everyone a ring and go, ‘Hey, how are you going?’” I’m not going to know as intimately where they’re at with their lives. And so what are the governance structures of the organization beyond just the human dynamic of me being me and trying to look after people?
So if someone’s like, “I’ve got to pick my kids up,” or “I’ve got trouble with family,” I’m like, “Go do it what you do. You’ve got to take…” Your mum’s sick, go and look after Mum. Your kids are sick, have the day off. It’s like, we can do that easily.
But eventually, if you succeed, then you get to a point where you’re too big to do that intimately. So you’ve got to have systems in place. And that’s a real new challenge for me — what does it look like as an institutional structure, not just as a series of human relationships?
KOSTA: Yeah. It’s interesting, Luke, because you just made me reflect on what the purpose of growth actually is. And I guess the question I would ask you is, are there any other reasons, other than… What are the reasons beyond growth for going from, say, 4 to 20, for example? Is it more that you get to do more in that capacity, or is it…?
I think, if anything, what I’m trying to get out here is that looking at things through an Indigenous empowerment lens also gives us permission to query or question what the purpose of something like growth actually is. Are we just growing for the sake of growing, because it’s a system that demands an increased capacity of us?
KOSTA: Or are we growing because we actually want to build a bigger network of people to be involved and to create a bigger platform in line with IndigenousX, like other Indigenous voices to reach prominence and mass appeal?
LUKE: Yeah. I think, for me, there are so many answers to that question when I’m thinking from where I sit right at this moment. Like I said, with things going on in my own personal life that have taken me away from the business this year…
Again, this is our fourth recording, so I don’t know if I even alluded to it earlier or not. But for those people who follow me and interact online or know me personally, they’ll know it’s been a challenging year for me and the family, and still is right at this moment. That’s taken me away from the business a lot.
And when you’re doing so much with such a small team… We’re running the media, we’re running the consultancy, we’re running the training. Rhianna Patrick has come onboard, leading us into podcasting.
LUKE: And so it can be really challenging to kick all the goals we’re kicking. We really do punch above our weight. So part of the reason to grow is, we could do with more hands on deck. It’s just really simple. But being split between the different areas of the business and wanting to create new media and more media.
Also mindful that I’m not getting any younger, man. There’s a whole generation of kids out there doing really cool TikTok stuff and other stuff. And they’re having new conversations. Or adaptations, perhaps, of what every generation has is there coming through, but their iteration of that, their growth of that, their expression of that. And I want to be able to bring that on. I want to be able to connect.
And the way the platform opened up to what was at the time black fella Twitter, when IndigenousX was new 10 years ago. I want to be able to support other mob coming through and doing that.
But really, I just back us, man. I believe in what we do. I believe we do what we do better than what a lot of the mainstream equivalents. And a lot of mob who are just so talented and so amazing who aren’t in environments where they thrive… You know what I mean? I want to create that environment.
And that’s a big part of it, is my own healing and my own trauma. Like I said, I wanted to be a primary teacher, man. You do a primary teaching degree to be a teacher. I wanted to —
KOSTA: It’s quite linear, yeah.
LUKE: It is. It really is. You might go be a principal one day or whatever, but I didn’t spend four years at uni to only stay in the job for three.
LUKE: I was very lucky that in falling out of teaching, I landed very firmly on my feet, and this amazing life has unfolded in the 15 years since.
But when people are like, “IndigenousX is a success,” it’s like, “Yeah, it’s a success because I’m a failed teacher.”
And so many mob I know who are —
KOSTA: I think so many people can relate to that.
LUKE: Yeah. And it’s that idea, again, of assimilation. It’s the idea of empowerment, of “We want mob to change themselves to be the square peg that fits the square hole.” So many institutions, more and more now, are starting to at least acknowledge — I don’t think they know how to do it, but they’re starting to acknowledge — “No, actually we need to change shape to support people as they are, and to empower people to do what they’re good at.” But bureaucracy’s not great at that. Institutions, by their nature, aren’t great at that.
LUKE: There’s something about IndigenousX, and the philosophies we have, and how we operate where it’s like, “Man, as long as we’re still making enough money that we can all pay our bills and we can all earn a wage, let’s go and do something.” And if someone’s like, “I want to try something new,” cool, let’s try that. And that’s where you just want to keep in front enough that you can make a few mistakes without bankrupting the whole business every time you stuff up.
For the first year or two, James and I did not have a lot of room for error. But we’ve been really lucky in getting some support and some funding. The education work that we’re doing, that’s in partnership with the AECG, the Aboriginal Educational Consultative Group. They’re meeting us halfway there. We’re moving into podcasting. We’ve been supported in that. And that gives us a bit of freedom and a bit of flexibility to say, “We’re not going to crash the ship every time we try something new.”
I want to grow because I believe in the power of awesome mob doing awesome work, and it pains me to see so many people out there who just carry the weight of that trauma and are still existing in it. If I could just employ everyone to come and be awesome, then I’d do it in a heartbeat. I would grow just to be that safe haven, that place.
And then in terms of when I’m talking about how… I have faith that that challenge that I think about a lot, of “Geez, what does that governance system look like when we’re 20 strong, when we’re 200 strong, if that is where the future goes?”, I have faith that we’ll achieve that. There’ll be bumps along the way, but keeping humble, listening to other mob, bringing in people…
There are people who have that expertise in Indigenous governance. And so like I said, when it’s two or three people, you think loosely about it, but it really is just me and you. If we can work it out together, then we’re good, and that’s what the governance is. But as you get bigger, you need more than that. You need policies in place, you need practices, you need organizational structure that underpins. And not just in a Western bureaucratic sense, but like any successful group has a structure. There are rules that are beyond the individuals negotiating day-to-day every issue.
KOSTA: And I guess what you’re saying is that that structure doesn’t necessarily have to look one way. It has to just serve the purposes of the people, the parts that comprise it, and enable people’s ability to thrive in that environment, right?
LUKE: That’s right. And so you provide structure in a way that is uplifting and not oppressive. Because so much of the bureaucratic structures, for anyone who’s been in a public service way, is like, “What I’m doing, I don’t believe in and I don’t think will produce an outcome, but I have to do it because that’s what the rule is.”
So much of bureaucracy is someone just going, “Look, I’m sorry. I agree this makes no sense, but here’s the policy.”
KOSTA: Yeah. Of course.
LUKE: But that sort of empowerment, which is the removal of oppressive structures and systems, that is empowering in a way that isn’t that… It’s very different from when we talk about self-determination principles. But not having a foot on your throat feels pretty bloody nice. You know what I mean?
KOSTA: Yes, sure.
LUKE: If that’s where you’re at, then not having that is very empowering.
KOSTA: Yeah, it’s like, there’s a difference between the absence of pain and the presence of something more nourishing, you know?
LUKE: That’s right. But for how Australia operates, that’s an important part of the conversation. We can’t ignore that reality. But I think people dismiss Indigenous aspirations and go, “They don’t care about a treaty or constitution or whatever. They’re just looking for housing and a job.” And it’s like, “Of course they are.”
But that’s not to say that they’re not also interested in those other things. That’s to minimize. And again, it’s to prioritize that assimilationist model of, “If everyone’s got a house, everyone’s got a job, every kid’s going to school, then there’s nothing else to discuss.”
LUKE: And so it’s weaponized against people to make Indigenous academics or Indigenous thinkers or activists feel like they’re removed from the realities of poverty and oppression, which is very much not the case for so many mob who are working on the ground at the edge of those spaces.
But it’s really, “Oh, they’re this lefty inner-city academic. They don’t know the real plight of Aboriginal people.” That’s bullshit. That is just an absolute weaponized spin tactic.
KOSTA: That’s a bit of a cop-out.
LUKE: Yeah. It’s really just that thing of, they’re like, “They’re not doing bugger all.”
The people who scream the loudest about, “There are Aboriginal people homeless and starving”, they’re usually the people who could actually fricking do something about it and do not.
They only ever bring it up to shut down higher conversations about treaty, about self-determination, about our rights as Indigenous people.
KOSTA: That’s interesting as well, because another thing I kind of…
In preparation for our discussion today, there was just this idea about how a lot of the discussion around this is either characterized by a bit of a nebulous nature around it. I mean like, “Okay, what does empowerment mean?” But also that introducing something like the Voice to Parliament introduces an aspect of division. People hit back at this division within Indigenous communities as a way to stifle that progress.
And, like you said, I think earlier, not everyone necessarily is asking for that. But the presence of a conflict is actually used to undermine progress and genuine empowerment in this space.
LUKE: And that’s… Oh sorry.
KOSTA: Sorry, Luke, you go.
LUKE: I was going to say, the only reason that works, man, is that people are able to exploit this odd stereotype where there’s this homogenous sense of Indigeneity where we use any sense of division either to go, “Oh well, we can’t do anything for you people. You can’t agree. What’s the point of any… There’s no conversation to be had,” or “You’re less than.” You know what I mean?
LUKE: “Real Aboriginal people want this, and if you’re anywhere else, then you are trouble. You are a problem. You are angry. You are fake. You are urban. You are…” Whatever way of taking away people’s identity or their right to their view. Show me the group that does have universal consensus. What are we even talking about? That’s not a thing that exists.
But we have this division within our government, within our society. But we have structures in place that navigate those and that come to decisions even though we know not everyone will agree with it. And within a representative democracy model, there are plenty of decisions that are official government democratic decisions where the vast majority of people disagree with it. But we got there through a democratic process. And so even if that process might be flawed, there’s a system.
LUKE: Whereas we’re denied the infrastructure. And that’s one of the rights, when I’m talking about Indigenous empowerment, is how do we get those systems?
Hopefully incorporating traditional governance and decision-making principles, so [there is] our self-determination right to determine our own systems for how to make those decisions, how to have those debates, how to have those discussions. So that we can have representative leaders, cultural authorities, however each individual community or group or area or whatever it looks like gets to say, “These are the people who are going to represent us at this table, at this Indigenous table.” To then go over to Parliament — whether that’s seats in Parliament, whether that’s Voice to Parliament, whether that’s treaty rights.
Whatever it is, we need that infrastructure. We need that system.
And of course, like I said, there’s no universal consensus. And when I say not everyone, yeah, that’s what I mean. When I say not everyone wants a Voice to Parliament, that’s not a knock to Voice to Parliament. That’s a reality for any system.
For me, I’ve always been pretty open to any system as long as I believe that that structure is legitimate and sincere, and has a real chance of being done the right way and hopefully achieving the outcomes.
So I was very anti the first run of constitutional recognition through Recognize, because of the way the campaign was run. At the time, that was when Abbott was Prime Minister, and you could hear the way he talked about it. He never wanted anything sincere. He was only ever gunning for a preamble.
LUKE: Like a tokenistic, symbolic, do-nothing change to the constitution. So I was against it on those grounds, not on the grounds of it being a constitutional change or the grounds of it being whatever. And similarly with the treaty — I’m a supporter of the idea of treaty, but I want to read the fine print first. “Treaty” is just the heading on a blank bit of paper until you fill it in.
LUKE: You know what I mean? So there would be a treaty model. And if we were to enter into treaty negotiations with the current federal government, I would say very confidently that I’m probably not going to support it, because I have no faith in their ability to enter into good-faith negotiations, to honor the aspirations of Indigenous peoples and achieve what I would perceive as an agreement that you’re going to lock in your next generation and the generation after and the generation after into.
I just couldn’t imagine any space for Indigenous empowerment to come through the current climate.
KOSTA: I guess what I’m sensing here, and I think this is a bit of a recurring theme, is this idea of trust. Or maybe even mistrust, you know? And that goes for how traditional models of empowerment seem to be more in that sort of…
It’s still quite paternalistic, I guess, is the sense that I’m getting in terms of how it’s conceived. If it’s a government-supported thing, there’s that tension between a welfare system and giving over too much power, or that’s that narrative that persists there anyway.
KOSTA: And then conversely, any oppositions to that sort of support come from deeply rooted historical evidence of government not necessarily doing right by Indigenous peoples, right?
LUKE: Oh yeah. And for me, it’s a fundamental distinction in the belief of, what is the problem and what is the solution?
LUKE: And so historically, it was talked about very overtly in the language of the Aboriginal problem, the half-caste problem, the Aboriginal whatever. And largely, that problem, while it might manifest itself in different ways, has been that we exist, that we are in the way of the colony.
When it was openly talked about, like the half-caste problem in the ’30s which led to so much of that language in the policy of the soul and generations, the problem was that… And you can see there was this big national conference of Chief Protectors in 1937, I think it was, where they’re talking about it.
It’s like, “In a few years, the half-caste population is going to match the white population. This is a problem. Are we going to have a million Aboriginal people running around?” I’m sure they used a worse term than Aboriginal people, but I can’t remember exactly what it was.
KOSTA: Yeah, sure.
LUKE: But, “Are we going to have a million of them running around the Commonwealth? Or are we going to erase them and absorb them?” So very much, the problem was that we exist and that we weren’t disappearing like they hoped we would.
LUKE: And I think there’s still a lot of people in government where that really is the problem, that we’re a distinct entity, that we’re here. And so that’s where they can still only see the ultimate outcome, “the ultimate destiny”, to use the language of the ’37 convention. “The destiny of the Aboriginal people is to be absorbed through assimilation.” And so now it’s like, “Oh, you can keep your dances and you can keep your whatever. You can keep your flag and your dances and do your thing, but assimilate. So live exactly like we do, but maybe…”
That’s always been Australia’s attitude to multiculturalism. It’s like, “It’s okay if you bring in ethnic food to lunch, but that’s as much of your culture as we want to know about.”
KOSTA: So it’s very sanitized.
KOSTA: Yeah. And again, it flattens the genuine diversity that exists between different people living together in any space, right?
LUKE: Yeah. And so that’s what I mean, like any negotiation… And that’s why the government, like when you talk about a Voice to Parliament, or treaty, or seats to Parliament, they’re like, “We don’t understand what you’re talking about.” John Howard, Tony Abbott and all them, it’s like, “A country can’t make a treaty with itself. A Voice? Well, that would be a third chamber to Parliament. We’re all Australian.”
LUKE: And I don’t necessarily believe them. I don’t necessarily mean that they can’t imagine… But they actively choose to ignore the idea that Indigenous peoples are a sovereign peoples with unique and innate rights.
So that’s when people go, “You just want something free. You want special handouts. You want special treatment.” It’s like, “The status of Indigenous peoples is special, and should be treated as special, and brings with it certain rights as well.”
KOSTA: That’s what I wanted to ask you, actually, around the status of Indigenous people. Do you think any sort of genuine support for genuinely Indigenous empowerment–focused programming or policy is an admission of the past, in some ways, that might be a bit unpalatable for government or anything like that?
LUKE: In terms of acknowledgement of the past, I think you’ll sometimes get that through compensation for stolen generations, or something like that, or stolen wages. There’s an understanding through civil law, you’re entitled to compensation for mistreatment.
LUKE: There’s some understanding of that, but they don’t think it goes very far. So it’s certainly not for Indigenous peoples’ loss of land and culture. There have been increasing legal challenges and some successes around that. But in terms of the broader rhetoric at a federal government level, the conversation that Australia is invited into…
There are very clever people doing very clever things that most of us never bloody hear about or don’t understand. And when we do, in terms of when the Prime Minister’s up on whatever 7.30 report or whatever shows, Ray Hadley, whatever the hell, he’s not going to talk about, “Yeah, Aboriginal people, this was their land and we took it by force, and we did dirty for a very long time.”
Not just compensation for wrongs done, but acknowledgement of Indigenous rights and sovereignty outside of what was done wrong — that’s just not a conversation that people want to have or the government is open to.
That’s when I say, I don’t have any good faith in any real outcome through that sort of process. And underlying that, that white supremacy, that black inferiority, there is still that very white dominant thinking that says, “The rightful place of Aboriginal people is one that is far below that of your average white person.”
LUKE: And so the idea that not only could we just close the gap to equality, that we could actually create Indigenous-led, Indigenous-run spaces, where maybe we’ll exceed and excel beyond. Maybe the Indigenous collective within the country will actually be very prominent, very powerful, economically independent. So that is just a disastrous —
KOSTA: Quite frightening for some, isn’t it?
LUKE: Oh, it’s just horrible. And that’s where it’s all, “Oh, you just want it all for free, and then you’ll just burn it all down anyway, because you’re all bloody useless and you can’t be trusted to run your own affairs.”
This infantilizing, this demonizing, this dehumanizing is so intimately tied to that history of that racialized hierarchy — white people are at the top, and you can list every other race somewhere down the list…
…in terms of their different and varying abilities that are all invariably less than those of white people. That thinking, then, is not so far in our past that it does not still… There is still such a real fear of…
LUKE: And it comes up on the news every so often, the idea that at some point in the future white people won’t be the majority. That’s still a story that the media love to run every so often. And like I said, that was the literal language of the 1937 Convention of Chief Protectors around the half-caste problem.
LUKE: “They’re going to have a population the size of ours, and potentially one that exceeds it. That is in and of itself the problem.”
KOSTA: Yeah, and it’s just like… Not that you’d ever want someone to say this publicly, particularly from a news anchor perspective where they have a lot of reach, but I am just like, “Why don’t you just say what the real fear is there?” If people are talking about, “There’s going to be seismic shifts in population makeup,” so what? If people are opting into having interracial relationships or intercultural relationships, which then result in people swapping cultural DNA, so to speak, and very real DNA, so what? What’s the real fear here?
LUKE: That’s the crux.
KOSTA: I get that sense of that anxiety in the Indigenous empowerment conversation, where all the Indigenous scholarship that I’ve read in the brief research that I’ve done, it’s linked…
This idea of Indigenous empowerment has been linked to so many different positive outcomes for Indigenous people in Australia, whether it’s reduction of suicide rates, reduction of over-representation in incarceration, increased representation in leadership and employment, and all these sorts of things.
I guess, as we start to look towards the future from here on in, Luke, where’s the starting point? For people that genuinely want to support Indigenous empowerment, or for Indigenous people themselves to really embrace that outlook. Just from your experience, obviously it’s going to be different for everyone, but can you see any clear starting points or some clear obstacles that we can remove?
LUKE: There’s no shortage of obstacles. Just to address that point, because I think it’s really important to acknowledge — when we’re talking about the starting point, it has long started, man. Communities are doing and navigating and fighting and surviving in so many different ways.
KOSTA: Sure. Yeah, fair point.
LUKE: One of the things that came up in the training yesterday that I really struggled with — and it hit me in a sore spot, as they do sometimes when you’re doing that work — was someone saying, “How do we take this from the theoretical to the practical?” And it’s like, when I’m talking about racism and anti-racism, this isn’t theoretical.
KOSTA: This is real life.
LUKE: For me, this is my all day, every day. This keeps me up at night, worried about my children, my wife, my friends, my community. This is what’s killing people. This is not an abstract idea of the manifestation of white supremacy. This is real.
And similarly, that construction within white supremacy invariably leads to that creation of black inferiority.
And then that becomes, “We’re this pitiful thing. We’re this charitable thing. We need help. How can people help?” So much of what we’re talking about is not, how can people help, in that way?
KOSTA: Yes, in that traditional way. Yeah.
LUKE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Mob are out there doing this work and are on the front lines doing it. Bringing yourself up to speed on who’s doing what, where, that interests you. But also, even that is a charitable mindset, of the fact that you have the ease of picking “What are the ones I like?” and working on those.
KOSTA: Yeah. Sure.
LUKE: But the reality for most people, man, is that’s what they’re going to do. So I accept that as a starting point.
LUKE: But if you are going to get involved meaningfully, then you’ve got to find ways that you’re useful. And this is something that people who are trying to empower different groups, and meet the needs of different groups, and reach out to the community at large…
I was listening to a podcast recently (this was in the UK), and someone was talking about [how] they started a charity for sanitary products for women, and it’s grown beyond that. All the time, someone will send in half a bottle of shampoo or something like that. It’s like, “We don’t want your used half-bottle of shampoo, man. That’s not respecting the dignity of these people.”
But when you have that charity mindset, it’s like, “Oh, you should be thankful with my crumbs. You should be thankful for my throwaways.” Or, “Anything I give you, you should be grateful for.” If you’re coming in with that mindset, you’re probably going to get in the way. And you’re going to be very surprised when you’re like, “Oh, aren’t you uppity? You didn’t accept my half-eaten sandwich. You can’t be that hungry then.” It’s like, “That’s not what we’re doing. That’s not what we’re talking about.”
Being humble and finding ways to be useful, and actually helping to meet people’s needs and to empower people in a way that is the way they’re asking for, that respects their dignity, that meets their needs and their ambitions and aspirations — that can be very challenging if you’re coming from that traditional white man’s burden, white savior model, where so much of the white man’s burden and the white savior is like, “We’re going to do it in spite of yourself.”
KOSTA: Yeah, right.
LUKE: “So even though you don’t like it, this is for your own good.” And that shit’s got to end, man. We’ve got to get rid of it.
KOSTA: That’s how we see the Northern Territory intervention —
LUKE: The whole foundational premise of the intervention is tough love, big stick, punitive approaches.
KOSTA: It’s funny how people talk about tough love, because my understanding of tough love has always been it’s actually tough on both people involved, not just on a top-down approach where it’s tough on the person being subjected to something unfavorable.
KOSTA: So when people use tough love as a way to be quite paternalistic and seize the power available in a particular relationship, I’m like, “That’s not tough love. That’s abuse.”
LUKE: Whereas when that’s a top-down policy initiative by someone who doesn’t know these people, doesn’t care about these people, doesn’t respect the dignity and humanity of these people, then it’s by its very nature…
But it comes back so much to that fundamental thing of, what is the problem? I’ve said it before when we were talking about the idea of the Aboriginal problem. It’s like, “Of course there are problems affecting Aboriginal people. But what is the problem?”
I come from a perspective that says the problem is wrapped up in the idea that our sovereignty is not being recognized and respected, our dignity has not been recognized and respected. We have not been allowed the opportunity to carve out our own pathways.
Whereas so much of government policy is, “We are the problem. The problem is Aboriginal people. We are inferior. We need civilizing. We need tough love. We aren’t capable and we need to be beaten and bashed and dragged into…”
That is a very different starting point.
KOSTA: Yeah, it is.
LUKE: Because your understanding of the problem invariably leads to your understanding of the solution. And so that’s where, when people go like, “What are you talking about sovereignty or constitution or treaty when people are going hungry?” It’s like, “Man, I don’t see those as disconnected issues.”
It’s really like that’s the fundamental problem.
LUKE: And certainly —
KOSTA: One is entirely symptomatic of the other.
LUKE: Yes. And that’s for long-term solutions around it… And it’s so frustrating, the government or people within conservative spaces or media — and not even conservative, a lot of left-leaning people even, “Oh, you can’t just throw money at the problem. That’s clearly…” — they’re so ingrained in that space that you just feel like you’re having a conversation a million miles away.
And that’s where, even for me and my journey, I’ve had to stop at different points and go, “Who am I giving more energy to?” You know what I mean? Because I spent a lot of my 20s particularly working with young Indigenous men particularly, but as I grew out, just anyone. And not just young people, just working with mob and talking to mob and developing these ideas. And then you develop this public presence. I was that sort of fella who was like, if you asked for my time, I gave it. You know what I mean? That was me. That was always what I’d do.
So even there was someone like, “Can I have a coffee to pick your brains?” and then you see they’ve just completely stolen your IP to do something. I would still go back for the next coffee for someone else to pick my brains, because I just want to —
KOSTA: Yeah, sure.
LUKE: I don’t know. I didn’t understand, I think. Again, coming from teaching and not being a political player or understanding grant-writing spaces or consultancy spaces, or whatever… But in the last number of years — and I’ve course-corrected a lot in my life now — but it was like, “God, man, I’m giving so much of my time to white people in the hopes that they’ll understand, and I’m giving much less time back to mob. That it’s just like, is that what I…?”
Because again, it wasn’t a conscious choice of putting my energies there. It was just responding to what came, and just allowing myself to be caught up in whoever was asking for my time, without really thinking about my time as a precious thing.
LUKE: Which I think really, it wasn’t until I had kids and had a partner, such a strong relationship, where I was like, “No, actually, I need to think about where I put my time and how I put my time.”
KOSTA: Yeah, it’s a precious thing. Time and space is a really precious commodity, you know?
LUKE: Yeah, it is.
KOSTA: I guess, as you were just talking about this deeper story of the Aboriginal problem, I can see why IndigenousX sprung up as a way to have this pass-the-mic approach to Indigenous representation in media. Because the story that is enshrined in our own national identity is very difficult. That’s an entirely different starting point. So you’ve got the Indigenous empowerment approach, which is butting up against a broader narrative of inferiority and misrepresentation of what the state of play is with Indigenous people around the country, right?
So just from that, reframing this problem then of how do we change people’s attachment to this old story? Do you have any thoughts? In addition to everything you’re doing with IndigenousX, do you have any thoughts on how we can engage with that story or encourage people to engage with a new story?
LUKE: It’s interesting. There’s so much where… And that’s why I write. A lot of what I write is a two-pronged thought. I mean like all writers, sometimes I write because something’s pissed me off and I need to get it down.
KOSTA: Yeah, I can relate.
LUKE: Or I’ve been thinking about something, and it’s taking up too much of my metal space. I find writing it down useful. But when I’m doing thoughtful writing of “what do I want to put out into the public sphere?”, I want to give language to mob particularly who know the ideas but don’t necessarily have the articulation of those ideas.
Because I find that’s my favorite kind of writing when it’s like, “You’re putting words to something that I intimately know and live and understand.”
KOSTA: You’re democratizing knowledge, Luke.
LUKE: But yeah, it’s also for a lot of non-Indigenous, particularly white readers to go, “Now stop annoying random black fellas asking for this. Here it is. Go read it.” And then also saving time from other mob. When someone asks them, you go, “Just go read Luke’s article.”
LUKE: So that’s a big part of what I want to put out there. So in terms of how do we shake people out of that mindset…?
For me, I don’t want to give all my time to white people anymore. I don’t want to do that work anymore. Now when we do, like I’ll do the anti-racism thread, that’s paid work.
Which I am doing in the hopes that it helps people better understand racism and be less racist, but also in real terms, I’m doing it so that I can keep employing mob and that we can have a business model that works. Do you know what I mean?
LUKE: It’s not a completely altruistic, “I’m here to help white people” activity. I certainly ain’t doing it for free. Because like I said, that shit is tiring, and it takes a lot to keep going back into it and doing it.
So it’s something that, while it is one of the biggest obstacles to Indigenous empowerment, when I’ve got to choose, I would rather give my time back to mob and work with mob, with my kids, with my partner, with people working for IndigenousX or people who are engaging with IndigenousX. I would rather give my time and energy there than necessarily worry about that.
But one thing I do find really interesting is when people say, “I want to know you,” and, “Please teach me. I want to know.” So many white people, and again that romanticized construction of culture, what they want is a wise elder who’ll take them bush and who’ll give them a skin name and who’ll impart bits of cultural knowledge that will enlighten them through ancient wisdoms. It’s all of that stuff.
So when I say, “You want to know? Well, go read.” They go, “I don’t want to read a book.”
LUKE: It’s like, “Well, man, that’s so disrespectful to the person who took the time to write the book.” It’s not bloody easy even to write the article, to write the book, to write the whatever.
But it’s like, when you’ve culturally and collectively really beat us over the head with the importance of writing and how bad oral history is, you certainly don’t seem to like writing anymore when it’s from Aboriginal people. Because you don’t want the knowledge, you want the emotional experience.
You want the validation. You want the wise old elder to pat you on the head and say, “It’s okay. You’re one of the good white people.”
KOSTA: You’re one of the good ones.
LUKE: It’s frustrating for me. Because it’s like, when people say, “What should I do?” It’s like, “Oh man, I’m struggling to keep up with the breadth of the written work.” Even just before this, I was picking up Charles Perkins’ biography that I haven’t flicked through in years, A Bastard Like Me. It was written in 1975. And there’s just something…
I’m really, really trying hard, since the stuff with family and trying to re-engage with mindfulness practices and trying to slow down and make sure I just look after myself a bit better spiritually, mentally, physically than I probably have been over the last couple of years, putting so much into trying to grow IndigenousX and support it.
So just taking the time to read that book, though, and to hear in my own mind’s voice, Dr. Perkins’ voice and his story — there’s so much that you get from that. I don’t have the time. No one has the time to impart upon you millions of pages, decades of thought, representing centuries of thought, representing hundreds of different cultures, millions of different individual experiences. You’ve got to put in the work.
And again, it shows the respect for Indigenous knowledge. If I was to come to you and it’s like, “Oh man, you’re a surgeon. I really want to be a surgeon.” “Well, okay. You’ve got to go to uni and you’ve got to read.” “Oh, no, I thought you could just take me out the back and show me a thing or two. I was hoping we could knock this over in an afternoon.”
A lot of people will just keep going until they find someone who’s like, “Yeah, I’ll give you that.” And then they’re content, because what they wanted was their… Not even their empowerment. They wanted, like I said, their emotional experience.
They’re not interested in Indigenous empowerment. They’re interested in their white savior status.
KOSTA: Indigenous validation.
LUKE: There’s always someone who’ll give you that. I don’t even begrudge those people necessarily who do, especially when it’s people who are like, “We’ve got to survive in this colony too.”
KOSTA: Yeah. I was going to say, there must be some self-preservation.
LUKE: Some of that validation is very dodgy people doing very dodgy shit in very dodgy ways, who have no connection to cultural community or whatever. And I have less time for those people.
KOSTA: Yeah, sure.
LUKE: I’ve known old fellas who have remarkable knowledge who still engage in that tourism space to a degree, because that’s where there’s more economic opportunity unfortunately for a lot of people.
Again, we don’t have that infrastructure and those spaces for those people to be recognized. We pay our great white thinkers after we put them through the PhD process. They can go and philosophize, and they can go and research. Where is that infrastructure and the systems for that Indigenous knowledge holder to draw a solid wage to pursue and to teach that?
LUKE: Increasingly, there are limited opportunities for that, but often it’s got to be marketed through “We don’t respect the institution.” Again, that’s why like I said, one of the things I used to talk about off the back of being a young Indigenous leader, and then suddenly you get too old to be that any more. An article I think I read, probably at NITV, was like, “I used to be a young Indigenous leader, and now I’m just some guy.”
KOSTA: Some guy? [laughs]
LUKE: But it’s like, we have in that environment, there’s an Indigenous youth parliament. There’s not an Indigenous parliament. That to me is so symptomatic and so problematic.
And it’s not the problem of the people who run the youth parliament. I think it’s a great thing for kids to do.
But it’s a snapshot of how painful and problematic these spaces are, that when we talk about, “We want our own systems,” then you’re either aggressive, divisive or unrealistic. We’re all Australian. We’re all…
KOSTA: The goalposts keep shifting, it feels like, you know?
LUKE: Yeah. The goalposts don’t exist in any way other than to corral people down into…
LUKE: Rather than goalposts that are like, “Here there are”, they’re more like herding some sheep.
KOSTA: They’re more like bollards.
LUKE: They’ll come and they’ll nip at your heels and they’ll jump around like a bloody cattle prod, and they’re everywhere all at once pushing you ever into that same space. Because yeah, they don’t…
As I was saying, the beliefs that are used against us and that are weaponized against us, I don’t often know if anyone sincerely believes them. When people go like, “Well, why should I say sorry? I wasn’t here 200 years ago. I didn’t do it.” And it’s like, “Do you think that I think you’re responsible for what happened 200 [years]? Do you think that I think you’re a time traveler? What do you think I think?” You know what I mean?
When you say “Stop blaming me for what happened”, it’s like, “I don’t blame you for what happened before you were born, man.” That’s not a logical thing, and you should know I don’t think that because it’s so illogical.
You should stop and go, “Well, obviously no one thinks that, because that’s not a thing that you can believe. So what do people mean when we say you should be responsible, when you do have a responsibility, when you do have a role to play? What is it that people mean? What do they actually think?”
And we’re not even given the dignity, the time of day, that people engage enough with Indigenous thought and argument and debate and aspirations to get past these ludicrous, illogical things that are spat at them from bad-faith actors, be it in media or government.
KOSTA: Yeah. That was going to be my comment there, which was just where are they getting those stories from, about that? That is apparently what any Indigenous person thinks, you know? That speaks to a broader media ecosystem I think that might be —
LUKE: Yeah. A political… Well, a capitalist infrastructure that has arms, is what I would say.
KOSTA: Yeah, right.
LUKE: After Mabo, and when they were trying to water down native titling, there were those big ads and media talking about it and speeches. It was like mining, media, and politics all coming together to say Aboriginal people are going to claim your backyard.
That whole concept of Aboriginal people claiming your backyard, which most people still have heard of or know of, or it resonates somewhere. Even if you weren’t old enough at the time, you’re aware of that concept. And it was a very concerted media campaign, political campaign to demonize Aboriginal aspirations and the realities of what native title represented.
No one was ever able to claim your backyard. That was never a thing.
KOSTA: That was never a… Yeah.
LUKE: That was never on the cards. But to protect those commercial interests, the arms of capitalism and white supremacy came to the fore to work together to ensure that people were terrified and had that animosity of, “I’m coming to get you. Aboriginal people are coming for you. They’re a threat to you.”
So much of the colony has been built on that two-pronged, “Aboriginal people are this pitiful, inferior thing. But they’re also really scary and dangerous.” And if you give them a chance, they will take everything from you. And you can’t trust them because they just want to make you feel guilty, and they’re just stuck in the past, and they’re just wanting a free handout, and they’re just… whatever.” All of these things.
A lot of the stereotypes against us contradict themselves and can’t exist in the same space at the same time. But they’re happy to, because the people telling those lies, knowing that they’re lies, don’t give a f***.
Many of the racists are happy to have a justification for their hatred of Aboriginal people. A couple of generations ago, you could just say, “Yeah, I just hate Aboriginal people because everyone does, that’s fine.” Whereas now they’re like, “No, no, no. I’m not racist. I just don’t like that they do this.”
KOSTA: That’s one little caveat.
LUKE: We had a comment on Facebook the other day. I tweeted it. It was fricking hilarious. It was this fella who was like, “You’re the real racist. You Aboriginal people hate white people.”
KOSTA: Right, okay.
LUKE: So it was like, “Aboriginal people are the real racists. You just hate white people for any reason, and then you’ll call me a racist just because I don’t like Aboriginal people.” And I was like, “Yeah, I will. You just said you don’t like Aboriginal people.” You can’t just go, “I’m not racist, I just don’t like an entire race of people.” There’s so much of the appropriation of the language of the oppressed that was forced onto white people.
And Andrew Bolt — there’s a headline out at the moment. I just saw it on Twitter this morning. It’s like, “Not a good time to be a white man in Australia.” And I was like, “Yeah it is, Andrew, and you fricking know it is.” And it always is.
LUKE: That’s another thing we talk about in our anti-racism training at work. People are like, “What’s the solution to racism?” “Education, because it’s all founded on ignorance.” It’s like, no, man, it’s founded on power and control and economics, and the desire for land and free labor, and having a convenient political scapegoat that you can demonize.
That has always been the source of modern contemporary racism that’s founded around pro-whiteness, anti-blackness constructs. It was justifying slavery. It was justifying colonization, invasion, the stealing of land, the theft of human beings, the trading in human beings as a commodity. And doing that in a way that allowed white people to say, “But we’re good people.”
If you want to be a good human while you do horrible things to other humans, you invariably have to dehumanize those people and take their humanity away. It’s the only way you can keep the façade of your own.
And so that’s why so much hatred of Aboriginal people and animosity to Aboriginal people, that feeds into shit policies and practices and attitudes and understanding, is that expression of that. It’s dehumanizing.
And that’s where you have these people who are like, “Oh no, I’m a good white person. I just want to help.” To be able to have that attitude, to be able to look at the landscape today and think that’s what’s going on…
And then you hit so many people who have had this, and this was a fella who has access to my children through employment spaces, who’s going like, “A big part of the problem is Aboriginal people won’t accept the help. White people, we want to help. They just need to accept that help.” It’s like, “Man, we’ve had enough of your…”
LUKE: And I had to keep my calm —
KOSTA: Oh, far out.
LUKE: — for fear of the repercussions it would have on my kids. So I was very clear in my articulation of the idea, and that I was not fricking impressed with what he was saying. But I had to do my best to control my voice and modulate my tone in doing so.
KOSTA: Luke, I’m just conscious of the time, because we’re probably approaching the end. But I feel like we’re going to have to do a part two eventually, because there’s just so much that we could discuss. I always love talking to you. You’re always so generous and frank with your advice. I feel really honored that you are so open with me and give me your very precious time. So thank you.
LUKE: Really a pleasure.
KOSTA: You’ve given me a lot to think about. And I think for anyone listening in, I think if anything the challenge really here is, okay, Indigenous empowerment is a given, right? This is something that we should be supporting in whatever way that looks. Not necessarily in the support of handing out anything, but more like getting out of the way or just putting your money where your mouth is, so to speak.
LUKE: Or waiting behind, man. Like championing, understanding the issues so that… It’s like what we were talking about when someone says, “I’ll just support what Aboriginal people want,” and then they get confused because we don’t all agree with each other. It’s like, “No, have a dog in the fight.” Educate yourself. Read, learn, and if you support someone I disagree with, then we’ll debate about that.
KOSTA: Yeah, exactly.
LUKE: But work out what it is that you believe and find a way to do that, that again respects the dignity of Indigenous people.
KOSTA: Do the work to understand it and to commit —
LUKE: Yeah. I think having this chat today on the back of doing the trainings yesterday, I’m more airing some of my frustrations about white supremacy.
KOSTA: That’s cool, man.
LUKE: That’s part of the obstacle there. But when we’re talking about Indigenous empowerment, there is so much to the beauty of Indigenous people and culture and ways of being and doing. Like I said, I’m in that head space at the moment. So much of my energy as we got talking was about f****** white supremacy, man. I didn’t actually get to the other side of Indigenous empowerment.
Oh my god, what mob are capable of when given opportunities that are unencumbered from that white supremacy are some of the most amazing things that can be imagined.
Again, whether or not white people get to tap into that… I don’t want to say, “And it can be for everyone,” because I think that’s bullshit commodifying as well.
LUKE: Even if it’s just for us, you should still support it. But there are so many amazing people doing so many amazing things. And so I would love to come back to get some more time to bring some of their receipts and pay tribute.
KOSTA: We’ll make the time, Luke, because I think it’s worthwhile, and this is a very ambitious topic to cover in such a short amount of time. We can’t disentangle it from the circumstances that gave rise to the need to have this conversation. If anything, you’ve given anyone listening just a really amazing insight into… And a real genuine moment for pause. So I can’t thank you enough for that.
Just for anyone that wants to follow your work, do you want to do the quick plugs and where people can find you?
LUKE: Yeah. So the hosted account on Twitter: @IndigenousX. The business account where we pump out our articles and other things, that’s IndigenousXLTD, so limited. But yeah, IndigenousX on Instagram. IndigenousX.com.au.
I’m Luke Pearson, I’ve got my own… You’ll find me on Twitter as well. But yeah, man, sing out. Engage with what we’re putting out there. We work hard with what we do. We believe in what we do, and are always looking for new people who want to be a part of that community and who want to be a part of something that matters.
KOSTA: That’s awesome. Thank you so much, Luke.
KOSTA: You’ve been listening to Undesign, a series of conversations about the big issues that matter to all of us. Undesign is made possible by the wonderful team at DrawHistory. If you want to learn more about each guest or each topic, we have curated a suite of resources and reflections for you on our Undesign page at www.drawhistory.com.
Thank you to the talented Jimmie Linville for editing and mixing our audio. Special thank you to our guests for joining us and showing us how important we all are in redesigning our world’s futures. And last but not least, a huge thank you to you, our dear listeners, for joining us on this journey of discovery and hope. The future needs you.
Make sure you stay on the journey with us by subscribing to Undesign on Apple, Spotify, and wherever else podcasts are available.
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