People

Stereotypes & prejudice of ‘Aboriginal Australia’

Don’t believe everything you read about Aboriginal Australian people. We expose the common “good” stereotypes used in the tourist industry.

Selected statistics

93%
Percentage of Aboriginal Australians who think Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians are prejudiced against each other [20].
71%
Percentage of non-Aboriginal Australians who think the same [20].

What is a stereotype?

Before we discuss stereotypes we need to know what a stereotype is.

Definition: ‘Stereotype’

The Wikipedia defines a stereotype as [5]

  • a generalised perception of first impressions,
  • judging with the eyes/criticising ones outer appearance,
  • a conventional and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image,
  • forms of social consensus rather than individual judgements.

The word ‘stereotype’ comes from the Greek ‘stereo’ and ‘typos’ = ‘solid impression’.

Stereotypes surface when you are with a group of people and you hear them affirming that, for example, “all Aboriginals are lazy”. If you asked that person you would probably find out that they actually have never met an Aboriginal person which would have allowed them to reach an informed opinion.

Stereotypes are dangerous and can lead to prejudice and racism.

Stereotypes are incomplete and inaccurate beliefs that some people hold about groups of other people [7].

Example: Aboriginal Associate Professor Karen Martin teaches university students in Queensland. She found that of the 600 students in her classes, fewer than one third had ever had a conversation with an Aboriginal person. “And yet most had a strongly held opinion or belief about Aboriginal people—generally negative,” she says [18].

I once received an email asking for “information on this wonderful history” of Aboriginal people in Australia. Had the author known more about Aboriginal history they wouldn’t have used the word “wonderful”.

Check: Do you (just) hold stereotypes?

Many reduce their perception of Aboriginal people to either be disadvantaged or talented exceptions. Is the following all you do?

  • You celebrate individuals such as Rover Thomas, the Bangarra Dance Theatre or Cathy Freeman.
  • You admire dot paintings on lounge room walls.
  • You condemn endemic violence and out-of-sight Third World conditions.
  • You hope the Australian government will do something, anything, about it.
  • You ignore the drunks on the street and avoid walking the streets of Redfern.

Unfortunately a large portion of the majority – that is, white Australians – accept a certain level of prejudice. You can tell when you listen carefully:

  • “I don’t have a problem with [insert minority group], provided they come the right way / assimilate…”
  • “Aboriginal people need to get over the past and get on with things…”
  • “I don’t have a problem with racism, I just don’t like [insert minority group], that’s different…”
  • “Don’t be so politically correct, it’s all in good fun [usually said after racist remark]...”
  • “I’m not racist, my [insert friend, colleague etc] is [insert race reference]...”

Homework: How would you respond to statements like these?

Newspaper heading: 'The Aboriginal of Australia - More intelligent than supposed.' Newspaper heading in 1932. This article was published in South Australia’s The Advertiser [28] and shows the common stereotype of the time that Aboriginal people were thought to be less intelligent. The subheading reads: “More intelligent than supposed.” You will be surprised how many people still think this way today.

Stereotypes about Aboriginal Australians

Research has found “entrenched negative stereotypes” of Aboriginal people in Australia [19].

Stereotypes can take many forms and shapes. Some of the more common ones say that Aboriginal people… [4,6]

Indigenous people will still be able to carry on with activities like camping, fishing, hunting, conducting ceremonies, and traditional fire management. Stereotypical description of Aboriginal activities. This extract from a discussion of the Wild Rivers legislation [21] assumes Aboriginal people do not engage in activities such as economic development in the areas discussed.
  • are primitive and nomadic,
  • lack complex laws and social organisation,
  • are drunks,
  • are violent,
  • live in the outback,
  • are un-educated no hopers,
  • are involved in too much crime,
  • receive too much from welfare,
  • get more than the whites,
  • eat the wrong foods (white sugar, flour, McDonalds, etc.),
  • don’t have a religion, have sinned and need to pray for forgiveness,
  • don’t use the land they get for free,
  • get treated too leniently by police and courts,
  • do not want to work and are lazy,
  • must fit the image of a dark-skinned, wide-nosed person (i.e. a ‘full-blood’),
  • live a traditional tribal/ancient lifestyle,
  • are not really attached to their land because they live on the fringe of towns and cities,
  • are like leeches and drain away each others’ resources,
  • are problems (‘the Aboriginal problem’) and Aboriginal people have problems.

Besides individuals who readily believe those stereotypes, the media’s focus on negative Aboriginal issues creates much hurt when it presents the problems of individual Aboriginal people as problems of all Indigenous Australians.

The education system also contributes to stereotypes when students learn of the negative aspects of Aboriginal history rather than contemporary Aboriginal studies which can be very positive, especially with regard to sporting (such as Rugby League) and educational achievements.

Further, many Australians believe that ‘we are not responsible for the past’ and don’t owe Aboriginal people anything, a view advocated for many years by former Prime Minister John Howard.

The racist stereotyping is alive and well in Australian culture. Never mind that these stereotypes can be shown for the lies that they are, racists never let truth or facts hold them back. I'm Aboriginal and I am aware of the crap every freakin' day!—wotzthepoint? on Yahoo Answers [3]

Stereotypes can be subtle and hidden

The following short clip is about a university professor who had written racist emails. But notice how Wochit, a New York-based video producer, chose to illustrate this broadcast when referring to Aboriginal people.

A group of modern Aboriginal people walking through a desert. Even pro-Aboriginal organisations can get it wrong. This flyer by ANTaR (Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation) uses a stereotypical image to deliver contemporary statistics [21]. It shows contemporary people walking through a remote desert--far from what Aboriginal people do today. An image showing urban or rural settings would have supported their message better and alerted their readers to the fact that the majority of Aboriginal people does not live in the outback. Or, if they wanted to use an outback scene, they should have shown Aboriginal people driving in cars which is their main means of transport these days.

They call you…

They call you Boong, they call you Abo, they call you Coon. They see your skin and think it’s dirty.

When you smile they say ‘they’re a happy one’. They see you work hard and say ‘they must be one of the good ones’.

They congratulate you not for what you have done, but just that you were able to do it… ‘they have potential’. When you argue with your intellect, they are surprised by your intelligence… ‘they’re smart for one of them’.

They don’t see your culture, they don’t see your pride, they don’t see that you are a person in your own right. Yes, you are a good black man. But you are also a good man.

They say you are smart for a black woman. This discounts your intelligence; you are a smart woman. We call you strong, we call you proud, we call you black.

We see your skin as a coat of armour, protecting your spirit and your Dreaming.

You smile because your spirit is strong. You smile because they cannot harm you with their hurtful words.

You work hard, not for their accolades, but for your own and you work for your family. This, they do not understand… but they have potential.

Intellectually you are beyond their par, for you know their world and your own. They only know their way… but they are smart for one of them.

Every day you carry your culture, every day you carry your humanity, every day you carry with you your Dreaming. This makes you a strong black person.

Yes, you are a good man. And I feel strong that you never lose sight of the fact you are a good black man.

You are a smart woman. And I am proud to say you are an intelligent and inspirational black woman.

They call you names. All but your own.

I will call to them, and say ‘these may be your words’ but he is my brother, she is my sister, and today your hurtful words mean nothing. [13]

Resource

Susans Birthday Party is a short movie about Aboriginal stereotypes encounterd by a six-year-old girl. Susans Birthday Party is a short 5-minute film about a six-year-old Aboriginal girl with red hair and fair skin who’s teased at school as she is not the stereotypical Aboriginal.

Written and directed by Maureen Logan, the film is available through Keeaira Press.

An old stereotype is in your wallet

Did you know that an old stereotype about Aboriginal Australians is in your wallet? Take out one coin each for five cents, ten cents, twenty cents, one dollar and two dollars, then see what you get.

Australian coins What do Australias coins show you? One cent: feathertail glider, two cents (not shown): frill-necked lizard, five cents: echidna, ten cents: lyrebird, twenty cents: platypus, one dollar: a mob of kangaroos, two dollars: a blackfella. Can you spot the stereotype?

Australia’s coins as shown above represent Australia’s fauna—or do they? Which coin is the odd one out?

Most coins were designed and introduced in February 1966 [14], more than a year before Aboriginal people were counted as citizens in their own country. It was a time when they were still thought to ‘die out’ eventually and politics of the Stolen Generations would be carried on for at least another ten years.

The series of coins suggests that Aboriginal people were seen as part of the landscape. Ironically the ‘native tree’ shown next to the head of the Aboriginal man used to be called ‘blackboy’, a reference to Indigenous people not only because the grass tree, as it is now known, has a black stem after a bushfire, but also because it develops a spear-like shoot which holds the flower and can be up to two metres in height.

You see, this is where we fit into the white scheme of things, as fauna, part of the animal kingdom, part of the landscape.—'Craig', an Aboriginal character in John Damalis' book Riding the Black Cockatoo

One might argue that the one dollar and two dollars coins are not really part of the others because they were designed and added in 1983 and 1987. The fact remains, however, that Aboriginal people might be offended and think otherwise.

Where do stereotypes come from?

The definition of a stereotype above implies that people who communicate them rely on unverified first impressions and oversimplified concepts. Because they don’t want to or cannot find out the truth they rely on views readily available to them.

The media is a prime supplier of these simplified views and itself prone to, and a distributor of, stereotypes.

How many times did you read about a dysfunctional, violent Aboriginal community or drunk Aboriginal people getting into trouble?

And how many times did you read a success story about an Aboriginal person, in health, sport or business?

This is where the media forms and reinforces Aboriginal stereotypes. Racial stereotyping in the media is institutional and results from news values and editorial policies [7].

For Aboriginal artist Bindi Cole this leads to a disconnection between the broader community and the Aboriginal community. “People don’t even understand that in urban areas there [once] were Aboriginal people. They see what they see on TV and think ‘that’s what Aboriginal people are’ and, if you don’t fit into that, you’re not Aboriginal. They think there can’t have been any evolution of Aboriginal people in the last 200 years.” [17]

Politicians who fail to visit a broad range of Aboriginal communities to discuss matters with people first hand are susceptible to stereotypes which then influence their politics. John Howard’s first visit to an Aboriginal community came in February 1998, two years after he took office, and during his 12 years as Prime Minister he never visited any communities other than in far north Queensland and the Northern Territory [8].

People stereotype the Aboriginal race,
But theirs I never do disgrace.
Drugs, no school, drinkers that's all they know
Of a people with so much more to show.
I hold my head up so high
For my race I would die…—Salote Bovoro, 14-year-old girl [11]

‘Good’ stereotypes: Australia’s tourism industry

Stereotypes don’t need to be bad. The tourism industry of Australia relies heavily on the stereotype of an ancient and mythical Aboriginal Australia to sell its products.

Screenshot of australia.com showing an Aboriginal tour guide with a white visitor. Using good stereotypes to promote Australia. The Tourism Australia website readily uses the common stereotype of ‘Australia = friendly Aboriginal people’. The caption of the image, however, reads ‘Mossman Gorge, North Queensland’ [9]. Why wasn’t the Aboriginal tour guide acknowledged? Aboriginal people still seem to be nobodies.

In the history section the website stops to tell about Aboriginal people beyond the 1967 Referendum. The ‘Culture’ section refers to the Bangarra Dance Theatre’s style as ‘traditional’ whereas it is, in fact, contemporary.

The tourism industry has perfected the art of creating the good stereotype in the minds of readers of their promotional material without saying anything that’s untrue.

Read the following extract of a text by Tourism Australia which appeared in a German newsletter about Australia [10]: “The Aborigines of Australia are the keepers of one of the oldest existing cultures. They are proud of their culture and traditions. They love to share their traditional music, ritual dances and knowledge about their land. Tourists who let themselves into meeting Aborigines during a tour into the outback can visit unique places, sense the spirituality of ancient customs, experience the spectacular nature or get close to how these people live during a stay in an Aboriginal community.

“You meet Aboriginal art and culture everywhere in Australia. If along the coast, in the heart of Australia or even at Circular Quay in Sydney or the Botanic Gardens of Melbourne - Aboriginal art and culture is present in the entire country. Tourists have many options to experience it. In urban regions, for example, galleries and exhibitions offer views into contemporary Aboriginal Australia.”

German original

Die Ureinwohner Australiens sind die Hüter einer der ältesten noch bestehenden Kulturen. Die Aborigines sind stolz auf ihre Kultur und Traditionen. Ihre überlieferte Musik, ihre rituellen Tänze und ihr Wissen über ihr Land teilen sie gerne mit Besuchern. Touristen, die sich auf die Begegnung einlassen, sehen bei Touren im Outback einmalige Plätze in Australien, spüren die Spiritualität der uralten Bräuche, erleben die spektakuläre Natur oder erfahren bei einem Aufenthalt in einer Aborigine Gemeinde hautnah die Lebensweise der Menschen.

Auf die Kunst und Kultur der Aborigines trifft man überall in Australien. Ob entlang der Küste, mitten im Herzen Australiens oder sogar am Hafen von Sydney oder in den Botanischen Gärten Melbournes - die Kunst und Kultur der Ureinwohner ist im ganzen Land präsent. Touristen haben viele verschiedene Möglichkeiten, sie zu erleben. In urbanen Regionen etwa bieten Galerien und Ausstellungen Einblicke in das zeitgenössische aboriginale Australien.

Wouldn’t you agree that you just saw a fur-clad Aboriginal person holding a spear and boomerang?

Analysing the text we find words and attributes such as ‘keepers’, ‘oldest’, ‘traditions’, ‘ritual’ and ‘ancient’. The text serves the stereotype of Aboriginal people ‘living a traditional tribal/ancient lifestyle’ mentioned earlier. It’s all in the words. ‘Contemporary’ is only mentioned in conjunction with galleries and exhibitions.

95% of Australian tourists want to experience Aboriginal culture during their trip and that’s why Tourism Australia has chosen to feature the image of an Aboriginal tour guide prominently on their website (see image above). But I have to disappoint you.

Many Aboriginal people struggle to get jobs, even in the tourism industry. Some Aboriginal people might not even know about their own culture, have lost their family ties or don’t practise any traditional customs at all.

We don't practise our Aboriginal culture much because my nanna was stolen when she was eight years old and put in a dormitory and required to work for a white couple, so we're missing a part of our ancestry.—Stephen Pitt, Sunshine Coast, QLD [1]

Stephen’s nanna was ‘stolen’ because she is a member of the Stolen Generations, Aboriginal people who were taken away by the Australian governments “for their better” and to be trained as domestic servants or workers.

Here is another example for a ‘good stereotype’, also by Tourism Australia:

Detail from an advertising feature showing an Aboriginal hand painting, an Aboriginal dancer and a piece of bark with honey ants. ‘Good stereotypes’. Tourism Australia’s 2010 campaign There’s nothing like Australia called for photo submissions of Australian “holiday moments” [12]. They received “tens of thousands” of photos but the ones they selected to represent Aboriginal culture deny the fact that 80% of Aboriginal people live in capital cities.

What tourist advertising does not tell

Australian tourists want to be served the good stereotypes of Aboriginal Australia. Imagine what would happen if we told them the truth about the contemporary situation Indigenous people are in:

The text on the left hand side is taken from Tourism Australia’s website australia.com in 2008 [2]. Next to it I’ve put my version, written with the background of more than a year’s study of Aboriginal affairs by reading the National Indigenous Times and Koori Mail. I don’t want to discredit australia.com, but show how different a picture you can get if you read elsewhere.

Aboriginal Australia—advertising vs news
 What the tourist industry says [2]What the news tells us
1

“You’ll transcend your five senses when you see Australia through the eyes of its first inhabitants. For Aboriginal people, ‘country’ is not just a collection of hills, cliffs, creeks, rock outcrops and waterholes. It is a magical network of land and living things, elements and seasons, Dreamtime stories, spirits and songs.”

You won’t believe your five senses when you see Australia through the eyes of its Aboriginal people. For Aboriginal people, ‘Australia’ is not just a collection of obstacles, racism, neglect, ignorance and ill-information. It is a magical maze of bland, unforgiving things, elements and treasons, disappointing stories, alcoholic spirits and deaths.

 Verify it: Racism | Discrimination | Alcohol consumption | Life expectancy
2

“This is the land that Aboriginal people have lived in harmony with for more than 50,000 years. Every river, tree, mountain, star and sandy hill was shaped by a spirit ancestor during the Dreamtime of the world’s creation. Listen to these stories and you’ll begin to understand the birth of our land, its cragginess, spirituality and mystery. Visit the sacred places and feel your own sense of wonder come alive.”

This is the society that Aboriginal people have lived in struggle with for more than 200 years. Every river, tree, mountain, forest and resource was acquired by a white man during the invasion time of the white nation. Listen to these stories and you’ll begin to understand the birth of their struggle, disadvantage, hopelessness and sickness. Visit the sacred places and feel your own sense of wonder why they’re not protected.

 Verify it: Land | Health | Spirituality | Pilbara strike
3

“Trace the path of spirit ancestors as you walk around the base of Uluru with an Anangu guide. Learn about the intricate system of life they created in the rock art of World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park. See Ngunawal campsites dating back to the last Ice Age in Namadgi National Park. Go walkabout and see bark and body painting in the Blue Mountains, just outside of Sydney.”

Trace the path of white ancestors as you walk on top of Uluru without any Aboriginal consent. Learn about the intricate system of disrespect whites show towards the rock art of not only Kakadu National Park. See construction worker’s campsites and toilets built over sacred sites. Go walkabout and see how bark and oil paintings are sold without passing on their revenue to the artists just outside of Sydney.

 Verify it: Rock art | Art profits | Toilet on sacred site (and [16]; see also sidenote below)
4

“Hear Adnyamathanha creation stories over the campfire in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges. Trace Aboriginal trading routes more than 18,000 years old in Victoria’s Gippsland. Fish, snorkel and hunt for mud crabs with the Aboriginal communities of Western Australia’s Dampier Peninsula. Traverse the treetops with the Wujal Wujal people in Queensland’s primeval, magical Daintree Rainforest. Discover your own story in amongst this ancient, living story of creation.”

Hear massacre creation stories over the campfire near South Australia’s Rufus River. Trace Aboriginal fights for fair wages of over more than 500 million dollars in New South Wales. Hunt for Aboriginal rock engravings destroyed by gas and mining industries on Western Australia’s Dampier Peninsula. Traverse the broken family lines of Aboriginal people in Queensland’s brutal mission history. Discover your own point of view in amongst this ancient fog of tourist advertising.

 Verify it: Massacres | Stolen wages | Dampier Peninsula rock art | Stolen Generations

Sidenote: On 10 January 2011, the Supreme Court of Australia dismissed an appeal against a $500 fine imposed on the company who had built the drop toilet on sacred ground in November 2007. Under Northern Territory Intervention laws, evidence should have been presented citing the “detrimental effect of the desecration”. The sacred site is considered ceremonially significant to many clans in the region of Arnhem Land, and is used several times during the year by local Aboriginal men and women [15].

Footnotes

View article sources (22)

[1] Koori Mail 394, p.2
[2] australia.com/campaigns/walkabout/us/themes/themes-aboriginal-australia.htm, visited 12/12/2008
[3] au.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080212090654AAfP6Gy, 12/12/2008
[4] 'Aboriginal family issues', Yolanda Walker, Secretariat for National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC), http://www.aifs.gov.au/institute/pubs/fm1/fm35yw.html 12/12,/2008
[5] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stereotype 13/12/08
[6] 'Stereotypes in Aboriginal Communities', jacsocialpsych.blogspot.com/2007/08/stereotypes-in-aboriginal-communities.html, 13/12/08
[7] 'Stereotypes within Aboriginal and Indigenous Australian Communities', jacsocialpsych.blogspot.com/2007/09/blog-one-stereotypes-within-aboriginal.html, 13/12/08
[8] 'Watson welcomes Rudd's visit to NSW community', NIT 148, 6/3/2008
[9] Screenshot (detail) taken from http://www.australia.com on 13/12/2008
[10] Australien-info.de newsletter 15/2007 (no 248)
[11] 'Aboriginal Australian - A poem for reconciliation', Reconciliation News, issue 13/2008, p.28
[12] 'There's nothing like Australia', advertising feature, June 2010
[13] 'They call you...', reader's letter, Koori Mail 483 p.23
[14] One cents to 20 cents coins were first minted in 1966 when the decimal currency was introduced. The 50 cents coin was first minted in 1969, one dollar in 1984 and the two dollar coin in 1988 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coins_of_the_Australian_dollar)
[15] 'Court rejects appeal', Koori Mail 493 p.42
[16] 'Sacred site toilet taints NT taskforce', Koori Mail 414 p.9
[17] 'Really Aboriginal...", Koori Mail 523 p.57
[18] 'Targeting the divide', Koori Mail 424 p.44
[19] 'Ad campaign to challenge perceptions', Reconciliation News 4/2009 p.4
[20] Reconciliation Barometer 2010, Key Findings Fact Sheet
[19] 'Let the rivers run wild?', Reconciliation News 12/2010 p.12
[21] ANTaR flyer, 9/2011

Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:

www.CreativeSpirits.info,
Aboriginal culture - People - Stereotypes & prejudice of ‘Aboriginal Australia’, retrieved 22 October 2014