Economy

Aboriginal middle class: Blessing or curse?

As successful families join an emerging Aboriginal middle class they battle allegations of not being Aboriginal anymore and have to redefine their position in Aboriginal and Australian society.

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What is a 'middle class'?

Definition: The middle class is a class of people in the middle of a social hierarchy... [It] is the broad group of people in contemporary society who fall socio-economically between the working class and upper class. [1]

Members of the middle class include professional and business people and their families.

According to social research group McCrindle, an Australian middle class family owns a plasma TV, has one bedroom per family member, multiple computers, a playstation and a "modern" kitchen. [2] Definitions and characteristics vary though, and also depend on your education and the kind of work you do.

Interestingly, it wasn't academia that introduced the term 'Aboriginal middle class', but Aboriginal people themselves, although what it exactly means is still emerging. [3] Some count those to a middle class who have a good education, professional employment, own their home, enjoy higher incomes and well-being, and are able to participate in society and economy. [4][5]

For Aboriginal educator Stan Grant this middle class is "not assimilated but culturally strong and empowered" and also reward and risk oriented. [6]

An Aboriginal middle class is not only emerging in Australia, but also Canada, New Zealand and, more broadly, among African Americans in the United States. [4]

An Aboriginal middle class emerges

The economic gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal families is a product of our colonial history. Aboriginal people were systematically and violently deprived of access to economic resources, especially land, a process that continued until well into the second half of the 20th century. Then came the underpayment and theft of wages.

This history explains the large delay of Aboriginal families catching up with other Australians who built their wealth, to a large degree, thanks to achievements based on, and infrastructure built by, Aboriginal slave labour.

It seems the seeds of the emerging Australian Aboriginal middle class were sown in the mid to late 1990s. In 1997, Moree cotton farmer Dick Estens started his Aboriginal Employment Strategy with the express goal to build "a big, black middle class". [7] By 2012, at the Melbourne Writers Festival, Aboriginal author Marcia Langton was confident to state that "there is a growing Aboriginal middle class". [8]

Being part of this new middle class can be uneasy and ambivalent for many. Aboriginal people have to figure out how to (re)define themselves and their status, now that they are no longer "socio-economically disadvantaged", a label that Aboriginal communities have also accepted for themselves. [3] There seems to be a reluctance to emerge from the familiar label and be "above" others, because in Aboriginal culture maintaining and enacting family and community obligations is a core part of identity.

For example, a 42-year-old Aboriginal man feels "embarrassed" when thinking to be middle class, yet both he and his wife have careers, their children attend school and the family is well educated. "That doesn't make us better than or above anybody else," he says. Others find it "insulting" to be considered middle class as if it meant denying a history of working class in the family. [3]

Wages

From 1996 to 2006 the number of "well-paid professionals" rose by nearly 75%, more than double the rate of non-Aboriginal professionals. [9] However, when comparing absolute numbers both groups increased by about 3%, the Aboriginal professionals just increased from a lower base (10%) than their non-Aboriginal peers (18%). [10]

A 2018 study found that the median disposable adjusted household income for the Aboriginal population rose from 62% of non-Aboriginal income in 2011 to 66% in 2016, the highest percentage since reliable data started in 1981. [11]

At the same time the relative Aboriginal poverty rate has gone from 33.9% in 2006 to 31.4% in 2016. The study also observed a growing gap between the top and the bottom income groups. While remote and very remote incomes fell, the strong rise in urban incomes could only be explained by a growing Aboriginal middle class. [11]

Employment

By 2006 more than 14,000 Aboriginal between the ages of 20 and 64 were employed in professional occupations, about 13% of the total Aboriginal workforce. [9]

The booming mining industry also contributes to the steady growth of an Aboriginal middle class as employees earn high incomes which they they invest in schooling and assets.

Education

Education is another factor. Between 1994 and 2002 the proportion of Aboriginal people with at least a Bachelor’s degree increased threefold from 1% to 3%. [4] From 2010 to 2014, the number of Aboriginal graduates increased by 40% while non-Aboriginal graduates rose by only about 10%. [12] In 1991 there were less than 4,000 Aboriginal graduates in Australia. [13] By 2016, that number had increased to about 15,000, with the year-on-year growth rate approaching 10%. [14]

And while the number of undergraduate students who complete their studies grew only slowly from 800 to 1,400, the number of postgraduate completions increased almost 2.3 times. [12]

"We are now in an era where we are seeing a second generation of Indigenous PhDs," commented a proud Stan Grant, a Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi journalist. [9] .

Note, however, that measuring an emerging Aboriginal middle class just in terms of job and education is not enough and we need to add more characteristics in the future.

What does it mean for an Aboriginal family to be middle class?

Be mindful when you talk about classes as it's easy to slip into stereotyping people. Classes have fluid boundaries and include a range of diverse people. Basically, classes are artificial constructs that help analyse what's going on. Don't use them to discriminate.

Aboriginal people achieving and moving up in the social hierarchy (called 'social mobility') often challenge commonly held stereotypes. But it's proof how they are also a diverse group of people, just like any other social group.

Being middle class can also be a double-edged sword. On the one side, it shows Aboriginal success, talent and ability, on the other it might be "met with scorn and concern" [10] because non-Aboriginal Australians have to acknowledge that a 'real' Aboriginal person might not necessarily be poor after all.

Being successful and Aboriginal?

Is there a new emerging stereotype, "Being successful is not Aboriginal"? Already some Aboriginal people, like Dr Chelsea Bond, a Munanjahli and South Sea Islander senior lecturer, find that class is the "new type of blood quantum" where Aboriginality is no longer defined by skin colour, but by the level of economic hardship instead. [10]

"Any evidence which suggests that Aboriginal people are not on the bottom – physically, morally, intellectually, or economically – is used as evidence... that the upwardly mobile Aborigines aren't really Aboriginal," says Bond [10] (see also the video about her family at the bottom of this page).

Non-Aboriginal people are not the only ones who have to rearrange their views. Aboriginal people have also begun to explore what the Aboriginal middle class means for them, how it relates to social mobility and, importantly, identity.

Some meet their more affluent kin with "suspicion, even hostility" and might label them "coconuts", [9] meaning black on the outside but white on the inside. "If you’re not from the 'mish' [mission], you don’t know what being Aboriginal is about," as Aboriginal lawyer Larissa Behrendt puts it. [15] Aboriginal academic and author Yvette Holt sees the middle class as a group with "an entire sphere of its own cultural code and conduct". [4]

There seems to be a strong fear that belonging to this new group creates separation and new expectations of how to be. "I know who I am and I know where I belong. A middle class society is not my idea of success," said a Kooma woman from southern Queensland. "After all, what white people think is their middle class will never be equal to what they believe our middle class will be." [16]

The fear of separation might be justified. Bonita Lawrence cites a Canadian Indian, but if you substitute "Indian Country" with "Northern Territory" and "Toronto" with "Sydney", the following could apply to Australia just the same:

"I think a lot of successful, middle-class Aboriginal people distance themselves from other Aboriginal people because there are a lot of problems in Indian Country. I have had opportunities to take jobs in the north, and I've chosen not to, because I don't want my children to have to deal with a lot of the stresses that go on in northern communities. And I want them to be able to enjoy the kind of benefits that are available in Toronto." [17]

We will not disappear once we become statistically more like them.

— Dr Chelsea Bond, Munanjahli and South Sea Islander senior lecturer [10]

The perils of being middle class

As they transition through social layers, being Aboriginal remains a distinction with its own challenges, albeit with muted effect. "I know first-hand that upward social mobility, regardless of the measure applied, does not remedy race — all it offers is a kind of a buffer against the harms of racism," finds Bond. [10] Having a professional job offers no protection from racism and the harm it can do.

Neither does it protect against discrimination or ill health. A 1999 study by the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Three Nations, Not One: Indigenous and Other Australian Poverty, found that members of "high income Indigenous households are much more likely to be arrested than their non-Indigenous counterparts in both relative and absolute terms" and that "high income Indigenous families are only 1.2 percentage points less likely to experience long-term health problems than low-income Indigenous families". [18]

"The increase in the workforce makes very little change to culture or policy," concludes Behrendt. [15]

Change for the better

But she finds that the middle class offers Aboriginal people also a new way to bring about change. With less segregation and discrimination they can now challenge the system from within, rather than the outside.

Behrendt argues that Aboriginal communities need to redefine themselves as they transition from exclusion, disadvantage and poverty to more mainstream participation, but without assimilating at the same time. The new doctors, lawyers, accountants have to find their own answer to what self-determination means for an Aboriginal person with their profile. [16]

Diverse as Aboriginal nations and people are, some reject or are reluctant to identify with this new class, referring to themselves as "just black fellas" or "just us", while others embrace "a cosmopolitan identity beyond the mob". [9]

However they decide, they won't forget the past. Both, those who welcome being part of an Aboriginal middle class and those who are skeptical of the idea, find it critical to maintain and follow family and community obligations. [4] "The history of our own community... will always be relevant to those who have become the new Indigenous middle class," says Behrendt. [15]

Tip

Nakkiah Lui's play Black is the New White reverses familiar roles: Charlotte is a young Aboriginal lawyer from a wealthy upper-middle-class family who brings home her white fiancé Francis, an unemployed composer. The comedy asks some serious questions: How does an Aboriginal person measure success when all the socially agreed indicators are white? What does it mean to have a growing Aboriginal middle class when so many are left behind? And can an individual put their own interests above the community’s when it comes to love? [19]

[Being Aboriginal middle-class] doesn’t make us better than or above anybody else... I don’t believe that in order for us to advance we need to be further categorised by others.

— Birra-Gubba family man [16]

Video: Meet the Bonds: What does it mean to be ‘Aboriginal middle class’?

Matt and Chelsea Bond are living the Australian Dream, a house in the suburbs, kids at great schools, but that doesn’t mean racism hasn’t impacted their lives.

Which class do you belong to?

Take the survey at the ABC to find out.

References

View article sources (19)

[1] 'Middle class', Wikipedia, retrieved 4/9/2017
[2] 'Defining the Australian middle class', The McCrindle Blog, 11/10/2012
[3] [3a] [3b] 'Aboriginal professionals: Work, class and culture', J. Lahn, Working Paper No. 89/2013, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Research School of Social Sciences, College of Arts and Social Sciences, The Australian National University
[4] [4a] [4b] [4c] [4d] 'Aboriginal professionals: Work, class and culture', Julie Lahn, Australian National University, CAEPR Working Paper No. 89/2013
[5] 'Boyer Lectures 2012: The Quiet Revolution: Indigenous People and the Resources Boom', Marcia Langton 2013, p.153
[6] 'A hand up not a handout the way to close the gap', SMH 16/2/2019
[7] 'Man with a plan to build a black middle class', SMH 4/11/2005
[8] 'Indigenous Exceptionalism and the Constitutional ‘Race Power’', Marcia Langton, Space Place & Culture 2013, www.futureleaders.com.au/book_chapters/pdf/Space-Place-Culture/Marcia-Langton.pdf, retrieved 18/9/2019
[9] [9a] [9b] [9c] [9d] 'New Indigenous Middle Class Finds Place In Modern Economy', University of Melbourne 8/12/2016
[10] [10a] [10b] [10c] [10d] [10e] 'Class is the new black: The dangers of an obsession with the 'Aboriginal middle class'', ABC News 28/6/2017
[11] [11a] 'Finally, an Indigenous middle class emerges', SMH 10/2/2018
[12] [12a] 'Higher Education and Research Facts and Figures', Universities Australia, November 2015, p.33
[13] Diversity Council Australia Diversity & Inclusion Oration, transcript, Stan Grant, Melbourne 26/7/2017
[14] '2016 First half year student summary time series', Department of Education and Training, docs.education.gov.au/node/43236, retrieved 12/9/2017
[15] [15a] [15b] 'Who's afraid of the Indigenous middle class?', The Guardian Australia 9/6/2015
[16] [16a] [16b] 'An Australian Indigenous middle class?: A mixed methods investigation of Aboriginal urban professionals' Dr Julie Lahn Postdoctoral Fellow, CAEPR Seminar Series II presentation slides, 28/9/2011
[17] '"Real" Indians and Others – Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood', Bonita Lawrence, University of Nebraska Press, 2004, p.158
[18] 'Three Nations, Not One: Indigenous and Other Australian Poverty', B. Hunter, CAEPR Working Paper No. 1/1999, p.VI
[19] 'Aboriginal disadvantage turned on its head in Nakkiah Lui’s new play', The Australian 4/5/2017

Harvard citation

Korff, J 2020, Aboriginal middle class: Blessing or curse?, <https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/economy/aboriginal-middle-class>, retrieved 30 October 2020

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