At the 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival, at the Overland panel on the Tent Embassy, a woman in the front row put her hand up to make a comment. She understood Indigenous people were angry, she said. She understood that horrible things had happened. But she felt personally offended by what she perceived to be Indigenous resentment towards all white people for the crimes of colonialism.
‘It’s like you’re tarring us all with the same brush,’ she said. ‘Some of us aren’t like that. Some of us support Indigenous rights. We feel terribly about the past and we are on your side.’
Chris Graham, managing editor of Tracker magazine and not known for his delicacy, responded to her comments with characteristic bluntness: ‘If that kind of criticism offends you,’ he said, ‘I think you probably haven’t spent enough time with Indigenous people, and haven’t properly engaged with the issues at all.’1
Two things struck me about this. The first was that it seemed immediately true. (That’s primarily an observation from personal experience, so take it as you wish, but I will say that having run the full gamut of emotions over the past five years with regard to these issues, it’s been a long time since I felt offended by Indigenous criticisms of white people.)
The second was how common it is as a reflex to deflect the personal implications of political responsibility.
Feeling offended is an instinctive response to a perceived character slight. Nobody likes to feel like they’re being judged wrongly or harshly for something they did not do.
The operative part of that sentence is ‘being judged … for something they did not do’. The locus of this woman’s discomfort was that she felt she was not at fault and yet was being held to account for it. And in a way that’s understandable: being held to account for complicity in hideous atrocity simply through tacit acceptance of the status quo is hard to process. But it’s a superficial reflex to prevent oneself from having to allow that fact in, to prevent oneself from being hurt, from feeling profoundly guilty, angry, shameful, frustrated, alienated and insignificant, all of which are the personal repercussions of properly engaging with those issues, not to mention actually attempting to take action on them.
The race/gender parallel is not a flawless model of comparison but it’s useful to employ occasionally because it can offer us insights into our own double standards that we might not otherwise recognise. For example, a man being offended by a woman’s discussion of her own internal triggers regarding sexual assault might suggest not that the woman is unfairly generalising about all men, but that various episodes in her life, explicitly linked to her social positioning as a woman, have led her to experience the presence of men in a certain way. To interpret a confession of fear, wariness, and edginess as accusatory, as ‘tarring all men with the same brush’, may actually say more about you than it does about her. It’s not that it’s not about you – it is about you and it’s hard, and you really wish it wasn’t.
To put it bluntly: if that kind of story offends you, I think you probably haven’t spent enough time listening to women, and haven’t properly engaged with the issues at all.
1 I’m paraphrasing from memory here, so these should not be considered direct quotes.