Reflection on First Contact: Flawed But Still Valuable

[No-one else wanted to publish this last week, but it’s still worth saying.]

First Contact - Series Two - Blackfella Films Pty LtdThe 3-part TV series First Contact and its follow-up panel discussion drew some strong responses from indigenous commentators, for example here and here. Clearly some very raw feelings were touched, understandably enough. But the show was not directed to Aboriginal audiences. It was for Whitefellas who know bugger all.

Unfortunately there are still plenty of those, thanks in large part to our miserably deficient media. While I can imagine it is harrowing for Aboriginal people to be walked yet again through the same old same old, here was a media program actually intended to inform the ignorant. By that measure, and despite significant flaws, I think it has a lot of value.

The show took six nonindigenous people who had had little contact with indigenous people and gave them a month’s immersion. It allowed other nonindigenous people to see how they reacted and interacted. It focussed mostly on rural and remote people, on some poor and poorly functioning communities and people, and on stolen people. But it also showed strong traditional Yolngu culture and some places where people are finding constructive ways forward, juggling traditional and White culture.

There’s a lot more to Australia’s diverse indigenous population, “lacerated by class and gender and colour and geography” as Stan Grant puts it. But common White stereotypes and prejudices are probably focussed on rural and remote and poorly functioning communities, and on grog and prison. If those stereotypes can be dislodged by meeting real people, then minds and hearts might be opened to learning more.

That happened. Five of the six participants said that since their experience their views have shifted a lot, they have been learning as much as they can, and they want to tell as many people as they can what they have learnt. They were moved, some quite deeply. That has to be a big positive for our sadly conflicted society.

There were flaws in the execution of First Contact and limitations in its scope. It was packaged as tabloid TV melodrama, and often hit you over the head with posturing and unnecessarily confected drama. Many ignorant or offensive statements were left hanging, though that was the format – to let the people reveal their attitudes and then to see if they had changed by the end. This was not an exhaustive exploration of the issues. Nor was it an exploration of the many kinds of indigenous experience today.

The least sympathetic participant, David Oldfield, shifted his views hardly at all, though he did make a couple of human connections. He was often insensitive and at times grossly rude. Unfortunately he was given far more than his share of the time and space, and he somewhat overshadowed some of the very positive things happening. That’s what tabloid TV does for you.

Oldfield was especially offensive in the Reunion panel. He repeated his claim that Aboriginal languages are “mere utterances”, not serious languages, then shouted over the linguist who, if he could have been heard, would have completely deflated Oldfield’s ridiculous claim. The panel facilitator was seriously at fault for not shutting Oldfield up sooner and especially for not giving the linguist more time to be heard.

Meetings with stolen people were the most moving for several participants. Natalie Imbruglia speaks of realising for the first time how inherited trauma is passed down generations. It was eye-opening to see a prison in the Kimberley that’s trying to break the cycle of re-offending. The wisdom of the Yolngu elder who found a way to connect with Oldfield was impressive. Only through such human connection is there any possibility of shifting rigid attitudes.

In the Reunion panel Renae Ayris said flatly she’s now ashamed of how little she had known about Aborigines. I admire her honesty, and her courage in taking this experience on and speaking clearly about it. As a pretty blond model she’s an easy target for haters, and evidently she cops a fair bit, both on line and in person. That is stereotyping, just as much as the other kind.

I would have liked to hear more about the sophistication of Aboriginal land care and farming and about the permanent villages in many places. I would have liked to hear about the wisdom of a culture in which people respected each others’ territories for so long their languages became much more diverse than European languages – in other words they passed many thousands of years without invading each other. There are many things a program might have conveyed, but this was a beginning, not an end.

At least five non-indigenous people are now on a path of passionate learning, and they will learn much more in due course. Of course I hope and expect the number is many more than five.

Ignorance is not in itself a sin, nor racist. Ignorance is an eminently curable condition, though it requires the individual to wake up and be willing to learn. This series gave people that chance.

On the other hand a system that perpetuates ignorance, that turns a blind eye to seeing, that goes out of its way to prevent people from knowing, that is a system to be opposed at every turn.

I think racism is better viewed as behaviour than as an innate condition. There is racist behaviour, no question. It is pointless, however, to label a person “a racist” because it blocks the possibility of them being any other way. We are human beings, each one of us, doing the best we know how, however imperfectly.

We can call out racist behaviour, and call it unacceptable, and still keep open the possibility of a person growing beyond their underlying fear, and ceasing their racist behaviour.

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