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Don't call them disadvantaged: Successful Australians redefining what it is to be Indigenous

ABC News logo ABC News 5/05/2017 Stan Grant

Identity framed around misery can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, writes Stan Grant. © AAP Image/Mick Tsikas Identity framed around misery can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, writes Stan Grant. Historian Tony Judt was big on challenging conventional wisdom. He warned of the dangers of "received wisdom": those things we accept as truth and cease questioning.

I recalled his words just this week as I was confronted with the received wisdom of views about Indigenous people.

I was at the International Convention Centre in Sydney. Before me was a room full of some of the most successful people in Australia and they were Indigenous. Yes, Indigenous.

I looked out and there was Kyle Vander Kuyp, an Olympic hurdler. In the middle of the room was Mark Ella, in some minds the greatest rugby union player in the history of the game and a former captain of the Wallabies.

Aden Ridgeway was there, former Democrats senator. There were lawyers, doctors, university professors.

In one room was probably the single largest collection of Indigenous millionaires ever assembled in one room.

They were there to celebrate black business. It was a conference organised by Supply Nation, Australia's leading directory of Indigenous businesses.

It was formed to capitalise on a Federal Government policy that mandates that all Government contracts include a proportion of business awarded to Indigenous owned and run companies.

Proud, successful, ambitious Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders — how does that fit with the received wisdom of a demoralised, disadvantaged people?

No-one ever did Mark Ella a favour on the football field. There was no special treatment or easy pathway to a Wallabies jumper. Mark is now an executive at National Indigenous Television.

Kyle Vander Kuyp did not walk onto the world's biggest sporting stage because he was a victim. Post-athletics Kyle is forging his own successful career in the private sector.

These were people who made things happen. The people in that room had earned their hard-won success.

Yet, it still surprises people.

Suffering need not be a life sentence

As an Indigenous man and a journalist whose career has taken him around the world, I have lost count of the times someone has said to me, "Oh, but you're not like the others".

As I took to the stage to speak to these amazing people, I wanted to puncture that received wisdom that consigns into permanent misery and suffering.

I wanted to challenge this idea that to be successful is somehow not to be Indigenous.

Our forebears were the first people to cross the open water in the history of humankind. They first touched these shores at least 60,000 years ago and forged a civilisation.

Colonisation was devastating. Indigenous people still live with the legacy of injustice and segregation.

It is a sad fact that by any measure the first peoples of this land are its most impoverished. Indigenous Australians have the worst outcomes in health, housing, employment and education.

Statistically Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders die ten years younger than other Australians. Rates of suicide and imprisonment are catastrophic.

None of this should be forgotten. But does that story of struggle and pain tell the story of those before me?

How does it explain me? Yes, I was born into poverty. My family was itinerant and we had no permanent home for much of my childhood.

For my parents it was a struggle to put food on our table.

Now, I live a privileged life.

Poverty need not be permanent. Suffering need not be a life sentence.

Some Australians are still surprised when Indigenous people become successful. © ABC News Some Australians are still surprised when Indigenous people become successful. Instinct to prosper never wavered

There is alternate history in Australia. It is a history of Aboriginal people struggling against adversity and successfully engaging with white Australia.

Australian Historian Paul Irish writes about this in his new book Hidden in Plain View. It tells the story of the people of Sydney.

They did not vanish after the coming of the British, they resisted, they survived and their descendants live here still.

Irish tells a tale of ingenuity and resilience; a people rendered strangers in their own land, who adapted and embraced the ways of whites while holding to their own traditions.

Irish introduces us to people like Jack Harris, one of the so-called "last of his tribe", who worked and traded with Europeans while never missing a chance to remind them "this is my country".

This was common right across the country. It runs counter to a story of an unrelenting and tragic clash of civilisations.

Anthropologist Ian Keen has said that Aboriginal people were invisible in our economic histories.

Economist Christopher Lloyd has written about this: "Indigenous people developed economic relations with settlers in some places and supplied labour while at the same time being marginalised and impoverished due to land seizures."

Of course, that does not mean people were not exploited. The struggle for unpaid wages continues.

But the instinct to survive and prosper never wavered.

They were not victims

I have written about this in my recent Quarterly Essay, The Australian Dream: Blood, History and Becoming.

I traced the journey of what I called Aboriginal economic migrants. These were people leaving the missions and reserves looking for a place in a new country, an Australia that had excluded them.

They walked — often hundreds of miles — for work on farms as fruit pickers or saw-millers or drovers and railway workers.

They fought to get houses in town and enrol their kids in schools. They fought in Australia's wars and demanded the right to be full citizens.

They were not victims.

They hitched a ride on the post-World War II economic boom. They worked alongside the migrants of southern Europe and saw the face of this country change as the nation abandoned the old White Australia Policy.

Movement is change and Indigenous Australia changed. They married non-Indigenous people, sparking a black population boom, and gravitated to the cities. Today the grandchildren of these pioneers are graduating universities in record numbers.

The Indigenous middle class is growing. Indigenous people are on our television screens, on our stages and our sporting fields.

We don't tell this story often enough. We don't even yet have a language for Aboriginal success.

Redefining what it is to be Indigenous

Indigenous lawyer Noel Pearson blames what he calls a soft-racism of low expectations. White Australia can be disbelieving and black Australia can be sceptical if not hostile. Success is sometimes seen as betrayal, a sell-out to the struggle.

Academic Marcia Langton has called this out in her Boyer Lectures of 2012. She coined the term "The Quiet Revolution", but says success comes at a price.

"Those of us who are successful run the risk of being subject to abuse, accused of being traitors to our own people, 'assimilationists'," she said.

"These detractors will never help you and they can resent your success. They will become increasingly irrelevant as you become more successful."

There are deep, historical, structural problems in Australia; successive generations of policy failure and pockets of racism that lock too many Indigenous people out of the Australian dream.

But identity framed around misery can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The people I spoke to in Sydney this week are redefining what it is to be Indigenous.

Received wisdom would say they are disadvantaged — but don't try telling them that.

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