The Australian Dream: Blood, History and Becoming by Stan Grant is the feature essay in Issue 64 (2016) of the Quarterly Essay.
Journalist Stan Grant received a lot of unexpected publicity in 2016 when a speech he gave at the Sydney Recital Hall in 2015 about the Australian dream and what it actually looks like to the Indigenous population, suddenly ‘went viral’. His speech promptly ‘became all things to all people‘.
The Australian Dream essay formed part of his response to this media frenzy after a year of ‘contemplation, reassessment and revelation‘.
He also wrote a book called Talking To My Country which became ‘his very personal meditation on what it means to be Australian, what it means to be indigenous, and what racism really means in this country‘. It was published by Harper Collins in March 2016 and has been on our bestsellers list at work throughout the past year.
Grant was born in 1963, a time in Australian history, when Aboriginals were still ‘counted among the flora and fauna, not among the citizens of this country’. During this era Grant’s family became part of the ‘burgeoning Indigenous middle class: confident, self-assured‘. He successfully finished his schooling, went to uni and went on to travel the world.
However hard it has sometimes been, and whatever grievances I still hold, becoming more engaged with mainstream Australia has made my life richer. (pg15)
It would be almost impossible to write an essay like this without referencing the many appalling statistics about Aboriginal health, incarceration rates and drug and alcohol use. Grant discusses candidly and with sorrow these figures as well as the many programs set up over the years that have failed to create any meaningful change for the ‘20 per cent of the Indigenous population (who) live in remote areas, but their disadvantage is so acute that it obscures the successful lives of others‘.
The report Mapping the Indigenous Program and Funding Maze (2016) reveals that 550 000 people identified themselves as being Indigenous in the 2011 Census and that ‘65% (360 000) are in employment and living lives, not noticeably different from the rest of Australia‘.
‘Indigenous people are fewer than 3% of the total Australian population, yet compromise 9% of players in the AFL. In the NRL, they constitute around 12%‘.
‘There are around 30 000 Indigenous university graduates in Australia; in 1991 there were fewer than 4000‘.
Many of these figures surprised me. Media reporting on Indigenous health and issues usually focuses on the problems. Grant also noticed this which led him to explore the meaning and interpretation of history, the role of unreliable memory and the way that holding onto suffering and trauma actually has the tendency to ‘sustain victimhood‘.
He is keen to find a way to change the story – from one of sadness, displacement and loss – to one of ‘resilience, pride, intelligence and dreams‘.
Part of that story talks about the diversity and differences (‘we are not all the same‘) that began to occur within Aboriginal groups during the ‘assimilation phase’ of the 1940’s to 1970’s. Those that ‘threw off the heavy hand of government control‘ are just as big a part of the Indigenous story as those who were ‘left behind‘. All these groups were ‘products of history, economy, timing and luck‘.
Grant rails against the ‘identity police‘ who demand conformity within the Indigenous community and he cautions against idealising ‘people in remote communities living outside mainstream Australian life.’
We are products of the same dispossession; my son’s ancestors endured a similar history of injustice, exclusion and suffering to that endured by the forebears of the boys of Don Dale. We are products of Australia: its misery and its glory. Colonisation shattered the world of my ancestors. (pg59)
Just 20 per cent of the Indigenous population live in remote areas, but their disadvantage is so acute it obscures the successful lives of others. (pg64)
This article and Grant’s initial speech has been an attempt to balance the story – to factor in the some of the success stories that have grown out of the years of injustice.
One thing is undeniable: tens of thousands of Indigenous people are transforming their lives through their own efforts.