Recently, a few friends and I walked up Mount Keira, the magnificent backdrop to Wollongong, my home, south of Sydney. After a challenging climb, we were rewarded with views across southern Wollongong and out to Lake Illawarra, where the forest meets and melds with the suburbs that stretch out toward the Lake’s shore.
This is a view of the city that is unfamiliar to me. Most often I approach Mt Keira from the north, and the vista is across the CBD and northern suburbs, out to the Pacific Ocean. The view was novel, unexpected and it jolted me enough to knock me out of a taken-for-grantedness and into puzzling over Aboriginal sovereignty. What would it mean, or do, if settler colonial Australians, such as me, deeply understood we were on Aboriginal country?
As we walked, clambered over rocks, kicked our toes on buttresses, pressed on despite the steep incline, stopped for a breather, talked animatedly about the forthcoming election or who’s doing what, when and how they shouldn’t or should -that we knew, unconditionally, that we were walking on sovereign Aboriginal land: Dharawal country.
Or maybe I was thinking about the impossibility of being on country in a country dominated by settler colonialism. I’m not at all suggesting that we early-morning walkers were unaware of, or didn’t care about, Aboriginal sovereignty. Rather, I was contemplating the embodiment of settler colonialism: what it allows and disallows, and how pondering these questions can make many progressive settler Australians anxious.
How does settler geography inform my capacity to see and feel? More so, how does settler, or white, possession, have a hold over me -possess me? As Aileen Moreton-Robinson argues, contemporary colonial dynamics are much more than a physical possession of the land: they are a political possession. It takes a great deal of work, she writes, to maintain Australia as a white possession. I would add a great deal of emotional work.
A key concern of my recent book, Anxieties of Belonging in Settler Colonialism, is with how the taken-for-grantedness of settler authority plays out in the everyday. In particular, the feelings and sensations of everyday certainty, belonging and personhood that settler colonial legal and political structures give rise to (to borrow from Mark Rifkin) and the questions that are suspended and made moot by an all-encompassing settler sovereignty. My focus is settler anxiety: the much renowned, but little examined, settler condition. Settler political possession plays out as an evasion of the political, too often displaced by relentless worrying about Indigenous people.
My subjects of study are left-leaning settler Australians who want to engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, cultures and social issues. Rather crudely, I refer to them as ‘good white people’. More pointedly, my subjects are anxious white women. Historically white women have had significant involvement in Indigenous social issues, which are often contentious. Criticised by black activists, feminists and scholars as serving a white feminist socio-political agenda and failing to understand the history of racism. The book’s focus is highly emotional ‘feminised’ spaces, which are often over-looked as political encounters. My commitment is to examining the ‘settler problem’-analysing contemporary expressions of benevolent colonialism. Despite their good intentions, progressive settlers continue to respond to Indigenous politics and efficacy as a provocation.
Anxieties traverses multiple cultural sites – memoirs, film, cultural tourism and policy – and a picture emerges. By analysing varied cultural sites, I trace the anatomy of a particular colonial subjectivity – good white people – to argue that settler anxiety is an effect of, and a refusal to encounter Indigenous political claims and difference. Worrying about Indigenous people, together with embracing forms of Indigenous culture, acts to neutralise Indigenous agency. How does settler care and concern work to maintain colonial power relations?
Throughout the book, I pause over moments when, however accidentally, good white women are confronted with Indigenous political will, and it brings them undone. These women are made anxious, uncertain, and do not know how to proceed. These contests are material and embodied; not mediated through the media, film and books. In these contests, the white woman is out of place and out of her depth.
What can settler anxiety reveal about the complex cultural dynamics of Indigenous-settler Australia? Can anxiety teach progressive settlers how to make a home in an Australia that is sovereign Indigenous country? Staying with anxiety – being disturbed, halted and unsettled – provides ways to renew our imaginative life and contribute to creating ethical Indigenous-settler relations that do not rely on reconciliation, recognition and resolution.
If we closely examine the complexity of material encounters between settler and Indigenous Australians, we can see moments when settler anxiety gives way to a potentially radical political empathy. Settler Australians need to turn ameliorative projects into political encounters: to become dispossessed.
Lisa Slater is a Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of Wollongong.