Back when I was in Alice Springs earlier this year, at Red Kangaroo Books, a bright little pamphlet caught my eye. It was called Whitefella Culture; as I flipped through its pages I saw a series of simple stories, illustrated with simple drawings of whitefellas and blackfellas sitting together and engaging in a variety of activities. “This should prove interesting,” I thought, and tossed it into my shopping cart.
Written by Susanne Hagan and published by the Australian Society for Indigenous Languages (AuSIL), this booklet aims to illustrate how, “whether we are Aboriginal or white, we share many things in common, but our cultures still teach us to act differently and think differently.” Originally written to try to explain the logic of whitefella social behavior to Indigenous people and now in its fourth edition, Whitefella Culture has changed over the course of the past twenty years to provide more two-way instruction. In setting up a series of scenarios in which members of a black family interact with whitefellas who live in their community as art centre managers, shopkeepers, or representatives of government, it aims to defuse the kinds of misunderstandings that frustrate successful communication, engender hurt feelings, and perpetuate misperceptions and stereotypes.
The first half of the book offers ten little lessons, beginning with “Being Friendly” and moving on through topics like “Answering Questions,” “Being on Time,” and “Taking Care of Things.” The first half of each story sets up the situation, for example, a new whitefella arrives for a visit prior to taking over the management of the art centre; but after he takes a plane out, the locals are concerned that the new man thought they didn’t like him. In the second half of the story, called “Think about [the topic]”, the possible causes of the misunderstanding are examined and suggestions are made for how each side can better comprehend the subtle social cues and values that permeate the encounter and how each side might subtly alter behavior to achieve a happier outcome all around.
For example, in the story about the appearance of friendliness and the new art centre manager, the whitefella expectation of “polite” questioning and conversation (“How was your trip?” “Will your family be joining you?”) was disappointed. Whitefellas expect such greasing of the social wheels, even if the content of the dialogue is meaningless to a degree; Indigenous people are quiet and don’t ask questions of strangers. Perhaps a smile and a handshake would go a ways towards making the newcomer feel comfortable; less questioning and chatter would be a more appropriate way to approach the blackfellas on their home ground.
The second half of the book comprises two chapter on “Good Manners”: one in white culture and one in Aboriginal culture. The former covers some of the same ground as the stories in the first part of the book, for example about meeting and greeting, or answering questions. It adds short homilies on niceties like “please,” “thank you,” and “I beg your pardon,” on eating, and on behavior in meetings. The latter covers some of the same topics from an Aboriginal perspective, and adds useful notes about standards of modest dress, the taking of photographs, personal privacy, appropriate behaviors between men and women, avoidance relationships, and taboos surrounding deceased persons.
On the whole, I felt that these instructions on good manners worked better and provided more useful information than the stories in the front of the book, perhaps because they recalled things that I was taught when I went out to visit remote communities a few years ago. I could understand how easy it would have been to appear rude by taking a photograph of our airplane on the landing strip at Patjarr, where the background of the photograph would have captured a particularly sacred swathe of men’s country adjacent to the art centre building that had recently been built. Similarly, concerns about respecting privacy and waiting to be welcomed into any given space informed restrictions against wandering away from the art centre; it was not a question of Aboriginal people wanting to “hide” manifestations of poverty or drunkenness from us that led to those injunctions.
But I remain uneasy about some underlying assumptions that inform the structure of the lessons proffered in the earlier chapters. The chapter on “Taking care of things,” for instance, still carries the whiff of Aboriginal irresponsibility about its contrast between the fate of two cars, bought at the same time by a blackfella and a whitefella. (Guess which one becomes irreparable faster.) Or the chapter on “Being on Time,” which never stops to question whether “being on time” is fundamentally important. In the context of this little pamphlet, the issue seems trivial, and easily enclosed. But when it comes to larger questions of what we in the whitefella world like to call “time management,” these different cultural values are not so easily amenable to mutual resolution. The belief that attending funerals that may last for days or weeks is more important than going to a job every day or having children attend school without interruption remains a vexing cross-cultural problem.
Manners (in the sense of “good manners”) and standards of expected behavior do, as this book attempts to assert, reveal a great deal about values. But achieving a shared tolerance in social interaction goes only so deep in mutual accommodation. In the chapter on “Being on Time,” the whitefellas do the right thing by calling the community and explaining that their plane has been delayed and the meeting will not start at the appointed hour. However, the question of whether meetings must and should have an appointed time to start is never aired. Could the whitefellas have arrived in the community prepared to begin the meeting when all the appropriate parties were in the same spot, whatever time that might be? If so, and there were flexibility to the scheduling, would it simply raise other issues, like where would the outsiders sleep and eat if an overnight stay became necessary?
These are still just simple examples of the complexities that confront intercultural encounters, but they reflect important issues of value that we all too often don’t school ourselves in. They underlie truly significant challenges about the nature of appropriate housing and medical care in remote communities and they undoubtedly manifest themselves in the western suburbs of Sydney when it comes to relatives visiting from the back of Bourke or the sharing of welfare payments.
I don’t mean to disrespect AuSIL for their efforts, or to suggest that Whitefella Culture fails because it is not a deep investigation into complex questions of fundamental values. Indeed, AuSIL is a vigorous supporter of bilingual education, an opponent of the policy that demands that the first four hours (out of a total of five) of daily instruction be in English, and a proponent of greater consultation with communities in establishing social service programs of all sorts.
But nor do I want to affirm that the suggestions offered here are more than band-aids, or first steps, towards acceptance of the differences in value systems that make this pamphlet a necessary primer. Maybe someday, AuSIL will take advantage of its contacts and informants within the communities of central, northern, and northwestern Australia to fund the creation and publication of a companion book called Blackfella Culture.