Liz Conor, Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women. Crawley, WA: University of Western Australian Publishing, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-74258-807-0
Challenging the Amnesia of Everyday Racism
There are few lasting works by historians that set out to change the future by recording the past. This book by Liz Conor is certainly one. It should be the “eye of the needle” through which every parliamentarian, commentator or teacher is threaded.
In examining the tropes, types and perceptions that have come to dominate European encounters with Aboriginal women Liz Conor has had to negotiate a “king tide of malice” (368) that she knows is “deeply offensive … shocking … and nauseating” (7). While she fears that this material may “disturb all Australians” she also hopes that it has the “potential to incite a reckoning” and thereby “offer some safeguard for Aboriginal readers, especially women” into the future (7). Conor does this by “challenging the amnesia about our history of everyday cultural racism” (36).
Conor shows how in settler-colonial Australia numerous images of Aboriginal women were distributed. These women were not given their names, an “erasure of their identity” (3), but were referred to by other offensive categories (“gin”, “lubra” … ) in a “process of … cultural captioning” (3) that “classified them … as a class of Australian woman to whom sexual access was assured for settler men” (3); yet another extracted resource for the colonial enterprise (56).
Conor traces the origins of the “noble savage” / “native belle” idea and shows how in the eighteenth century “sexual accessibility [of the native belle] was considered an expression of unconstrained nature and was thereby innocent” (61). This cult, however, was quickly eroded by a “growing tide of evangelical opinion scandalized by descriptions of native morality” (61) and by the killings of prominent explorers and colonist-settlers. For Aboriginal women this meant that nakedness was soon attributed to “immodesty rather than innocence” (62), thus further sexualizing them, and justifying sexual predation.
Throughout the nineteenth century, as the colonial enterprise expanded, further typecasting of Aboriginal women, through name-calling and the repetition of tropes, was advanced to excuse contact violence and defend colonialism. Conor shows how Aboriginal women were now imagined as living lives of “deprivation” where they were routinely beaten by their men and subjected to cruelty (91-103). This new discourse of settler-colonial gallantry established Aboriginal women as in need of “saving” from “bride capture with a club” (93-94). Conor shows how these racist tropes, despite being refuted by the social anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in 1913, continued to be fully exploited into the twentieth century (122-34). The Reverend J. H. Sexton, for example, wrote in 1944 when outlining the urgency of his missionary endeavors: “[Aboriginal] women are crudely deflowered, beaten, and terrorized, lent to strangers, and enslaved in scores of unseemly ways. It is only through the redemption of missionary work that the lubra can find new hope and the black can be retrieved from the backwash” (cited in Conor, 139). To these crimes of physical abuse, were added the charges of polygamy and infanticide, not only to justify further the conquest but also to explain the decline of the Aboriginal population and to deflect attention from frontier violence.
Conor’s history is a devastating narrative that is meticulously researched and passionately written. She is utterly convincing in the way that she evokes the frontier as an “extremely perilous place for Aboriginal women” (144), and the many examples she gives of the “utter sadism” by settler-colonial men is appalling (142-151). But Conor’s history is not confined to the past. She also traces how the tropes of “bride capture with a club” and infanticide are continued into the twenty and twenty-first centuries as justifications for continued “interventions” into the lives of Indigenous people. Such non-Indigenous leaders, as Daisy Bates at the start of the twentieth century and Peter Howson (Minister of Aboriginal Affairs 1971-72) and Pauline Hanson at the end of it, perpetuate these lies about First Nations culture. Governments appeal to the need for “child rescue” to justify the Stolen Generations and Northern Territory Intervention.
Skin Deep is a powerful work of history that draws attention to the disregard of Indigenous women and children in settler-colonial society. As Conor concludes: “Constructing Aboriginal women as infertile, infanticidal, infirm and thereby as embodying their people’s terminus, rather than generation, was an alibi for the violence they endured on the frontier and in its aftermath and through the interventions of state administrations” (369-70). If only all administrations were made spend time with this book, and with Aboriginal women and communities; maybe then it would be the aim of all to “challenge the amnesia of everyday racism”.
Phillip Hall lives in Melbourne’s Sunshine (western suburbs) where he works as a poet and reviewer for such publications as Cordite and Plumwood Mountain. He is a very passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club. He also continues, through his writing, to honour First Nations in the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria where he has family and friends.