Indifferent Inclusion: Aboriginal people and the Australian Nation

Indifferent Inclusion: Aboriginal people and the Australian Nation

Aboriginal Studies Press
September 2011
288 pages
230 x 152mm; b/w Illustrations
Paperback ISBN: 9780855757793

Russell McGregor, Associate Professor of History
James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia

McGregor offers a holistic interpretation of the complex relationship between Indigenous and settler Australians during the middle four decades of the twentieth century. Combining the perspectives of political, social and cultural history in a coherent narrative, he provides a cogent analysis of how the relationship changed, and the impediments to change.

McGregor’s focus is on the quest for Aboriginal inclusion in the Australia nation; a task which dominated the Aboriginal agenda at the time. McGregor challenges existing scholarship and assumptions, particularly around assimilation. In doing so he provides an understanding of why assimilation once held the approval of many reformers, including Indigenous activists.

He reveals that the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the Australian nation was not a function of political lobbying and parliamentary decision making. Rather, it depended at least as much on Aboriginal people’s public profile, and the way their demonstrated abilities partially wore down the apathy and indifference of settler Australians.

Russell McGregor is Associate Professor of History at James Cook University in Townsville. He has published extensively on the history of settler Australian attitudes toward Aboriginal people, including the award-winning book Imagined Destinies. His other research interests are in Australian nationalism and environmental history.


  • Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Preface
  • Notes on Terminology
  • Abbreviations and Acronyms
  • Prologue: The Crimson Thread of Whiteness
  • Chapter 1: Preserving the National Complexion
    • Managing miscegenation
    • Hiding heredity
    • Opponents
    • Continuities and discontinuities
  • Chapter 2: Primitive Possibilities
    • Reappraising the primitive
    • Refiguring the federation
    • Humanitarians and activists
    • A new deal
  • Chapter 3: Aboriginal Activists Demand Acceptance
    • Conditional citizenship
    • Virile, capable and black
    • Representation and rights
    • Citizen soldiers
  • Chapter 4: Restricted Reconstruction
    • Postwar world order
    • Challenging white Australia
    • An anthropologist discovers citizenship
    • Appreciating the Aboriginal
  • Chapter 5: To Live as We Do
    • Stranded individuals
    • Avoiding ‘Aborigines’
    • Mobilising civil society
    • Attenuated identities
  • Chapter 6: Assimilation and Integration
    • Assimilation through tradition
    • An expedient slogan
    • Definitions and redefinitions
  • Chapter 7: Enriching the Nation
    • Respect and redemption
    • Sporting heroes
    • Indigenous wisdom
    • Appreciation and appropriation
  • Chapter 8: Fellow Australians
    • Voting rights
    • Drinking rites
    • Right wrongs, write yes
    • Special assistance or minority rights?
  • Chapter 9: After the Referendum
    • Dream time in Canberra
    • Land rights
    • An Aboriginal nation
  • Epilogue: Unfinished Business
  • Notes
  • Select Bibliography
  • Index

Chapter 1: Preserving the National Complexion

After the First World War, Australians began to notice a new trend among the Aboriginal population. Within their own enclaves, people of mixed descent were reproducing faster than white Australians. Remarking on this trend, demographer Jens Lyng observed in 1927 that ‘the idea of the White Australia ideal eventually being shattered from within cannot be dismissed as altogether absurd’.1 Lyng’s wording was guarded, and there is no evidence to suggest that the Australian public was alarmed by half-caste reproduction rates or fearful that it posed a threat to the national ideal. Some administrators of Aboriginal affairs were alarmed and fearful, however — or at least their statements on the issue were alarmist and fear-provoking. Two administrators in particular — Western Australia’s Chief Protector of Aborigines (later Commissioner of Native Affairs), AO Neville, and the Northern Territory’s Chief Protector of Aborigines, Cecil Cook — elevated the ‘half-caste menace’ to their highest priority.

Neville’s and Cook’s solution to the half-caste problem was biological absorption, colloquially called ‘breeding out the colour’. This entailed directing persons of mixed descent into marital unions with white people, so that after several generations of interbreeding all outward signs of Aboriginal ancestry would disappear. It held an incongruent array of aims and means. Absorption promised to resolve the supposed problems resulting from racial intermixture by encouraging still more intermixing. It aimed to uphold the ideal of white Australia but flew in the face of popular notions of white Australia as a doctrine of racial purity. While racist in many ways, absorption simultaneously defied prevalent racist assumptions of hybrid inferiority. It parallelled eugenicism in certain respects, but also clashed with eugenic principles. It was inspired partly by humanitarian welfarism, but evinced profound disdain for the subjects of its welfare interventions.

Despite these myriad inspirations and aspirations, absorption’s primary objective was accurately stated in its colloquial designation. It aimed to ‘breed out the colour’ — to physically transform persons of Aboriginal ancestry into white Australians and thereby bleach out the as yet small coloured stain in the national fabric. Half-castes must become white since whiteness was the essential qualification for national membership. Breeding the colour out of persons of Aboriginal descent was equally a program of breeding them into the community of the nation. This chapter argues that biological absorption in the interwar years should be understood in the context of a strongly ethnic conception of Australian nationhood, whereby myths of blood kinship provided the core of national cohesion. It also argues that while absorption was a variant of assimilation, it was in crucial respects different to the social assimilation which some critics were beginning to advocate in the 1930s, and which came to the fore after the Second World War

Read the entire chapter here.

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