In the first half of the twentieth century, right up until the 1960's, the Australian government sought to create a single, uniform white Australian culture. This was pursued through assimilation policies, which had devastating effects on Indigenous communities.
The 'Aboriginal Problem'
In the first half of the 20th century it was commonly thought that Indigenous people in Australia would inevitably die out. However, the growing population of “half-casts” (a term now considered derogatory for those people of Indigenous and white parentage) soon made it clear that the “Aboriginal problem” was not going to disappear.
The government’s solution was to discontinue its policy of protection, which separated Indigenous people from white society by placing them on reserves and missions, and to instead adopt an assimilationist approach. Assimilation policies proposed that "full blood" Indigenous people should be allowed to “die out” through a process of natural elimination, while "half-castes" were encouraged to assimilate into the white community.
This approach was founded on the assumption of black inferiority and white superiority. The assimilation approach was outlined at the Initial Conference of Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities in 1937:
"This Conference believes that the destiny of the natives of aboriginal origin (sic), but not of the full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth, and it therefore recommends that all efforts be directed to that end...The policy of the Commonwealth is to do everything possible to convert the half-caste into a white citizen.” (1)
Assimilation policies presumed that Indigenous Australians could enjoy the same standard of living as white Australians if they adopted European customs and beliefs and were absorbed into white society:
“The policy of assimilation means in the view of all Australian governments that all Aborigines and part-Aborigines are expected eventually to attain the same manner of living as other Australians and to live as members of a single Australian community enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same responsibilities, observing the same customs and influenced by the same beliefs, hopes and loyalties as other Australians.” (2)
However, in practice, assimilation further undermined Indigenous identity and culture and justified the dispossession of Indigenous people and the removal of Indigenous children from their parents. According to leading Indigenous academic, Professor Michael Dodson,
“Assimilation relied on the well-established and widely-accepted view that we were inferior to white Australians, that our way of life, our culture and our languages were substandard... Embedded within the policy of assimilation was a clear expectation of the cultural extinction of Indigenous peoples.” (3)
Forced to live on the fringes
During the assimilation era, many Indigenous people were forced to leave reserves, which were often reclaimed by governments for housing and mining. Although life on the reserves was oppressive, it was difficult for Indigenous people to find work in the towns and cities due to the prevalent racism in wider society. Indigenous people were often refused access to community venues and services, including hospitals and swimming pools. As a result, rather than being assimilated, Indigenous people were often forced to live in poverty on the fringes of town. (4)
Assimilation policies focused primarily on children, who were considered more adaptable to white society than Indigenous adults. Consequently, one of the main features of the assimilation era was the forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families.
Between 1910-1970, generations of Indigenous children were removed under these policies, and have become known as the Stolen Generations. “Half-caste” children were particularly vulnerable to removal, as it was thought that they could be more easily assimilated into the white community because of their lighter skin colour. The policies of child removal left a legacy of trauma and loss that continues to affect Indigenous communities, families and individuals. (5)
Assimilation, including child removal policies, failed its aim of improving the life of Indigenous Australians. One of the main reasons for this was the contradictory logic behind assimilation - it expected Indigenous people to take responsibility for becoming the same as white people, but never gave them the same rights or opportunities to do so.
Regardless of their efforts, Indigenous people were not accepted as equals in a society that still considered them to be an inferior race. This essential belief in the inferiority of Indigenous people and their culture undermined the objectives of assimilation policy and led to its failure. The devastating impact of assimilation policies on families and culture continues to affect Indigenous communities today.
Stop and think: have you ever struggled with being unaccepted?
Imagine having the people in authority over you automatically assume you are inferior based on something you have no ability to change. What would it feel like to be encouraged to be like the majority culture around you, but then be denied the rights and opportunities to do so?
Indigenous Australians still live with the reality that they are a minority group that is often expected to conform with majority norms, biases and values in regard to culture and lifestyle. They also live with the very real gap in well being that affects their ability to thrive within broader Australian society.