Wedged between Failure as “Cultural” & the Black Cultural Cringe

We must not tolerate a narrative that failure is “cultural” and achievement is “white”.
As Indigenous people we should be able to aspire, achieve and be leaders in our own communities & society at large, free of bigotry & lateral racism. 

By Warren Mundine
Executive Chairman, Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce

An edited version of this paper was published in The Daily Telegraph on 17th October 2013

I recently visited Alice Springs to deliver the inaugural Baker IDI Central Australia Oration on the subject of Indigenous health. I took the opportunity to meet up with organisations who are working in and with Aboriginal communities in Central Australia as well as representatives from the Central Land Council and Government.

According to the last census there are around 4,700 Indigenous people in Alice Springs. 900 of these live in impoverished housing communities known as town camps. About 1,600 live in Tennant Creek, 500 of them in town camps. There are around 10,000 Indigenous people in the regions surrounding Alice Springs and Tennant Creek, in small communities, former missions, traditional homelands, outstations or other settlements.

Home in a town camp

Indigenous communities in Central Australia experience the problems typical to remote Indigenous communities across Australia with poor health, housing, literacy and education and high unemployment. Parts of the town camps resemble third world living conditions even though in urban areas.

There is no shortage of good ideas on how to close the gap and bring economic development to Central Australian Indigenous communities. I met many people in Alice Springs who are making a difference and who have good solutions to address these problems.

But one of the biggest challenges for the new Government in Indigenous affairs will be overcoming the stubborn effects of inter-generational welfare dependency, passive service delivery and a growing culture of failure in welfare dependent communities.

The only pathway out of poverty is education and work. People in communities with inter-generational welfare dependency don’t work, many are illiterate and school attendance is low to non-existent. Over the last forty years “sit-down money” has kept generations in poverty and also bred community dysfunction and anti-social behaviours.

One such behaviour is “humbugging”. That is actually too soft a word for it. It is really begging, demanding, bullying, extorting or robbing people of their welfare payments, royalties or income, often through intimidation and violence.

Disproportionately, humbuggers target women and older people: wives, girlfriends, mothers and grandparents. People with jobs are also targeted. I know of mining companies who have trained and hired Indigenous people in well paid fly-in-fly-out jobs, only to see them quit after their first trip home. The pressure and threats towards the workers to hand over their wages was simply too much. All the organisations I met in Alice Springs raised humbugging as a major hurdle to the success of their work.

Incarceration and criminal activity is another problem. Incarceration rates amongst Indigenous people, males in particular, are appallingly high. Nationally, indigenous people comprise 25% of the prison population and half of juvenile detention. In Central Australia the proportion is much higher. Incarceration rates are so high in some communities it’s becoming normalised, almost a rite of passage for some young men.

I visited a group of Aboriginal boys in juvenile detention in Alice to participate in its Positive Role Model program. last week. Their stories reflect others I’ve heard: no schooling except in detention; they find it difficult to adjust back in their communities when they leave the routine environment of a juvenile institution; they have all had skills training but it hasn’t translated to a job; they have difficulty adjusting to life outside detention; and some prefer detention to living at home.

The social realities of welfare-dependent communities discourage education and work. Why work if you get more money humbugging? Why work if you’ll be constantly harassed for money or beaten if you don’t hand over your wages? Why attend school if your peers don’t; or if prison will mark your credibility? Why contribute to a community which is so bad you prefer detention?

We could establish top schools and thriving commercial enterprises next to every disadvantaged Indigenous community in Australia and provide a job and case-managed training for every unemployed adult there. But if those adults do not take up the job and stay in it, and if the children do not go to school, then nothing will change.

When I spoke to the boys in juvenile detention I told them a story about an Aboriginal boy. He was from a good family but had started to drift. He had become a lost, angry teenager. Despite attending school, he could not read or write above primary level. On many occasions he got into fights, alcohol, drugs and generally up to no good. Finally he was arrested and detained as a juvenile. Fortunately for him he had strong support from his parents, the local priest and a white couple from the neighbourhood. They spoke up for him in court and he was given another chance. They continued to encourage and mentor him. He got a labouring job, completed his schooling at night and never looked back.

My message to the boys was that nothing needs to be out of reach for them, that failure is not their natural path in life.

It worries me that anti-social behaviour is becoming a mark of status, even a livelihood, in some populations. It worries me more that failure is becoming part of community culture and young people’s expectation of their future. In traditional Indigenous culture, people were expected to contribute to community, obey the law and show respect. Sit-down money over generations weakens those values, with failure becoming a new cultural norm.

There is another problem. Successful black people experience a particular bigotry, a vicious variation of the tall poppy syndrome whereby a black person who is successful, votes conservative or attains mainstream leadership or material wealth is a sell out and a traitor to their identity, their people and their culture; they pursue personal benefit over the rights and freedoms of their race and the needs of their community; they are disloyal to their race. The bigotry comes with various labels; “Uncle Tom”, “house nigger”, “uppity nigger”, “uptown nigger”, “Oreo” or “coconut” (black on the outside and white on the inside).

See for yourself. Google one of these expressions together with the name of any black political leader, successful business person, judge, senior military officer, or any black community leader or activist who has been willing to negotiate or work with a non-Left political party, from any part of the Western world. People experiencing this bigotry include Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, Whitney Young Jr, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Morgan Freeman and even Spike Lee.

Often these slurs are dished out by other black people and therefore assumed to be non-racist. But they must be racial slurs because the insults are only directed at black people. No-one ever calls a white person an “Uncle Tom”, “house nigger” or “coconut”. An insult that is reserved for one particular race or colour is a racial slur.

President Barack Obama, Former Secretary of State General Colin Powell and Former Secretary of State Dr Condoleeza Rice. Arguably the three most senior black political and government figures in US history and the subject of racial slurs because of their success, political views or professional decisions.

The message behind the Uncle Tom narrative is that successful black people have gone above their station, disowned their identity and become white. It’s a dangerous narrative – because it only makes sense if you believe white people are superior.

Indigenous people insulted in this way include Mick Gooda, Noel Pearson, Ken Wyatt, Bess Price and Neville Bonner. To suggest any of them have disowned their identity is ludicrous. They (and indeed all Indigenous leaders that I know or have worked with) are acutely focussed on and protective of their communities and cultures. They may disagree over politics or have different ideas on how to address Indigenous disadvantage, but they have spent most of their lives advocating and campaigning for the advancement of Indigenous people and cultures.

People in the “twitterverse” will be aware of the racial slurs and bigotry I’ve been subject to for agreeing to chair the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council. I’ve been called an “Uncle Tom”, “house nigger”, “coconut” and even “monkey”.

This is not new for me. I was first called an “uptown nigger” over 30 years ago. From memory my offence was to wear a suit and tie and attend University. I’ve been levelled with these kinds of insults many times since for similar infringements.

Yet my record also speaks for itself. I’ve been deeply involved in Indigenous politics, education, culture and advancement for over 30 years; it is my life’s work. I have championed and supported Indigenous land and cultural rights, started an Aboriginal dance & culture group for children and supported NAISDA; promoted and lobbied for Indigenous education needs including through the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation and in the Yilpara homelands; worked to advance Aboriginal land rights and native title rights over many years. I gave my children Bundjalung or Wiradjuri names and have been active in my ancestral lands.

My record doesn’t lend itself to a sell out tag, but that doesn’t stop people from scraping the barrel: – I married a white woman, I’m willing to work with non-Left politicians to further the interests of Indigenous people and there’s that whimsical comment that I’m the “white sheep of the family”. Add in some bitterness from Labor apparatchiks and disputed hearsay from obvious detractors and – voila – I’m a coconut, an Uncle Tom, a traitor to my culture.

Indigenous people are being wedged. At one end of the spectrum there are Indigenous communities where failure is becoming normalised. At the other end there is disapproval of Indigenous people who “better themselves” or succeed outside specific confines.

It is incorrect and bigoted to suggest that success and leadership are not part of Indigenous cultures. Traditional Indigenous cultures were principled, hierarchical and disciplined. Elders, lawmen and songmen were leaders within the clans. They led people through ceremony and community members deferred to them. Leadership and influence were very much part of these cultures. Traditional cultures had no concept of a tall poppy.

The Uncle Tom narrative is sinister. It substitutes the proud and strong Indigenous cultures – where success and authority were valued and respected – with a culture of failure and oppression.

The story I told the boys in juvenile detention was of course a story about me. I was the lost, angry teenager who was not job literate and got into trouble. I was the teenager fortunate enough to be diverted to a different pathway. I was the kid whose life was heading to failure who managed to turn it around. My message to those boys was that through education and work they could achieve, even if they had made mistakes. The last thing these kids need to hear is that if they succeed they will be betraying their people.

Indigenous people should be encouraged to achieve. We will not close the gap and overcome inter-generational welfare dependency if Indigenous people believe that success and prosperity is just for white people; that achievement means abandoning culture; that incarceration is a rite of passage; and that success will invite humbugging or racial abuse. Worse still if those messages come from Indigenous people themselves.

We must not tolerate a narrative that failure is “cultural” and achievement is “white”.

All Indigenous people should want to increase their skills, to aspire, work, achieve and be leaders in our own communities and society at large. And we need to be free to do this without bigotry and lateral racism. And to do so proudly.


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  1. This is a brilliant article! It’s lucid, inspirational, honest and it breaks new ground, because it tells the truth! Congratulations!

  2. Tassie Boy says:

    Excellent Warren. Keep on going.

  3. Thank you Warren, for telling it like it is. Education, work and effort are the keys. The opportunities are there, people have to find ways to grasp them. That’s genuine ‘self-determination’.

  4. Greg Crofts says:

    Great article, very honest. Having travelled and worked in several communities in the NT and Western Australia over the past 18 months I have seen firsthand many of the issues and observations Warren makes. My concern is that the “white CEO’s and white Board members” are holding back the indigenous development of self-management, family, health, education and sustainable business. We need to change white management practices, white management should act with consultation and advice and they must have succession plans geared towards indigenous people.

  5. I like the article and the importance of story and narrative that is playing out, thankyou. My own experience of conversations about ‘humbugging’ with indigenous brothers and sisters has often turned into a defensive one, as they staunchly defend where it originates from – one of a sharing and caring culture – but ‘humbugging’ of today has unintended consequences, as it struggles to integrate with the modern culture of today…..

  6. Leon Nehow says:

    Great article. As a former Queensland Correctional Officer, I know firsthand what it is to be called an Uncle Tom, coconut and uptown n*gger. I understand it comes with the territory…..What would bug me more however is the attitude from (men who should know better) the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Prisoners would think they are a man because they are in jail. They got it wrong….A man looks after his family, provides for his family, mentally, spiritually and physically. And no…it is not ‘Culturally’ acceptable to bash you wife either.

    I tell my 3 sons to reach for the stars and when opportunities arise….don’t be ‘shame, shy or gammon’ or have the attitude ‘blackfellas’ can’t do that, but give ‘yourself’ permission to shine and go for it no matter what people say. I’ll get off my soap-box now….

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