First Contact and the diversity of ignorance

By Sam Ryan | 26 Nov 14

First Contact | Blackfella Films

As one of the 60 per cent of Australians with little or no real contact with Indigenous Australia, First Contact promised to be insightful, educational and potentially challenging viewing.

As a vehicle for us to journey passively with six disconnected white Australians and learn from their experiences while encountering the breadth of Indigenous Australia, it could only deliver so much. What it did do was provide a fascinating insight into the diversity of ignorance.

A commercial station may have insisted upon all six participants being overt “racists”, in a direct confrontational journey to maximise conflict and excitement. But the most insidious forms of racism are those that bubble beneath the surface, not clearly identifiable and as a result, harder to eradicate. The “sympathetic” Alice and Marcus perhaps had the least interesting personal journeys, but allowed a key point to emerge: most of us suffer from an ignorance that fills the gap within this massive disconnect.

Even the more well-informed Australians speak of “these people” and the “Aboriginal problem”, not least of all, host Ray Martin).  First Contact demonstrated that the persistent misunderstanding prevalent in non-Indigenous Australians’ understanding of indigenous Australians comes perhaps from both the racist and the sympathetic continuing to argue about “the issue” in terms of a singular group with universal needs, aspirations and desires.

This not only makes ignorance more difficult to overcome, but groups and reduces people, allowing negative attitudes and perceptions to fester. Frankly, admirable as it was for law enforcement officer Trent to humbly renounce the views stated at the start of the series, it should not have required a trip around the country to realise that the contact he’d had with Aboriginals through his work was not necessarily representative of an entire culture.

“Ignorance – regarding countless issues – is inevitable, and not inherently harmful. It’s benign until infected by prejudice; harmless so long as acceptance of it prevents conviction and judgement.”

Perhaps the most important message emerged during thereunion from Sharyn Derschow, who hosted participants while they visited the Pilbara:

“The only time I felt Australian is overseas … But when I walk back in through Customs, through immigration and all that, I pick my skin back up and have that racist radar and such, those emotions, carrying the anxiety again. Only when I’m out of Australia do I feel Australian.”

This is an unsettling observation that probably reflects poorly on both disconnected sympathetic progressives as well as “rednecks”.

Ignorance – regarding countless issues – is inevitable, and not inherently harmful. It’s benign until infected by prejudice; harmless so long as acceptance of it prevents conviction and judgement. With an open mind, awareness of ignorance should inspire us to seek knowledge and to listen.

Jasmine claims that she “was ignorant; not racist, ignorant.” But when you have such strong views as those she had expressed from a place of willing ignorance, does it matter if it’s termed racist or not?

The three who went in with visibly racist views (not including Sandy, who left early) seemed to gain a lot more from the experience. They were constantly challenged and eventually able to confront and shift their personal beliefs, admitting they’d been wrong – an admirable thing for any person to do.

Changing our perceptions is difficult. First Contact not only gave a valuable insight into part – even a very small part – of Indigenous Australia, but also offered a lesson in opening our minds and understanding.

“Personal connections always trumped the ignorance,” noted Stan Grant during the reunion. Not everyone can go on the journey these six (well, five) did, but we don’t have to in order to avoid damaging ignorance. It shouldn’t require a journey to start listening to people who have a different culture or opinion to ourselves.

First Contact is temporarily available on SBS On Demand.