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Is it time for a theory of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander masculinity?

Kerry Arabena

As current Program Chair and former CEO of the Lowitja Institute, I took great pleasure in celebrating the recent 20-year anniversary of both the Institute and its associated Cooperative Research Centres. To mark the event, the Lowitja Institute commissioned a brief history, Changing the Narrative in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research, which it launched at Parliament House on 9 August. The publication details the evolution of collaborative and culturally appropriate ways of conducting health research that has a clear and positive impact for our communities. And although 20 years seems like a long time, it isn’t really. It is just over six policy cycles. We still have much to do.

This same week, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights has criticised the Turnbull government’s characterisation of welfare recipients, particularly those who use alcohol and drugs, observing that Australia’s ‘mid twentieth century language’ about welfare ran counter to the tendency internationally to use the more modern language of ‘social protection’. Also this week, Senator Patrick Dodson responded to an article in which graphic footage of violence in some Western Australian communities was released to the media. Although the footage was shocking, Dodson stressed that regional WA towns are not ‘war zones’, and that their residents should be treated with respect. He also responded to the overuse of simplistic language in which community members, particularly Aboriginal men, are vilified as the sole culprits for these appalling abuses. He went on to state that what is truly required are community people knowing about, then using circuit breakers that respond to, the multitude of issues contributing to the deep trauma and anxiety caused by alcohol and drug misuse, domestic violence and sexual abuse. That is why I am proud of the efforts of the Lowtija Institute to address these and other issues relating to how we can all value and honour the roles of our young men, the genesis of work on reclaiming ideals of maleness derived from deep and enduring cultural values and relationships, as advocated for by men recorded in Dr. Brian McCoys’s work ‘Holding Men’.

Advocating for an approach in which men and women work together at a community level, as well as at local and regional levels, to help all members of communities find their feet is critical to redefining our strength and positivity. Controlling and managing our affairs through principles of kinship, reciprocity, working together and respect is something that sits well with the Lowitja Institute – above all other research funders. In the First 1000 Days Australia movement, calls for men and women to work together to strengthen families for now and for the future has both an evidence base and a social function. Although both men and women experience trauma, they respond differently, as they do to the experience of anxiety. Children have attachment to their birth parents, no matter what their experience of being with those parents is like, and we need, in turn, to respond appropriately to this. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women across the country are calling for families to have the type of relationships between and with each other, and with their children, that breaks cycles of trauma, heals our families and sets us up for a brighter, happier, healthier future. Part of that future, in my view, needs to be premised on a ‘theory of masculinity’ developed by and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and supported by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

Dr Vandana Shiva, an Indian scholar, environmental activist and anti-globalisation author is someone I have long admired, and her influence in my development of the key concepts inherent in the First 1000 Days Australia movement is evident. I am a Social Worker with a PhD in Environmental Science and President of the International Ecology and Health Association after all! Her Essays on Monocultures of the Mind was particularly powerful, showing how local knowledge is displaced and eradicated as part of the ongoing colonial project through its interactions with dominant Western knowledge. This erasure takes place at many levels, through many steps. First, local knowledge is made to disappear by simply not seeing it, by negating its very existence. ‘Monocultures of the mind’ generate models of production that destroy diversity and legitimise that destruction as progress, growth and improvement. From the perspective of ‘monocultures of the mind’, productivity and yields appear to increase when diversity is erased and replaced with uniformity; and in the case of our early childhood services, I would suggest the roles and contribution of men to families have been negated; and the roles and resourcing of universal early childhood services elevated, through people and systems invested in attitudes founded in monoculture thinking and action.

Western systems of knowledge have generally been viewed as universal. However, dominant systems are also local systems, with their social basis in a particular culture (non-Indigenous), class (middle) and gender (male). It is not universal in an epistemological sense, merely the globalised version of a very local and parochial tradition emerging from a dominating and colonising culture. What I learned from Dr Shiva and others is that, from a perspective of diversity, monocultures are impoverished systems both qualitatively and quantitatively. They are also highly unstable and non-sustainable systems. Monocultures spread not because they produce more, but because they control more. Thus, the expansion of monocultures has more to do with politics and power than with enriching and enhancing systems premised on diversity and locality. What we need to do is reclaim men’s capacity for nurturance and bring their role and contributions into early childhood in ways that are in line with the First 1000 Days Australia Council Charter of Rights, and specific to families, communities, nations and geographic regions.

Applied to the First 1000 Days Australia movement, which we are building to respect the diversity and legitimacy of local knowledge about culture, caring and parenting.  This approach has seen us:

  • Take an ecological approach to how we do our work, understanding that we are born into ecosystems not societies. This is important positioning, as the world is gripped by the sixth largest mass extinction and, over the next 50 years, our children will have to respond to a series of global megatrends including planetary pushback. Positioned at the commencement of the 21st century, we need to be forward looking.
  • Undertake to support strategies for local and regional programs that are both founded on a celebration of local knowledges and proudly acknowledge people’s capacities for contribution OUTSIDE of the universal service system. These strategies include Welcome Babies to Country programs, building of a ‘culture as therapy’ workforce, and supporting local entrepreneurial activity to escape being trapped in welfarised ‘service delivery systems’ that permeate Indigenous Affairs.
  • Build on and support the role of both our men and women in our First 1000 Days Australia work. Indigenous Dads have so much to contribute to our families, as can be seen by the many dads who are celebrated in the #IndigenousDads movement, which has reclaimed the inspirational role that so many men provide for their partners, their children and other children in their lives more generally.

‘Monocultures of the mind’ approaches to the issues impacting on our families have also seen the erasure of the role and contribution of our men to strong, healthy and empowered households. In the protection of our children, our men – their identity, their contribution to healthy, happy households has been made invisible. Our men and their contribution to families are impacted on by western ideals implicit in the economic concepts of development, improvement and engagement.  This strategy has been pervasive; ever since the 2007 Northern Territory Intervention the inflammatory message that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men are not capable caregivers is not, nor should it be, acceptable.

Because of it, our society has lost so much. The roles and responsibilities of men as fathers have become absent in the policy and program resource chain, and they are not often valued or seen as contributors to our children’s health and wellbeing. What our men lose is an appreciation of their capacity for nurturance and their role as key contributors to the health and wealth of our households. When I first looked in early childhood policy documents I could not see our men represented in policy as anything other than perpetrators of violence, overrepresented in the criminal justice system and in the suicide statistics and as ‘having high levels of disease’, particularly in the sexual and reproductive health literature. This representation of our men shakes the very foundations of our families and communities. And their absence in early childhood policy and programs falsifies the gender roles and responsibilies in our communities and accomplishes the colonial mission that was started more than 200 years ago – through modern knowledge systems premised on monocultures and monopolies.

In part to disrupt these knowledge systems, and to empower men as nurturers, First 1000 Days Australia advocates changing the names of ‘child and maternal health services’ to move beyond privileging the biological role that women play in the carrying of their children and recognising the social circumstance into which children are born. First 1000 Days Australia advocates for child and family services, with an emphasis on men’s capacity for care. We are interested in SMS4Dads as a program, for example, to assist men prepare for the birth of their baby by attending men’s antenatal classes and having other men to talk to about the transition to fatherhood.

We want to provide space for men to support each other in their fatherhood journey, and as carers of children. We appreciate the roles of uncles, brothers and cousins in the care of children. We want to hear from men about how best to support them respond to the needs and aspirations of their partners and children in powerful and tender ways. We need a gender equity approach to raising our children, and to recognise there are single fathers out there who are doing it tough, and who need supports from services and other families to know they are doing ok. We also recognise the value of those men who support anti-violence campaigns, who work in our early childhood centres, who mentor and help our young men prior to becoming dads and who stick with them through those important early years. This work, while valuing our men, has not yet developed a theoretical underpinning but it is high on our agenda.

First 1000 days Australia also wants to disrupt the ‘monocultures of the mind’s’ pervasive attitude that needs to erase the role and contribution of our men, and to replace our values with those that extend structures perpetuating the colonial project. We need to examine the ways in which colonial practices have diminished our beliefs about gender, race and privilege and to address the impact of these, particularly in constructing only two distinct genders – men and women. Perhaps there can be something learned from other Indigenous authors who are reclaiming Indigenous masculinity. I don’t often say this out loud, but, having been a long time single parent, I have often described myself as both ‘mother and father for my children’. Perhaps, if I were to decolonise my mind, I would have said something more nuanced like. ‘I am a woman who has also had to call on my masculine self to raise my children’. We are people, with male and female hormones, who can embody both masculine and feminine expressions of self in our one body. In this way, I can release myself from colonial constructs of separateness, power, privilege and embodiment.

What will assist the work of First 1000 Days Australia is for men to address the lack of critical attentiveness to Indigenous masculinities in Australia, through our own knowledge systems and under the leadership of Indigenous academics. We would be so proud to take carriage of these findings into our activities and support our way forward – as families and as communities – together.

And it is starting – through the Lowitja Institute. Through the Lowitja Institute we can explore the full range of options available to us, and set an agenda to suit ourselves both now and into the future. I cannot imagine another research institute being able to create then hold the space for the discussions that need to be had, to bring this research agenda to life. It is an exciting time for the Program Committee, whose members are working with others in designing research questions that will make a difference, and change the narrative about what it means to be an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander man caring for our children. Over the next year or so, the Lowitja Institute will support a program of research related to valuing our men, which is being led by a group of men and supported by women, to start to lay the way forward for all of us.

Nothing defines a society so much as how they care for children. It is our job, our responsibility to care for our children; particularly in calls across the country for Treaty. We need to start to define how we are going to raise Treaty Kids, living Treaty Lives, in Treaty Families, with Treaty fathers caring for Treaty mothers if we are going to make Treaty real. We look forward to seeing our people take the lead in these important conversations and that our combined efforts bring about positive generational change for our children. We celebrate the Lowitja Institute, and for its past 20 years of changing the narrative in Indigenous health research. May we be resourced to do this for the next 20 years – and beyond.