Liz Conor, Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women. Perth, Western Australia: UWA Publishing 2016. RRP: $50.00, 310pp. ISBN: 9781742588070
European settler and Aboriginal race relations have always been prominent in Australian history as a whole. This tension caused by this first interaction has become an ingrained part of today’s society, directly relating to the foundation upon which this nation was built. The issues that plagued this country’s early society are in recent times remerging as important topics of political debate in both national and international media, and have continued to be integral to the shaping of our country as it grows.
Dr Liz Conor, ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University, journalist and author, is one person whose views on issues such as these are well-documented and well-respected, particularly through her work in New Matilda and as editor of Aboriginal History Journal. It is, therefore, no surprise that Conor would choose to continue her analysis of the subject in a more detailed form with her latest book, Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women.
Covering topics such as alleged cannibalism and infanticide within various tribes, as well as bride-capture, and the sexual relations between Aboriginal women and European settlers (and the impact this had on their place in society), Skin Deep is a social commentary on how Aboriginal women were perceived by European settlers.
Going beyond the perceptions of modern media to return to some of this country’s first documentations of the written word, such as travelogues and missionary’s diaries, this book gives examples of how Aborigines, and Aboriginal women in particular, were perceived by European settlers – and by extension – the world. Conor then traces how those particular accounts (uninformed and ignorant though they may have been) have worked to influence and impact white Australians’ relations with their Aboriginal counterparts through the re-iteration and repetition of said accounts by various modern media outlets in present times.
Take, for instance, Daisy Bates’ assertion that Aboriginal women engaged in the murder of their children, and subsequently eating the flesh because they enjoyed the taste. As one of the only first-hand accounts available in the 1920s, one would think that her tales could be taken as fact, particularly when she found a skull buried near an Aboriginal campsite, something which she used as further proof of her hypothesis. Upon examination it was proven that said skull was most likely that of a small animal rather than a child, hereby proving to the senselessness of Bates (and others’) theory (227). Despite this, Bates’ belief of Aboriginal women’s cannibalistic tendencies is something that continues to be widely held by much of the Australian population today, and often spouted by the uninformed, some of whom are in the public eye. This discourse works to continue the discriminatory acts made towards Aboriginal people today (237-238).
Consider also the use of Aboriginal women as sexual objects by many a European settler, something which was encouraged by officials, often referred to in various media and privately as ‘black velvet’, with particular ignorance to the respect given to older women in tribal hierarchy, due to their ‘ugly’ appearance (312-313, 333). Yet when Asian pearlers came to our shores, their relations with Aboriginal women were frowned upon by much of the population (312-313, 333). Such is the double standard.
Such things are forever prominent in Australian history, often referenced in the media, and should be handled with a certain amount of sensitivity; Conor does this easily. With each topic, be it the name-calling these women endured or the misinterpretation of their cultural traditions, she is ever aware of the impact this will have her potential audience. She considers not only the ‘white Australians’, whose eyes are open to this discrimination perhaps for the first time, but perhaps more importantly the Aboriginal women reading this book who might be affected by these tales of abuse by print media, and the repetition of invalid sources throughout the years. She adapts her writing to suit readers of all backgrounds, explaining unfamiliar or hard concepts in a succinct but careful way, never preaching or assuming they are aware of certain circumstances’ finer details. While we may be quick to blame the authors of said accounts for their ignorance to the culture and environment in which they found themselves, Conor does no such thing, and is careful to explain to us as the reader, how they might have come to their conclusions through the society in which they found themselves.
All chapters are written as though they were a collection of mini essays, with a very deliberate hypothesis which is then proven over the length of that particular chapter—aided by the reproduction of excerpts from various media, cartoons, photos and even paintings to enhance the reader’s understanding of the topic at hand—before coming to a final conclusion and moving onto the next topic of interest. Certainly, Skin Deep is no easy read: the topics covered don’t really allow for any enjoyment or pleasure to be taken from its pages. But it is intriguing, and important. The presentation of such facts and the influence it has had on society today is something which, as Conor infers, we as Australians need to be aware of and help change through our own actions or reactions.
Unless Australians can find a way to embrace the horror of their shared past, the deep-set issues that exist between Indigenous Australians and their white counterparts may never truly be resolved. But, in a country said to embrace multiculturalism, Conor’s Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women, may just be a step in the right direction.
Jackie Smith is a freelance journalist, editor and proofreader based in Brisbane. She has a keen interest in music, arts, culture, history, literature and film. Her work has been published through a variety of local and national media publications, from North Lakes Messenger to My Child Magazine, The Australia Times and AMNplify. If you want to read more of her work, follow her on Twitter (@jasmith_89).