Reconciling (with) the Past: The Black Armband and White Blindfold Histories in and of Australia


by Tamara McGuire


Executive Summary

  • This article examines the role that an apology can have in the process of reconciling with historical injustices and how official apologies can help in the healing process.
  • Official apologies are controversial, at times tirelessly resisted and their purpose and significance is not always understood or accepted. This analysis is developed in relation to apologies offered in the context of the formal indigenous reconciliation process in Australia.
  • The ‘sorry’ apology by Kevin Rudd in 2008 will be at the forefront of debate, with discussion on the controversial issues sounding the apology.
  • This article questions whether one generation can and should apologise for another generation’s wrong doings? Also, should the sorry apology be viewed as only a small first step in formally reconciling with the past?
  • Another debate that this article addresses is the writing of aboriginal history, and in particular ‘white blindfold’ and ‘black armband’ histories that surround Australian aboriginal history.
  • Much contemporary discussion has focused on the ongoing debates about forgetting, responsibilities of guilt, atonement, and compensation.
  • And, also, how the writing of aboriginal history can be both highly politicised and deeply personal for the people involved.
  • Kevin Rudd’s apology has allowed for past historical injustices to be reconciled as an important step toward atoning for past wrongs.

Australia’s Stolen Generation is a chapter that would rather be forgotten and hidden from Australian history.  The writing of indigenous history is of a very political matter, and yet also very personal to those who are involved. The writing of Aboriginal history has never been free from political consequences. The literature discloses and strengthens the changing time of the dominant social and political ideas, especially relating to race and colonialism. In recent years, indigenous Australians have become more voiced about how their role in Australian history should be represented. It primarily is their story to tell, of course, but there are other (white) historians writing about Aboriginal stories and histories. When done without indigenous input, this can result in a one-sided debate reinforcing ideas that surround the white blindfold approach to history. More involvement with indigenous people and the personal side of the history being told, which many Australian do not know well, enables Australia to walk out of forgetfulness.  The political side to the indigenous history is reconciling for the past wrongs and historical injustices in the hope of moving forward. In relation to Australian history, this was achieved through then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s formal apology in federal parliament, which helped to make the writing of indigenous history both personal and political.

The political side to indigenous history is making up for past wrong doings and reconciling with the past in order to move forward. Prior to Rudd’s apology, much contemporary discussion had come to look like the ongoing debate occurring in Australia now about forgetting: who is going to take responsibility for the past?  And a further issue is atoning for historical injustice. White blindfold historians tried to pretend that Australian history was nothing other than a story involving the neat and humane progression of European civilisation, where no Aborigines were brutally beaten in the ways according to indigenous Australians, where no indigenous children were ever stolen, no families ever broken up, and whatever dislocation or hardship Aborigines experienced was accidental. There is also the Aboriginal perceptive of European settlement. Aborigines retaliated by branding the traditionalists as liars, and telling a version of Australian history that is not often heard until recent times, which reads like a long sequence of human rights abuses, with repeated acts of cruelty against the peaceful indigenous population. With these two sides Australian history it is evident that white blindfold historians rarely gave the Aboriginal people proper consideration within their writing. Without adequately including them in their interpretation of history they are unable to tell Australian history correctly. The white blindfold representation of history is just that: blinded to the facts, to the victims, and a whitewashing of the truth about when Australia was being colonised.

The Stolen Generation creates debate between historians. There is ongoing heated debate whether children were taken for their protection, which, by extension, divides opinion over whether there was a need for a governmental apology. The Stolen Generation refers to aboriginal children of mixed decent who were forcibly removed from their families as a part of official ‘Absorption’ policy. This policy was formed on the presumption that ‘full blood’ Aborigines would die off naturally and that the children of ‘mixed blood’ could be trained to be white and integrated in to mainstream society (as servants etc.), and over time the colour could be ‘bred out’. The belief was that Aborigines would be absorbed into white society and, therefore, people eventually could forget that there ever was a black Australia.

An official apology offered by the nation’s leader is both a means of accepting responsibility for the harm and suffering caused and of reconciling the injustices that have occurred. Official apologies have both a moral and practical role in the process of reconciling with past historical injustices. In the moral sense, apologies are an important aspect of reconciling with historical discrimination and also figuratively restoring the humanity that was denied to victims of past injustices. At the same time, it provides public acknowledgement of the suffering that was endured by the victims and their families, especially those of the Stolen Generation in relation to Australian history. Apologies can be and are a signal of willingness to take responsibility for the suffering caused by historical inequalities perpetrated by their political ancestors. To acknowledge that people’s rights have been violated is to recognise that they have been treated less than equals. According to Mills in Justice: A Reader, when a state or government recognises its responsibility for an injustice, the government is acknowledging that it has failed in its duty to ensure that people’s basic human rights have been respected. Consequently, Mills argues, Rudd’s ‘sorry’ speech was truly outstanding and needed to reconcile with the Stolen Generation as federal governments had repeatedly failed to acknowledge their basic human rights. An apology for past wrongs, however, is only one aspect of the healing process.

The apology Rudd offered to the Stolen Generation on behalf of the Australian people was the first step in the healing process for the victims and their families that suffered at the hands of his political ancestors and our ancestors. It has been reported that one in three children were removed from their families and communities. In this time no Aboriginal families escaped the effects of the forcible removal and many families were affected in one or more generations.

When it comes to apologies and the Stolen Generation in Australia, there is one debate that has ended: should one generation apologise for another’s mistakes? It was one these grounds that the Howard government steadfastly refused to apologise. Although, Howard did recognise that Aboriginal children had been removed from their homes and families he also believed that it was unfair to for his generation (and him personally) to take responsibility for the acts of earlier generations. It is impossible to judge past practices by today’s standards. Today’s standards have improved dramatically and will continue to improve; therefore, generations will look back at today’s generation and the mistakes that were made by the political leaders of our era. This is why it is difficult to look back and judge the past actions of previous generations.

On 13 February 2008, Kevin Rudd apologized on behalf of the Australian nation and previous governments to the Stolen Generation for the past historical injustices and wrong doings. This was the first step towards repairing the damage between white Australians and indigenous Australians, reconciling for the pain and suffering that was endured by Aborigines who were removed from their homes, families, and communities. It still is morally wrong, however, to judge past actions by today’s standards. They thought they were doing what was right at the time, following their policies that had been put in place. However racist the political leaders or their policies seemed to be, judging the past is impossible to do with the high standards that are held today.  It is assumed that they did not believe that they were discriminating against Aborigines; they thought that, by removing the children from their homes and families, they could gain a society like they had at home, a society that they were used to. They did not know any different, the Aborigines were of a different colour, had a different culture, and the white Europeans could not comprehend the Aborigines’ lifestyle choices. One should not apologize for the policies that were in place during that generation, however, as the debate over other generations apologizing on behalf of others arising again.  Kevin Rudd did not cause their pain, nor did his government remove children from their homes and communities. Nonetheless, he apologised for the past historical injustices that the Stolen Generation endured.

Official apologies are the first process in reconciling with the past and historical injustices that may have occurred. Australia has made the first step in reconciling with the past through the ‘sorry apology’ by Kevin Rudd in 2008. It will continue to be debated, however, whether one generation can and should apologize for another’s mistakes or past wrong doings. There has been a great deal of debate over the Stolen Generation and the so-called white blindfold version of history that continues to deny that genocide occurred as children were forcibly removed from their families. Apologies are an important aspect of reconciling with historical discrimination and they also can help restore the humanity that was denied to the victims of past injustices. Public acknowledgment, however, was needed to ease the suffering of the Stolen Generation that continues to resonate in Australia today. The apology to the Stolen Generation was definitely needed; but it should not have been made on behalf of contemporary Australians who were not involved in the act of steeling Aboriginal children. It nonetheless was important for Kevin Rudd to acknowledge the suffering and reconcile for past historical injustices.



Selected further reading:

Fejo-King, C, ‘The National Apology to the Stolen Generation: The ripple effect’, Australian Association of Social Workers, vol. 64, no. 1, 2011, pp. 130-143.

Murphy, M, ‘Apology, Recognition and Reconciliation’, Springer, vol. 12, 2011, pp. 47-69.

Barta, T, ‘sorry, and not sorry, in Australia: how the apology to the stolen generations buried a history of genoicde’, Journal of Genocide Research, vol 10, no. 2, 2008, pp. 201-214.

Ann McGrath and Andrew Markus, 1987, ‘European views of Aborigines’ in D.H, Borchardt (ed.), Australians: A guide to sources, Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Associates, Sydney, p. 117.

Raimond Gaita, A Common Humanity: Thinking About Love & Truth & Justice, Melbourne: Text, 1999, p 110

C. McGarty, 2005 ‘Group-based guilt as a predictor of commitment to apology’, British Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 44, no. 4, pp. 659-680.


© APH Network and contributors 2012. All rights reserved.


Citation: Tamara McGuire, Reconciling (with) the Past: The Black Armband and White Blindfold Histories in and of Australia. Australian Policy and History. October 2012.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/reconciling-past

Permanent link to this article: http://aph.org.au/reconciling-past