Book Review: Trapped in the Gap: Doing Good in Indigenous Australia

Trapped in the Gap: Doing Good in Indigenous Australia. Emma Kowal, New York: Berghahn Books, 2015, 198 pp.

In Australia, the poorer health of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples when compared to the non-Indigenous people is not a secret. Indigenous and non-Indigenous health bodies, non-government, and human rights organizations in Australia have collaborated to work toward achieving health and life expectation equality for Indigenous (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Australians. This has been known as the “Close the Gap Campaign” that, according to Kowal (p. 35), has become a “virtual slogan of Indigenous affairs.” The campaign’s goal is to close the health and life expectancy gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians by 2030.

Trapped in the Gap: Doing Good in Indigenous Australia by Emma Kowal is closely related to this realm. It critically explores the ways in which the motivations and circumstances of well- meaning, white, middle-class, anti-racist people working in the realm of Australian Indigenous health may need to be taken into consideration and how they are to be worked with in regard to future interdisciplinary, anthropological, and health-related endeavors. Positioned at the center of the debate are the concerns, inherent issues, and understandings of what it means to identify as “white anti- racists” and what this tells us about the important, comprehensive, and complex tasks of helping Indigenous people in Australia. Situated at the intersection of anthropology, whiteness studies, and postcolonial studies, Trapped in the Gap aims to challenge current understandings of racial inequality and its alleviation.

The research question guiding the debate is: When a group of relatively intelligent, well-meaning people, supported by the state, attempts to enact a mode of difference that is non-oppressive, does this make any difference? Deriving from this question, the reader wonders how and in which forms “difference” will be examined, illustrated, and addressed throughout the debate. Set in Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia, the white anti-racists hope to contribute to closing the gap between Indigenous and non- Indigenous health and discrepancies and social outcomes in attempts to normalize Indigenous life expectancy. Darwin is one of Australia’s frontier towns, with a relatively high Indigenous population, and its population is made up of diverse cultures and subcultures of which Indigenous and non-Indigenous are the broadest categories.

Drawing attention to cultural difference being situated within an Indigenous health institute in Darwin, the racialization of the space is introduced as a given, as those walking through the front door are referred to either as Indigenous or non- Indigenous people. Thus, the racial identities that form components of that space of consideration multiply. For instance, the Indigenous people could be community people living in either remote, urban, or other settings, and non- Indigenous people might be white or both non-white and non-Indigenous; the Whites could be rednecks, or they could be anti- racist. What this suggests is that people who are both non-white and non- Indigenous are somewhat immune from being considered racist; and according to Kowal, those not yet known to the viewer could best be classified as possibly- Indigenous.

I use this example because it illustrates the carefulness, particular attention, and comprehensiveness in which the author refers to cultural diversity and each of the possibilities that could derive from this diversity. In that regard, a particular strength of Trapped in the Gap is that it is not only very thoughtfully and persuasively written, well-researched, and thoroughly grounded theoretically, but that it also manages to sensitively present and engage with the material at hand by simultaneously and successfully alerting readers to the disciplinary arenas of anthropology, history, health promotion, and public health in Australian Indigenous health.

Issues that are meant to be overcome in regard to the book’s theme are the positional and socio-economic inequities inherent in helping and being supportive of someone. In other words, as soon as one aims to be good and supportive of someone other than oneself, inequities in the positioning of each and all of the people within the cycle of relationships come to the fore. How is one to address these inequities and how [my emphases] is one to potentially escape and overcome those different sociocultural positionings between those who try to help and support Aboriginal people and those who try to reiterate the importance of an “authentic Aboriginal voice” but are not necessarily in a position to overcome the cultural differences of being positioned as the well-meaning and supportive other?

What does it mean to be a person who identifies as anti-racist? While the majority of participants in the group under study do not object to the label “white anti-racist,” they would more readily self-identify as “non-Indigenous.” Kowal’s decision to work with the label of white anti-racist instead of non-Indigenous Australians overcomes the oppositional labeling of non-Indigenous to Indigenous and a second dichotomy that is situated within the first—that between conservatives and progressives. For the purpose of illuminating this double dichotomy, the label of white anti-racists is chosen (p. 11).

A highly stimulating and thoughtfully illustrated point of the debate is the way in which difference is addressed and articulated by referring to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal history, culture and language, communication styles, family structures, personal expectations, and people’s social worlds. How can and should these differences be presented and portrayed so that they do not end up referring to that difference without ensuring equal recognition in their own right(s)? Obviously, the ways in which we think of Aboriginal difference has a major impact on how we aim to address and overcome Indigenous disadvantage. While the majority of concepts addressing Aboriginal differences lie somewhere between being totally different or being equivalent, Kowal’s (p. 32) starting point that there have only been a few studies of the non-Indigenous half of the intercultural field per se is correct.

This is a book worthwhile reading, but a slightly weak point is its inconclusiveness with regard to what we can do with the valuable insights and thoroughly engaging debate that have been presented. A more comprehensive outcome in terms of contribution and future purpose would have been useful. Although the limitations deriving from current modes of recognition are mentioned, it is further acknowledged that it is difficult to imagine what “viable, non-oppositional identities might look like” and that “they are worth exploring” (p. 170).

Students interested in Australian Aboriginal health, anthropology, the social sciences more broadly, health promotion and public health as well as interdisciplinary arenas will gain from the perspectives and insights presented throughout the book.

Students at introductory levels of education, anthropology, public health, and Australian Indigenous health may have problems because of the variety of perspectives referred to without providing sufficient ethnographic contextualization at the same time. However, Trapped in the Gap is a must-read for students at upper levels in the social sciences of Australian Indigenous health and indigenous health around the globe. Further, I recommend the book to anyone interested in social and cultural conceptualizations of identities, the politics of health and illness, and inequity in relationships between those in power and those who are marginalized.

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