Warrior woman – the trials and triumphs of Marcia Langton

We have waited 122 years to recognize in our Constitution the privilege that we have of sharing this continent with the oldest continuous culture on earth. I say to Australians, do not miss this opportunity.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese

People will forget what you said. people will forget what you did. but people will never forget how you made them feel. people want to be treated justly. perceived injustices can create enmity, and enmity is the beginning of the slide towards intractable conflict.  

 Colin Tatz Reflections on the Politics of Remembering and Forgetting

What is going on in the mind of opposition Peter Dutton that in the belief that he’s taking the fight to the Prime Minister, he picks a fight with this most formidable woman?

This excellent profile of longtime indigenous academic and activist Marcia Langton should be required reading for all supporters of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament and the recognition of indigenous Australians in our constitution – and for all people of goodwill who may be wavering under the weight of conservative misinformation and disingenuousness. We’ve republished it here in In That Howling Infinite for folk who cannot scale the News Corp pay-wall.

When Dutton committed the Liberal Party to a ‘resounding no”, Langton was not backward in coming forward. she pulled no punches when she declared:

“This is the Australia we live in; it is racist. So this could be the political making of a whole lot of people who want to help us get this over the line and create a permanent system of empowerment for Indigenous people. If we want to mute racism, we have to raise our own voices. We have to make sure that we win this campaign, because if we don’t, then the racists will feel emboldened. We have to have a constitutionally enshrined voice that empowers our people, regionally and nationally, to make bureaucrats accountable, and respond to representations on all policy matters and legislative matters that affect us. If we can have a constitutionally enshrined voice that’s permanent, that makes us a formal part of the democratic architecture of Australia, that’s how we fight racism. That’s how we fight our disempowerment”. The Guardian, 7th April 2023.

See also in In That Howling Infinite, We oughtn’t to fear an Indigenous Voice – but we do ;The Frontier Wars – Australia’s heart of darknessand Dark Deeds in a Sunny Land – a poet’s memorial to a forgotten crime  

[Author’s note: At Bellingen’s 2019 Readers and Writers Festival, it was our pleasure and privilege to attend a powerful “conversation” between acclaimed historian Henry ReynoldsMarcia Langton – and, by fortunate serendipity, to share a meal with them at the Federal Hotel afterwards].

‘Vote ‘No’ and you won’t get a welcome to country again’

Marcia Langton doesn’t mince words and now she’s really had enough. When Australians vote on the voice, she wants them to think hard about what’s at stake.

‘I imagine that most Australians who are non-Indigenous, if we lose the ­referendum, will not be able to look me in the eye,’ Marcia Langton says. Picture: Nic Walker
Marcia Langton.  Picture: Nic Walker

Over more than 50 years as an academic and activist, Marcia Langton has never been known to mince her words. But now the Melbourne University professor, Boyer lecturer, public intellectual and co-author of a landmark report on the Indigenous Voice to parliament and government has really had enough. When Australians go to the polls to vote on the Voice later this year, Langton wants them to think hard about what’s at stake. “I imagine that most Australians who are non-Indigenous, if we lose the ­referendum, will not be able to look me in the eye,” she says. “How are they going to ever ask an Indigenous person, a Traditional Owner, for a welcome to country? How are they ever going to be able to ask me to come and speak at their conference? If they have the temerity to do it, of course the answer is going to be no.”

This is classic Langton – unanswerable in its logic; intimidating in its ferocity. She has always been known for her intellectual clarity and lack of compromise and at 71, has lost none of that edge. But Langton is conscious that in some ways the referendum is the last throw of the dice for her ­generation of leaders. She is in demand to talk about the Voice but will pace herself in the campaign, in part because her job as Associate Provost and Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor at the University of ­Melbourne is time-consuming, in part because there’s a new group of Indigenous leaders snapping at her heels. “I want to be a less dominant voice because the younger generation must be given an opportunity to be heard on these matters,” she says. “I’m not an Indigenous leader and lots of young ­people hate the concept of ­Indigenous leader because they feel cut out, they feel like they’re not ­valued.” She says she can understand their point of view, and then pauses before adding: “They just need to learn a ­little bit about earning ­respect for one’s work.”

‘The younger generation must be given an opportunity to be heard.’ Picture: Nic Walker

Marcia Langston. Picture: Nic Walker

Respect for her work is what Langton has earnt in spades since those decades when Indigenous people who spoke up were so easily dismissed by white Australia. One observer notes she had to “bulldoze” her way to influence. Film director and producer Rachel Perkins quips that Langton is like the Beyoncé of Indigenous ­Australia: “You say Marcia, and everyone in black Australia knows who you are talking about.” To TV anchor and author Stan Grant, Langton is the “broken-hearted warrior” who, like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks, are “people who know the world can break you and still stand up”.

Revered and feared, this mother of two and grandmother of three is criticised at times from within her own community. An example: her commitment to constitutional recognition goes back decades and has never wavered. But when she decided in 2017 to work with human rights and social justice campaigner Tom Calma to produce a report to the federal Coalition on a Voice that could be a legislated advisory body to parliament and government, it was seen by some as letting government off the hook on constitutional reform. Langton, pragmatic, persisted and produced a 272-page document that proposed local and regional voices feeding into a National Voice of 24 members. They would have the “responsibility and the right” to give advice to the parliament and government. The final ­report of the Indigenous Voice Co-design Process, commonly known as the Calma-Langton ­report, was submitted to the Coalition Federal Government in July 2021. It is now seen as the blueprint for the Voice, which under the Labor Government’s policy will be ­enshrined in the constitution if the ­nation votes “yes” in the ­referendum expected later this year. Says Langton: “We want the ­principle voted on first. So that then there’s time for everybody, including all the parliamentarians in the House and in the Senate, and the public to debate the model.”

Human rights and social justice campaigner Tom Calma AO. Photo: NCA
Human rights and social justice campaigner Tom Calma AO. Photo: NCA

On March 23, when Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced the referendum wording, Langton was present in the Blue Room of Parliament House. When she stepped up to answer a ­reporter’s question it was with the gravitas that comes from a lifetime of reflection, research and ­advocacy. And defiance. And anger. And frustration. And sadness. “Each one of us here has been ­involved in a major initiative. The royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody. The inquiry into the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families. The Don Dale royal commission,” she told journalists. “I could go on and on. And in each case we have doggedly recommended changes to stop the deaths, the incarceration, the early deaths, and the miserable lives and it is so ­infrequently that our recommendations are adopted.” She added: “And each year, people like you come along to listen to that misery-fest. And each year, people go away wringing their hands. We’re here to draw a line in the sand and say this has to change.”

There were tears that day, as Langton, the sophisticated political player, revealed a glimpse of the pressure she has been under since the PM used his election night victory speech in May last year to commit to the Voice.

Growing up in Queensland amid 1950s racism, the young Marcia learnt to step back and let the whites be served first in the local shop; she learnt to step aside and walk on the other side of the street from white Aussies. In her new book Law: The Way of the Ancestors, co-authored with Aaron Corn, Langton recalls attending a conference in Townsville in 1981 where she met the Torres Strait Islander intellectual, teacher and ­litigant Eddie Koiki Mabo. “He was the first person I had met who clearly articulated the fact that ­Indigenous laws exist”. She writes that “by day in school I was forced to ­listen to a fantasy about Australian history and ­Indigenous ­people in ­particular”. The young girl with Yiman and Bidjara heritage on her ­mother’s side figured these were ­“elaborate lies”. None of the people she grew up with resembled the ­“supposed ‘savages’ who rampaged through the pages of my school books”. Queensland was a state, she writes, “where no civil or ­humans rights were accorded my people.”

Langton at the press conference on March 23 after Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced the referendum wording.
Press conference March 23 after Anthony Albanese announced the referendum wording.

It was an experience of racism that fired a lifetime of work on land claims, native title, field work, right campaigns, lobbying parliament, ­sitting on inquiries and commissions, working in government and in universities. “I don’t know of anyone else with her breadth of knowledge of Indigenous issues,” Perkins says. “She can write about deep culture, she can write about contemporary art and film, she can write about mining and economics, about women’s issues, about history, native title, treaty and of course constitutional law. She has an incredible mind.”

Prominent Indigenous academic Marcia Langton says there was “no evidence” to show previous bodies aimed at improving Indigenous outcomes did not work, arguing past consultative groups and councils made “dogged”

Over more than three hours of interview and a photoshoot in Sydney, Langton’s mind is on full display. She is in turn sharp-witted and ­sharp-tongued, resigned and optimistic, warm and angry. At one point her ­energy ebbs and she takes a break, walking outside for a smoke and a chat with photographer Nic Walker. She submits courteously to a makeup artist but her distinctive grey hair is largely untouched and her handsome face needs little attention. Langton has the classy dress sense of a Melburnian and is far from the stereotypical image of either activist or academic.

Indeed, the media has never been able to decide between the two ­labels, and she has long mixed academic smarts with activism, stepping between both worlds with ease. “My view as an academic has always been that my work must have a beneficial impact, so if I can find a ­solution to a problem, then I will advocate for that solution,” she says. “Unfortunately, there’s no word for an academic like me and so the ­Australian media call me an activist. Most people don’t even know that I am an academic.” She adds, without embarrassment: “I much preferred in my public work to be referred to as a public intellectual, and I think that’s the correct term.”

Langton in 1982.
Marcia Langton in 1982.

Last November, at the annual Outlook conference organised by The Australian and the Melbourne Institute, Langton’s sophisticated ­presence underlined the “incredible journey” she has made from a childhood of multiple schools and homes in ­regional Queensland and outer Brisbane to this crucial moment in her life and the life of the ­nation. Off stage, talk was of the brutal death of West Australian teenager ­Cassius Turvey just three weeks earlier and the alleged details of an ­attack that would later result in four people charged with the 15-year-old’s murder. For a moment Langton seemed overwhelmed. She was ­unwell and had been given only a few hours’ notice as a replacement speaker, but she gathered herself, put on her public face and had the audience in her thrall as she spoke of the ­desperate need for the Voice in ­regional areas; of how the green economy – specifically massive solar panels on Aboriginal land – was potentially damaging to communities; and of the challenges for many Indigenous people ever “closing the gap”. With a mixture of stoicism and sadness she told the room that only one third ­of Indigenous people had truly been able to close that gap. She had done so, as part of a cohort of Indigenous women who had done postgraduate study. Langton has a PhD.

Langton was very young when she realised there was a world she could access beyond her own. “Many of my ­childhood circumstances were ­unsafe and scary, so I would often go to the ­library. I learnt that I could ­borrow books from a very young age, and I would take my books to my ­secret places.” She was fascinated by Douglas Mawson and the journals of other adventurers and explorers that provided escape in those early years. By the time she arrived at Aspley High School in outer Brisbane her talent for leadership was apparent. In one of the few photographs from her ­childhood, the young Marcia is lined up with the other house captains, calm and serious as she faces the camera. It was a time of expanding ­university access but at the University of Queensland in 1969 she was one of only two Aboriginal students and among the first to attend the institution. “It was apartheid Queensland, where you were either Aboriginal or not, there was no in between,” she says.

Langton, front row, right, at Aspley State High School, Brisbane. Picture: Supplied
Langton, front row, right, at Aspley State High School, Brisbane

She began to study anthropology, the discipline, along with human ­geography, she would eventually pursue for doctorate. But it was not easy: “There were some wonderful ­people and then there was a very nasty ­racist. I handed in a major essay and she failed me and her written comment on it was that I couldn’t have ­written it because I was Aboriginal. I should have stopped studying ­anthropology.” It still rankles. “To this day there are many anthropologists who say that I don’t write my own work because I couldn’t possibly as an Aboriginal,” she says. “They don’t regard me as Aboriginal. The only real Aborigines – quote, unquote – are the full bloods they worked with in the 1970s. So people like me aren’t real Aborigines. That’s still pervasive in the discipline of anthropology in Australia.”

After a year at UQ and already a mother, she postponed her studies ­because, she says, of racism, and went overseas with her then ­partner and their son, escaping from a state police force she calls ­“extremely brutal and terrifying, far worse than they are today”. It was the early 1970s and in the US and Asia she was exposed to new black narratives. “Despite all the ­terrible things I saw, it became very clear to me what ­Martin Luther King Jr, James Baldwin, Malcolm X were talking about in a very visceral way, and that is that we people of colour, we’re not regarded as human animals,” she says. Five years later, back in Australia and now a single mother, she went back to UQ, “stupidly” enrolling in Australian literature. “I was the lone Aborigine again in the class … and it was just so ­racist. I couldn’t cope. So then I came down to Sydney, I worked for the ­Aboriginal Medical Service, I worked for the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders …”

Langton was elected general secretary, becoming increasingly involved in Aboriginal ­politics, working with several people including Roberta “Bobbi” Sykes in the Black Women’s Action group. Later, in Canberra she resumed her study of anthropology at the ­Australian National Univer­sity, becoming the first Indigenous person to take honours in the subject. It would be another couple of decades before she completed her doctorate in human geography and anthropology at Macquarie University, carrying out field work in the east Cape York Peninsula. In 2000 she was appointed foundation chair of ­Australian ­Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne.

Langton, right, speaking during The Australian Outlook Conference. Picture: Arsineh Houspian
Langton speaking during The Australian Outlook Conference. Picture: Arsineh Houspian

It was in the 1980s, while working part-time as a history­ researcher at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra, that she sat the 18-year-old Stan Grant down one day and quizzed him about his ambition. Says Grant: “I was a young kid out of school, pushing a trolley around, ­delivering mail, and doing photocopying … She basically said, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ She said, ‘My parents and my people have not struggled and ­sacrificed for me to be pushing a trolley around delivering mail’.” It changed Grant’s life. “I’m not here without her, it’s as simple as that. I knew what I had to do. Marcia is not someone you say no to easily.”

Indeed. Langton has a national reputation as intellectually intimidating to media and politicians alike and at the same time is always prepared to step up, to speak or write or debate the big issues. Her scope and influence is so broad that it has led inevitably to criticism within Indigenous communities, but Perkins says: ­“People are very deferential to her great knowledge”. Grant adds: “One of the great strengths in ­Marcia is that she’s been able to challenge herself, she’s found new ways to fight and she’s constantly questioning herself.”

That flexibility has made it hard to predict which side she will come down on in the issues that regularly inflame debate about her people. Fifteen years ago, in an essay in this newspaper, Nicolas Rothwell identified Langton and Noel Pearson as the former “radical activists” who had developed a deep understanding of the root causes of the crisis in remote ­Indigenous communities. Rothwell wrote that both believed alcohol and passive welfare were at the heart of destructive behaviour in these communities, and that both had to be addressed by contentious policy change.

Langton has not backed off, arguing that Indigenous people must receive funding on the basis of need, not identity; and supporting restrictions on the sale of alcohol in some cases. She has done years of research into the issue, published widely and advised the federal government, but she steps cautiously into a debate she says is “almost impossible” to enter. “If I say one thing, Aboriginal leaders are going to go ballistic, and at the very same time [conservative columnist] ­Andrew Bolt’s going to go ballistic, right?” she says. There is no silver bullet in this area, she says, but alcohol management plans are the best way forward.

Langton is fearless on funding, prepared to upset other Aboriginal ­advocates by saying identity should not be the criterion for assistance ­because “many middle-class ­Indigenous people … are not more disadvantaged than other Australians”. There is one exception: the children of Indigenous people who leap from social security to well-paid jobs, for example in mining, and who suddenly appear to be “closing the gap” but find it hard to break free of intergenerational disadvantage, ­will continue to need support. Her uncompromising ­approach can upset both left and right in white and black Australia: “I have been humiliated and insulted by all sides.”

Another example: When Langton delivered the Boyer Lectures on Radio National in 2012 she focused on mining and its potential to enrich Indigenous economies but quickly found herself the target of environmentalists, blasted for not declaring that a research project with which she had been associated had been partly funded by the mining sector. “Most of the left-wingers who attacked my lectures did not read them and they ­viciously attacked me on the basis of what they thought I was saying, not what I actually said,” she says. “They let the industry off the hook because they tried to humiliate me and diminish my arguments. I blame the left for so much of the damage caused to us because of their ­arrogant racism, and particularly many of the environmentalists who do not take us seriously as the First Peoples of this land.”

There’s that word again – racism. Langton uses it often. “Racists don’t understand the horrible impact they have,” she says. “They don’t realise the wear and tear of constant racism is a huge factor in the ­suicide of young Indigenous Australians. So don’t say to an Aboriginal ­person ‘you’re too fair to be Aboriginal’, or ‘you’re too pretty to be Aboriginal’, or, ‘did you write that?’” Langton is astonished at the “mischievous” demands for a definition of ­Aboriginality that have emerged in the Voice debate. Being Aboriginal, she says, has nothing to do with race, but is “a cultural link, a claim of descent, an assertion or claim of identity, and ­acceptance by the community; it’s about being a member of a community by descent and culture”. She references the High Court decision in the 1983 Tas­manian dam case, which defined an ­Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person as one of “Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait ­Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he or she lives”.

She says the “terrible history” of the stolen generations continues for their descendants, some of whom are “as white as the driven snow”. “What they cop is, ‘you’re not dark enough to be Aboriginal’,” says Langton. “It’s a different kind of racism that they have to wear but it’s far removed from the racism you experience when you walk down the street in this country if you have dark skin. They might suffer occasional racism, they might not get the job, the promotion to professor that they wanted, they might not get an Australian Research Council grant. [But] there are a lot of Aboriginal ­people who will never be able to get a taxi. These young, fair-skinned ­people, they’ll get a taxi OK. They suffer a very ­different kind of racism, and it’s more in the zone of the typical … identity attacks of, ‘you’re doing it so you can get money’.”

To Langton, there’s a certain irony in columnists questioning the ­authenticity of those who don’t “look” Aboriginal: after all, she says, if there are fraudsters, they are ipso facto white, not Aboriginal. She has never felt confusion about her own identity, although she is still asked by some why she doesn’t “pass” as a white person. Overseas she’s often ­mistaken for Palestinan, Moroccan, ­Algerian, Puerto Rican, Indian or Anglo-Indian or even ­Brazilian Portuguese. Langton almost snorts her ­answer: “As if I wanted to do that [pass as white]. I used to say to them when I was younger, ‘Are you saying to me that I should disown my mother and my grandmother and all my family? They think I would ­prefer their life but actually, I don’t. I love being ­Aboriginal, I have never been anything else.”

Langton has stood out in the past as one of the few Indigenous women with a ­national profile in a world of ­Indigenous male leaders including Noel Pearson, Pat Dodson and others. ­Perkins ­recalls a ­corporate women ­leaders’ event at Sydney’s Barangaroo a few years ago at which Pearson was asked to name the woman who had the biggest ­influence on him. Says Perkins: “Noel thought for a while, then he said it had been Marcia.”

Welcome to Country by Marcia Langton.
Welcome to Country by Marcia Langton

Perkins worries about her friend’s vulnerability and the physical and emotional pressure she has absorbed: “I don’t know what I would do, I don’t know what we would do without Marcia, because she is so fearless, she has such depth. I don’t know of any other person who has had her ­staying power, she continues to give to the movement endlessly. It has ­absorbed her entire existence.”

As the referendum on the Voice nears, Langton appears almost fatalistic. If it’s a no, she will largely blame Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, who has “waged a very successful campaign to undermine the Voice”. As for those Indigenous leaders opposed to the Voice: “They have no better ideas. They say that the Voice won’t solve particular problems. So where are their ­solutions? We’ve put 30 years of work into our proposition, 30 years of work. There are countless reports, we’ve done the homework, we’ve done the hard yards, we’ve done the research, we’ve tested everything.”

If the referendum fails, it will be a staggering setback for Langton and others of her generation, but she readily acknowledges how far we have come. “Fifty years ago, I wouldn’t have been invited to give the Boyer ­Lectures; I wouldn’t have been invited by [publishers] Hardie Grant to write [her travel book] Welcome to Country; I wouldn’t be a professor at the ­University of Melbourne. Of course things changed.”

First Knowledges: Law, The Way of the Ancestors by Marcia Langton and Aaron Corn (Thames & Hudson Australia, $24.99), is out on April 25

Helen Trinca is a highly experienced reporter, commentator and editor with a special interest in workplace and broad cultural issues. She has held senior positions at The Australian

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s