No Filter with Luke Pearson

Founder and CEO Luke Pearson, a Gamilaroi man, visited QPAC ahead of delivering The Mabo Oration in June 2019

The @IndigenousX Twitter account was launched on 15 March 2012 and has more than 34,000 followers.

Each week it has a different Indigenous host that has included actors, activists, authors, academics, politicians, teachers, doctors and students. The vision is to create a media landscape where Indigenous people leverage the power of digital platforms like Twitter to share their knowledge, opinions and experiences.  

What drives your personal ambition for change?

LP: Common sense. So much of what I do is obvious, to me at least.

Even with IndigenousX… the idea of having something that was more than I needed and sharing it with other Indigenous people who needed what I had is not a new idea. It was actually one of the cornerstone foundational principles of Indigenous existence. Mine was just applied to a new thing.

Nothing I’m saying is new, you can find versions of it going back as far as you can manage to find. What’s different is we’re doing it in online spaces that have no white lens dictating what we’re talking about, or how.

A lot of things we talk about are things that Indigenous people know commonly amongst ourselves, even if we disagree about them. A lot of non Indigenous Australians just never knew some of these things. We’re making them visible just by the nature of how these platforms operate, and by being in these spaces.

Indigenousx started in 2012 and was borne of a desire for change. What do you think are some of the most significant changes we’ve seen since it started?

LP: One that IndigenousX has been directly involved in is more recognition that Indigenous people can tell our own stories, in our own way and not just through paintings or plays. We’ve had amazing Indigenous theatre spaces and art spaces, but when it comes to sharing opinion, particularly political opinion, we’re always seen through the lens of a non Indigenous journalist, editor or interviewer. Social media really created the tool for individuals to build their own platforms, to affect change in their own way; to create their own personas, to tell their own stories and to build their own audiences.

I think a big myth in the media space has always been that non Indigenous people might want to hear about Indigenous issues in these narrow lens frames, but no one wants to hear from Indigenous people. And that Indigenous audiences don’t have a big enough audience to care about, so the only ones who want to hear that are other Indigenous people. They’re only 3% of the population.

What IndigenousX has been part of in the rise of social media is showing that we do have an audience, that we do have stories to tell that matter, and that we have opinions outside of the stories that are told about us.

I was on the radio earlier today and brought up that point. When it’s an issue like change the date, or whatever it may be, a journalist rings me, they ask a question, I answer it. Then people go, “There are more important things to talk about!” Well, they didn’t ring me and say, “What’s the most important thing you want to talk about?”, they rang me and asked “What’s your opinion on Invasion Day?”. So I told them my opinion on Invasion Day. If I was on a free stage I might have also talked about a million other things.

IndigenousX was our first project and I still think one thing we’re best known for is the rotating account on Twitter. You’ve got someone who is not on a stage so, for people who aren’t public speakers, they’re not intimidated by an audience. You’re just sitting there, living your life with your phone and computer and you’ve got this platform for a week, and a willing audience who aren’t bombarding you with questions, but want to hear what you’ve got to say. For a lot of people that’s not something they get to experience, ever, and it’s not how media operates. Usually, you’ve got a 15 second sound bite. Or you might chat to a journo for 20 minutes and then they use two quotes. Whereas IndigenousX, it’s yours. You can have a full conversation about one thing and then that night talk about something completely different. It’s a space that really humanised Indigenous people.

IndigenousX isn’t for white Australia. We have a lot of white people who follow us, a lot of non Indigenous people who aren’t white and we love that. That’s great, but we’re not spoon feeding them. We’re not dumbing everything down for them. We’re not saying it in ways where we make sure we don’t upset people, we’re just saying things that are true and it’s your job to go, “OK, that’s what this person thinks”. The host before might have thought something different. They’re not there as the spokesperson for all Indigenous people. They’re not Elders sitting on the mountain top handing down nuggets of wisdom.

A lot of times a journo reaches out looking for an Indigenous person who has this experience, or this perspective, or this job. It sounds like they’ve already written the story and they just want a body to put in it. Whereas we can have someone on IndigenousX who might be well known in their own field and then they talk about something you didn’t know about them. We’ve had business owners who talk about being a mum, or cooking because they love to cook. I love that about IndigenousX.

Showing a diversity of aspects of contemporary culture as well as traditional?

LP: Yes. Whatever you think we are, we’re more than that. People who are living that traditional culture and want to talk about traditional stuff, that’s great, but that’s not all we are. Even someone who is doing that, that’s not all they are either.

When we look at whiteness in Australia, we have heroes and villains and mundane people who can just have opinions on anything, but they have a completeness. There’s no white opinion where you’re like, “That’s not what white people should think”. Whereas we have this sense in Australia that this is what Indigenous people are, or do, or should be. When we aren’t that, or we’re more than that, people are confused and sometimes threatened by that.

I think particularly white Australia (not just non Indigenous Australia because I think a lot of the time we say non Indigenous people, we’re talking about white people) have these views of what it is that we should be, what authentic Indigenous experience is, or reality or issues are.

Even well meaning people, when you ask “What’s your view on treaty?” they say “I just want to do whatever Indigenous people want to do”. It’s like this person wants this, and that person wants that, and this community want this. You can’t do that on any issue. You actually have to listen to a range of Indigenous voices and decide which ones you agree with. You can’t use us as your scapegoat for not having an opinion on things.

We’ve been living together for 200 plus years. We’re not new, this isn’t new, none of this is. There’s nothing that a white person can say that will shatter your view of what whiteness is. Whiteness, we understand to be complex and multifaceted and not one individual can ever speak on behalf of all, but we somehow, we’re still framed that way. That’s even when you see an article that says ‘Aboriginal leaders’. What leaders? By what way? Which way? We don’t have a central leadership so maybe they’re a leader of an organisation, or maybe they’re just a prominent individual, or whatever, but it perpetuates that belief that we have central leadership.

Image of two speakers on stage for The Mabo Oration 2019 event held at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Image Credit: Sam Luck

What do you think are amongst the most urgent social or cultural, political issues that require change in Australia?

LP: The most pressing issue for any person is the most pressing issue for that person. For Indigenous people – 700,000 people, hundreds of nations – it’s really hard to pinpoint. In the broadest of terms, for me, self determination and Indigenous rights, most succinctly defined through the right to determine for ourselves our status and our future, and to have social, cultural and economic opportunities to pursue that. That involves the right to make mistakes.

When it comes to Indigenous affairs, every year the government’s like “Yes, we suck, we stuffed up, we’re doing it all wrong but we’re going to do better this time”. They get another chance and another chance. Whereas look at the justification for killing ATSIC, considered the failed experiment of self-determination. “We let you try it and it wasn’t perfect so screw you.”

We need the ability to explore, to challenge, to redefine and recreate. For some people that will be very much along the lines of traditional reclamation and rebuilding language, looking after culture. For other people, that will be other things. We need to not be limited by all of those definitions that are imposed externally on us. We need to be embraced and allowed and given the opportunities to pursue these things, whatever that looks like. That can come through treaty, or it might have something to do with voice.

For me there’s many ways that these things can be achieved. It isn’t a destination, it’s an ongoing process. The right for self-determination, what one community or what one individual determines today is what’s best, that might change tomorrow. To have protections around that, that’s when you start to look at legal frameworks.

Are you talking about confusing fairness and sameness?

LP: We know that the Western legal system is very flawed and very open to change. I think we need conditions in Australia where people recognise that the right of Indigenous people to have self-determination is an inalienable right and needs to be supported and sustained. Once you have that attitude and that belief then it will correct itself through changing spaces over time. Whereas if we have one government that says, “Yes that sounds great”, and then the next government says, “No it’s not”, then back and forth we go, which is very much what we see in politics today. There’s not necessarily one government that’s exceptionally great when it comes to the right of self-determination. There is certainly an ebb and flow. A constant one step forward, two steps back.

So much of the Australian political focus on Indigenous issues is still at base level, premised on assimilation, Close the Gap, we want everyone to be the same, to have equal opportunities. Of course, issues like life expectancy are important, we don’t want to die young, but that’s not all it looks like. Recognising Indigenous self-determination is so much more and it doesn’t hitch our wagon to the rest of Australia on everything.

ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT CONFUSING FAIRNESS AND SAMENESS?

LP: Yes. For us, when we talk about Indigenous, people respond with “You just want something for free, you want special treatment." Yes, we do. We’re the sovereign people of this nation. It’s not special. You say it like, “Ooh, special treatment”. No, we have a unique status in this nation, we have a unique history. It’s not just to make amends for the atrocities suffered, it’s because we are the Indigenous peoples of this land. That brings with it certain things that aren’t just because you did all these horrible things to Indigenous people. It’s not about white guilt or white appeasing, it’s not about white people at all. It’s about our status as the Indigenous peoples of this land. That means something, and whether or not that something is recognised doesn’t stop it from meaning that.

Change can come from revolution at one end of the spectrum or from slow incremental shifts at the other. Where’s IndigenousX on the spectrum?

LP: Change looks like many different things in many different ways… and then those things change. One thing I will say is that the history of Indigenous rights and Indigenous empowerment post invasion has been about activism. Rights have never been handed to us. The white version of that is “we said sorry, and we gave you the right to vote”. No, we took that from you, kicking and screaming. You did not want to give us any of those things, they were not benevolently handed down.

I’m a big believer in change from the outside rather than within. At the same time the change that it creates necessitates people on the inside. We need Indigenous doctors, and teachers, and politicians, and whatever, but they alone do not necessarily bring change. I think they all work in tandem. We need that multiplicity of engagement and involvement, and we need the community holding the nation to account, but also itself to account. It’s not, “that’s not how you do it, this is how you do it”. It’s all part of a bigger puzzle.

Working outside a system seems to be a great catalyst for creating awareness around the need for change, but then the implementation and sustainability of change needs to happen on the inside as well.

Where have you encountered resistance?

LP: No, everyone loves it! It’s taken time, working even with our own audience and even the well meaning white ally who brings more problems than they do solutions or take up so much emotional labour. Working with those people to just say "no, stop that" and just sit and listen to the host, respect the host, support the host. You’re there for them, they’re not there for you.

So many people have been responsive to the philosophy of IndigenousX and what it is that we’re trying to do. That has been really great and that has helped the community maintain itself and manage itself. I think if we didn’t have that philosophy it would have been a much harder road. Working with people to get them to understand and not to bombard someone with questions, especially questions that aren’t for that person. If there’s a teacher hosting, ask them about teaching don’t just ask them generic questions that you can Google yourself or work out on your own time.

Whether you support us or not, you can’t stop us, we’re just going to keep doing it. The only thing that could stop us is if people said, “you’re not relevant anymore”. If our own community just said “IndigenousX was great back then but now we’ve got this IndigenousZ”, then we’ll go OK and I’ll pop off and I’ll do something else. As long as we’re relevant and we’re doing good things and people want us around, then we’re going to stay around.

Main Image Credit: Rob Shaw

LUKE PEARSON

Luke Pearson is a Gamilaroi man, who founded @IndigenousX in 2012. Luke has worked as a teacher, mentor, counsellor, public speaker, collaborator, mediator, facilitator, events manager, researcher, evaluator, reporter and much more. Luke’s passion for @IndigenousX stems from his belief in the need to improve Indigenous media representation in Australia and to have a platform for individuals to tell their own stories in their own words.

QPAC First Nations