Tharunka’s Problem with Colour

Although her hair’s turned silvery grey, Wendy Bacon’s beaming smile still sweetly creases her eyes. With age comes wisdom, and perhaps this is most palpable when she admits to Tharunka having a very western view on anti-colonial issues instead of defending or denying its existence like a handful of fragile Whites today. Bacon confessed, “even though we were interested in anti-colonial movements, and liked to think we had a broader view… it was actually a very Western view.”

She’s not wrong. These student writer’s might’ve meant well but it’s no lie that they were at times embodying the colonial saviour’s polite but denigrating rhetoric. It’s this strange blend between White radicalism and heroism that marks their moral ambiguity. They seemed to care about colonial atrocities, and more importantly, found remedies for their ancestral sins – mostly through reports on aid and charity – but these were harming not healing for coloured people. White indifferences were not only evident in coverage but a symptom of the political climate. During Bacon’s tough yet rewarding editorship, organised movements towards sexual liberation were fuelled successfully while race-related concerns were slowly extinguishing.

The Exclusionary Revolution

If I were to recreate a flipbook out of Tharunka’s antiauthoritarian issues, ‘obscene’ and graphic images of the Vietnam War would appear and arrange themselves into a short motion picture, whilst in the background, glimpses of the ‘noble savage’ would dissolve. Long before Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) or Kevin Costner’s only successful film Dances with Wolves (1990), the noble savage predominantly reappeared in literature and art as a symbol of righteousness and a figure uncorrupted by the evils of industrial civilisation and their smoke-puffing factories. In short, they served as a guide or role model for the White man to help restore an unlived connection to the natural environment, which in turn helped rectify their fallen moral conscious.

In a similar way, the radical White saviour – as a journalist – adopted the role of the guide by appropriating the voice and needs of the noble savage through charitable coverage and humanitarian efforts.  The White superman was glaringly obvious when, in a 1970 edition, a student journalist promoted a cultural program for ‘powerless people’ that would help them ‘develop a consciousness…as worthwhile human beings.’ Seemingly considerate but ruined of all consideration, they further expressed, ‘we want to help ourselves by helping others,’ and such a remark is a classic testament of the saviour’s self-serving temperament.

The noble savage was also a supporting crutch for the majority-White student body to exploit for the purposes of vehemently antagonising Australia’s involvement in the war. The appeal to saviourism was a political strategy ironically exercised by radical students to rescue and resuscitate not only the primitive ‘Other,’ but the White nation’s declining moral consciousness and conscience as a result of past tallied wars damaging its reputation.

As a shrugged aside, one contributor acknowledged that ‘gruesome wars and totalitarian governments’ were shameful products of European culture but evangelicalised the cooperative movement, one of the few things Europe could ‘be really proud of.’ In so doing, Indigenous Australians become positioned as intellectually incompetent if they haven’t assimilated into the education and economic stream:

“We are convinced, also, that economic and educational progress must advance together if the a******* people are to fully develop their talents” (Tharunka 1969)

These passing pictures and descriptions of the passive ‘Other’ never really received interrogation for their indecency, and they weren’t ever legally constituted as ‘offensive’ material during the obscenity trials because White altruism had made it acceptable. A corrupt or respected politician could easily indict a journalist for defamation, but no such policy could protect these unnamed and undocumented people from being misrepresented. Civil rights coverage did receive backlash from conservatives, but it wasn’t ever deemed illegal like the obscene material. These were categorically safe issues to publish against the backdrop of the war. Students were successful in their sexual activism and policy reforms with the lifted censorship ban, but these merits mostly catered to the experiences of the White middle-class. The passionate advances in sexuality and censorship during the 60s and 70s meant human rights concerns took a backseat. Despite the spike of politically progressive material, unfortunately, the revolutionary remained exclusionary.

One Big, Happy Family

By the mid-90s, colonial-inspired stereotypes were bearably scarce by their decline within Tharunka. Writers continued to package and parcel progressive content like its predecessors, some of which included Black Deaths in custody, the high rates of domestic violence amongst Aboriginal women, and protests for the reduction of international student fees. Letters to the Editor occasionally served as complaint forms to expose undying bigotry on campus but, also, within the student paper. On shuffling and sifting through past issues, I was surprisingly impressed to see Tharunka so ahead of its time. What mainstream media still wrestles to publish today, Tharunka was effortlessly reproducing decades ago. However, to my expected dismay, the paper struggled to eliminate and efface racism both then and now because it doesn’t hold itself accountable for a structural deep-clean. Each era tried hard to be progressive, but with a few hiccups and personal itches I couldn’t dismiss nor overlook. Since the advent and integration of multicultural policies within the education sector, and the university’s strong reliance on transnational partnerships for income in an increasingly globalised world, diversity has become a source of profitability.

Under a corporate university design, and in relation to it, Tharunka involuntarily serves as an advertising body for the UNSW brand. Uncontrollably, Tharunka unconsciously uses People of Colour as diversity mascots and props for securing the university’s visual appeal as a ‘vibrant’ and ‘diverse student community that welcomes difference’ with ‘globallyconnected education.’ For this reason, the anti-racist slogans, campaigns, festivities, and events spread across Tharunka’s pages served as promotions. It didn’t help that the readership was unaccounted for during the ‘90s nor early 2000s because, by default, these ideas of multiculturalism would’ve been palatable for a White audience. Parallel to the International Night Markets UNSW students know today, International Week was a seven day long festivity celebrating diverse cultures while acknowledging the challenges multicultural communities face.

Encouraging togetherness and belonging over food seems harmless, but really, these stationed food outlets not only exoticised different culinary experiences of ‘Other’ cultures for the thrill of White consumers but simultaneously homogenised them with slogans symptomatic of racial colour-blindness like “one world, one people.” Immigrants were a national threat to the White economy as imagined job-stealers but a local treasure when their culture and foods were a profitable source of income and promotion for White organisations.

Nonetheless, in the same issue, student journalists put forth the idea that overseas students were perceptible ‘commodities’ for private education. More than a decade later, writers would explicitly identify international students as a ‘net benefit’ and by this time, we could say that Tharunka had finally gained a sound consciousness of casual racism and the tokenism of neoliberal multiculturalism, with the latter well in effect throughout Tharunka’s digital phase. International student negligence under a campus complex is an escaping concern for the tech-savvy Tharunka because a multicultural aesthetic has become one of its staple accents in recent times that deprioritises international students and their human rights concerns.

The Australian economy notoriously extracts billions of dollars from international students who overcrowd fast food chains and hospitality venues yet, with the soaring cost of housing and living expenses, are unable to afford basic food needs and weekly rent in light of poor hourly rates or wage-theft routinely experienced within these industries. Long work hours are also traded in for low course contact hours, risking failures and added debts.

At the initial peak of COVID-19, and following an influx of anti-Asian lookism, international students were under severe financial stress. According to UNSW Newsroom, 70% of interviewed subjects had lost most or all of their work at a time when the Prime Minister had unhelpfully advised unsupported international students to go back home. So, while international students increase dollars for the university, they receive a poor duty of care in exchange.

Here, they are not only tools for the university’s economic ‘optimisation’ but are also ‘disposable’ populations, and it’s this binary that enhances productive inclusion in the education sector. Ideal though ineffective, inclusion becomes ‘a new’ antithetical ‘form of racism’ rather than a remedy for it. It effectively exploits the ‘outsider’ in making them feel included through inviting them into the fabric of capital society.

As academic Gregory Bourassa writes, it functions by appropriating “that which has previously been deemed abject and outside – even antagonistic to – the logics of capital, and enlisting it within the circuits of capitalist accumulation.” It further limits political participation and fashions a passive form of citizenship. With rising numbers of international students included within the university, it’s interesting to note that their human rights issues are marginally visible within the confines of Tharunka’s pages.

Perhaps their productive inclusion also promotes self-censorship as they may feel obliged to play the moral citizen and to stay on good terms with the university so powerful people like Sco-Mo don’t actually send them home. Inclusion as a technique for exclusion is not a new phenomenon however, and can be traced back to Tharunka’s very beginning.

Tharunka Volume 16 No 13 (1970)

Rename and Re-Envision

The name Tharunka means ‘message stick’ and was allegedly borrowed from an unspecified Indigenous language in appreciation of Australia’s First people. However, how the name was obtained and from who is ambiguous. The origin narrative is unknown, and questions of appropriation arise instead.

How do we know if the founding editors sought out proper consent for the use of the word Tharunka, and what are the implications then of White editors remixing and shortening the name later to Thor for their own protection? If permission wasn’t granted or indefinite, does the name need to be radically reclaimed, abolished, and revised? I reached out to an Indigenous friend of mine concerning all of this, and she found their gesture agreeable, but she believed they needed to ‘cite what mob’ it was from or else it felt meaningless.

With Tharunka’s piling record of shameful, at times, accidental slippages parodying people of colour, perhaps this conundrum should finally inspire discussions about a decolonial all-Blak student publication and a separate diverse paper too as a response to the shortcomings of Tharunka’s form.

Collapsing Collectivity

Over the years, Tharunka has shape-shifted from newspaper to literary and arts magazine, embracing multiple genres and styles of writing. It, too, welcomes culturally-conscious themes but through mainstream models of hierarchy that aren’t necessarily preferential for coloured peoples. We might think Tharunka is an inclusive and equitable space for all through these cathartic first-person modes of storytelling unpacking individual experiences of racial cohesion or conflict, but that’s at the surface. With Tharunka’s growing formlessness, in addition to the tokenisation of multicultural stories, existing power dynamics become mystified. We only see who represents multiculturalism at a face value without interrogating who gets to define and regulate it.

If you haven’t guessed already, it’s White people. From their point of view, multicultural stories are human interest based or partial and aren’t allowed to end up on the politics section of the news because these stories foster tolerance and acceptance for the ‘Other’ instead of galvanising action against the systems protecting privileged Whites. These stories are often told in first-person to enable the reclamation of voices and to create social awareness, but it rarely ever moves beyond that. When individual stories are the focus, broader BIPOC issues are put on a leash.

Conservatives usually treat multicultural stories less seriously because they are not factually concrete and lack objectivity, but for decolonial forms of journalism, it is essential for resistance and a reminder of continuing BIPOC survival, strengths, and successes. Structurally however, Tharunka is not a decolonial paper, and therefore, it would struggle to do those narratives justice under a prevailing White hierarchy.

Tharunka’s recent foray into first-person storytelling of BIPOC experiences, although meaningful, may be bettered by emphasising collective power and community in the style of decolonial journalism.  Initially, writers for Tharunka remained anonymous, then tiny by-lines were introduced, followed by the imitative social media profile images and bios recognisable today. Amongst all of this, is a push to individualise and recognise the lone writer, in an effort of self-development.

These self-customising approaches aren’t deplorable but can encourage tokenism if coloured stories are continually isolated from BIPOC community affairs. A move toward collective autonomy, partnerships and co-creativity is necessary for minority direct-action journalism and a way forward for Tharunka to take action for BIPOC issues. To avoid the toxic traps of competitive individualism, Tharunka should discard the poison-bottled logic of entrepreneurial journalism inspired by white feminism that’s started to soak up the pages.

As an ‘ideology’ or ‘belief system,’ white feminism can ‘be practiced by anyone,’ meaning it can be internalised by BIPOC writers too. They draw influence from the girl boss or aspiring SHEO preaching self-empowerment and romanticising excessive labour by creating decorative mood boards for her desk and dreaming about her morning coffee the next day. While the logic of entrepreneurial journalism may have compelled some coloured students to contribute to Tharunka to build their portfolio for future labour-immersion within the journalism industry, these writers establish an employable-self without preaching gross corporate individualism too much which Tharunka should caution itself against using.

Tharunka’s cultural amnesia is a relief in one sense because its writers avert repeating outdated practices of white-saviorism and voice appropriation, yet their fears of recycling insensitivities disengages White allies from supporting human rights causes and from networking with coloured writers deemed unapproachable.

Unspoken yet present, there seems to be a phobia of solidarity journalism that positions itself in a moment of crisis as privileged journalists’ battle between the ‘responsibility’ of covering and the ‘risk’ of over-identifying with a cause external to their immediate experience. In relation to Indigenous journalism, settler journalists in the future should take a step back. It is essential to provide room for Indigenous voices to emerge and focus on re-centering their traditional laws as the foundation for journalistic storytelling and activism.

Naturally, global minority and community grassroots concerns are difficult to sustain within an amorphous student publication like Tharunka when the principles of ‘horizontalism, prefiguration, relationship building, and collective autonomy’ are incompatibly transplanted, and yet, are vital organs for decolonial autonomous media. With the predicament of the word ‘Tharunka,’ is it finally time to rename the alternative press or introduce new sister papers entirely?


Material Courtesy of Tharunka and UNSW Archives