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Each quarter, our peer reviewed journal publishes up to six research- and practice-based articles on Australian youth. Find out more.

YSA September cover (thumbnail)

YSA September cover

September 2009 edition
Feature articles

Indigenous youth and gangs as family

by Rob White

Youth Studies Australia, v.28, n.3, 2009, pp.47-56.

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Much of the conventional youth gang literature describes gangs as a sort of ‘family’ for members. The gang provides a source of support, solidarity and social connection, and thus fulfils some of the functions of a close-knit family unit. What happens, however, when the ‘gang’ and the ‘family’ are one and the same? This paper explores the ways in which Indigenous young people experience gang activity as stemming from family membership and family obligations. Indeed, the notion of ‘gang’ is itself highly contentious for many Indigenous youth, given that their group behaviour is intrinsically bound by cultural and kinship ties. Based on recent gang research in Australia, the paper provides firsthand accounts of what ‘life in the gang / life in the family’ means for Indigenous young people.

The role of gangs as a substitute family for many young people has been widely noted in youth gangs literature (see, for example, Short & Hughes 2006; Hagedorn 2007; van Gemert, Peterson & Lien 2008). However, what happens if the “gang” is simultaneously, and literally, one’s family? That is, how do we account for and provide analysis of social formations that incorporate family and gang in the same grouping?

This paper is premised upon three basic propositions. These are:

  1. that the gang performs a family-like role for gang members, regardless of specific social composition, particularly when it comes to material support, emotional refuge, psychological wellbeing, physical protection and social belonging;
  2. that in some cases, particularly in regard to ethnic minority youth, the gang is mainly comprised of family members and/or members from a distinctive and frequently tight-knit community, which means that there already exist strong filial bonds within the context of gang formation;
  3. that in the case of Indigenous young people, the gang and family connection is unique insofar as the colonial experience reinforces an “Othering” process that is distinctive and specific to this group.

When it comes to the latter instance, consideration of the close interconnection between family and gang is important for several reasons. First, it is important because by understanding this connection we can better understand the social determinants of gang formation and the reasons why the gang can become so central within some young people’s lives. Second, the development of anti-gang strategies that do not reflect, and respect, family considerations are bound to not only fail, but also to reproduce the worst aspects of oppressive colonial rule.

Many of the causes of Indigenous gang formation and mobilisation are inextricably linked to the systematic dispossession of Indigenous people and their ongoing subjugation within a non-Indigenous criminal justice system. The breaking up of families has been central to these processes, historically and in the contemporary time period. The social consequences have been devastating for Indigenous people, including young people.

The paper begins with a brief consideration of what it is like to “grow up Indigenous” in Australian society. The main concern of the paper, however, is with Indigenous young people and their experience of gang activity as this relates to family membership and family obligations. Indeed, the notion of “gang” is itself highly contentious for many Indigenous youth, given that their group behaviour is intrinsically bounded by cultural and kinship ties. Based on recent gang research in Australia, the paper provides firsthand accounts of what “life in the gang / life in the family” means for Indigenous young people. This is followed by discussion of what this means for understanding and responding to Indigenous youth gangs.

Growing up Indigenous

The experiences of Indigenous people have been fundamentally shaped by colonialist processes, and yet their experiences are variable due to the diverse social worlds that they inhabit (White & Wyn 2008). As with youth in general, there is great variability in Indigenous communities, and the Indigenous population as a whole is heterogenous across many different dimensions. What unites the many is the shared experiences of injustice, inequality and oppression at the hands of a colonial state, an experience that continues to the present day (see Morrissey 2006).

Today, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population – the Indigenous people of Australia – is estimated to be about 2.4% of the total Australian population. The Indigenous population is relatively young compared to the non-Indigenous population. In 2001, 39% of Indigenous people were under 15 years of age, compared to 20% of non-Indigenous people. In 2002, just over half of Indigenous people aged 15 years or over reported that they identified with a clan, tribal or language group, and in 2002, 21% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 or over spoke an Indigenous language (Australian Bureau of Statistics and Australian Institute of Health & Welfare 2005).

Since the initial British invasion of 1788, the Indigenous people of Australia have been subjected to myriad interventions, exclusions and social controls. This is not simply a historical legacy; it is part of the fabric of everyday life for many Indigenous people today. Colonialism has had a severe impact on Indigenous cultures and ways of life, as have the continuing effects of discriminatory policies and practices on Indigenous life chances within mainstream social institutions.

The dislocations and social marginalisation associated with colonialism have had particular ramifications for Indigenous young people. It is worth noting that, historically, and in particular, young Indigenous women were prone to policies that were intended to separate them from their families and communities, and that this constituted a form of cultural and physical genocide (see Goodall 1990). Today, it has been argued that, rather than breaking up communities on the basis of a welfare or protectionist rationale, the same effect is being achieved through the systematic “criminalisation” of young Indigenous people, although the main target now is young men (National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (NISATSIC) 1997; Cunneen 1994).

Young Indigenous people are very conscious of the dynamics of racism and policing in particular. Interviews with young Indigenous people in Darwin and Alice Springs in the late 1990s made this very clear (see White 1999). When asked about the things that most influence the way other people view them when they hang out in public space, the young people most frequently mentioned racism, stereotypes of young people, and the fact that many older people did not seem to like young people hanging around together in groups. It would appear that the feelings of exclusion and undue harassment experienced by many of these young people were the result of negative reactions to them, which were based on a combination of Indigenous status, colour of their skin, age and class position. Typical comments by the young people included:

Being black, people think you are going to commit a crime.(Young man)

Where old people are they stare at us if we’re sitting there as if we have no right to sit there, treat us bad and serve us last. We still go but.(Young woman)

I hate going down the shops. They [shop owners] always saying, “Oh, you been shoplifting”. Everyone gets always accused of shoplifting round here. You can’t window shop and browse. You can’t even price something. You got to walk in there with the money and buy it there and then.(Young woman)

The position of young Indigenous people in Australian society makes them very vulnerable to over-policing and exclusionary practices. It also makes them angry (White 1999; Ogwang, Cox & Saldanha 2006, p.420).

Nevertheless, popular images and representations of Indigenous young people tend to over-emphasise criminal activities and substance abuse while ignoring the significant proportions of young people not implicated or engaged in these activities (Palmer & Collard 1993). Other distorted or one-sided representations are apparent as well. There is, for example, the underlying assumption that all Indigenous young people, regardless of family background, have similar issues and life chances. This assumption leads to little appreciation of social differences within the Indigenous population, apart from social differences that separate the Indigenous and the non-Indigenous.

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