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The Impact Of Inaction – Why Aren’t We Listened To?

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In the 200+ years since the ‘white settlement’ of Australia, various government has accomplished a fair bit. They’ve built a country from the ground up, conquering what they perceived as a harsh land and providing the citizens with the luxuries of Western civilisation. To achieve this, they’ve attempted to decimated an entire thread of humanity, wiping out tribes and language groups in the never-ending march of progress. They’re removed children from their mothers, abused power and left Aboriginal people, the First Australians, so much the worse for their coming.

Now, the government likes to think they can make amends, by apologising for the past and consigning it to the filing cabinet of history. They’ve muttered their apologies, as though a single sorry might act as a panacea, a Band-Aid on the pulsing artery of Aboriginal trauma. Unfortunately, the two hundred years of government policy have left a terrible legacy. PM Rudd acknowledged that the 50 years of policy preceding his 2008 Apology statement had been a failure. He promised a new beginning. What Aboriginal people got instead was an intensification of the intervention, rebadged as ‘Closing The Gap’. Rather than that new beginning, Aboriginal people have come to realise not only is it ‘business as usual’, but the pressure on them to assimilate is greater than ever.

Quality And Quantity

Let us give you an example of one of the many places governments have failed to properly engage with Aboriginal people towards their aim of improving them. In the march towards closing the gap, past and present Governments have been data focused. Unfortunately for Aboriginal people and service providers, their point of focus has been overwhelmingly the longevity, or life expectancy, of Aboriginal people. Don’t get us wrong, we feel that it is shocking that Aboriginal Australians do not live as long as their non-Aboriginal counterparts. However, we have to wonder whether, instead of quantity, we should be focusing on quality of life.

Improving the quality of life for Aboriginal people is almost guaranteed to have the knock-n effect of increasing its quantity. The key thing to remember when we’re thinking about quality though is the cultural space through which is it measured. The simple fact is that quality of life must be considered from an Aboriginal cultural space, even if that means something different to policymakers. Quality of life is, after all, a lived experience, and not something that can just be transplanted onto an Aboriginal setting.

Inaction In Action

To those looking in at our governmen, it’s quite clear what is going on. They are quite frankly paralysed by their own misunderstandings, and their inability to enact positive change through meaningful and engaged approaches. What we are seeing now is inaction in action. That is, a government operating in a risk-adverse environment where policymakers and advisors are unable to do anything that doesn’t fit into their comfort zone. As a result, everything they put forward is entirely cemented into their own cultural framework, and is unlikely to allow Aboriginal Australians operating within different cultural parameters a chance to be positively impacted by that policy.

In fact, even when Aboriginal people do talk to the government about what they want to do and what they hope to achieve, through community engagement, they are often ignored. Usually this comes down to an inability within the government to make an Aboriginal perspective on life fit into our current system. They are culturally strangled by their own rules, and what they believe to be appropriate. As they say, you can only know what you know.

That means that if you’re working in a different cultural mindset, and you aren’t making the switch when dealing with other cultures, you’re only going to get poor results. This is why our governments have wasted excessive funds, and caused serious damage, to people trying to achieve a quality of life that it outside of the parameters of a white Australian cultural setting. This isn’t just about health either. We’re seeing the same story in housing and education as well, all because community engagement is being done as a side-thought, a box to be ticked instead of an opportunity to get the voice of the community into its own future.

So, What Next?

We believe that the way forward will come from engaging in a more meaningful way with Aboriginal people in their first language, to get a true understanding of what communities want and need to succeed. This means that most of the community engagement undertaken needs to be done by Aboriginal people themselves. Yes, we do need to be prepared that this won’t be a smooth process with a guaranteed win every time. The history of government interaction with Aboriginal Australians is littered with failed projects and funding black holes, and we have little to show for it. Now it’s time to pass the torch of ‘improvement’ where it belongs: in the hands of Aboriginal people.

We feel that the only positive solutions for Aboriginal people will be for them to approach their own problems from within their own cultural framework. Not only must they be heard, but they have to be able to articulate and proceed in to an action that they feel will result in positive outcomes for their community. Only through this kind of community engagement are results even on the horizon, but the process will be a long one. After all, successive governments have progressively worsened the state of Aboriginal people, under the guise of improving them. Perhaps now we should allow the people to improve themselves, as only they can know how.

Racism In All Its Forms

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Racism is very much present in Australia, despite what continue to assert. In our history, Australia has always had a kind of “culture of denial” about racism in Australia, claiming that it doesn’t happen, or that racist comments are meant in jest, not to be taken seriously. However, we know that denying racism only perpetuates racist behaviours [1], and that to truly tackle it we must be able to understand and identify it.

Racism In Australia

In the past year, around 1 in 5 people who call Australia their home were the target of some kind of racial discrimination, an increase from the 1 in 8 the previous year [2]. Putting that into perspective, we’re talking about around 4.6 million Australians, dealing with racial discrimination. For Indigenous Australians the numbers are even more worrying, with some 3 in 4 Indigenous Australians regularly experiencing racism [3].

So, let’s talk about racism, and the main kinds of racism you see in our society. There are three that we consider to be at play in Australia and elsewhere: Overt, Covert, and Institutional.

Overt Racism

Overt racism is the kind of racism that most people are familiar with. It’s the sort that yells obscenities in the street, that makes hurtful judgements and criticisms, that explains itself poorly. It’s premeditated hate. In terms of definition, we might call it the “unfair or unequal handling of a person or a group on racial grounds”, but essentially it is direct racism. This is the kind of racism that most of us can easily identify, and it involves deliberate and conscious acts of hate and intolerance, shown obviously and publically, by either individuals or groups.

Often, society feels that if there are little, or no, examples of overt racism, that racism doesn’t exist at all. However, there are other kinds of racism that aren’t so obvious, but insidiously exist in an underbelly of our society, generally only seen by those who experience it.

Covert Racism

As the name suggests, covert racism is the hidden or secret expression of racist beliefs, attitudes and ideas. It’s covert because it’s so indirect, and as a result it’s often not seen as being racist, not identified, and rarely called out. This is the sort of racism that people like to shrug off as misunderstanding or coincidence, when it’s really anything but. Where overt racism is considered clearly politically incorrect, covert racism often flies under the radar, and is actually thought to be the most common form of racism [4].

Institutional Racism

Institutional racism, sometimes called systemic racism, is the racism that exists in what at first appears to be commonplace rules of procedures of governments and other organisations. These systems treat certain racial or ethnic groups differently to others, putting them at a disadvantage if they aren’t able to meet rules or expectations. Often, an individual or group can’t meet those expectations because of a situation that is out of their control. In some cases, institutional racism is entirely unintentional, happening in situations where the organisation wasn’t intending to discriminate. Despite this, institutional racism does exist, and although subtle it can have much further reaching effects than other kinds of more obvious racist behaviours.

Institutional racism is often seen in the justice system, where minorities are much more likely not only to be charged with a crime, but also more likely to be convicted and serve jail time. In the Northern Territory, some of the policies associated with the much-maligned Intervention have regularly been accused of being a clear example of institutional racism, by limiting Aboriginal people from the freedoms that we enjoy [5].

The Future For Australia

Modern racist attitudes, particularly those towards Aboriginal people, have direct links with the way that Europeans de-humanised the First Australians as they colonised this country. These events are a part of shared history for those of both Aboriginal and European descent, but while white Australians celebrate the resilience of colonists, Aboriginal people mourn the massacres and invasions of their people. We often forget that the things we do in the past inform and affect our future. So, try though we might to reframe or simply ignore our history, we remain a product of it.

Australia’s future can be a bright one, but not if only some of our population benefit from it. Racism isn’t just harmful to those who are victim to it, but to all of us in society. It causes damage to community, limiting the individuals from truly realising their potential and upsetting both the collaboration and community of different groups. A racist Australia is one where social injustice and division are the norm, and that’s not the Australia we’d like to leave for our children.

[1] ‘Denial of racism and its implications for local action’,  Nelson, J.K., 2013, Discourse Society
[2] ‘Racism In Australia’, All Together Now, 2017, alltogethernow.org.au/racism/
[3] ‘Racism Undermines Health’, The Lowitja Institute, 2008, lowitja.org.au
[4] ‘What Is Racism’, Racism No Way, Department of Education, racismnoway.com.au
[5] ‘The current state of the Northern Territory intervention’, Amanda Midlam, 31/01/2012