Can People In The Dominant Culture Truly Understand Racism?

It’s the battle cry of white Australians, arguing against an uncomfortable reality: Australia’s not a racist country… we’re so multicultural.

Yes, Australia is certainly a multicultural country, but to suggest that would preclude racism is naïve to an extreme. Particularly when 97% of Aboriginal people report they experience racism ‘often’(1), and almost 50% of white Australians still believe that Aboriginal people are given some kind of unfair advantage. When one-in-five Australians would move seats if an Aboriginal person sat next to them. When 10% of non-Aboriginals say “they would not hire an Aboriginal job seeker”. When a third of Australians still think that Aboriginal Australians are ‘lazy’(2).

These are not signs of a country free of racism. The underbelly of Australia is a racist one, make no mistake, and we all suffer for it, even if we do not understand it. While Aboriginal people talk about the racism they experience, others shake their heads in disbelief, in denial.
So, can the dominant culture really understand racism?

White Privilege

“White privilege is an institutional set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble the people who dominate powerful positions in our institutions.”

~ Francis E. Kendall, 2002 (3)

Privilege is hard to see when you’re born into a situation with easy access to everything you need, and much easier to see when you aren’t. The two most common kinds of privilege in our society are white privilege and male privilege. When it comes to racism, those with white privilege find it hard to talk about those on the other side of their experience because they might not feel privileged, or feel that they have more power. Quite simply, they just don’t notice it because they take it for granted.
Most cultural experts agree that an understanding of the often unconscious ways that white privilege works is the first step to tackling racism. A lack of understanding about white privilege is what many believe stops white Australians from failing to understand the impacts that racism has on people in this country.

Institutional Racism

Institutional racism, sometimes called systemic racism, is a term used to describe a situation where companies, organisations, or government bodies act in a racist way. Sometimes these actions are deliberate, sometimes they are indirect, but they all have an impact. Institutional racism often slips past the general public undetected, tending to get so caught up in being worried about individual actions of racism, often failing to see the structures of our systems are inherently racism.

Institutional racism is often found in the structure of government programs. These programs might be intended to work for the majority of the population, but minority groups are often excluded because of circumstances or a lack of in-depth understanding of their situations. As a result, they aren’t able to access these programs, which the government might blame them for, instead of seeing how the system has actually let them down.

The Effects Of Racism

We often fail to see the long-term effects of racism, recorded in any instance where an individual is exposed to racism continuously, at any age. Studies with Aboriginal people have shown that experiencing regular racism can lead to poor emotional and physical health, can push people into unhealthy activities, and can limit equal access of necessary services (4).
Basically, if Aboriginal people feel that they aren’t being treated well, they’re less likely to put themselves in those situations again. Where this racism occurs among health care provides or health workers, trauma over racist actions could stop Aboriginal people from seeking treatment, even when they really need it.
The ripple effect of racist behaviour is often much more than we all consider, and when three out of four Indigenous Australians experience racism every day, it’s worth paying attention to.

Here’s The Thing

Australia is a long way from being a country free of racism, but it seems to us that the first step is an obvious one. For those born into cultural privilege, who make up the domain culture in this country, it’s not you who decides if the experiences of the minority are true or false. You cannot speak about them being sensitive, or about political correctness gone crazy, when you have not stood in their shoes. You may not be able to comprehend the level of racism in this country, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem.

1 ‘How racist are you? Take the test’, Daily Life 11/9/2014
2 ‘BeyondBlue to launch a new campaign highlighting the link between racism and depression’, 29/7/2014
3 ‘Understanding White Privilege’, Kendall, F.E., 2002, CPT 6/09
4 ‘Poor health, racism go hand in hand – research’, Koori Mail 448 p.32

Why is Reconciliation important to modern Australia?


More than 200 years after the English invaded the land they so erroneously entitled Terra Nullius, it seems that much has changed for the worse, and very little has changed for the better for the original people, the First Australians. In a period of 50 years, Aboriginal people went from being masters of their domain, to being supplicants in their own land, with a population loss of over 80%. As a result of the ongoing marginalisation and exclusion that has been a feature of the interaction between the new masters and the old, Aboriginal people in this country still suffer from higher child mortality, they still get far worse educational outcomes, and they still die much earlier than their counterparts of non-Aboriginal descent. These are some of the measurements used when our Government talks about Closing the Gap, initiatives by which they hope to reduce the disadvantage among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on numerous fronts.(1)

So, what about reconciliation? Is it really important?

In modern Australia, those viewing the many failures of the Australian Government to enact positive change will tell you that there is almost nothing more important to Australia’s future as a nation than reconciliation. In fact, the process of reconciliation is something many feel that modern Australia can’t afford not to pursue.

What Is Reconciliation, Why Does It Matter?

In the big picture sense of the term, reconciliation in Australia signifies the bringing together of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with other Australians. Rather than being a single action, program or behaviour, reconciliation is a process that eventually hopes to achieve an equality between Australia’s original inhabitants, and those who came after.

Reconciliation matters because Australia has a unique history, but we don’t acknowledge it. It matters because we tell Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that they should just Get over the atrocities committed to their people, their ancestors, throughout history and as late as the 1970s (and beyond) while standing by a Lest we forget acknowledgement of ANZAC history. We aren’t saying that the ANZACs shouldn’t be commemorated, but why accept one aspect of our past when we shy away from the other?

What it comes down to is this: Australians have a view of themselves, but that view doesn’t match up with the history of the country they call home. As Sol Bellear, the chairman of the Aboriginal Medical Service said: “Put simply, reconciliation hasn’t worked in Australia because as a nation, we continue to refuse to face up to our real past.”(2)

Australians often argue that, individually, they didn’t have a hand in these atrocities and that is true. But that doesn’t mean that they should just be ignored, or that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should just be expected to go on as if they had never occurred. The damage has been done, but there is still a way forward. History has taught us that without reconciliation, there will always be anger and hate. A better future is made so by understanding the mistakes of the past, and working to ensure they aren’t repeated.

What Is Reconciliation Not?

Reconciliation is not assimilation. It is not making Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people just like us. The Australian Government, and the Australian people, have attempted this in the past and succeeded in causing yet more damage. We have tried to wipe Aboriginal people out, we have tried to breed them out. We very rarely realise that just because our way of life is ideal for us, doesn’t mean it will also be ideal for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

The river is the river and the sea is the sea. Salt water and fresh, two separate domains. Each has its own complex patterns, origins, stories. Even though they come together they will always exist in their own right. Our hope for Reconciliation is like that.

– Patrick Dodson(3)

Beyond History

Of course there is more to reconciliation than history. Reconciliation Australia has identified five interrelated dimensions of reconciliation (4), to get a better idea of what is needed to achieve reconciliation, and how we will know our country is reconciled. These are:

– Race relations: That two-way relationships exist between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Aboriginal Australians through society, based on trust and respect.

– Equality and equity: That Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people participate equally and equitably in all areas of life and society, meaning all life outcome gaps are closed and the unique rights of each cultural group is recognised and respected.

– Institutional integrity: Political, business and community institutions support and uphold reconciliation in their structures and goals.

– Unity: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and rights are both recognised and valued as a part of Australia’s shared national identity, leading to national unity.

– Historical acceptance: All Australians both understand and accept the wrongs of the past, and their impact. Agreements are made to ensure those wrongs are never repeated.

These are big goals, but they are the kind of goals that Australia should be embracing if we want to have this bright future that we have dreamt of, and that we have been promised.
There is no future for Australia without reconciliation, and while we still have a long way to go, the tide is starting to turn. All we need to do now is go with the flow.

1 ‘What is Closing The Gap’, Australian Indigenous Health Info Net,, Nov 2016
2 ‘NACCHO Aboriginal health: Hostility to Utopia film a denial of nation’s brutal past – Sol Bellear and Adam Goodes’,, Mar 2014
3 ‘RAP blessed with water’, Reconciliation News, Dec 2009, p.26
4 ‘The State Of Reconciliation In Australia’, Reconciliation Australia, Feb 2016, p.7