You may be aware that I am launching into my third career in the communications industry and undertaking Bachelor and Post Grad University studies. During the semester just passed, I completed the 'Introduction to Indigenous Australia' course. My intent for taking this course as an elective was to broaden my knowledge of Australian audiences and diversity and inclusion issues. The last essay was a self reflection piece. I was deeply moved by my learnings during this particular course, and wanted to share this paper and my reflections with you; especially, during this time of protest and change.
Within two weeks of attending lectures and tutorials, I found myself in a disorientating dilemma. I felt a heavy feeling of guilt and mounting unanswered questions. Had I been living each day unaware that I approached every interaction and opportunity with unearned white privilege? Also, my outward nonracist and inclusive standpoint now seemed insignificant as I battled with my ignorance of Australian colonisation facts and Indigenous histories. Each week, as I read, watched and absorbed the recommended learnings concerning Indigenous issues and racism in Australia, a strong emotional response was triggered, and I felt a responsibility to share my insights and create conversations around this complex and frequently avoided issue. The four areas which struck a significant chord for me were: the limited schooling I received about Australia’s First Nation Peoples; the article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack; the book, Is that You Ruthie?; and the online lecture content. Below, I reflect on each of these, my growth during this course, and apply a sociological lens to support my deliberations.
From the first lecture, it became apparent that when I attended school, the Australian and Indigenous histories included in the curriculum was insignificant and incomplete. Genine Hook (2012, p. 110) echoed my realisation and acknowledged an ‘education blind spot’ with relation to how Indigenous studies is taught in Australian schools. Reportedly, when a person went to school determined what they learned about Captain Cook’s role in Australian colonisation (Zarmati 2020). For example, if they attended school in the 1950s to 1960s, Captain Cook might have been portrayed as a great explorer who discovered Australia, or, in 1965 to 1979 the negative impact of colonisation for Indigenous Australians was mentioned somewhat (Zarmati 2020). Furthermore, Peggy McIntosh (1990) described the invisible systems of dominant discourse throughout educational systems which silently and unconsciously oppresses the ‘other’. I started to critically rethink how I understand Australian and Indigenous histories.
In particular, the unconscious oppressing of the ‘other’, became obvious upon reading the article, White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack by Peggy McIntosh. The article shook my understanding of racism, highlighting the myth of meritocracy and democratic choice, and exposed my unearned advantage and privilege. Moreover, the exhaustive list in the article demonstrated the ‘white screen’ I looked through every day; the opportunities socially, the lack of prejudice professionally, the services I enjoyed, and the whitewashed shopping experiences I had. Also, reflecting on my friendships with people who have dark skin, I tried to imagine the things I took for granted through their eyes. For example: I can easily buy ‘skin’ coloured band-aids; I can challenge those in authority; I do not have to go out of my way to purchase appropriate toys and reading material for my children; I do not worry about my children being bullied for their skin colour; and no matter where I go, I will be around people who have the same colour skin and feel like I belong. Hollingsworth (2006 p. 6) reported the outcomes of a 2001 telephone survey, in which 83% of people said racial prejudice was an issue in Australia, and 39% of participants agreed that British Australians felt the benefits of ‘white’ privilege. I was pleased to read the majority acknowledged discrimination was a problem; however, dismayed that only 39% could identify with the unearned advantages and opportunities they enjoyed because their skin colour is white.
I understood racism to be meanness, bullying or unkindness directed towards a person whose nationality or skin colour is different from my own. Hollingsworth (2066, p. 7) challenges my pre-course belief that racism is primarily an individual experience, by identifying the decisive influence of social, structural, institutional, historical and cultural factors which sway a person towards a bias, avoidance or confrontation. From week two, I adopted a sociological imagination approach to expand my perspective and expose the limits of my awareness; specifically asking the questions: what is happening; what the consequences are; how you know; and how could it be otherwise (Willis 2011 p. 71). Furthermore, to gain a better understanding of racism and white privilege in Australia, I approached each week considering four forms of sociological imagination; historical, cultural, critical and structural (Willis 2011 p. 72). From this perspective, I began critically questioning social structures and discourses and looking for opportunities to advocate for inclusion, acceptance and representation of everybody.
Is that you, Ruthie set in motion a deeper level of understanding and context of white privilege and Indigenous histories. Specifically, the stolen generations, a topic I had little knowledge of, other than watching Kevin Rudd deliver the National Apology on 13 February 2008. I recall my feelings of sympathy for the families and their communities. Then, within a couple of weeks, when the debate was no longer raging through the media, the feelings of compassion for the injustice those families experienced faded from my thoughts. I reflect now, and wonder was that because I didn’t have the background knowledge and education to associate with the importance of this display from the government, as they acknowledged our First Nations People suffering due to the past Aboriginal protection and welfare laws and policies. I struggle with this indifference and see similarities with a character in Is that you, Ruthie. The Director in William Street was well-intended and felt bad about the circumstances, yet still sends Ruthie back to Cherbourg after her unfair dismissal in 1945, without a second thought or sense of responsibility for her past or future (Hegarty 2003, p. 118). Additionally, as I turned the pages, I identified a similar dehumanising process of the government policies and policing described throughout and Max Weber’s ‘Iron Cage’. Weber described bureaucracy, the hardest institution to abolish, as an iron cage which cannot be shattered and is escape-proof; and is encasing a growing number of people (Ritzer 2013). I realised the iron cage that encircled Ruthie, her family, her community and her people, presents the illusion of an unbeatable entity; and the cage exploits, mistreats and diminishes any sovereignty of the individual or group. Nevertheless, there was also resistance, agency, bravery and courage from Indigenous people, which frequently challenged the status quo.
These attempts at resistance and agency were recurring in the weekly online lecture content; which caused many tears as I processed the circumstance of our First Nations People. I found difficulty choosing one film or documentary to analyse for this essay. For instance, my standouts were: Kanyini, grew my understanding of Indigenous connection to the land; September, illustrated the power relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and navigating friendships with the ‘other’; Samson and Delilah, highlighted the discrimination faced by Indigenous communities and the subsequent substance abuse; The Song Keepers, when one of the members of the choir declared they were treated better by the German people than Australians; Mabo, revealed the courage, determination, persistence and sacrifice required to stand up to the Australian Government; A Dying Shame, emphasised intergenerational trauma, loss of culture, the effects of alcoholism on the community, lack of services and nutritious food options, limited funding, and no opportunities for young people; and Good Morning Mr Sarra, demonstrated the potential of Indigenous students if provided with appropriate leadership, resources and self-belief. However, Utopia encompassed all the themes of what impacted me during the semester. This compelling documentary featured the similarities of historical and contemporary issues for remote Indigenous communities. Alarmingly represented throughout the documentary: the government still removes indigenous children from their communities; underserviced Aboriginal communities where physical and mental health issues thrive; police brutality and harassment; the complacent and ignorant attitudes of non-Indigenous Australians; government coverups and propaganda; and the lack of policies leading to real change for our First Nations People. Most evident was the limited national media coverage and public platforms giving Indigenous communities a voice, sharing positive stories and culture, and showing current projects promoting health and wellbeing. Nevertheless, interwoven throughout each online content piece, I saw Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples unwavering courage and determination to be heard. Theresa Petray (2012, pp. 4-5), affirms agency can reinforce and challenge social structures.
Before undertaking this course, I assumed all Indigenous people had the same definition and potential of self-determination, which I enjoyed. For instance, characteristics of self-determination which promote achievement include relatedness, autonomy and competence (Nalipay, King & Cai 2020 p. 67). I now recognise not all our First Nations Peoples do have self-determination. Instead, their experience includes: cultural insensitivity; mixed messages broadcast through various media outlets; harmful attitudes and policies of the Australian Government; denigration; dispossession; removal of children from their families; and harsh punishments. I now know, a consequence of inhibiting access to Indigenous self-determination is intergenerational trauma on a wide scale. Ultimately, I am re-examining my thoughts and ideas of the effects of colonisation on our First Nations People, and their ongoing fight for recognition and respect. Importantly, during this semester, I have lifted my ‘white screen’ and re-evaluated how I assess and judge the behaviours of others who have different skin colour, cultural beliefs and backgrounds. I am left with a deep sense of responsibility to somehow contribute to a nationwide conversation on the path to understanding, change, fairness, acknowledgement, and justly shared land, opportunities and riches.
Hegarty, R 2003, Is That You Ruthie, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia.
Hollinsworth, D 2006, Race & racism in Australia , 3rd edn, Thomson Social Science Press, South Melbourne.
Hook, G 2012, ‘Towards a decolonising pedagogy: Understanding Australian indigenous studies through critical whiteness theory and film pedagogy’, The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, vol. 41, no. 2, pp. 110–119, doi: 10.1017/jie.2012.27.
McIntosh, P 1990, ‘White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack’, Independent School, vol. 49, no. 2.
Nalipay, M, King, R, & Cai, Y 2020, ‘Autonomy is equally important across East and West: Testing the cross-cultural universality of self-determination theory’ Journal of Adolescence, vol. 78, pp. 67–72, doi: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2019.12.009.
Petray, T 2012, Can Theory Disempower? Making Space for Agency in Theories of Indigenous Issues, viewed 6 May 2020, https://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/bitstream/handle/2123/8791/TASA%202012%20Theorising%20Indigenous%20Sociology%20Petray%2021%20November%202012.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Ritzer, G 2013, The Weberian theory of rationalization and the McDonaldization of contemporary society. Illuminating social life: Classical and contemporary theory revisited, pp. 29-50, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781506335483.n3.
Willis, E 2011, The Sociological Quest, 5th edn, Allen & Unwin, Australia.
Zarmati, L 2020, Captain Cook ‘discovered’ Australia, and other myths from old school textbooks, viewed 29 April 2020, https://theconversation.com/captain-cook-discovered-australia-and-other-myths-from-old-school-text-books-128926