This is Part 4 of a 5-part series
Matt Pedler – Flinders University Counsellor and Clinical Psychologist
Welcome back to my series: A reconciliation preparation guide for non-Aboriginal Australia. Good to have you back. As a quick recap, the 1st article outlined some roadblocks to relational repair between white and Aboriginal people, the 2nd article explored how history has delivered these roadblocks to us today, the 3rd article explored how the roadblocks continue today and of the painful nature of beginning to confront them. This article proposes some common ways white people find to escape the painful reality of racism – and as such is essentially a description of how NOT to do it.
Such forms of escape can be confusing and it is important that we are able to identify and contest them (in ourselves and others) in a productive way. Instead of ‘staying with the dissonance’ (which I introduced in the 3rd article) these forms of escape are essentially ways to quickly and simply escape the discomfort of seeing racism. We use escapism because it gives us quick relief and keeps things nice and simple for us. But simple thinking for complex problems is problematic and it results in potential harm to Aboriginal people and our relationship with each other. We can describe these ways of ‘escaping’ under three categories of behaviour:, avoidance, overcompensation, and surrender.
I can’t see race, only humanness
People in this ‘colour-blind’ mode espouse their belief that “humans are all the same” and that “when I see someone I don’t see their race only their humanness” but in doing so the racial reality of oppression and relative disadvantage is completely overlooked and made invisible. White people in this stage may experience thoughts such as: I am normal and good, other whites are normal and good, I don’t see Aboriginal people’s race only their humanness.
Examples of colour-blindness could include: avoidance of interaction with Aboriginal people or exhaustive effort and preoccupation with not wanting ‘to say the wrong thing’, the ‘pioneer’ narrative (romanticised versions of early settler history which either exclude or grossly minimise accounts of interactions with Aboriginal people – tragic or otherwise), absence of Aboriginal history in town plaques and information stands, the celebration of Australia Day on January 26th, and failure to engage and treat Aboriginal clients in mainstream health settings.
It’s terrible but nothing can be done
Another common response is that of complete resignation to ‘the Aboriginal problem’ being unsolvable which then permits white people to ignore and do nothing about it and still maintain their own sense of moral integrity. People in this stage may think: I am good, other whites are good, Aboriginal people are stuck in an irreversible cycle of disadvantage and are therefore a hopeless cause.
Acts of tokenism seem to fit in this category, for example, allocation of resources for Aboriginal positions within workplaces without appropriate support or attempts to also challenge the white privilege embedded within the institution itself. Unfortunately, due to a relative lack of employment opportunities, Aboriginal people can find themselves stuck in such roles. Other manifestations of this category include the endless news and cinematic portrayal of the absolute desperation of life as an Aboriginal Australian matched with a notable absence of any reflexive questioning of our own role in this suffering.
It’s all their fault
Some white people will respond to dissonance with defensive denial that discrimination exists and aggressive blame of Aboriginal people themselves. Underlying these arguments are cognitions such as: I am good and fair, other whites are good, Aboriginal people are; to blame, less, defective, unworthy, and deserving of their suffering.
This stage is characterised by emotions of outrage, anger and aggression. Modern national examples which could characterise this stage include: Sam Newman minimising the murder of George Floyd by citing his forensic history, The Sunrise show’s comments about the stolen generation being justified, Andrew bolt diminishing Bruce Pascoe’s Aboriginality in response to his book ‘Dark Emu’, 10yo children being held criminally responsible, the Don Dale Detention Centre affair, deaths in custody, AFL champion Adam Goodes taking a stand against racism and then being relentlessly booed/punished, and the ongoing divisive politics of blame of Pauline Hanson. Historical examples are numerous and intolerable, and include: The Intervention, political resistance against native title, unlawful detainment, massacre, slavery, and generations of stolen children.
If someone is in the ‘It’s all their fault’ mode then firstly we need to make sure you and other people are safe and we are otherwise probably best to disengage and preserve our energies for more receptive audiences.
White people in this stage seem to aim to position themselves as virtuous and exceptional and Aboriginal people as helplessly inadequate. Thoughts of those stuck in ‘white saviour mode’ may include: I am exceptionally good and fair, other whites are good, Aboriginal people are helpless, passive, child-like, and require salvation.
A historical example is possibly provided in the early colonial mindset which initially sought to ‘educate’ Aboriginal people into ‘civility’ with the establishment of various missionaries, and which later often espoused some charitable nobility in ‘smoothing the pillow for the dying race’.
I/We are terrible
Some white people may respond to dissonance by simply surrendering to their extreme conclusion that they and their people are racist and bad. People in this stage may have beliefs such as: I am bad and racist, white people are bad and oppressive, and Aboriginal people are victims.
Emotionally, someone in this stage may feel sad and despairing. The cost of this position is that these people are seen by other whites as a ‘sell-out’ or ‘weird’ and locating Aboriginal people as purely victims (heroic or otherwise) and self as 100% defective is constraining and disempowering. In thinking this way white people compromise the good parts of themselves and their culture (they ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’).
I am not like the others
People can preserve their perception of themselves as ‘good’ by amputating their whiteness, leaving them without a stable racial identity. In some cases people will try to instead adopt a minority group identity but this is inevitably seen as inauthentic and the person is left with an unclear group membership, and is therefore quite isolated and psychologically vulnerable. People in this stage may experience thoughts such as: I am good, other whites are bad and I am an exception, Aboriginal people are victims.
People may experience anger at themselves and other white people and institutions. As with the submission stage this is also akin to ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’, in that good parts of white culture and the opportunity to refine one’s beliefs is lost.
Now we are more able to see the various ways to not respond to dissonance about racism. The final article (Phew! I hear you say) will offer some suggestions about how to instead explore the reality of white privilege through self-reckoning, reflection, and positive change.
If you have feedback or questions please contact Counsellor Matt via email@example.com
- When you encounter dissonance/discomfort when exposed to racial issues, circle 1 belief in each continuum that is most salient to your own thinking. Then underneath it record 2 bits of evidence which suggest this belief is not entirely true.
I am a good and fair person ———————————————————- I am a bad and racist person
White is normal, good and fair —————————————————- White is a race, bad and racist
Aboriginal people are victims —————————————————– Aboriginal people are to blame
- Escapism hacks
- Escapism from dissonance offers seductive relief (its quick, self-absolving, and simple) – but it is often inaccurate, self-reinforcing, and harmful to others.
- Revisit your values from the end of the 2nd article regarding what you want for Aboriginal people and what is important to you and white culture.
- We all screw up all the time, being fallible is normal, admitting it and then doing something about it is honourable.
- Instead of giving in to escapism, revisit the dissonance hacks exercise at the end of the 3rd article – this can help us to return to, and sit with, the distress until our beliefs make more sense of things.
- Have you ever had an argument with someone who you were trying to convince to change their mind about something important but they were just stubbornly refusing to take on new information? Were you frustrated by their rigidity? Do you think when you/we have been in these escape modes that we can be similarly inflexible? Is this frustrating also?
- Taking on new information can feel vulnerable/risky but healthy risk is a key ingredient to growth. Sometimes the sense of risk means that we are doing the right thing.
- Observation task: for the next week monitor your thoughts, the comments of family and friends, and media coverage of Aboriginal affairs and see how/if your/other’s reactions fit into the above escape modes. If you are not sure, just record it for now and then check in with someone else later.