This is Part 1 of a 5-part series
Matt Pedler – Flinders University Counsellor and Clinical Psychologist
Are you a non-Aboriginal person wanting to work with Aboriginal people? Are you unsure how to do this effectively and feeling uneasy about it? This was me as a University student and below is what I have learnt since.
Here we are at another Reconciliation week and we are here in very strange times indeed with the coronavirus situation affecting everyone so profoundly. These times call for solidarity despite isolation. These are times that some won’t survive unless we pull together in the interests of our collective despite some duress as individuals. Similarly, the theme this year for Reconciliation Week is “In This Together” and without a critical mass of people participating in repairing the very damaged relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, a portion of our population will continue to suffer immensely, and as a collective we will be weaker*.
Below is an invitation to non-Aboriginal people to be part of this critical mass. Every 2 weeks I will write a section of a roadmap, which when put together offers a pathway to the reconciliation table for non-Aboriginal people. Once seated at this table a process of mutual resolution needs to be undertaken but first of all, us non-Aboriginal people must respectfully find a seat.
It seems that a lot has been tried to help ‘close the gap’ but something which doesn’t seem to have been tried is helping non-Aboriginal people to address the privilege we have, often unknowingly, inherited. When we bring this privilege to our interactions with Aboriginal people it contaminates our relationships. If we could be aware of and relinquish this privilege, then we could cease the infliction of this ‘gap’ in health and wellbeing and instead build our relationship with each other. Collective health, knowledge, and pride in who we are might be our rewards.
Disclaimers and warnings
When racial inequality is raised, white people can often experience discomfort and then react with resistance and some caution, and trepidation from Aboriginal people is therefore an adaptive response. Furthermore, I am a white man and me writing something about addressing racial inequality can, at first glance, seem a little questionable. However, I am attempting to specifically address the white contribution to racial inequality and I want to do so in a unique way that is respectful and beneficial to all concerned.
Racial identities and interactions are much more complicated than just seeing the world as black or white but deeper exploration of such intricacies are beyond the scope of this article. It is worth stating that the references in this work to ‘white’ Australians rather than just ‘non-Aboriginal’ Australians is intentional; the aim was not to exclude the diverse ethnic make-up of modern Australia, or to ignore the participation of other groups in racial inequality, but to directly address the ‘pointy end’ of power imbalance and oppression. Avoidance of reference to ‘white’ people would be colluding with racial power imbalance by choosing to ‘not see it’. This direct reference to white people can create some unease and discomfort, but unease and discomfort are also the markers of growth, and the reader is encouraged to persist should such discomfort arise.
Are white people bad?
It seems that many white people do not want to cause harm to others and are uncomfortable with the overall relative disadvantage that Aboriginal Australians endure. For example, 90% of Australians in the general community believe that the relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people are important (Reconciliation Australia, 2018). Yet attempts to improve the situation so far have been largely ineffective with the gap in wellbeing and health remaining largely unchanged.
So why haven’t things changed when people’s underlying ethics seem so reasonable?
I am going to use an oversimplified but hopefully useful analogy to help explain things. Let’s say that I have a big argument with my wife. One in which I get angry and say a whole heap of hurtful things in anger. Now conflict is normal and we have all behaved poorly in one way or another during arguments, but we have means to work through such experiences. In fact, we have means to not just move through such arguments, but to grow from these situations and become closer, more understanding, and stronger in our relationships. Here is a rough outline of such a process:
1. Get space from each other to cool down. Sooth. Seek counsel from people who support you as a couple. Reconnect with your goals and values. Consider what you felt and also what you did which violated your own values.
2. Gently approach the other person and express accountability for how you violated your values, explain your own legitimate feelings when you became upset. Show some genuine concern and curiosity for how the other party may feel and listen to their version of events without interruption or judgement.
3. Gradually try to restore the injury caused to the other person in ongoing negotiation with them and together move forwards with new understanding of each other.
In terms of the relationship between white and Aboriginal people it seems to me that we have either done nothing at all or jumped straight to step 3. Let’s say I did nothing at all with my wife after the (fictional of course) example of a big argument. How would she feel? Probably somewhat distant, wary, rejected, resentful, and perhaps even worthless. Let’s say I skipped steps 1 and 2 with her and went straight to Step 3 (just clean the slate and move forwards). How would my wife feel in this instance? I would guess that she may feel unsafe to go forwards, hurt, wary of being hurt again, and it would not take much for these injuries to be ’triggered’ again. This means that instead of healing relational wounds we instead re-injure things over and over again. I wonder if Aboriginal people’s reference to ‘Culturally unsafe’ environments is in some ways a reference to relationships where this occurs?
So why have we skipped these steps?
Firstly, our role in the whole ordeal is largely invisible to us. Essentially, everything around us is white (TV, other people, recorded versions of history, etc.) and we don’t see ourselves as white or as even having a race, we think we are normal and the systems around us foster this belief. Because of this situation we tend to think that everyone shares an understanding of our social systems and has the same access to the opportunities and freedoms that we have. We are therefore confused about why some groups don’t do as well as we do and can’t see how other people’s races impact their opportunities. Consider if, in the example of the argument between my wife and I, we existed in a time and place where such behaviour from men was the norm, would I even ‘see’ my behaviour as an issue?
Secondly, when we do get glimpses of our role in Aboriginal suffering, it is absolutely devastating as it violates our core ethics, our perceptions of ourselves and each other as good people, and our cultural narratives of egalitarianism and meritocracy. Our psychological response to this sudden pain is to escape it as quickly as possible. This escapism is a very human response that we see play out in a similar way with mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression but it is rarely a helpful response.
So how do we find ways through these roadblocks to be able to do Steps 1, 2, and 3?
If we could do this, surely, some of us will feel better with more genuinely living out our values of egalitarianism (although some others will resent the loss of their privilege). We could be less blinded to the Aboriginality in our landscape (we could manage land differently), we could genuinely learn from some Aboriginal knowledges and wisdoms, we could develop new national identities based in this place, time, and each other.
As a psychologist, I have not been able to find any established approaches to navigate through these roadblocks (although there is some work on White Racial Identity Development which is useful to draw on). So let’s just make a psychologically informed approach ourselves to address the 2 roadblocks above by making the mistreatment of Aboriginal Australians visible and supporting people to then work through the subsequent pain that accompanies the realisation that most of us have, at the very least, been complicit in this mistreatment.
What then hopefully results is the better angels of our nature and steps 1, 2, and 3 become a genuine possibility. It is worth re-stating that we cannot progress past steps 1 and 2 without more in-depth collaboration with Aboriginal people. This guide is designed to prepare us to undertake this collaboration. Remember, we need bravery for this work, you can take your time, you can be angry, you can be sad, you can feel shame, you can ask for help, you can have a rest and come back to it, but please don’t give up. The costs of not doing something different are great as are the rewards for taking a risk to reconcile our participation in inequality with who we want to be and the values we hold dear. Only then it seems that we can genuinely offer ourselves for reconciliation with Aboriginal Australia.
Figure 1 shows the overall roadmap to the reconciliation table and I will explain each section in 4 articles over the coming fortnights. Stay tuned!
* Throughout this article (and future articles), the term ‘Aboriginal’ will respectfully be used to refer to the diversity of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations and peoples.
What do you want life to be like for Aboriginal Australians? Perhaps consider explaining this to an Aboriginal child. What do these goals say about you as a person and your values?
How would you like to tell the story of colonisation and its aftermath to your (or another’s) child 10 years from now?
What is the story that you want to be able to tell about Australia as a nation regarding its treatment of its citizens and what it/we stand for?