How white people can make Australia a less racist country
I have long detested racism in all its forms – and yet, being a white person, I’m continually learning more about how racism (in its many guises) adversely affects the people being targeted. I wrote this article as a kind of thinking-aloud about how white people who don’t like racism can be more effective in calling out racism whenever we see it – how we can not only stop the racism in its tracks that one time, but how we can change white people’s views so they become ‘less’ racist – stop saying and doing racist things – or even realise that no one is superior to anyone else, and learn the difference between ‘equality’ and ‘equity’.
I have worried about publishing this article, because a white person talking about racism is akin to a man talking about violence towards women. On the other hand, the problem of racism is a white person problem. First Nations people and People of Colour (POC) cannot eradicate racism; only white people can so that. So, here goes: a white person’s view of how white people can minimise racism and make our country a less racist place.
If you are a ‘white’ person (of European heritage and identify as white) living in Australia, you have certain privileges that First Nations people and people of colour (POC) don’t. This is called ‘white privilege’. (For an explanation of white privilege and who has it, click here.)
In this article I’ll be talking about the type of racism I have witnessed the most, which is white Australians making racist comments about, or behaving in a racist way towards, First Nations people or POC. I’ve witnessed the in-your-face racism in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia, and the sneakier, snide old-school racism in the southern states. The racist jokes that attack people’s heritage or skin colour when they’re absent, and the racist remarks that attack people to their face. I’ll also talk a little bit about institutional racism. (See: What is racism?)
White privilege in Australia
Many white people are unaware they are living privileged lives because they have grown up with those privileges and therefore assume that everyone has them. For example, white Australians are normally able to live their life without being subjected to verbal abuse, ridicule or being put down due to the colour of their skin. However, First Nations people and POC are subjected to this racism all the time.
We are all normally surrounded by images on TV and other media depicting mostly white people, and books written mostly by white people. All government institutions (e.g. Health, Child Protection, Justice, Education) in Australia were created by white people and are run by CEOs and managers who are white. All this means that white people have a ‘voice’, and most of the power, in our society and all its institutions.
First Nations people and POC have not been allowed to have this voice – or when they have spoken up, they have most often been ignored.
First Nations people and POC whose kids go to school, who use health services, who have to go to court or who risk their kids being taken away from them are clients of those institutions and have to fit in with that white society with its white world view that white people are superior.
A white person can only guess how it feels to be subjected to racism on a daily basis. But you can get some understanding of what it’s like to be on the receiving end by reading this memoir about growing up in Australia by a POC: The hate race; and this memoir about the impacts of racism by a First Nations woman: Black and blue: a memoir of racism and resilience.
What racism towards First Nations people looks like
The whole population of Australia has been subjected to 234 years of particularly cruel racist propaganda about First Nations people in the media. This has created a culture of disinformation and negativity by white Australians about First Nations Australians, and particularly about First Nations women. This culture is part of today’s white Australian culture.
All white people have been exposed to insulting language about, and depictions of, First Nations people. I grew up in the seventies and first heard racist jokes about First Nations people as a teenager. I had virtually no understanding of Australian history or society, so didn’t understand the reasons for those insults nor their connection to my family’s ‘white settler’ history; it seemed to be just the way things were.
It was only when I was in my twenties and began to travel around Australia, then the world, that I was began to question the whitewashed Australian history I’d been told at school. Over the next decades, I did my own research about Australian history since 1788, learned to listen to and learn from First Nations people, and began to learn how to live as a non-racist white person in Australia.
Every now and then, I witness white people saying really insulting things about First Nations people, or POC, when there are only white people present. I guess they think it’s clever to put First Nations people and POC down, a bit like misogynists thinks it’s clever to belittle women, and I guess it makes them feel superior. Possibly putting First Nations people down also prevents them from feeling shame about stolen land, genocide and all those things all those white settler and white public service ancestors did to First Nations people.
How to reduce or minimise racism in Australia
If you have any tips for reducing or minimising racism in Australia I would love to hear them. In the meantime, here are a few suggestions.
I recently attended the first session of a series of anti-racism workshops organised and presented by Sowing Sistas. It was really helpful. If you are interested in going to the next workshop, contact: June anti-racism workshop. (However, note that residents of the Moreland shire have priority when requesting a place at the workshops.)
You can read recently published books about Australian history by First Nations authors. You can learn about First Nations Australian history. You can participate in public First Nations events (e.g. white people are welcome at reconciliation and NAIDOC events, First Nations art exhibitions, theatre, etc).
If you are holding a small event (e.g. meeting or workshop) make sure you always acknowledge the traditional elders and custodians at the start of the event, or if it’s a major event you could ask local elders to do a welcome to country. (Contact your local First Nations land council for information.)
You can share information to educate people about current events or history, in an engaging way, so they learn positive things about First Nations culture and people. (For example, tell them about a new First Nations-authored publication or movie or documentary that we enjoyed; maybe they will take a look too.)
Practise zero tolerance to racism – in the shop, bus, train, street or online. This is something I do, but don’t do well. Hearing racist things said about or to either First Nations people or POC always makes me sick in my stomach and emotional so I usually respond by being confrontational – which I am sure isn’t the most effective way to educate people to be less racist. Occasionally, I’ve curbed my emotions enough to explain to the person how their racist comment has made me feel – hurt and upset, or sick, because First Nations people and POC are my close friends, or family. Possibly this has made them stop and think about what they’ve said; but I don’t really know. (Note: with online racism I am too intolerant to respond in words: I just unfollow and block.)
But be careful when speaking out against racism in situations where you don’t have any backup and you are among strangers, especially if they are drunk, tougher than you or stronger than you. Because as soon as you speak out, the person who has made the racist comment will straightaway regard you as a traitor, and may start abusing you. (This has happened to me a few times on public transport.) So, be courageous but not stupid.
Thank you to Sowing Sistas and others for sharing some links during the anti-racism workshop, which I have added to the below broad list of resources that you can use to become better informed about First Nations culture, our country’s history, contemporary First Nations issues, and racism.
- Watch this miniseries: First Australians (SBS)
- Michael Dodson: Overcoming discrimination against Indigenous people
- Lowitja Institute: Partnership for Justice in Health: Scoping Paper on Race, Racism and the Australian Health System
- By Jenny Tannoch-Bland: Identifying White Race Privilege
- Living on stolen land
- Review of: Another day in the colony
- Gippslandia, by Shannon Woodcock: Why didn’t they teach us our history in school?
- Uluru Statement from the Heart (interactive)
- Australia’s leading First Nations publisher: Magabala books
- By Mamta Motwani Accapadi: When White Women Cry: How White Women’s Tears Oppress Women of Color
- Video presented by Anita Heiss, UQ: ChangeMakers – Black Lives Matter: the Australian context
Image: James Eades at Unsplash.
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