If Aboriginal people had a dollar for every time this was said, we’d have a pretty large pool of money to close that gap which is apparently all our fault. Each time an event occurs where we speak out, push back or simply react, we often here the response, “STOP PLAYING THE VICTIM AND BEING SO OFFENSIVE!” These comments come from those feeling as though their ignorant words with no fact checking is in some way destroying their delicate sensibilities. After all, they’re the ‘quiet Australians’. I mean, they are just doing their best/getting by/trying to understand/trying to help – They don’t see colour, their blood is all the same colour, they don’t see race. They don’t play in the game of victimhood at all!
Are you confused? Me too.
This is a perfect display of Whiteness as a default position, a behaviour that folk are either not aware of, or inherently aware of in their understandings of power and entitlement. But we can’t call them white, or use this term Whiteness, as it is way too divisive and triggering. Then they call for ‘civility’ which is more of the same – it is the discourse used of a non-Black or privileged person to silence a genuine critique that desperately needs to be had.
But we know Whiteness. We see it in the responses to Latrell wearing the flag in an ARL advertisement, or in a comment (literally any comment) by panellists on Studio 10 about the removal of Aboriginal children. We see it in our actual lives, the everyday experiences we have in the workplace, in Universities and institutions. Even, in our own families we see this.
We need Whiteness to see its own Whiteness.
A family member of mine often laments for ‘the old days’, when things were easier. They actually think it was easier when convicts first came to a ‘Terra Nullius’; imagining that after some hard times, they would be given their (our) land and be able to settle and build a future, never considering the futures they may have destroyed in the process. In their efforts to win an argument, we then hear the statement of “things were just as bad for those people who came over on the first fleet to build this country”. No doubt this is true, but how difficult would it have been for your land, your children, your lives to be taken away to allow this supposed settlement to flourish? The cognitive dissonance required to think through such prisms is so very strong, and this is due to a long history of ignorant educational curriculum, failed government policy, demonising of Blackfullas through media stories and further perpetuation of stereotypes rippling throughout Australian society.
Whiteness is considered the dominant position, the Good Place, where we everything is fine and dandy. We all need to work together to build a better world. It is the apparent sensible starting point with which discourse and debate can occur. If we push back, the comment of “Why don’t you just go live in a Humpy then?” enables a type of weaponry from Whiteness that has us responding with a narrative of our excellence, knowledges and structures. We are then engaged in conversation regarding what we had before the colony came to our shores whilst trying to explain what has been erased, thereby being told we’re playing the victim. But their humpies comment also demonstrates what they don’t know. They don’t know that knowledge and innovations has been pilfered from non-White people that they now claim as theirs. It ignores their overpowering of a culture, as well as our empowering of ourselves to survive despite them.
Now, full disclosure here that my ancestry is a mixed one. My Aboriginal, Irish and Chinese line comes from here, as well as away. There is pride in the fact that I come from three separate cultures of ‘others’ who have had to fight for freedoms, recognition and basic rights. I must also accept that I am also complicit to an Anglicised way of thinking, but now think more 'Indigenously'. I no longer accept racial slights, ignorant observations and dominant bias that prefers vanilla to chocolate.
Whiteness has been part of the history of this country since Britain came to build on their empire. Some of us are the result of an effort to keep a new race of Brits purified, to breed out the Black, and some of us are the result of different cultures of the less preferred, actively resisting that for that purity to occur. After years of learning and reflecting, I recognise my place is to disrupt and shift some of the mindsets surrounding that White thought process in others. Some days I am full of fire, other days I will spend some of my labour on those who don’t deserve it. I just wish they’d see, and name their own Whiteness.
So much more can be added to this blank canvas
Chronic disease management is, to be perfectly blunt, a pain in the arse. As someone with Type 1 Diabetes, I have come to accept in my 26 years since being diagnosed, that my day is about the numbers. As an Aboriginal woman and an academic, the management is also about cultural understandings, policy discourse and institutional frameworks around health. Firstly, in terms of the daily grind, this is what an average Type 1 go through each day.
The aim is to try to keep your blood glucose level (BGL) above 4 units and under 8 units preferably, although for some of us, that range can be dicey. One injection of longstanding insulin each morning which acts as a baseline, trying to keep me stable, together with a faster acting insulin which will hopefully interact with the food I am about to eat at breakfast. A continuous glucose monitor (a CGM, attached to my stomach subcutaneously) reads my BGL 24 hours a day, alarming me when I have gone too low, or too high. At lunch, I take another dose of the fast acting, always watching what I eat so that I may stay stable. Then a dinner dose, which for me seems tricky as I often overshoot. Something with a carbohydrate impact is favourable to rectify the problem, but not too much for fear of rebounding.
I then have to manage my BGL before sleeping – I seem to be happy at 11 as overnight it often goes into freefall, resulting in an overnight hypo. Hence the CGM; it wakes me and my partner up so that I can sleepily eat my muesli bar beside the bed and go back to sleep. Before this CGM, it was much worse overnight and I have on occasion woken up in an ambulance because my body was shutting down, only to be revived with an instant injection of glucose before going into a coma. One time this happened while six months pregnant, another time I bit my tongue so hard that blood was streaming out of my mouth.
As I said, a right pain in the arse.
When you consider how many of us deal with a chronic condition which has an hour by hour impact, it is amazing that most of us can go about our daily lives. There is also, the cost not only to the individual with the condition, but to the health system attempting what it can to minimise such things as extended hospital stays and medical paraphernalia which costs millions. Of course, the other issue with chronic conditions is the complications it piles on – Oh, the specialists you will see! Ophthalmologist for damaged eyes, Podiatrist for feet, Endocrinologist for overall diabetes control, Physiotherapist for nerve issues – the list goes on! It is exhausting, costly and there are times when you just want it to stop.
As a Black woman and an academic, I also know all too well the discourse connected to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health issues. We are rendered as statistics, ‘most likely to die earlier than’…we see an annual Close the Gap report from government which tells us not much has changed while simultaneously interact with Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Centres that work extremely hard under funding agreements which regularly shift. When I meet people working in these areas, in health services front-line or in Universities trying to change the conversation in health, I am usually in awe of their energy to keep going.
Yes, we need to close the gap in health disparity – we know that because we live it every day. Our communities are doing amazing things to impact on that, and our Blacademics are writing expert pieces and implementing research through places like the Lowitja Institute. Our hopes of what we can achieve aren’t low, but what government and institutions require often feel like we are trying to fit our circles into their squares. And when so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people create tangible, unique and innovative ways to assist in changing those disparities, is it time those outside of this community started to really listen?
It is not that we don’t have the knowledge to impact largely on the health issues of our families, our communities. Traditional healing methods have been within our culture since millennia and it is wonderful to see that this is becoming more recognised. But mainstream health services don’t seem to understand cultural difference – sadly they are complicit in a long history of racism in health practice, and bias, stereotypes and ineffective policies embed within this system a belief that we cannot look after ourselves.
I manage my chronic condition much better now, but I didn’t change lifestyle habits because a mainstream service told me to. In many ways, part of me not looking after myself was due to not thinking I was worthy of it. Where I got that message could be in the statistical rendering of my body as an Aboriginal woman and the day to day care I received as a patient in a health system that sees numbers not people. It is high time that system changed.
Australia is currently facing a national emergency. Across the country, bushfires have been decimating towns, eradicating the environment and wildlife since September. A smoke haze has grown over major cities, with Australia’s capital city Canberra showing an air pollution rating of seven times over the healthy limit. It is estimated that half a billion animals have died, including some species not yet discovered by Western science. A number of people have perished and many still unaccounted for, with intense weather warnings still to come. 2019 was also the hottest year on record for Australia.
We are also in the midst of a crisis in leadership. While we have seen a lack of leadership within government, we have seen communities do what they can to assist. It is often in these moments that I consider what I have learnt in leadership studies and how some leadership is disregarded as volunteering or just ‘helping out’ when needed.
There are so many forms of leadership and within the discipline, our understandings of the term have shifted towards identity-driven models. In the current era of Trump, fake news and socio-political bias, it can also be difficult to determine between leading, representing, and the cult of celebrity.
So is it better to talk about what is not leadership?
Leadership is not leaving someone’s post. The Prime Minister retreating to Hawaii, or calling these fires a state issue is neglecting the role that the Australian public have placed him in. It also demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the role as a representative of a nation who is starving for some much-needed emotion, authenticity and vulnerability to be shown. The public are demanding the leader stand in an uncomfortable space, listen to the pain, anger and fear conveyed to feel seen and heard.
As said earlier, we are seeing community-driven work done by people in the shadows getting tangible things done. For example, a friend living in Turra Beach (near Bega), helps run a food charity. Her Facebook message said it all:
We are safe. The sky is red and is predicted to get much worse tomorrow. Saturday is the big day, with temperatures and wind expected to rise, and the risk increasing. We’ve decided to stay at Bega Showground from tomorrow. Fuel is getting scarce. There we will be able to volunteer and provide provisions or whatever is needed from the Sapphire Community Pantry.
We’re talking 2 Foodbank Sydney, and they have put together two lorry-loads food, toiletries and water. Everyone is pitching in, supporting each other.
My friend would say she isn’t remarkable and just doing what is needed. But surely that is part of leadership, and surely it is in the micro moments, the showing of vulnerability and the tangible work that we begin to build again?
When we are seeing more leading from the shadows than from those in the seat of power, we are in a moment of crisis. Only from the crisis can we build change.
When I first began at University I was a mature aged student with little educational experience. The last time I sat inside a classroom of sorts, it was within a TAFE environment in the 1990s and before then I was finishing year ten in the late 1980s. Educational curriculum had moved on from then, ideas had shifted and completely new languages were being used. Not only that but for me, the environment of a University was foreign. I found that after an initial adjustment, the part I really took to was the learning; the reading and writing and knowing that I could achieve something was something I didn't realise I wanted. But, the institution itself I found frustrating.
As an Indigenous student we often hear of diversity and equity pathways, assistance and support and skill building to which I definitely used during my time at University. But it was all so generic and felt all about what we didn't have. It didn't celebrate what strengths could be demonstrated, and in many ways it felt constrained.
The initial models of Indigenous student support and scholarly attainment have certainly grown, but there will always be challenges. As a Biripai woman, I understand that this is lifelong in knowing myself, my ways of being, and how best to utilise them for what I deem is success. Success may mean different things and my success, and my drive, will always be grounded in two things.
Having lived varying experiences (travel, work, relationships and cultural connection) it is imperative I grow and bring people with me as I do. Talking to students, understanding their needs and wants, figuring out how I can help them means my educational journey is ongoing. Because I also learn from them and the relatedness and connection we share builds the knowing.
My drive is also about how I can be best productive and balanced within these environments so that I create change - change in ideas, narratives, relationships and structures. This is not revolutionary, but choosing a 'bespoke' career is integral to my understandings of my identity. That is the only way I choose to live.
Copyright © 2020 Dr Tess Ryan - All Rights Reserved.