Cultural Awareness Training Is Not A Punishment, Or A Cure-All For Institutional Racism

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by Eugenia Flynn

By now you could possibly have seen the story about a South Australian cop who called an Aboriginal man a “black c—” and said he would like to “tie the hose around your neck, set you on fire, and drag you around the streets attached to our car with the lights and sirens on.” I say possibly because the story did not get much airtime in the national press and the police officer in question was neither demoted nor fired.

Rather, he was given cross-cultural training as a punishment. Aboriginal commentators, Luke Pearson and Renee Williamson, both hit the nail on the head when they expressed anger at the particular type of punishment he was given: cross-cultural training. After the initial anger I felt that the officer was not demoted or fired, a sickening realisation set in. The South Australian Police think learning about Aboriginal culture is a punishment.

Maybe this cuts straight to the heart of the issue. South Australian authorities and media have a history of strained relations with Aboriginal communities. The police and media handling of the so-called ‘Gang of 49’; the treatment of Aboriginal victims as criminals, as in the case of Malcolm Gollan’s family; regional local council use of K9 dog units to control ‘anti-social behaviour’; the trial of a cashless welfare card in Ceduna; and now, the lack of real consequences for racial abuse from members of the police force. No matter which way you slice it, the pie always comes up institutional racism. The question then is, how effectual is cross-cultural training as a solution to systemic racism? How can it possibly help when the very system itself lets police officers off the hook after such heinous abuse? When the former police ombudsman states that the police officer is “entirely unsuitable to continue as a member of the police force”, how do we trust a system that allows this officer to remain employed?

It is not surprising then that in the very same state a young man I know had racist abuse hurled at him at a social gathering. Posting about the negative experience on social media, all of the responses denounced the racist actions, but the solutions offered were all the same soft entreaties to ‘educate people’, to ensure that when this education is carried out that it is ‘non-aggressive’. Attacking racism cannot solely be about educating people, when those same people are products of political and social institutions that promote the dominant mainstream as the aspirational norm. It cannot be about placating white fragility in the face of strong black assertion that our rights are being infringed. At its core anti-racism work must be about dismantling the systems and institutions that facilitate racial discrimination, not layering cultural education on top of flawed ones.

The time for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to constantly carry the burden of education, to always shoulder blame for the racism that others perpetrate on us, that time must be over. Education on Aboriginal culture can be a measure in changing hearts and minds, but as we have seen in the case of the South Australian Police, as a single tool to fight racism in an institution that views learning about our culture as a punishment, it does not work. The violent and aggressive racist is unlikely to have their views changed through cross-cultural training. They will continue to threaten racialised violence, as in the case of this police officer, and they will continue to make derogatory comments to Aboriginal people they see on the street. A lack of awareness is not the sole root cause of racism and education alone requires the student to be willing to learn. Unfortunately, in these cases, we are still at square one of trying to convince some people that they should learn about Aboriginal communities, or even that Aboriginal anything should be taught in schools.

I tend to think about racism in different types. Overt racists like the police officer and the abusers on the street are in a different category to those who have a commitment to being anti-racist but lack the necessary skills, knowledge or experience to practice anti-racism. Cross-cultural training may assist individuals with good will, but if the systems in place are still discriminatory it leaves little room to improve either way. For too long Aboriginal Australia has seen a lot of positive discussion, but when it comes to the crunch, very little action in terms of real institutional change. Those with the ability to create systemic change may rarely do so because they are apathetic or without the necessary skills. More typically they fear political or social backlash and perceived economic pitfall. Those in power understand that changes in system require a radical re-thinking of the current state of play, a loss of their piece of the pie to give over to others, and so they maintain the status quo.

And what of Uncle Jack Charles? He made headlines last week when he was racially discriminated against by Victorian taxi drivers, not once, but twice. In the first instance, his manager posted on Facebook that a taxi driver told them “there is a law that allows drivers to ask Aboriginals to prepay their taxi rides.” Rather than a law, perhaps this is an unwritten policy of the taxi company in question. Institutional racism, yet again.

Ever since the incidents, I have seen many suggestions that Uncle Jack Charles switch to rideshare company Uber. Even a comment or two that competition in the marketplace would solve the problem of racist taxi companies by running them out of business. Understanding that while a switch to Uber may cause some immediate relief from the pain of racism, Uncle Jack Charles knows it would do nothing to attack racism at its core. In his own words: “This is in our Nation’s interest to take action.

And take action we should. As the collective consciousness of the globalised world becomes more and more raised, racism appears to be on the way out along with sexism and homophobia. But how out can it become when we continue to pretend that feel-good solutions like ‘love’, hashtag activism and cross-cultural training are cure-alls? Without working in tandem with real plans for systemic change the hearts and minds solutions are rendered ineffectual. A real plan takes real commitment to admitting what does not work, a commitment to losing money and status if the one-size-fits-all system does not really fit all. If we truly want to stop racism in our police forces, in our society – even in our taxis – we must commit to systemic change.

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