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10 things you should know about systemic racism

As you may have heard, a report into racism and cultural safety at Collingwood Football Club was commissioned last year, the report was delivered in December 2020 and was leaked to the press in early February 2021. 

The report, led by Larissa Behrendt, found evidence of a significant problem with systemic racism within the club. This should be a shock to absolutely no one. It is not shocking because president, Eddie McGuire, has had a number of very public racist instances both personally and those which he has overseen and failed to adequately address within his organisation, but it is also not a shock simply for the fact that it is a large organisation in Australia and there are woefully few of those, if any, that don’t have serious issues with systemic racism.

Part of the problem with this is that far too few people have any understanding whatsoever of what racism is, let alone what systemic racism is, and since we deliver anti-racism training here at IndigenousX we thought we would make a list of 10 things you should know about systemic racism. 

This list is not particularly comprehensive nor is it exhaustive, it is better viewed as a scattershot of issues designed to plant a few seeds in the hopes that some may take root. 

1. “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist” – Angela Davis

Too often we hear people say they are not racist, as though this is some kind of achievement in and of itself. It usually isn’t true, and especially not when it is followed by the word ‘but’.

Even if it is true though, it is still grossly insufficient to make a positive contribution to the eradication of racism and racial discrimination.

Only anti-racism can do that. 

 2. Systemic racism isn’t about how much you care

Many people confuse anti-racism with a value set when it is actually a skill set. 

There are values, morals, and principles involved of course, but without the skillset to back them up they tend to become ‘good intentions’ that never transcend into good outcomes. 

I often compare it to being a doctor – it doesn’t matter how much you hate sickness, or how much you wish you could cure the sick, you need to know how to do it otherwise you are just sending thoughts and prayers. To be fair, thoughts and prayers are fine from a friend, but pretty scary when coming from a doctor. Similarly if you are a leader in your organisation then creating a workplace free from racism is part of your responsibility, and having an anti-racism skillset is a professional requirement. Not having this skillset is professional negligence and it allows systemic racism to thrive. 

It is not about whether you are a nice person or not, it is about whether you have the skills required to do your job. 

3. You can’t combat systemic racism if you don’t know what racism is

If your working definition of racism is one that means nothing that ever happens within your workplace is ever racist then you probably have a superficial, self serving and presumably highly malleable definition of racism. 

4. Anti-racism doesn’t happen by osmosis

Racism is not solved through creating critical mass. 

There is no herd immunity for anti-racism.

Bringing more people into a racist situation in the hopes that they will fix it with their mere presence is not a thing, especially so in larger organisations. It is also unreasonable and unrealistic to think such people will take on additional work outside of their role to fix your racism problem. 

In addition to this, if the only ‘diverse’ people in your workplace are in your diversity and inclusion team, then I’m calling bullshit on your whole organisation. 

5. Anti-racism doesn’t happen by proximity either

It doesn’t matter how many Aboriginal friends you claim to have, how many Aboriginal people you have dated, or even if you have Aboriginal kids.

These ‘facts’ alone don’t make you immune to racism. 

If your definition of racism is that you have to hate everyone who isn’t white all the time then maybe, but if so that’s a conveniently limited definition of racism.

Saying anything that can be interpreted as “I can’t be racist because *insert proximity criteria*” doesn’t prove you aren’t racist, it just proves that you have no idea what racism actually is.

6. Racism can exist without specific racist laws or policies to enable it

When talking about systemic racism, institutional racism or societal racism white people often ask to see the racist law or policy that enables racism, effectively arguing that since we got rid of most of the overtly racist laws we therefore got rid of the racism as well.

To illustrate the flaw in this thinking, I sometimes use the analogy of a vine arch. 

In order to grow a vine arch you create a lattice or framework to support it as it grows. However, once it is strong enough, you can cut away this framework and the living organism that has adapted to this shape will be strong enough to not only support itself, but to continue to grow stronger. 

In Australia, this framework was provided by the initial act of invasion, Terra Nullius, displacement, regulation and control, followed by over 150 years of overtly white supremacist legislation, laws and practices including the White Australia Policy, assimilation acts, protection acts, welfare ordinances, ‘whites only’ services and institutions, 

We may have removed many (but not all) of these racist acts, but we have not sufficiently replaced them with anti-racist legislation, laws and practices to reshape the living entity that is Australia from a racist society into an anti-racist one. 

7. Nobody cares that you have a RAP!

Collingwood FC has a RAP too, and look how well that has been going for them. 

There are four levels of RAPs; Reflect, Innovate, Stretch, and Elevate. 

Collingwood has a Stretch RAP. 

Stop thinking a RAP is enough. It isn’t.

They are literally the bare minimum.

It takes most organisations many years to move through the four RAP levels to finally get to a point of doing ‘more than the bare minimum’, and even it doesn’t seem to provide much protection from turning up in the newspapers for doing any number of racist things.  

8. Your organisation does not live in a bubble

If your organisation is operating in Australia then it is a part of Australia. Even if it is a new organisation it is not immune to the effects of history, and the ongoing narrative that is playing out. 

You can not understand your place in Australia if you do not know its history. This is true of both local and national history. 

This is why truth-telling is so important. It is hard to find solutions to problems if you don’t know where these problems come from, where they are right now, and what your relationship to them is. 

When we are talking about Indigenous peoples in Australia we have for too long been framed as the problem in need of solving, as evidenced in the this 1984 news story: 

We are not the problem, racism is. 

We are Sovereign. 

We have rights.

We are not the problem.

(It’s worth noting that in Australia we like to be appalled by racism, but we don’t like listening to Aboriginal people. 

That clip of Lang Hancock being racist has almost 100,000 views. The video of Rosalie Kunoth-Monks being awesome has just over 22,000) 

9. Anti-racism is not an act of charity

When you look at anti-racism work as an issue of charity and not one of rights and responsibilities then it becomes easy to feel good about doing the bare minimum. 

When you understand that providing a culturally safe workplace free of racism, culturally safe services free of racism, and working towards the elimination of racial discrimination within your organisation and within the society in which it operates is your responsibility and is essential to providing people with their right to live free of racism, then you understand that the bare minimum is nowhere near enough. 

10. You show how important something is to your organisation by how well you resource it

Working in our field, we are often asked to provide our services for little or even no money. We are told ‘Sorry, but we don’t actually have much/any budget for this. What they mean to say is that their organisation doesn’t take this work seriously and therefore it didn’t budget for it. 

The only people who can say they don’t have a budget for it are community groups and volunteers who literally do not have a budget for anything. 

If that’s not your organisation then don’t tell people you want their services but don’t want to pay for them. It’s disrespectful and it’s racist, which is pretty counterproductive since the same people are calling us in the hopes we will do anti-racist work for them. 

Again, this is just a brief snapshot. We could do a dozen more of these without even touching the sides. 

And for the record, sharing this article in your workplace does not constitute anti-racism training. Same goes for sharing TEDx talks too, while we are on the subject! 

If you want actual anti-racism training, give us a call… but maybe re-read Point 10 before you do.

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