Cultural education has to be about improving outcomes for mob, not making white people feel better

26 Oct 2023

In this current climate where white reality is apparently the baseline and all things mob-related is seen as an act of hostility, Luke Pearson writes of the accountability that needs to come with cultural education.

cultural education

I’ve been involved in various forms of cultural education for over 20 years. I’ve delivered it for teachers, journalists, health workers, researchers, city councillors, senior executives, board members, and countless others. 

I, along with Mick O’Loughlin (not the footy player), design, develop and deliver all of the training programs for IndigenousX. And while it can be frustrating and exhausting work. I love it. 

Over the last 20 years I’ve seen cultural awareness, cultural competency, cultural security, cultural intelligence, cultural immersion, unconscious bias, cultural safety, anti-racism and many other names for these trainings come and go.

It’s important to understand that there are no governing bodies and no set curriculum in cultural education, so a lot of the time you might see various programs run under these different names with not much difference between them. I’ve done it myself on more than one occasion and, to be fair, many people looking for training don’t know or care what the difference is anyways. 

When I started it was pretty much always called ‘cultural awareness’ though. I reckon I started sometime around the year 2000, when I was around 20 years old. I was clever, angry, passionate, and traumatised. I knew my shit, could talk underwater and I wasn’t shy in front of a crowd. That combination of attributes made me a pretty attractive prospect to a lot of mob who were running programs back then and so sometimes I’d get invited in to help out. I’d watch how they operated, listened, learned, chimed in when I was invited to, and would usually be given an hour or two on whatever topic they gave me, and I’d go in hard. 

I look back at that time and I am grateful to all those mob who saw something in me and gave me that love, trust,support and opportunity.

But as I have grown older I think a lot of what we were doing was based on some crucial errors in terms of what sort of cultural training we were delivering, why we delivered it that way, and what impact we’d thought it would have on us and on the participants. To be clear though, it’s a criticism of the leading thoughts of that era, not of any individuals who were working in that space, and it’s a criticism made with the benefits of hindsight and age. Most importantly, it’s criticism made with love and concern for those of us who exist in these spaces and who do this work.

If you were a participant in cultural awareness training in the 90s or early 2000s (in NSW at least), you were probably given the equivalent of a one-day first-year Aboriginal studies crash course – massacres, stolen generations, missions, reserves, protection and assimilation. Maybe we even cooked up some roo meat for you, taught you a dance or two, showed you some artefacts, or even took you to a site somewhere nearby, all told through the understanding and lived experience of your facilitators. You probably remember it very fondly and tell your friends about it to this day.

Reliving our collective and individual trauma for the benefit of others is a rough way to spend a day though, especially when you’d often be confronted with people who could become quite defensive, volatile and aggressive upon hearing these stories… it turns out that white fragility is only fragile in the same way a mouse trap is; the trigger is fragile, but what it unleashes is anything but.

I remember sometimes it’d take me days to come down from the effects it would have on my spirit. But I did it because I believed in what we were trying to do. I believed it would help the participants, that it would help mob by sending a room full of white people back into the world who were now a little less racist than they were the day before, and I believed it would help me on my healing journey too.

In hindsight, I think it probably only really helped the participants, but even then probably not in the way that we wanted it to. 

Racism does not stem from a lack of cultural awareness

What I thought, and I think what a lot of mob doing the training back then thought, was that racism existed because of a lack of cultural awareness (hence the name of the training). They didn’t know who we were, what happened to us and what was still happening all over the country – the great Australian silence that Stanner talked about back in 1968. We thought racism that grew from this silence, a generation later, largely existed because of ignorance and apathy. They didn’t care because they didn’t know and they didn’t know because they didn’t care. And they didn’t know or care because nobody had taught them. Not their schools, not their parents, not their media. So it was up to us to do it, in a one day program. No pressure.

So, because racism was about ignorance and apathy, our job was to educate them in a way that built empathy… an emotional education. It’s pretty hard to talk about that stuff without getting emotional anyway, so it made a lot of sense to do it that way. 

We would teach them about what their ancestors did to ours. About the policies and practices. About genocide. About our own lived experiences. We wanted them to see that we weren’t what they had been told we were. That their ancestors weren’t who they pretended to be in their history books and reenactments. That we didn’t deserve these things that had happened and were still happening. We needed them to know that if you cut us we bleed, and so reopened them our wounds and scars to prove it. Again and again and again.

But looking back I don’t think the problem of racism, now or at any point in history, is because of a lack of ‘cultural awareness’. The myth that colonisation happened to us because the colonisers didn’t understand us, it happened to us because of all the things that we didn’t have – we didn’t have farms, we didn’t build fences, we didn’t have a written language, we didn’t wear clothes like they had, build cities like they were used to – is deficit discourse victim blaming 101. 

If that’s why we got invaded and colonised then how do you explain all the other cultures around the world who did have all that stuff and still got colonised anyway?

Colonisation didn’t happen because of what we had or didn’t have, or because white people were confused or unaware, it happened because colonisers gonna colonise.  They had already spent hundreds of years travelling the world and colonising people and places through violent means before they found us, and then they found us. That’s why colonisation happened here, because colonisers came and did what colonisers do. That isn’t a ‘cultural awareness’ problem, it’s a colonisation problem; a white supremacy problem.

If you want to understand why colonisation happened then you need to learn about racism and colonisation, not about Indigenous cultures. As Aunty Rosalie Kunoth-Monks said – we are not the problem. 

I don’t need to know anything about your culture, your customs, your language, your history, to know that you have human rights and are deserving of dignity and respect. I don’t need to know what country your grandparents walked or what sites are special to you to know I shouldn’t steal your land, your kids, or your life.

And that’s not to say white people shouldn’t learn about Aboriginal cultures, of course they should. They live on our lands. They should know. 

But they shouldn’t think that learning about our cultures is somehow going to magically erase the racism from theirs.

They need to understand their own cultural identity before they can hope to understand our or anyone else’s others.

This is why I prefer to deliver anti-racism training instead of cultural awareness training.

I refuse to accept that racism exists because of ignorance and apathy. It exists to create and maintain power, profits and privilege.

I refuse to offer my trauma for your enlightenment.

If you want to be anti-racist then you must first understand what racism is, then work to dismantle it.

Dismantling racism needs to prioritise systemic change over changing the behaviour of individuals within these systems. How can they when the institutions they work within do not support those changes, and what happens when those individuals move on? We need policies in place that require anti-racism as a professional standard, not pleas for anti-racism as an act of kindness or benevolence.

We can only measure outcomes by how organisations are improving outcomes for Indigenous people through changes to their structures, policies and practices, not by how many Indigenous artworks they hang in their foyer, how shiny their Reconciliation Action Plan looks, and not by how many ‘cultural days’ they have been on.

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