It’s black and white: racism in Australia is common and accepted

Marni Tuala

How do we continue to accept a society, a government and a health system that is not responsive to our needs as First Nations peoples?

“You don’t look Aboriginal – you’ve got blue eyes.”

The lack of awareness and level of audacity in this statement can be measured in equal parts. A lack of awareness of the diversity of our people; a lack of awareness that this statement embodies the most common form of racism we face.

Statements such as this are based on perpetuated stereotypes that seek to confine our diverse peoples to a single layer of identity. When we do not fit the mould conceptualised by the dominant culture, a certain level of discomfort and uncertainty arises. When we challenge these statements there is an uncomfortable and brisk shift in the discourse. When we stand strong in our identity and its complexity we are quickly labelled with the derogatory stereotypes of a people who, previous to our challenge, we could not possibly be.

Then comes the counter-challenge that seeks to invalidate our right to identify, to assume that the disparities and injustices that are forced upon our people could not possibly apply to us. The audacity of such statements astounds me. How does an individual come to a place where they feel they have the unreserved right to question the identity of another? When was an individual’s identity attributed solely to the colour of their eyes or the shape of their nose?

To even begin to understand the complexities of identity, connection and belonging when it comes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, there needs to be a process of critical self-reflection and unlearning. There needs to be historical truth telling and acknowledgment. How do we build resilience among our people in the face of persistent, systemic and individual racism? As a midwife having worked in the state health system, this type of behaviour is common and accepted.

As a resilient people, I don’t understand how we continue to accept a society, a government, a health system and a health workforce that is not responsive to our needs as First Nations peoples. Our need to be culturally safe, our need to be acknowledged, understood and respected, our need to have equitable access to services and equitable outcomes in health, education, employment – in life!

I am concerned the conversations we have about racism, about dominant cultural paradigms and their impact on the health and wellbeing of our people and communities, do not seem to be changing. It is heartbreaking to hear our current Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nursing and midwifery students sharing stories of culturally unsafe systems, of racism and a lack of support and understanding.

It is time that we as a nation recognise that the gap that we see, the gap that we so easily talk about but fail to address, is systemic.


The systems and the frameworks that form the foundations of our society have been developed by and for the dominant culture. It is time we collectively challenge these systems; it is time we demand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges be included in all systems.

It is this level of structural, systemic reform that is required if we are to disrupt the revolving discourse around achieving equity in this country.

I’d like to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders, our ancestors, our warriors, nurses, midwives, academics, educators, advocates, activists, policy writers and community members who have been challenging these systems since before I was born. I acknowledge the tireless work that has been done, that continues, and that is yet to begin. To the self-professed “leaders” of this country, those who continue to develop and enforce systems to benefit the majority and marginalise the minorities, I ask: how dare you? Neville Bonner asked this same question of Australia and our government at the 1998 constitutional convention.

Every time I glimpse the mangroves that hug the shore of Ukerebagh Island, his birthplace, whether it be from Fingal or the other side of the river in Tweed, I think about this question.

How dare you continue to pretend you don’t see us, that you don’t see the inequity, the injustice and the solution. It is time to acknowledge that you cannot and should not speak for us.

It is time to relinquish the control and cease the continuing attempts of colonisation upon our peoples and communities. Our people hold the stories of a millennia, inter-generational and intrinsic knowledges that enable us to survive and thrive in an environment and society that seeks to disempower, silence and destroy.

It is time that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are acknowledged as the solution. True consultation, cultural safety, recognition and embedding of our unique knowledges and frameworks throughout all systems is the only way we will move forward, together.

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