Tokenism happens but we need this to shift to representation and change

Since first arrivals of colonisers, there have been countless falsehoods perpetuated about our people and the narrative rarely changes from demonising, infantilising and patronising us. The mainstream population has heard this through media amplification of governmental messaging, that we cannot survive without them, we cannot parent, we cannot be responsible with money, we will not work, cannot be trusted and that they are sustaining us.

The list of falsehoods continues, however, they are all intended to achieve one thing; to maintain the status quo of our oppression.

The perpetual bombardment of mainstream Australia to these agendaed falsehoods has resulting in  unconscious bias in at least 75% of Australians, as proved by a study recently released by the Australian National University. 

Unconscious bias, sometimes called Implicit Bias is behaviour or judgement that results from subtle cognitive processes and occurs without awareness. Scientists have associated the part of the brain called the ‘Amygdala’ as an important part when it comes to evaluation and preference development. That same part of the brain is also responsible for emotional learning, fear conditioning and the fight, flight or freeze response.

The amygdala processes billions of stimuli every day and often our brains have to quickly choose what we can focus on. It does this because our conscious brain cannot. The information is then categorized and generally without our knowledge, used to help make decisions, or in times of stress when we require that fight or flight response, or require an emotional response.

Essentially, if you don’t have some form of diversity in your life, your amygdala will process the same, non-diverse information, over and over, your decision making will be influenced by it. Potentially leading to unconscious bias. This is why representation is so important.

So, when the media shows pictures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people along with negative words over and over, governments continually speak about how destitute Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and people are, and then using more flattering language and pictures in articles about non-Indigenous people, then the human mind naturally creates its own narrative, in everyone. It gives some people a sense of entitlement and privilege, and others a sense of hopelessness. But the inner workings of the brain are not a racial thing.

Society is inherently the problem.

Magazines filled with successful white models, tv shows and films filled with successful white actors, (even blackface was preferred over actual black actors, see Juliana Allen doing it alongside popular actress Jackie Weaver) coupled with negative stereotypes seen constantly on the news and in social media ends up with a society of 75% racists – whether they realise it or not. But it doesn’t end there. This extends into eating disorders because women constantly see commercially attractive women on covers, and so much more.

Even AFL Executive and proud Indigenous woman, Tanya Honsch, who just won South Australian of the Year for 2020 couldn’t just have a win without experiencing racism. South Australian Premiere Steven Marshalls Facebook post congratulating Tanya and the other winners was rampant with racist comments.

This is why representation is so important. First Nations Art outside of K-mart is a great step. Acknowledgements of Country, no matter how trivial and simple some are, are important. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artwork hanging behind every white expert in a zoom meeting is a good thing. It helps challenge the narrative that we see every day.

But representation itself can also be damaging. Just ask the myriad of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists who’ve been asked to offer paintings and designs for ‘exposure’. Sure, getting your work out there is great, but if you don’t truly value it enough to pay for it – then you’re on the wrong track to begin with.

Waka Waka woman and Queensland Firebirds player Jemma Mi Mi is a high profile recent example. The only Indigenous player in Netball Australia’s ranks, and she was relegated to the bench for the entire match after being used as a promotional tool for the 2020 Indigenous round.

She became ‘the token’.

The token is a person whose identity is exploited to promote another entity’s cause. You know, the diversity hire, or being used as a promotion, like Jemma Mi Mi was despite all of her talent and her deserving to be there in her own right. It gives the appearance of being equal, when in reality, it’s a diversionary tactic to avoid criticism.

Jemma Mi Mi signed on with the Queensland Firebirds in late 2016, debuting in 2017 and in 2018, was the league’s inaugural Indigenous round. It could be argued that the Indigenous round is itself a token all together, as it only came along after an Indigenous player got contracted.

While Netball Australia seemed to have their own agenda when it came to Jemma, the message should have been that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can play Netball, they are valued and that they can be an asset to the team.

But whether we are faced with an instance we are sure is tokenism or not, it is still an opportunity to feed a different narrative into the amygdala.

I was once introduced as ‘Travis, the Aboriginal’ by a former boss – it instantly made me feel like my presence was nothing more than an opportunity to give the workplace a diverse look. It is a shit feeling, and no one should have to deal with it. But regardless of my feelings, that moment gave the person I was introduced to a new narrative to process.

Probably not enough to unlearn any unconscious bias, but with the right representation and narratives, it can be done.

Sadly, at the end of the day, changing society isn’t easy, but every little thing helps. Literally every single thing has the ability to change someone’s mind. The way they react. The way they judge.

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