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To move forward on reconciliation, Australia must recognise it has a race relations problem

Research shows most Indigenous people feel judged, stereotyped and disregarded by white people. AAP/Marianna Massey

To move forward on reconciliation, Australia must recognise it has a race relations problem

We know a lot about what Australia’s non-Indigenous population thinks of Indigenous people, but not much is known about what Indigenous people think of the non-Indigenous population, or of how they experience race relations. This is an obstacle for reconciliation which, by definition, must be a reciprocal process.

Our research in Darwin shows most Indigenous people feel judged, stereotyped and disregarded by white people. Rather than always asking what Indigenous people can do to change the relationship, we need to start asking non-Indigenous people to:

  • consider how their attitudes and behaviour impact on Indigenous people;

  • be open to the possibility that not everything in white culture is desirable or good; and

  • consider what they need to do to engage in equal and respectful relationships.

Early analysis of our interviews and survey with a representative sample of Aboriginal residents of Darwin has found more than 90% of our 474 survey respondents say non-Aboriginal people talk to them as if their views don’t matter. A similar number say white people judge them by stereotypes.

Nor is the relationship improving. Three-quarters of survey respondents say race relations are not very good or bad. And nearly 60% rated race relations as worsening over the last decade.

These findings challenge assumptions that racism in Australia is a thing of the past, or is something that only happens elsewhere.

While Australians might comfortably compare themselves with the US, this misunderstands the nature of racism today. Whereas “old racism” was based on arguments about biological differences and manifested in violence and verbal abuse, “new racism” rests on notions of cultural inferiority and is manifested in everyday disregard.

Living with disregard

Indigenous peoples live in societies where their sense of cultural worth is constantly undermined.

Interview respondents described Darwin as a place where there is only room for white culture, with little or no space to do things their way and practise culture on their terms.

They valued aspects of white culture, but were critical of its individualism and materialism – which they saw as creating loneliness and damaged communities. Many contrasted their strong sense of identity and the enduring, connected nature of Indigenous culture with the shallowness and disconnection of white culture.

Assumptions about the superiority of white culture and white people have multiple dimensions. This hits the headlines when it involves the public mistreatment of well-known Australians such as Adam Goodes and Larissa Behrendt, but is also present in the way white Australia understands the place of Indigenous peoples within Australian society.

Indigenous people are celebrated only when they fit the model of the “good Aboriginal” who conforms to the demands of neoliberal citizenship and whose cultural practices are limited to art and entertainment.

Even then, they experience racial disregard. Of survey respondents who hold a bachelor degree or above, around 70% reported they had been disrespected because they were Aboriginal.

Disregard and the lack of space for Indigenous culture are deeply damaging for Indigenous peoples. This impacts on all Australians by contributing to Indigenous disadvantage and social exclusion, as illustrated in these comments by interview respondents:

When I go out I just want to go to that place and come straight back … It’s how people are raised … to be against Indigenous mob.

Democracy … gives you the illusion that you’re being heard and … respected … I don’t like the word Australia because it doesn’t include us … I’m not in that Aussie dream.

The survey shows similar segregation between black and white Australians: 60% say they do not think white people choose to be around Aboriginal people much, and 45% say they themselves are not around white people much. More than three-quarters of respondents agreed voting is a waste of time – because things never change for Indigenous people.

Disregard has direct impacts on well-being. More than 80% of survey respondents agreed that the way white people behave makes them sick and tired of everything. Interview respondents described their daily experience as one of loss and failure – where the odds are stacked against them no matter what they do.

One respondent said:

We’re fighting, fighting all the time, and none of us mob are winning. You get asked, ‘Where’s the fair go?’ There is no more fair go.

What now?

While it is essential to maintain programs to tackle Indigenous disadvantage, what is missing from the picture is an understanding of the problems caused by white attitudes.

White Australia must consider the damage that disregard generates, and understand that from the Aboriginal perspective, white ways are not the only ways, or necessarily the best ways.

Many of our survey respondents expressed a willingness to improve the relationship. But so long as white Australia is resistant to Indigenous inclusion on any terms but its own, it’s hard to see how progress can be made.