“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”Frantz Fanon
Many of the spiritual community tell me ‘All Lives Matter’ and that ‘We are all one human race’. But that simply negates the truth of the black experience.
Even worse, I see white people in the spiritual community engage in spiritual bypassing, wanting to shut uncomfortable discussion down, saying that they will just ‘send Love and Light’ to all involved, or that ‘we all choose our incarnation’, or that ‘everything happens for a reason’, or that we ‘simply need to remain positive because our thoughts create our reality’. They tell me ‘not to be political’ and to ‘just live from love’.
Does it make you uncomfortable to think that this might not be true? Does it make you uncomfortable to think that these actions might be racist?
I remember the moment I discovered I was racist. If you had asked me, at that time, I would have vehemently denied that this could even be possible. That is because I did not truly understand the nuances of racism, and how deep it goes. Perhaps you believe that you are not racist. Are you ready to dig deeper?
The year was 1985. It was at a time where I was working as an activist, marching in rallies, volunteering at organisations that supported indigenous Australians and people of colour, taking classes in First Nations studies at Queensland University. Many of my university and activist friends came from Indigenous and Islander backgrounds. I was fascinated by their culture, and by how much of their story, and the stories of women, had never been told as part of the history of Australia I had been taught at school or read about in books.
I was young, white and privileged in ways I could not see or understood. My privilege actually hid my racism from me. I am still ashamed that I was so ignorant, and that my indigenous friends remained gracious and gentle with me.
We were a tight group of about twenty Aboriginal Studies students of various ages, and we wanted to have an end-of-semester breakup party. I was one of two non-indigenous students in my university class. I was eighteen, in my freshman year. The other white woman was in her seventies and could not come to our social gathering. We got together to plan and I immediately suggested the Rec Club on campus – a place where my white school friends and I often hung out. It was cheap, had food and alcohol and it seemed like the perfect place. The rest of the group suggested we all bring food and drink and have a picnic in the classroom. I suggested a local hotel beer garden. Once again the group came up with reasons for meeting outside a licensed venue or cafe. I suggested a picnic outside but near our classroom. Eventually the group agreed, and we made our arrangements.
The day of the get-together I met one of the other students in the city before we went out to campus. I went to follow two policemen into a supermarket to buy some potato chips for our gathering, but my friend wouldn’t come inside, no matter how much I asked her. She waited outside, looking nervous.
We rode on the bus together. As we sat down an older man in the seat behind us said, “I can smell black c*nt!” in a loud voice and then made a big scene of getting up and moving to the front of the bus. I was so shocked I didn’t do anything. I just sat there. After he got off the bus at the next stop my friend took my arm and comforted me, apologising because of what had happened. (She had nothing to apologise for – and I still feel bad about that, and about my silence on the bus.)
Finally we arrived at university, found our classmates and headed for a space outside in the winter sun, where we sat down on the grass in a circle, put our food and drinks in the middle and began enjoying lunch together. We’d only been there five minutes when we were heckled by a group of male white students. The indigenous students looked down, looked away, and didn’t engage. I felt frightened. When the males left it took only a few more minutes before we were heckled again. Finally, at the behest of one of the older women we moved back inside to our classroom.
I realised then why they had said that meeting in the classroom was the best option for us. They’d only sat outside because of me. I hadn’t asked what was best for them. I’d just assumed that sitting on the grass in the sunshine was what anyone could do. Why? I’m white. I had never thought about how my whiteness gave me an entirely different life experience. In the classroom we talked about the man on the bus, and many of the students told me their experiences of being harassed on public transport. They laughed at my friend not going into the supermarket in the city with the policemen in there. ‘Nic,’ they said to me, ‘ the fastest way to get done for shoplifting or to invite trouble is to walk into a place like that. You gotta be smart about it. You gotta weigh the risks.’
In 1980’s Australia there were risks in buying potato chips, in riding a bus or train, in sitting in a group in public at an overwhelmingly white university, in so many things that I had never even considered. That’s when my racism hit me. I had never even considered the safety or well-being of my friends. I hadn’t asked them. I just assumed that my world was also their world. I had tried to impose that world on them, and they had tried to shelter me from the harsh reality of theirs. That was the first time I understood that my world has been built upon the exploitation and marginalisation of people of colour. It is built into my education system, political system, economic system, judicial system, social system. It isn’t broken – it doesn’t need to be fixed. It was made this way to create and perpetuate white supremacy. It must be dismantled.
When I ran my first spiritual workshop in 1996 an Aboriginal friend and her mum came down from the country to help me. They stayed at my home in Brisbane and they came shopping with me when I looked for a new dress at the shops along Racecourse Road in Ascot. While I was in a cubicle changing my friends were asked to leave the shop. They were told there was nothing they could afford, that they were dirtying the clothes and that they weren’t welcome. When I came out to ask their opinion on my dress they had gone. I thought they’d simply gone to the next shop, so I bought the dress and went looking for them. They were waiting at a bus stop down the road. When they told me what happened I was furious. They didn’t want me to make a scene but I marched back to the store, demanded a refund and told the shop assistant how disgusted I was at her racism. She told me I wasn’t welcome there either. I felt so helpless and outraged as my friends assured me that this was normal for them and not to be upset. How had I not known? I had not known because I had never asked them about their experiences of racism. My own white privilege made me complicit, silent, ignorant.
Ten years later, in 2006, Aunty Delmae Barton, an indigenous opera singer suffered a stroke and mild heart attack at a bus shelter at Griffith University, in my hometown of Brisbane. She lay face-down in a pool of vomit for five hours, ignored by students and staff, until finally two Japanese men stepped in and helped her. If she had been white this would never have happened.
As George Floyd’s death sparks activism across America I want to remind Australians that we have the same situation here in our own country. We still have police brutality toward First Nations Australians (over 400 deaths in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody and not a single conviction yet over these deaths), harassment, a disproportionate amount of First Nations Australians incarcerated, lower life expectancy, poorer literacy and numeracy, poorer health outcomes, fewer employment opportunities, racial stereotyping and racial profiling.
I am still working to become anti-racist. In doing this work to become anti-racist I have lost business, friends, clients, colleagues, and been subjected to ridicule, abuse and violence. Speaking about racism and White Privilege makes people uncomfortable, including friends and family members – even my own student community. I will keep speaking anyway. I am no expert on race. This is not my field. There are so many BIPOC (Black/Indigenous, People of Colour) people who can guide you well here. But it is important to me that I address this issue and where I stand. I want all BIPOC and LGBTQI+ people to know that my community and workplace is a safe and welcoming space for them. I am here and I will always listen and support you to the best of my ability, and so will my team – some of whom are also drawn from these same communities.
I stand beside my First Nations brothers and sisters, Aunties and Uncles and Elders, and BIPOC everywhere. Nothing I have ever been subjected to has come close to what they have suffered, and I am still protected by White Privilege. Nothing that I do is remarkable, and if I don’t stand beside them and work as an ally my silence and inaction is active complicity in the very system that gave me White Privilege and which takes away the rights of people who are not white.
These are some of the things that I am working on as I deconstruct my racism:
- I work to create an inclusive workplace and community and I engage with First Nations elders and leaders to find out how I can best help and support them and pay appropriate respects in my spiritual work.
- My support of First Nations Australians and people of colour extends to the LGBTQI+ community.
- I use my voice, my vote, and my dollars to support First Nations organisations, leaders, teachers and representatives and to call out racism and inequality.
- I am an active member of a human rights organisation, and have been since High School.
- I educate myself on matters of race by reading the work of people of colour, doing their courses and listening to their lectures and podcasts. I buy their products and donate to their pages.
- I acknowledge that this will be a life-long process as I work to become a better ally to the non-white community.
Here are some of the resources, teachers and leaders that you can use as an Australian or as someone who identifies as spiritual or ‘new age’ to educate yourself and take action too:
- NITV – the indigenous television station and news here in Australia
- Healing Foundation – an organisation that helps heal the inter-generational trauma of the Stolen Generations
- Sisters Inside – an organisation that supports women in custody, and who does important work with the First Nations women and girls who are disproportionately represented in the custodial system
- Amnesty International is a human rights organisation that provides research and campaigning to protect fundamental human rights through out the world, including in Australia. Australia has come under criticism from the United Nations for our record on poor human rights for First Nations Australians, and yet our government has only implemented only a handful of the recommendations that were accepted whole or in part by the Australian Government.
- Creative Spirits is a website that teaches Aboriginal Culture – it’s a great place to start!
- Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe is a non-fiction book that re-examines Australian History and indigenous culture, citing evidence of agriculture, engineering and building construction prior to white colonisation.
- Shannan Dodson, a Yawuru woman has created a list of resources, books and organisations to support First Nations here
- The Aboriginal Literacy Foundation promotes literacy, numeracy, education and access to books for indigenous children
- Camille Williams has written an excellent article on spiritual bypassing and racism here, and given links to many resources for further learning.