Taking the ‘red pill’

“Nonviolence is an innate capacity of human nature. It is not a moral commandment; still less is it a philosophical abstraction. Nonviolence . . . is an energy that operates in and on all living beings.” —Michael Nagler

I have just attended a workshop which I was specially invited to on behalf of the UniSA HREC. It was entitled “Aboriginal Cultural Respect and Safety Workshop” and was run by a group called Beyond, which is headed by Kathleen Stacey, and was co-hosted with Sharon Gollan (Ngarrindgeri woman).

My intention in attending the workshop was to learn more about Australia and how I might address racism in my work as an occupational therapy educator. I also have a particular interest in ethics, and this is obviously ethical. I particularly want to address ways of approaching the invisible as the site of ethical discourse. Ethics usually occurs in our blind spot. I was very much hoping to experience something that was an Australian expression of how racism is being conceptualised. I am not a member of the ethics committee, but was grateful for the invitation.

There are so many ways of approaching racism including historical, political, economic, sociocultural, situational, phenomenological and stimulus-object approaches. There are also many different contexts in which racism plays out. The abused person in one context, can become the abuser in another. This is always the story of trauma. Here’s some examples of moments in the workshop that got me thinking.

1 One of the exercises was an unpacking of “Dominant” and “Indigenous” cultures. The ‘dominant’ is the epitome of all that is bad, while the “Indigenous” is the epitome of all that is good. This includes a spiritual aspect that one has (Indigenous) and the other has not (Dominant). This was prefaced by saying that of course they did not think it was as simple as this. Given that we had just acknowledged that there are 250 (about) countries making up Australia, it seemed like the wrong moment to do an exercise that was all about increasing stereotypes, rather than helping to unpack them.

2. One of the participants said at the beginning of the workshop: “I am so afraid of saying something wrong”. This is the last thing that an educator ever wants to hear a student say – wen want people to be safe. However, at the beginning of the second day, the facilitator asked to put up an extra ground rule for the group. This was about it being ‘okay to pull people up about language’. It seemed a strange inclusion, but was a signal that the approach could potentially include using language to shame people, in exactly the way that the participant expressed fears about.

It us useful to remember that the sensitivity about language comes from the work of Freire (1968), who pointed out the interaction between history and states of being. We need to be attuned to ‘codes’ that give clues for understanding people’s feelings and how they play out in relational dynamics. For example, the Eddie McGuire mistakes in the film about Adam Goodes is an excellent example. I think that this story would have been a brilliant one to use for the workshop. It was interesting to me as a relative newcomer to Australia that the Adam Goode’s story was one that was known to everyone in the room, except me. The films are “The Australian Dream” and “The Final Quarter”, both of which came out in 2019. I watched the former over this weekend and it also introduced me to wonderfully articulate Aboriginal thinkers, including Stan Grant.

3. Another identifiable approach might be called ‘white privilege’. In this way, every non-Aboriginal person must feel responsible at some level for the abominations that have happened to the Indigenous people of this country. Some arguments about this approach are that it can be ineffective at making any real change. The blame/self blame/guilt approach was taken in Germany after the war. Everyone considered themselves to be guilty, yet this approach somehow meant that nobody was responsible (if everyone is guilty). Arendt argues that we need a more subtle and incisive approach to what is happening, so that those who are actually responsible do not get off the hook. Ideally this process can help us to identify where to put our energy in order to develop strategies and ethics that can inform our practice.

At a personal level, this process can bring up individual triggers. As Arendt says, if you’re attacked as a jew, then you have to defend yourself as a jew. In the same way, if one is attacked as a white person, it may well bring up a lot of white person thinking processes.

4. A historical approach directly follows from the previous one. Horrible Histories can and should be told, but they can be overwhelming. A historical consciousness is rather more subtle. As a health professional, who comes from Ireland – I can remember specific parts of history. For example, Roger Casement was Irish and he can be described as the “father of twentieth-century human rights investigations”. He saw what was happening in the Congo, and then saw that this was not so different to what was happening in Ireland. Remembering this story as part of my past may help me to build a stronger sense of identity as an ally.

Remembering that some people in my cultural history have done good gives me strength to also remember that health professionals are always working within the context of history. We enact policy through our work as health professionals and sometimes, in spite of our good intentions, we have been part of bad things. In arming myself with a historical consciousness, I might then remember that there is an ethical context for our practices. However, there is a difference between our paid jobs and the work that our vocation leads us to do. Professor Ken Hardy (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTFZ_3mMbLI), says that we need to do the work, even when it isn’t our job.

5. Another historical approach is that racism is a fact. However, it manifests in different ways through the history of each country. In NZ there is a distinction made between a biculturalism and multiculturalism. In a bicultural approach, one remembers the specific history and relationship with the first nation. In a multicultural approach, one examines the racism that arises because of the effects of difference, including the difference in skin colour.

In Australia, it would be more helpful to channel the conversation through Australian examples. However, this workshop chose to use American examples. Prof Ken Hardy was one example, and “The Colour of Fear” a 1994 film about eight American men coming together and address matters of race was another. This involves one white guy (David Christenson) who says things like “I don’t know why we can’t all get along”, which red rag to a bull for Victor who tells him how white people are in his brain at every moment.

It was lovely to hear from Sharon that David (in the film) is the reason that she does her work, because when he realised what Victor (in the film) was saying he was devastated. It unearthed a whole country that had been invisible to him. As one of our workshop participants said, it’s like in the Matrix, the work is about deciding to take the red pill so that reality then becomes visible.

In conclusion

I don’t think that it’s as simple as taking a red pill. However, with Fanon (my new reference) I remember that decolonisation is dynamic, multilayered and ongoing process. The effects of history and colonisation is one of the reasons why children get hurt by the world, and so the whole world needs to take responsibility for this pedagogic mission. We can learn to think about it as artists, activists, academics, health professionals, scientists and others from civil society. However, we need to think from our own positions and we should never accept overly simplistic approaches.

Do I think that this workshop was worth it? Yes, the work is important. However, I came away after two days feeling really awful, which is possibly a desired outcome of this kind of workshop. There was little account taken of the audience including where people had come from, which is always a mark of good teaching. There were so many contradictions in this dialogue, I felt that I was working within a context where I was needing to “hold opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald).


The Final Quarter: https://www.coolaustralia.org/the-final-quarter-curriculum-resources/?gclid=CjwKCAjw77WVBhBuEiwAJ-YoJO0UkmE0G2PV5jOMuu3f-Dnt_n3CRjJv1j0f8IQu_FvKWu_mz3qZChoC5YwQAvD_BwE

The Colour of Fear (film)

The American Dream (film)

MacLeod, J. (2019). Animating freedom: Accompanying Indigenous struggles for self-determination. http://ipoz.biz/ipstore

Stellan Vinthagen (2015) A Theory of Nonviolent Action: How Civil Resistance Works. London: ZED Books.

Prejudice, Discrimination and Racism Against Africans and Siddhis in India, edited by Ibrahima Diallo, Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/unisa/detail.action?docID=6191286.

Mahesh Shantaram Ch 2 Meet the Africans in India Prejudice, Discrimination and Racism Against Africans and Siddhis in India, edited by Ibrahima Diallo, Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2020.