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Don’t say the ‘P’ word

By Cally Jetta

Now and then it can feel as though even those close to you can sometimes use you as a measuring stick or venting point when it comes to current and controversial Aboriginal issues and/or headlines. They ask for your opinion or knowledge as an icebreaker and then proceed with their actual intent – to voice their own opinion and disagreement about it. A few assumptions are made here. The first being that every Aboriginal person keeps up to date with the news reports and is just awaiting the chance to discuss these complex matters with others. The second assumption is that we as the questioned ones are unwise to the undertones and attitudes of such questions. The third could well be the assumption that all Aboriginal people think and feel the same and therefore can speak for one another and relay non-Aboriginal views and frustrations back to the entire mob.

Whatever the motive and approach, I do my upmost to remain patient and respond in a way that provokes thought and learning rather than defensive communication. It can be really difficult and quite emotional when it’s someone you love and consider close with an attitude or opinion of Aboriginal people/issues that you strongly oppose.

One such incident occurred just last week when a very dear and long-term friend randomly mentioned an article she had read the previous day at a BBQ lunch. “Have you heard that nurses now have to announce their white privilege to Aboriginal mothers giving birth?” she scoffed.

I think I responded with a confused expression, then some laughter and finally the question ‘where on earth did you read that?’

I thought it sounded like another one of those yarns that non-Aboriginal people know about us that we somehow don’t know ourselves – you know, like free cars and no university fees.

I said it sounded ridiculous in theory and practice. I explained that yes, white privilege is an actual ‘thing’ and that in the not so distant past people dressed as nurses and policemen were feared and loathed for the control they held over Aboriginal people and their often abysmal treatment of those in their so-called ‘care’. I explained that hospitals used to refuse Aboriginal patients care and that despite much change since then, they are still daunting and uncomfortable places for many. I said I could understand a hospital training its staff with this knowledge for better understanding or possibly even displaying a plaque, artwork or similar acknowledging this history and legacy. But I couldn’t imagine how this would work, between nurse and Aboriginal patient – during or following labour!

It may not even be an Aboriginal idea or initiative I told her, too often Aboriginal people feel the harsh judgement and scathing of wider society over affairs or decisions we actually had no part or say in. I went on to say that I couldn’t imagine that any Aboriginal woman in the throws of labour, or recovering from the ordeal, is really going to appreciate a nurse announcing his or her white privilege at that moment. In fact it’s just plain silly and until my friend actually returned a positive search result on the article, I honestly thought it had to be some kind of joke, misunderstanding or satire.

Turns out, one particular hospital’s board members – I think in NSW – brainstormed this genius idea and were attempting to implement it against a wave of backlash and outrage. The type of outrage my friend was trying hard to swallow. I agreed it was a terrible idea – if not in sentiment, then definitely in practice and one of those isolated incidents the media will pounce on as a means of discrediting Aboriginal people and making us the subject of other people’s criticisms and complaints. But she was not satisfied with my agreement and explanation. She was offended by the use of the term ‘white privilege’ and I could predict her next few comments to follow. I was ready as it’s a very common reaction to the term and I have well-prepared and practiced comments myself. ‘You couldn’t call my upbringing or home-life privileged, we were dirt poor,’ she reasoned. I told her to try and not think of privilege as being in the sense of wealth, luck or possessions and that in this context the word ‘privilege’ could be better replaced perhaps by words such as ‘normality’, ‘standard’ or ‘invisibility.’ Every person in this world has the potential to experience being poor, unlucky, hard done by and of ill health. Spiritual beliefs, gender and race do not automatically prevent or cause misfortune for an individual. In fact you can have a wealthy, happy, healthy Aboriginal businessman and a struggling, single white mother with a disability and white privilege still exists even then, because when you strip away all the other factors and circumstances and bring it down to race or colour, white is considered the norm. The majority, the usual, the standard against which all others are compared to and expected to conform too. The society and culture whose religious beliefs, language and institutions dominate every aspect of life. I told her that I’d often heard white people say how ‘they don’t see colour’ or don’t really identify with any cultural or racial groups and in a nutshell, that’s what white privilege refers to.

  • If you live your life without much or any thought of your skin colour or racial identity
  • If you do not feel like a minority or that you are overly visible most places you go
  • If you do not feel targeted or fearful of police based only on your racial appearance
  • If you have access to your history, culture and knowledge at school
  • If your colour and appearance doesn’t automatically attribute negative stereotypes to you
  • If hailing a taxi is never a difficult task for you
  • If security doesn’t eyeball and follow you in every store you enter.
  • If you have never felt excluded or discriminated against due to your colour or race …

… Well then you benefit from what is known as white privilege. Yes, I said it!!

That doesn’t mean that in all aspects of life you are free from discrimination, suffering or bias. You may be white and also identify as lesbian, thus benefiting from white privilege and being discriminated against by heterosexual privilege simultaneously. A white person with a disability making them wheelchair bound still has white privilege, but would notice and have to struggle with all types of obstacles that come from able-bodied privilege. You see the pattern here? If you’re a white, Christian, male in a heterosexual relationship and free of any physical or mental disability then you are considered the norm, standard, desired and accepted in our society. In fact, our society is made for you, by you. Anyone that differs from that ‘ideal’ is somehow tainted as being different or less valuable. White privilege is real and it does exist here in Australia along with other forms of socially constructed privilege that the average Australian is conditioned to and often unaware of.

As a fair-skinned Aboriginal person I experience white privilege myself in many ways, but it’s along with the hassle of constantly having to prove my identity and validate my knowledge and intentions.

If we can’t acknowledge that white privilege, or any form of privilege for that matter, is real and exists then how can we even begin to talk about it and understand it better? And if we don’t understand it we are in no position at all to challenge or change it. The ‘P’ word is not a personal dig or assumption about you or your life, or something to be insulted and offended by. It’s a construct of history, time and society that can be deconstructed with understanding and changing modes of thought.


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  1. Patrice

    Thank you for this article, outlining this complex and potentially divisive issue with such clarity.

  2. Ann

    Cally, more good work. This story is really about Hospital Board members and their PC demands on nursing staff. In another circumstance the nurses would be asked or expected to curtsy or tug their forelock by their ‘superiors’. A sense of ‘privilege’ doesn’t even exist when the person in front of oneself is treated as equal. Equanimity and privilege cannot co-exist at the same time. Equanimity goes hand in hand with compassion and gratitude, while privilege goes with entitlement and expectation. I’ve met enough nurses to say that, as a group, they don’t need to be told to be empathetic. In error, the hospital board has made a mockery of equanimity by being PC.

  3. pamelac65

    A big thank you for the clarity of your argument,

    The list reads like a Desideratum for we white privileged people and yes i could answer YES to every line.

    I know it every time I am with my Somali or Sudanese friends.

  4. etnorb

    There is a bloke in Queensland who is trying to “establish” (?) a new Nurses Union, & one of the main things he has been crapping on about is all this nonsense to do with Nurses having to address all Indigenous people who they has to care for with this crap about “being sorry for the stolen generation & how they has to treat everyone equally” or some rubbish like that. He does not have many members, compared to the Australia-wide Nursing Union, & his “spiel” has been debunked on “Media Watch”, some months ago now. However, it did not stop the Mudrake press (especially) telling their readers that this was all true, & soon to be “accepted practice” with ALL Nurses & Medical staff! WTF? I am surprised that this nonsense is still circulating, but then the average Mudrake press reader will believe anything that this crap media baron prints in his rags!

  5. New England Cocky

    White Australia has a Black History.

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