Reconciliation in practice–how culturally competent are we?

Posted: 01/06/2020

A few years ago I was involved in a project that asked people from various non-Aboriginal organisations (including my own) to self-rate how safe they believed Aboriginal people felt either working in or accessing their service.

We then asked Aboriginal colleagues and staff from Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) to rate how safe they felt working with or accessing these same non-Aboriginal organisations.

The results were sobering.

Nearly all the non-Aboriginal organisations significantly over-estimated their cultural competence.

This result was surprising for many of the individuals and organisations who participated in the survey. Most really believed their teams and organisations were practicing in culturally safe ways and many were actively involved in challenging white privilege and racism within their services.

But herein lies the problem. Unless you ask the right questions, white privilege is often invisible. (Except, of course, if you are the person or group on the receiving end.)

What is white privilege?

First coined by Peggy McIntosh in 1988, the term ‘white privilege’ describes:

…the unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements, benefits and choices bestowed upon people solely because they are white. Generally white people who experience such privilege do so without being conscious of it.

(McIntosh P; ‘White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women Studies’ 1988)

It is important to note that this is not privilege that comes from wealth (class privilege)—often people get the two concepts confused.

In her article, ‘Identifying White Race Privilege’, Jenny Tannoch-Bland describes 47 advantages white people can take for granted as a result of their race, including:

  1. I can, without material loss, choose to be surrounded by people of my race most of the time.
  2. I can avoid spending time with people who oppress me on the basis of my race.
  3. I can be reasonably confident that in most workplaces my race will be in the majority and in any case, I will not feel isolated as the only, often token, member of my race.

How can we challenge white privilege in our organisations?

If we are to be truly inclusive and culturally safe, we need to go beyond the obvious stuff of putting posters up on the walls, featuring an Acknowledgement of Country in the entranceway and celebrating NAIDOC Week, although all of these things are important.

Sometimes, we need to take a step back and ask ourselves what our practice, organisation or school would look like if it was a culturally safe and respectful place for Aboriginal and other First Nations peoples. Often, the best place to start is by reflecting on what we are already doing well, and what we could be doing better.

We need to ask ourselves:

  • What would Aboriginal and other First Nations people see, hear and feel walking into a respectful and safe organisation? How would they know they are safe? What would they say about our service if they felt respected, heard and safe?

What can I do?

There are also many practical things that individuals, organisations and schools can do to increase their cultural safety.

As individuals we can:

  • Regularly ask Aboriginal clients and students curious questions about what we can do to be more respectful and inclusive of their culture. Be open to receiving feedback. Be open to changing our practice.
  • Be willing to make mistakes. Often people avoid talking to Aboriginal people about their culture and cultural safety as they worry they will unwittingly say or do something offensive. Learning requires us to be vulnerable and not have all the answers. This can sometimes feel really uncomfortable. We need to give ourselves permission to feel uncomfortable and to get it wrong sometimes.
  • Reflect on our assumptions, values and beliefs. If we are part of the dominant culture, we may never have had to examine where our beliefs and values come from. As a consequence, we may unknowingly impose our assumptions, values and beliefs on the people we work with, including colleagues, clients and students.
  • Actively educate ourselves. Learn about Aboriginal culture, Australian history, local Aboriginal services, local Aboriginal elders and leaders. It is not Aboriginal people’s responsibility to educate us—that’s our job!
  • Be willing to call out racist or exclusionary behaviour. Yes, this may be challenging, but isn’t it a fundamental part of our job as social justice workers and teachers?
  • Think about how we can become advocates, champions, leaders in the cultural safety space.

What can our organisation do?

It is important for individuals within organisations and schools to challenge their own white privilege, however, there also needs to be a parallel process at an organisational level. Otherwise it can be very disheartening for staff who are trying to build a culture of respect, inclusion and understanding, as their efforts are undermined by the organisation’s culture, policies and procedures

There are a number of things that organisations and schools can do to challenge white privilege and establish a culture of safety for Aboriginal staff, Aboriginal colleagues from other organisations, clients and students.

Here are a few ideas.

As organisations, we can:

  • Create a culture of feedback so that all staff feel confident, supported and comfortable speaking up about white privilege and racism. Staff need to know that their feedback will be valued and acted on in a respectful way.
  • Actively seek feedback and advice from Aboriginal or other First Nations staff, clients or students on how the organisation can become more inclusive, respectful, safe and celebratory of First Nations cultures and experiences. Act on this advice. (*Note: this will only be successful if Aboriginal people feel they are safe, respected and their advice will be taken seriously.)
  • Examine intake and employment processes to see how welcoming and inclusive they are. For example, do intake forms ask people if they are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander? Why? Is this explained to people? How could these questions be asked more respectfully?
  • Acknowledge that culture isn’t just expressed through spirituality, beliefs, values and practices. Culture may also include collective experiences of intergenerational trauma, exclusion and violence. Be mindful of this when working with Aboriginal colleagues, clients or students. They may need different types of supports or they may need to work in different ways to other staff or clients.
  • Actively learn about how Aboriginal organisational processes and practices may be different to non-Aboriginal processes and practices. When we are part of the dominant culture, we expect that everyone works, and should work, using our processes and practices. However, Aboriginal organisations and staff may work differently. (Many organisations have found that these processes and practices are better than the ones they were using and have consequently adopted them within their organisation or team.)
  • Create regular opportunities for people to reflect on their own assumptions, values and beliefs and how they might be different to those of staff from different backgrounds. Self-reflection is an important tool for exploring unexamined assumptions and beliefs. Support staff to regularly reflect on culturally safety and white privilege.
  • Examine the way policies and procedures are developed. Do Aboriginal people have a voice in the decision-making process? Is this simply consultative or are those voices a fundamental part of the process? Who holds the power regarding decisions being made about services aimed at Aboriginal staff, clients or students? Is there a strong Aboriginal voice in the development of policies and procedures?
  • Re-evaluate existing processes, policies and procedures. White privilege and racism can be hidden in policies and procedures in the form of hidden assumptions or biases. It can be easy for people to justify practices that are unjust because they have ticked all the HR boxes. Always implement processes and procedures with a willingness to be flexible and responsive to the needs and culture of the individual.
  • Develop or revisit the organisation’s Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). (If there isn’t one, follow this link to find out how you can develop one.) Make sure this is an active plan that is reviewed regularly.
  • Co-design services and programs wherever possible, especially any services that are specific to Aboriginal or other First Nations peoples.

Lastly, remember that Aboriginal people have successfully lived and thrived on this land for tens of thousands of years. They have learned a thing or two in that time!

First Nations people around the world have incredibly complex and comprehensible knowledge systems. Approach every interaction with an open mind and a willingness to change your practice or adapt your service based on the knowledge and wisdom that Aboriginal colleagues, clients or students bring to the table.

Reconciliation Week – a great time to re-evaluate

This week (27 May to 3 June) is Reconciliation Week in Australia. It is a great time to take a deeper and more reflective look at what we, and our organisation, are already doing well, and what we could be doing better

As Reconciliation Australia state on their website, the most important thing we can do to move towards reconciliation is to respect and value each other.

‘Reconciliation must live in the hearts, minds and actions of all Australians as we move forward, creating a nation strengthened by respectful relationships between the wider Australian community, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

If your organisation would like to ‘up-the-ante’ in this space, check out this great article on organisational white privilege.

Dr. Sue King-Smith


Useful resources:

Talking Up Our Strengths 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *