Education is often lauded as the driving force for social and political change—the way to combat sexism, classism, ableism, queerphobia, and racism is through an education system that gives students the ability to recognise the fact that discrimination and stereotyping are tools of oppression. Stereotypes, in particular, are becoming more commonly employed as the identifying characteristic of Aboriginal people. This social mechanism stifles any attempts to combat entrenched discriminatory views, because stereotypes simply reinforce them. In 2014, Beyond Blue reported that the stereotypes driving common perceptions about Aboriginal people have become so pervasive in society that one in two Australians no longer recognise explicit examples of verbal abuse towards Aboriginal people as discriminatory.
Nurturing Aboriginal participation in the education system and media is gradually bringing these fields towards a more accurate reflection of Aboriginal perspectives. Despite this, I find myself constantly bombarded with xenophobic and discriminatory attitudes, exhibited by people who don’t fully understand why their remarks are wrong, even those who are tertiary-level educated. It seems that the education system in its current form, from primary education to tertiary, is failing to equip students with the tools and mechanisms to be critical members of society and dismantle these structures of social oppression. So please find below a handy “this is why the stereotype you’ve just pointed to is problematic/discriminatory/racist/just plain wrong” answer sheet.
“They’re drunks and drug abusers”
This is considered the biggest problem in the Aboriginal community and is the most common stereotype that’s thrown around as it’s arguably the oldest, due to the connection these substances have with repressing trauma and mental illness. Due to a lack of affordable and accessible health services and education, most who do turn to these substances do so as a way of effectively ‘numbing’ the pain they are experiencing. This is predominately the case for people with mental health issues; a recent health study found that over half of Aboriginal people who consume alcohol or cannabis in high quantities also suffer from mental illnesses such as anxiety, bipolar disorder or clinical depression. The lack of community centres, diversion programs, and basic medical facilities that city dwellers take for granted means that social progression is hindered in Aboriginal communities, further contributing to drug and alcohol abuse. Despite the ‘drunk Aboriginal’ existing as the most prevalent stereotype levelled against Aboriginals, the statistics don’t agree with this perception. Since 25 April 2015, 29 per cent of Aboriginal people have not consumed alcohol in the last 12 months, more than double that of their non-Indigenous counterparts. Aboriginal people are also more likely to abstain from alcohol consumption altogether compared with non-Indigenous people. How about that?
“Aboriginals are all criminals”
Aboriginal people are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, but this isn’t due to a higher crime rate. High imprisonment rates are indicative of harsher sentencing practices applied to Indigenous Australians, along with more restrictive bail terms and a tendency to resort to custodial sentences as opposed to alternatives. Aboriginal people are constantly subjected to ‘select policing’—we are 15 times more likely to be the target of police behaviour than any other member of the community. There is a strong argument that the current structures of the criminal justice system which facilitate this engagement deny political agency and power, barring targets from pursuing their right to self-determination and sovereignty in order to reinforce White dominance and rule. Social stigma is the most effective means to discredit a group of people, while imprisonment further reinforces White dominance and removes the right to liberty and freedom of person.
“Bunch of lazy, uneducated dole bludgers”
This is a biggie. The idea of “passive welfare culture” has always struck me as odd. We live in a world that bolsters structures of discrimination and marginalisation—the modern Australian workplace confirms this. Data shows that Aboriginal people under 18 participate in the workforce as the same rate as non-Aboriginal people do, but a gap of almost 20 per cent appears once we hit the age bracket of 18-64. This gap is widened further in the white-collar market, with less than 15 per cent of Aboriginal people employed in high-skilled jobs. The weekly gross household income for a working Indigenous family is only 60 per cent of that of a non-Indigenous income and this disparity is only increasing as unemployment rates rise. There are various contributing factors at play here, ranging through social, economic and health aspects, but perhaps the largest is education. Aboriginal people are not afforded the same access and quality of education that their non-Indigenous counterparts are.
It is at this point I hear “what about all those alternative entry schemes and special courses you get?!” To this day, Aboriginal students only make up 1.3 per cent of university students in Australia.
So there you have it. My no-nonsense guide, explaining why what you’re saying, about to say, or hearing is racist, discriminatory and/or baseless. There is no greater or more powerful tool on earth than that of a critical mind that questions everything around it. Xenophobia and stereotypes are forever paraded through the political and social arena as a way of creating difference and reinforcing White hegemony. The discourse of Indigenous people as being ‘too different’ and inferior was first employed by the First Fleet in order to establish themselves as the ‘superior’ race and to justify their oppression of Aboriginal people. This is the attitude that is still actively informing our current policy, legislation and government practice.
Do you really want to take part in that?