How conversations can revolutionise our education system
On the 16 June, Lily Brown, Odette Kelada, Dianne Jones, authors of ‘While I knew I was raced, I didn’t think much of it’: the need for racial literacy in decolonising classrooms (2021) met with Mira Gunawansa to discuss their recently published article in the Postcolonial Studies, 24:1.
Despite an increasingly recognised field of postcolonial scholarship, racial literacy has yet to gain traction in Australia. In the conversation, Brown, Kelada, and Jones stress the need to develop a racial literacy approach specific to the Australian settler colonial context. The conversation explores critical race scholarship, the development of racial literacy, understandings of race, colonialism, and the need to identify and work within critical spaces for decolonising education.
MG: What concerns or events led you to write this essay? What were you trying to show?
DJ: We’ve been doing this for a while, just over 10 years collaboratively with the course, although I have had to talk about race all my life. As an Aboriginal woman, to find out that some of this basic information –that there is no biological difference [between people of different races]– is being taught quite openly in the United States and not being taught here was mind blowing, but anything to do with race doesn’t end – there’s always something new happening.
OK: We realised through teaching the course on racial literacy, that we should really be documenting and sharing this experience more with others who are also doing this work or are interested in these conversations. Because we need to be networking, sharing, and having these conversations to really contribute to the learning in this space, which is much needed. In many ways, the core of our work developed out of learning what we hadn’t been taught and didn’t know. Lilly was a big part of us realising the impact of these conversations as well, because she, as we discussed in the article, she wrote her honours thesis in this area.
LB: I was lucky because I got to enter the conversation eight years after Dianne and Odette had begun their collaboration. I came on board with racial literacy at a moment when I think in Australia, conversations about racism were starting to happen more broadly in a different way than they had before. It was around the same time that people were capturing racist incidents on public transport with their phones. There was a little bit of a conversation happening around experiences of racism and how that impacted Aboriginal people and people of colour.
After taking Odette and Dianne’s course on racial literacy at the University and having studied in North America (where like Diane said, there was more of a linked, developed linguistic competency around race and issues of race), I came back here and analysed racial literacy and the way racism has been spoken about in the Australian context. I noted that there was a silence around how to talk about race and what it was. But when I sat in Odette’s classroom and saw this shift in students, I was really keen to find out what that meant. Odette and Diane had been witnessing this for years teaching this subject. But for me, to realise that within the Australian context there was a safe space and classroom where people could talk about these things –that, you know, 10 years ago, would have been really hard to have– was really interesting. That’s how I got on board, asking Odette and Diane whether I could evaluate that subject and the experiences of students witnessing and developing a practice of racial literacy.
This was in a broader social context, as I mentioned before, where I could see more broadly that people didn’t actually know what race was. Many people generally believe that race is still biological, which is really frightening. So our article came out of us having these conversations and then realising that this is something that is important for people – that racial literacy is an important thing that people need to actively develop for this country to get a little bit better.
MG: What about racial literacy moving forward on a larger scale, past just university courses and into perhaps, school settings. Do you see that happening soon? Do you see it happening now?
DJ: It’s exciting, definitely. I just haven’t seen it happening much as yet in Australia.
LB: I think that there’s a lot of focus that goes on into identifying what racism is, and anti-racism training and campaigns like Racism. It Stops With Me. I think that’s really important, but unfortunately, and particularly within schools, that doesn’t occur in relation or parallel to a focus on what race actually is. So what that works to do –and this kind of draws on Lani Guinier’s idea that quite often, racism is liberalised, so it’s made into an individual issue– in Australia, is that it’s really easy to spot the racist and to play that as a game. But actually, the same amount of energy needs to go into supporting people to understand what race is, how it functions, and how racialised inequity is maintained in Australia. I don’t think schools do that, and I don’t think that teachers are supported to do it. When I think about the context of a university, I think they are responsible for training professionals. Yet universities are lacking even in terms of higher education to support educators to train teachers on what race is, how it functions and how it is manifested. I think that this conversation hasn’t even begun yet. Odette and Dianne’s subject is one of the only subjects in the country that actually thinks critically about race and whiteness, and how race functions.
OK: We have to acknowledge that the work and scholarship on racial literacy is being led by People of Colour, mostly in an American context. While we’re not suggesting, as made clear in the article, to import these concepts, they need to be reflected upon in the Australian context. We are on Indigenous land, and it is really important that race studies is looked at critically as some of those approaches do not always acknowledge the foundations of colonisation. The violence in that erasure can be a gap in that field.
LB: Reinforcing what Odette said, Twine and Guinier function in contexts where a lot of the conversations about race do not include implications for Indigenous sovereignty. Whereas [in Australia] that needs to be one of the primary conversations, because colonisation is really the first pressure point here when we come to talk about race. Specifically, in the way that race justified the dehumanisation of Aboriginal people. I think those moments are often talked about as the birth of this nation. So if we’re talking about Australia, if we’re talking about nationhood, race has been really important in justifying Indigenous dispossession so this country can be what it is now. To talk about race, and to not talk about Indigenous sovereignty, and to not link those and understand that race was paramount in the ongoing erasure and misrecognition of Indigenous sovereignty, you can’t have the conversation about race in this country without doing this. By ignoring these crucial factors, you ignore race’s relation to Indigenous sovereignty.
OK: Indigenous people are leading the way in talking about race in this country. That’s the fact of it. Artists, writers and creative activists are leading the conversation in so many ways too.
LB: Think about Diane’s work, as resistance to the way that race functions, how it undermines race and acts as a really nuanced critique. It’s the work done by Indigenous artists like Diane who directly remap Indigenous presence onto land in country, and in doing so rehumanise [conceptions of ?] Aboriginal people as well, that directly counter race and the way it functions.
DJ: I just think that the fact that racism is still being felt at such a level for Indigenous people, but doesn’t often get acknowledged in the mainstream, indicates the incredible silence and ignorance. A huge uncomfortability within Australian society. The reason that artists are able to draw attention to this is because we have a certain amount of freedom to voice the strong political beliefs that we have, to try to shine a light on racism in Australia. But consider the fact that I am an ‘Aboriginal artist’, I don’t get to be an just an ‘artist’. So I get categorised and have been categorised from a very young age. That’s why I’m really interested in the repetition of language and visual images. I think that one of the scariest things is that a lot of the experiences that [Aboriginal people] have are legal under the system and in the society that we live in. That’s the biggest problem. I mean, the first time the word ‘white’ was used, it was used as a legal term. Legally, it meant that white people could own weapons, that white people could speak in court. But what does that mean for people who are not white? It means that they can’t own guns, they can’t speak in court. And so it’s about what’s not seen. And so I think that these experiences that are happening right now with Aboriginal people and racism in Australia are just not getting out, generally it’s not seen or heard by non-Indigenous people.
MG: History, and your article, both show that the Australian Education System is steadfast to change. How can educators effectively work to diversify and focus on racial literacy in learning environments?
LB: There are two things to this question. First off, I think it’s really important that teachers develop their own racial literacy, and then to think about how they can safely incorporate that in the classroom for the benefit of all learners. But I really want to emphasise that they need to do it safely. I think it’s a bit of a cop out these days to say that it’s a hard thing to access, because there’s so much information and Google exists. Teachers don’t choose professional development in this area, even though often addressing issues of race in their classrooms is one of their biggest challenges. It doesn’t just start with teachers, it starts with the system that teachers are located in. A system that should support teachers to actually access this kind of information. I think it comes back to the way that teachers are trained. Currently, there’s a massive lack of training to access this and understand how to incorporate it into their curriculum. So again, you know, Aboriginal educators and curriculum writers, we’re always saying that this stuff is important, and it needs to be integrated. But us just saying it isn’t enough. We need universities, we need education departments, we need school administrators to be on board and to support their teachers to be able to do this, because these conversations are really hard. And, of course, you know, teachers are going to be extremely intimidated, to even begin this kind of journey and start developing their own racial literacy, especially if they’re feeling that they’re not going to be supported to do that. This is a really complex answer to a really complex issue. The issue is systemic, like race itself. So, as someone who’s an educator in a university, I think one of the starting points and one of the pressure points is the way in which we educate our teachers. Right now, there is not enough emphasis on understanding the way that race functions and supporting teachers to then implement that in their classrooms in a way that is beneficial for all students, but also not damaging to Indigenous students and other students of colour.
OK: We’ve learned a lot from Lily, and Lily’s experience in speaking to teachers and principals, having that engagement on the frontline, so to speak.
LB: Yeah, so I’ve talked to a lot of teachers about their anxiety, of actually talking about race, and also Indigenous history. Those two things are intimately linked. You can’t talk about the violent history of this country without also talking about the role of race in that. But you know, on the other side of that, I’ve done so much work with young First Peoples who have been in classrooms where Australian history has been talked about and the horrible experiences of First People are ignored because teachers don’t have the language to talk about them, or they’re presented in a way that is really exclusionary, alienating and harmful. So as long as we’re not actually educating teachers and supporting them, classrooms, in this respect, are not safe for Indigenous students, they’re reinforcing white normativity, essentially. It’s a real issue. Unfortunately, every teacher I talked to says, “I wish I knew more, I wish I could do more”. And every Indigenous student I talked to says, “My experience is that every time anything in relation to Aboriginality or history comes up, I feel sick, or I feel like I can’t speak”.
In my experience, talking to everyone across the board, everyone wishes that they had conversations that were more thoughtful and nuanced, and that people involved were more prepared. Yet continually this stuff is put on the backburner. So again, campaigns like ‘Racism. It Stops with Me’ are not enough. We need to be educating teachers and young people about how to have these nuanced and complex conversations. They’re hard, but they’re possible.That’s what the racial literacy classroom demonstrates. It’s a transformative experience for people that are involved. Very rarely does someone say it was a negative experience. I think that’s testament to that as well. Racial literacy is about Indigenous students as well. The young people that participate in Odette’s classrooms find it useful because race impacts everyone’s daily lives. It doesn’t matter who you are, in this country race functions in relation to you just how whiteness functions in relation to you… and yet we’re not supporting young people and teachers to be able to understand what that means. Racial literacy should be in every Education Department across the country. It’s frustrating, because I’ve seen it happen, we’ve seen it in action, we’ve seen that it works, and yet people continue to avoid it as an important thing.
OK: Having a reflexive practice is good, starting with your own story, with getting to know your own story. And having reflective practice, as a habit- how am I responding to this? Where did this come from? Dianne always asks: where is race in this? How is this shaped by race? To reflect on one’s own positionality. These questions and practices are really foundational.
DJ: Well, I mean, it’s interesting for a person of colour or an Indigenous person in the classroom. They will know exactly how to take it from here. But when you have a white person in the classroom who has never had to think about what that means, it is in that moment that this opens up what they actually think about living in Australia. That’s fascinating to watch. Because Aboriginal Peoples all know who we are as Indigenous Peoples. We all know exactly what’s happening. When we go into that classroom, we’re checking for safety first. Whenever I’d be at the back, to sit and listen to everyone in the classroom say who they are and where they’re from, realising how much understanding they have of race, is a really interesting experience. The creation of a safe space is why our course has been running for so long, because it is encouraging people to think independently, to actually think about what race means in Australia without any pressures on how far they want to go with that journey. It’s just saying, ‘here are the facts’.
MG: For readers who are interested in exploring this topic further, what are some resources and services you would recommend to build a richer understanding of racial literacy and advocacy in this area?
LB: I would just read anything by Aileen Moreton-Robinson. To be able to read anything, you need to be informed, to have the language, and I think Moreton-Robinson gives a basic foundation to begin to actively develop a racial literacy practice.
OK: There’s so much out there that this is actually one of your harder questions! I could just reflect on what I have to share from my own experience. The first thing I read was Lani Guinier’s article ‘From Racial Liberalism to Racial Literacy’ (2004). For me, that’s where it all sort of began, reading her analysis of Brown vs Board of Education and why such a powerful legal change, in this case why desegregation did not actually have the changes in reality that were hoped for. That analysis to me was very inspiring because when we’re looking at a theory with racial literacy, emphasising that it’s always intersectional, emphasising that we’re talking about power and power relations, was what came through in that work.
A key resource that I watched back in the early days and which was instrumental in developing our course, Race: The Power of an Illusion is a three-part documentary series, available for viewing on facinghistory.org and kanopy.com. Would also emphasise that a lot of our learning has been through the arts and creative practitioners, such as Vernon Ah Kee, Yhonnie Scarce and Genevieve Grieves and so many more.
DJ: It’s looking at artists, which is what I am as well, but particularly watching young and political artists and feeling like, ‘Wow, how great is this! Actually getting people to talk about things that I didn’t have the words for yet!’ Movements that are happening in Indigenous art in Australia, groups like ProppaNOW, a very strong political group which began with Artists Richard Bell, Vernon AhKee and Gordon Hookey. In the 80s. the Boomalli Aboriginal artists Co-operative began with artists Tracy Moffatt, Brenda Croft Michael Riley, Fiona Foley Bronwyn Bancroft, Avril Quail, Fern Martens and Arone Meeks who were unique at the time for speaking up about what they and many Aboriginal Peoples were living and feeling. I feel a great admiration and respect for what these groups of artists have achieved. Boomalli was the first Aboriginal photo media collective that created and continue to create amazing art that is also incredibly political. When I say political, I want to note that it seems political to talk about what we are experiencing, but it’s just often an experience of life. It’s just living in Australia.
Art has been a huge influence. Gordon Bennett is also another artist who has an interesting story. His work is often about what it means to be and to look like an Aboriginal man, but be brought up white. Indigenous artists in particular are really facing all of this race stuff head on. Richard Bell’s got a lot of work out at the moment. He’s got a huge show in Sydney called You Can Go Home Now. It’s really visually political. So, they’re out there and they’re doing all this amazing stuff, which means that we can’t just be reading books. For me, I have to see what people are doing on the ground. I have to be having conversations on top of finding what is happening. People like Aileen Moreton-Robinson are brilliant, and, of course, literature is so powerful. As an Aboriginal woman it has been important to look at popular culture and its impact on marginalised groups, and it is necessary to take everything apart. Students are learning more about race from social media than in the classroom. They want to, you know, break down Game of Thrones, and do it through reading race. This is the simplest example of race being everywhere and it just depends on who is seeing it and how they’re talking about it.
MG: Any words of advice you would give to emerging BIPOC researchers and writers who may be interested in working on these themes?
LB: I felt so lucky, being able to enter into all of this with Diane and Odette. But, you know, I have these conversations with people outside of us three, and part of my being able to do that has been like a real active practice of bringing people together to have these conversations. I find it easy to talk to other Aboriginal people or people of colour, because I think we start developing a sensibility and a racial literacy practice, just because we have to. I have some really amazing white and non-Indigenous friends who have been active in developing their own racial literacy practice, which means that I can have better conversations with them now too. I think there’s a lot of organising that happens, especially within activism and action that’s facilitated by First Peoples, and that stuff is really accessible.
But, if you’re identifying as a person or woman of colour, I think it’s also about, talking and recognising the responsibility that you have as well to get some of your friends of colour together and start thinking about what your relationship to Indigenous sovereignty looks like, and then entering into spaces where Aboriginal people are talking about race and sovereignty too. I think sometimes it takes a lot of effort to have conversations with particularly white non-Indigenous people who haven’t actively developed a language in relation to race. But more and more, I’m finding that I’m having generative conversations with people that have. So, I think it’s about finding those people, finding those kinds of connections and relationships, and actively creating safe spaces for myself, to be able to talk about this stuff and continue to develop my own racial literacy. Because as we say in the article, I don’t think that you can ever be racially literate, because it is so contextual and it’s so relational. It depends on what room you are in, at what time you’re in and where you are. This stuff can be dangerous to talk about, if you’re having conversations with people that aren’t ready or if they haven’t been developing their own understanding. As an Aboriginal woman, I have to make sure that I’m doing this in safe places, because this can have implications for us if we’re working in institutions or if we’re working with people that hold power over us, and they don’t agree with what we’re saying, or they haven’t begun to develop their own practices.
DJ: Odette and I decided to have conversations and we both equally stepped up to that. As an Indigenous person in Australia, I’m often aware, as Lily said, that there are sometimes no safe places often with non-Indigenous people. So you learn very quickly to have a fear. It doesn’t matter who’s in the room, you’re always aware of that fear. I mean, I’ve got to the point where I just don’t stay in those places. And I think it’s really important not to be the person who, just because you’re a person of colour or you’re Indigenous, becomes an educator. That is something that often happens to people of colour and Indigenous people by white people who say, ‘Well, tell me about your culture!, ‘Tell me why this matters!’ And I’m like, well, go read a book! Go educate yourself. Then come back to me when you’ve got something that we can chat about, if you find something fascinating about it.
It’s not really taught in class what that experience is like. When you actually sit down and have those conversations with people, it becomes a really serious thing where you’re trapped. If you fall into these conversations and they feel right, keep going. If it doesn’t feel right, step away. Because you have to think about your own safety. You also need to think about what you’re learning in this place as well, not just being an educator, because it’s exhausting. What are you learning for yourself from that? How do you know when to walk away? This can build up to a really toxic effect if you’re always this educator. I think it’s really important that when living in Australia and you do any of these things, not to do so alone. Have an ally with you so you’re not the only Indigenous person or person of colour in the room. It makes a big difference.
OK: Self-care. A lot of people can let that slide. Take nurturing regular breaks, as the work can be traumatising, listen to your body and how you are feeling not just how you’re thinking. Feelings matter, in this kind of system where feelings aren’t always prioritised. They really matter here, support networks, allies, as Diane talked about. You do not have to answer questions. The politics of refusal and your education are just as important. The question-answer dynamic can be a power relation. Something else to chat about is watching one’s ego, which is a more complex conversation than we can go into here. But this space, can do things too. It can become an egoistic or righteous space. Watching where you’re at with judging, and what’s happening to you, but also not being too hard on yourself, not having to be right all the time and having compassion for other people. Understanding that this is systemic, historical and institutional, that this is bigger than any one individual, and it is all connected is so important.
MG: What are you working on now?
LB: We definitely say this work is ongoing. The article was something that we put together because we knew we had to communicate this more broadly, but I think it’s just one step for us in the work that we’ll continue to do. We’re very excited to try and get grants up and to create bigger research projects, and to get more people on board. So yeah, this is an ongoing project for us. Watch this space!
OK: We’re writing a chapter together, ‘Mass exposure, memory laundering, racial literacy and the art of truth telling’. In this we’re looking at the role of activism for a book edited by Genevieve Grieves and Amy Spears, which is on counter monuments. We’re looking at the whole movement around the statues and monuments and the debates that have been going on around that. There is such an obvious need for Australian-based resources and Australian examples because the theory in racial literacy so often draws from international sources. So, I think, creating and making the connections and conversations with racial literacy that are relevant for the Australian context is important.
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