The prevalence of systemic racism in Australia is not up for debate. We see it in all sectors: health, education, housing, criminal justice, sport and more. The Centre for Research Excellence on Social Determinants and Health Equity (CRE Health Equity) recent National Policy Forum included a panel discussion on the impact of systemic racism. Chaired by Romlie Mokak (CEO, Lowitja Institute), the panel: Janine Mohamed (CEO, Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives), Tamara Mackean (Flinders University), Luke Pearson (@IndigenousX founder) and Richard Weston (CEO, Healing Foundation), shared their experiences, ideas and hopes for the future. The conversation highlighted the impact of systemic racism, and the challenges of living in a society in which racism is invisible to the majority. Change to make the invisible visible is necessary. In the words of Luke Pearson “the sky won’t fall in if you stop being racist”.
Following the CRE Health Equity policy forum, I sat down with Dr Tamara Mackean to chat about what was shared by the panel on systemic racism.
Question: Some racism is personal and obvious. Systemic racism is intangible and can be hard to identity. How would you describe the impact of systemic racism?
Tamara Mackean: Systemic racism results in bad health outcomes. People die because the system doesn’t allow the proper assessment and management of their health and wellbeing issues. It is devastating. Aboriginal people are traumatised with ongoing grief and loss because the system fails them. It impacts individual patients but also on staff in the health system. There are people trying to do their best and stand up to injustices but they’re beaten down. The trauma is not just worn by Aboriginal people, it impacts all of us.
Question: How do we move forward to address systemic racism?
TM: We can’t continue to deny the prevalence of systemic racism. There is a change in the discourse to at least engage at some level with these difficult issues. These conversations open pathways for healing. Many of things that were discussed at the CRE Health Equity panel lie at the heart of reconciliation. Particularly when it comes to responsible leadership and creating change. Reconciliation should reset the relationship and promote the re-establishing of power dynamics. Society is out of sync – reconciliation addresses systemic racism and can bring us back into balance.
Question: Panel members shared their hope for reconciliation. How important is hope in the context of healing?
TM: Surely as a collective society we want to present ourselves as a healthy hopeful peoples. Hope says we have a belief in ourselves with aspirations and inspirations. If we think about hope as part of the healing process, and compare it to a very basic physiological approach to healing, then we know there has to be flow. If you cut your skin, your body commences healing, and the way it does that is through blood flow in the system. Blood delivers platelets, which coagulate or clot, and a scab forms to allow the body to heal. Infection fighting white blood cells protect the wound while new skin begins to form. Healing happens in response to flow. That’s what the ‘Dinner Table Challenge’ is about – it’s creating the flow of conversation about difficult things so that’s a society we can have hope.
Question: In the CRE panel discussion, you challenged us to take up the ‘Dinner Table Challenge’, can you tell me more about this?
Although we are talking about systemic racism, individuals make up a system. The ‘dinner table challenge’ generates little conversations among people about difficult issues so that the conversation starts to get a roll on. People are challenged to think differently. It’s not about arguments, but it might start people have debates. It’s not to be provocative or nasty, but to really get us as individual human beings to think more deeply about the fact that we are not isolated from each other – we are all connected. Communication will allow different thoughts, feelings and ideas to flow into the space. The ‘Dinner Table Challenge’ is a conversation space for people to interact and begin to see the world differently.
These reflections highlight the impact of systemic racism, but an important message from the CRE Health Equity Panel is that there is hope for healing and a reconciled future. Change can be uncomfortable, but change away from systemic racism and towards reconciliation is necessary. Luke Pearson is right, the sky won’t fall in if we stop being racist!
Emma George and Tamara Mackean