Inclusivity: Not just a seat at the table
6th Jul 2023
I once sat at a table of lawyers and executives as the only person of colour. It was a space of confident discussion and debate. But when the CEO of that organisation pondered aloud, ‘Why don't we have more diversity on our Board?’ silence ensued.
Recently, I’ve had more opportunities to reflect on what inclusivity means in observing Australia’s struggle with the idea of an official Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
While diversity is visible, inclusivity is more complex – it concerns state of mind.
Whether we want to admit it or not, Australia has a race-relations problem.
Do we really believe that over 95%[i] of our politicians, department heads and free-to-air news editors are of Anglo-Celtic or European heritage through pure merit or mere coincidence? And if we are committed to democratic equality, why aren’t we talking about this disproportionate distribution of voice and power, its causes and its consequences?
Dr Penny Taylor's research[ii] is insightful, exploring why, comparatively, so few Indigenous Australians have a seat at the proverbial table and why they may be hesitant to take one. In her research, Dr Taylor analyses hundreds of interviews with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Northern Australia about their experiences with non-Indigenous Australia. Participants report that even well-intentioned non-Indigenous people regularly engage with them unfairly. One respondent explains:
‘I think there’s a lot of goodwill there, however, with that goodwill, understanding or knowledge doesn’t necessarily go with it…’
Almost universally, the participants report that widespread ignorant assumptions in the non-Indigenous population are one of the biggest obstacles they face.
One participant reflected:
‘[T]hey make all these assumptions without even consulting or discussing or communicating with us anything, you know, of our values or our interests or what we know.’
One observation from Taylor’s study struck me: that research and policy on First Nations peoples are focused almost exclusively on ‘Indigenous deficit’, ie a mode of thinking that centres Aboriginal identity in negativity, deficiency and disempowerment.[iii]
Capacity in non-Indigenous Australia
Noting the racialised distribution of power in Australia evidenced in the table above, it is apparent that decision making is directed by one group’s experience and one set of cultural norms. A particular world-view informs our framing of societal issues. This is not obvious to those embedded in that cultural perspective, who only have part of the picture.
The table above begs the question: If non-Indigenous Australia does not have the power to change this imbalance, who does?
And how can we hold Indigenous Australia responsible for its disadvantage, when we are the ones with so much of the decision-making power?
This is not to suggest that the conversations we need to have are easy. They involve admitting that we don’t have the answers and listening to understand requires a humble posture of learning.
Within organisations and the broader community, we are still learning how to have conversations about nationhood, our collective history and so-called 'Indigenous issues'.
One of the things we are learning is who needs to be in those conversations and how to make those conversations something those participants are willing to be in.
Dr Clare Land points out that ‘those who are located outside privilege and feel the effects of its exclusions are better placed to have a clearer view of its workings’.[iv]
Research also suggests that access to this standpoint gives non-Indigenous Australians insight and can create an imperative to act.[v]
The power and potential for listening
To overcome the imbalance, we need critical thinking. Mainstream media coverage of the Voice to Parliament campaign is a great example of how vital it is to amplify perspectives from within First Nations communities. Pitting a ‘No’ and a ‘Yes’ campaign against each other, without relevant voices framing the conversation, has led to a reductive oversimplification of an incredibly nuanced topic.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants in Taylor’s study believe good race-relations are dependent on mutual understanding.[vi]
They also express a desire for mutual valuing and appreciation of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous worldviews, in order to advance forward working together.
A humble posture of learning
Dr Taylor notes education measures to ‘close the gap’ miss the mark by targeting Indigenous people alone. The voices and experiences of Indigenous people indicate that expanding the focus of 'closing the gap' education measures to include the widespread knowledge deficits in the non-Indigenous population is critical to better outcomes.
Australia must find the courage to turn the lens on itself, on our ignorance of Indigenous cultural values and what it means to be Indigenous in modern Australia.
If we want to achieve justice, we need to understand that injustice and the people who see it most clearly are the ones subject to it and that is why we need to have uncomfortable conversations. This means abandoning our usual markers of who knows most and who knows best, and that's going to be an inherently uncomfortable process.
On the other side is unimaginable growth and an Australia we have never seen.
When we are open to hearing perspectives and ways of being other than our own, we start to realise the interconnectedness of our communities and the infinite possibilities for a more healthful, united, socially-conscious society.
On the Voice to Parliament, Professor Megan Davis says:
‘When people say this is about changing Australian identity, it’s not. It’s about location; we are located here together, we are born here, we arrive here, we die here and we must coexist in a peaceful way.’[vii]
It starts by showing up without the answers and creating spaces that are outward-looking; knowing that our perspective is more enriched as a result and that we miss out on valuable insights into our own culture when we don’t.
To get there, we need to recognise that being inclusive is more than giving people a seat at the table: it requires listening to their voices.
The ALA thanks Nadia Elads for this contribution.
Nadia Elads is a Policy and Advocacy Officer for the ALA with a speciality in government relations and human rights advocacy. She considers herself a world-citizen but for all intents and purposes, Nadia is a first-generation Australian to Egyptian immigrants. She is also a mother and qualified lawyer with a keen interest in public discourse on social cohesion. Nadia firmly believes that unity is vital to achieving social justice at all levels of society.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).
[i] J Arvanitakis et al, Who Gets to Tell Australian Stories? (Report, Media Diversity Australia, 17 August 2020) 2; T Soutphommasane et al, Leading for Change: A Blueprint for Cultural Diversity and Inclusive Leadership Revisited (Report, Australian Human Rights Commission, 11 April 2018); D Habibis, K Pollard, P Taylor, ‘Our research has shown Indigenous peoples’ needs cannot be understood and met, without Indigenous voices’, The Conversation (14 February 2023)
[ii] PS Taylor, ‘Widening the gap: White ignorance, race relations and the consequences for Aboriginal people in Australia’ 55(3) (2020) Australian Journal of Social Issues
[iii] PS Taylor, ‘Turning the lens: Indigenous perspectives on race-relations and on building White capacity for constructive relations in Australia’ (PhD Thesis, University of Tasmania, 2022), 15; C Forde et al, ‘Discourse, deficit and identity: Aboriginality, the race paradigm and the language of representation in contemporary Australia’, Media International Australia, 149(1), 2013.
[iv] C Land, Decolonizing solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles, Zed Books Ltd, London, 2015, 88.
[v] Taylor, above note 2; B Pease, Undoing Privilege: Unearned Advantage in a Divided World, Zed Books Ltd, London, 2010, 184.
[vi] PS Taylor, above note 3, 244.
[vii] M Davis, ‘The Voice of Reason – On recognition and renewal’ Quarterly Essay, Issue 90, June 2023.