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March 5, 2024

More than a word – Reconciliation takes action

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Faye Blanch, Sam Schulz and Sam Elliott – Flinders University

Reconciliation Australia’s theme for 2021, More than a word. Reconciliation takes action, urges the reconciliation movement towards braver and more impactful action.

Indigenous and non-indigenous teacher educators working together recognise that action geared toward reconciliation is most effective when underpinned by an appreciation of what reconciliation means, as well as a commitment to racial literacy.

Reconciliation might be thought of as a container into which various meanings have been poured. We introduce pre-service teachers to three common descriptions including: conservative approaches, which view reconciliation in ‘practical’ terms as offering First Nations peoples standard housing, health care and education; progressive approaches, which incorporate these elements alongside gestures like reconciliation ceremonies or flying the Aboriginal flag; and genuine orientations which aim to raise all Australians’ critical understandings of the lands we share to collaboratively resolve the complex issues that sustain inequality. Pivotal to this approach is the cultivation of racial literacy – the ability to read the world for its racialised construction and identify racism in its myriad forms. Accounts of life told from First Nations’ perspectives can assist this task.

Adnyamathanha/Narungga man Adam Goodes

One story that we have recently incorporated into our work is The Final Quarter. This 2019 documentary follows the life and career of elite footballer and Adnyamathanha/Narungga man Adam Goodes.

The film foregrounds Goodes’ experiences of racial vilification on and off the football field, providing insights into the historical contours of contemporary Australian racism.

Constructed from archival footage, the documentary traces Goodes’ childhood as he grows up black in White Australia and is habitually confronted by racism; going to the shops to buy milk, walking home from school, he laments, ‘when will it ever end?’

Having worked hard to become a professional athlete within the Australian Football League (AFL), Goodes uses his platform to raise awareness about racism.

Despite being denigrated by conservative commentators for bringing these worlds together, the documentary illustrates that racism and AFL football are manifestly entwined. This point is sharpened when a 13-year-old white female spectator calls Goodes an ‘ape’ during the 2013 Indigenous round and is subsequently escorted from the stadium at Goodes’ request.

A culture that naturalises racism

Although he clarifies that it was not the 13-year-old at fault but a culture that naturalises racism, the incident initiates two years of racial vilification directed towards Goodes, which culminates in 17 straight weeks of booing and coerces his early retirement. Common justifications for the booing included the notion that the 13-year-old was innocent, that the AFL was no place for Goodes’ anti-racism activism, that the real problem was not racism but ‘political correctness’, or that slurs like ape are ‘just a joke’.

To support pre-service teachers’ engagement with this story, we explore and contextualise the origins of these beliefs, many of which have settled into taken-for-granted truth. For instance, we explore the emergence of the word ‘ape’, its embedment in a taxonomy of ‘race thinking’, the ways in which race thinking permitted widespread genocide, and how the White Australia Policy – shaped and fuelled by race thinking – persisted for seven decades. We explore how overt forms of racism, did not go away.

Overt racist declarations framed by sanitising statements

We explore how overt racist declarations came to be framed by sanitising statements – jokes – which carry the belief that racism must be intentional to ‘be racist’. And we also explore how critiques of political correctness have themselves come to constitute sanitised forms of covert racism.

Helping pre-service teachers’ to engage with Goodes’ story alongside these details provides rich terrain for developing the humility, stamina and critical thinking required of racial literacy; skills that are vital for learning to live together in a spirit of reconciliation. And while this depth of learning may be out of reach for many Australians, a good starting point for us all is to question why reconciliation is still required?

We can all ask critical questions about why things are the way they are and how they might be differentAustralian teachers are learning to be racially literate to help future generations engage more genuinely in reconciliation.


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  1. Under-pinning this whole issue, is the suggestion that one ‘race’ of people deserve ‘special treatment’.
    This is a racist and totally undemocratic concept and must be called out.
    If you wish to abolish racism, then there are only ” Australian citizens” who have any validity in any discourse .
    History has been harsh on Aboriginals, history has also been harsh on political prisoners [ convicts ] who were banished,chained and flogged to the end of the known world. The Chinese of the 1800 gold rush were certainly unfairly treated, etc etc this are historic actions of the English, either get over it or go talk to Boris Johnson, but please don’t whinge about it for generations like the Israelis, as we can see where that evil leads.
    Cheers, G”)


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