The façade of #auslaw’s social justice efforts

The façade of #auslaw’s social justice efforts

03 June 2021 By Marijke Bassani
Marijke Bassani

Culturally safe environments should not deny, dismiss or disrespect the cultural identities, authority, advice and knowledge of Indigenous people, writes Lama Lama, Binthi Warra and Bulgun Warra woman Marijke Bassani.

This truth-telling piece is informed by my lived experience as an Aboriginal Australian woman reclaiming space on the unceded lands of my people. This journey continues to shape my lens as an individual, lawyer and academic. If my truth triggers feelings of discomfort, I invite you to pause and sit with that. Lean into it with curiosity. Hold space for it. Observe it without judgment and shame. Give yourself time to process it. Discomfort can provide a powerful learning tool, when we allow it to. After all, it is outside of our comfort zone where true growth begins.

As a young lawyer, I attempted to cultivate a legal career that honoured my values and passions. This translated into strengthening human rights protections and social justice outcomes for my people – the First Australians. Eight years later, I find myself reflecting with dismay on the façade of the social justice sector – a space where, sadly, racism and a lack of cultural safety are often woven into the fabric of the institutions and programmes allegedly established to support First Nations clients and staff in a culturally safe manner. In practice, a culturally safe environment does not deny, dismiss or disrespect the cultural identities, authority, advice and knowledge of First Nations people.

Nonetheless, based on my experience as a First Nations lawyer and those of my peers, the undervaluing and undermining of our cultural knowledge, advice and authority in the social justice space is far more prevalent than the sector is willing to admit. For many of us this has taken place within the context of tokenistic roles dressed up as leading and building pathways to justice for First Nations people. A few months in, however, it becomes evident that the role you accepted is less about improving access to justice for First Nations communities, and more about giving the appearance of doing so.

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This veil of performative compassion is quite frankly, racism disguised as equal opportunity and self-determination, and is often relentlessly upheld by white cis women who when challenged are quick to pull rank or recount their years of experience working with First Nations communities. This is usually followed by a triumphant tale – meant to invoke some sort of involuntary emotional reaction – about a former First Nations client or community they led to legal victory. If time permits, you might even see the gift they received to further reinforce their alleged allyship. Please note that “years of experience” working with First Nations communities will never override a lived experience as the former is a choice, and with choice comes privilege.

White cis women continue to dominate senior management and decision-making within the social justice sector. While these roles are complex, and often require challenging judgement calls, the purpose of our roles is to share our cultural knowledge to assist in shaping decision-making. However, when it is provided, it is all too often dismissed in favour of a non-Indigenous solution. We continue to try to share our cultural knowledge, which is informed by lived experience, in the hope that it will be listened to, and is used to guide actions moving forward.

This knowledge goes well beyond tertiary qualifications or professional experiences and thus, should never be dismissed in favour of such. It is this dismissal that risks our reputations as First Nations lawyers within the community, and pushes many of us to the margins of the very profession we sacrificed much to be part of. We literally overcame countless odds to be here, and are then forced to continue that fight to remain seated at the table.

As the global #MeToo movement continues to trigger discussions challenging toxic masculinity and rape culture, it may be surprising to learn that white cis women – not white cis men – are often the perpetrators of this discriminatory behaviour. In fact, you might be wondering why this is the case?

I encourage you to ponder this as First Nations women and women of colour have asked ourselves, and each other, the same question for decades. We have even published about it multiple times across multiple disciplines. Check out Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s book “Talkin’ Up to the White Woman”, “Sister Outsider” by Audre Lorde and the works of Alison Whittaker, Koa Beck, Nayuka Gorrie, Rachel E. Cargle, Helen Zia and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.

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These authors highlight the dangers of white cis women being ignorant of or actively ignoring their white privilege, and how in many environments and institutions First Nations women and women of colour continue to be marginalised by white cis women in power. The following examples highlight how this manifests for us in the workplace:

  • Offering only entry-level or mid-level roles.
  • Position titles that inaccurately reflect qualifications (i.e., graduate lawyer rather than lawyer/solicitor).
  • Providing only part-time or casual roles.
  • Offering positions supported by unstable funding sources resulting in short-term contracts.
  • Providing tokenistic positions.
  • Gaslighting, abusing power/authority, and utilising “work performance concerns” to justify bullying after being challenged about decision-making or harmful behaviour.
  • Failing to professionally discipline white cis staff for harmful behaviour, particularly if they occupy management or senior roles.
  • Treating qualifications and professional experiences as inferior to white cis peers. This often plays out unconsciously and manifests as micromanaging or helicopter supervision.

These examples demonstrate that even “well-intentioned good white feminists” can be directly or indirectly complicit in the oppression and marginalisation of First Nations women and women of colour. That said, not all white cis women engage in this behaviour – I’ll provide more about these allies and how you can become one shortly. However, similar to the “not all men” argument, while not all white cis women engage in this behaviour it is enough to make this experience a common, and shared, one among First Nations women and women of colour. I understand this may be confronting, but I encourage you to consider for a moment the discomfort that we feel having to live out this reality.

In 2021, it is not enough to be non-racist, nor is ignorance an excuse. In order to be a true ally one must be actively anti-racist. This means using your white privilege to condemn this harmful behaviour and demand consequences. This means having those uncomfortable conversations with your boss and colleagues—the kind that are filled with tension and awkward silences. This means actively taking steps to make your workplace a more inclusive and culturally safe environment for First Nations women and Women of Colour by:

  • Practising deep active listening when receiving our advice, and using it to inform actions.
  • Equipping us with adequate resources to implement effective change.
  • Providing full-time permanent positions at senior and management levels with stable contract terms.
  • Bestowing titles that accurately reflect our qualifications and do not detract from, or minimise them.
  • Unpacking your white privilege including challenging your white fragility, white saviour complexes and unconscious racial biases.

This last point is perhaps most significant because accepting the reality of the world’s race dynamics is at the core of what authentic allyship looks like, and it is what separates great allies from mediocre ones. This personal work is ongoing and the allies that remain committed demonstrate that it is neither impossible nor mythological. Indeed, you will make many mistakes along the way. Refrain from shaming or judging yourself in those moments.

Perfection is not the goal, honest self-reflection and accountability coupled with persistent active commitment are. Dr Robin DiAngelo put it best when she proposed in her book “White Fragility” that, “the key to moving forward is what we do with our discomfort. We can use it as a door out – blame the messenger and disregard the message. Or we can use it as a door in by asking, “Why does this unsettle me? What would it mean for me if this were true?”

While academia does not offer respite from the issues raised in this piece, it does provide a domestic and international platform upon which the voices of First Nations women and women of colour can be elevated and heard. Academia in this way provides a powerful vehicle for leading and influencing law reform and policy development for our communities. These truths fuelled my decision to pause my practising career to complete a PhD in law.

My PhD is a cross-border study with the US exploring questions of Indigeneity, sexuality, gender and the law. I’m focusing on the experiences of Native Americans and First Nations peoples from Cape York Peninsula communities who identify as LGBTQI+ 2Spirit, Sistergirl and/or Brotherboy. The invisibility of these minorities within their communities and the legal system is analysed through an international human rights law lens.

Part of this involves decolonising existing labels used to define gender and sexual diversity, as several Cape York communities currently resist these due to a belief that they were imported, lack cultural context and are disconnected from the lived experience of gender and sexually diverse Cape York peoples. My research attempts to thus reinforce that self-determination and sovereignty over our bodies, genders and sexualities are equal in importance to self-determination and sovereignty over our lands. While this statement rings true for many, it is met with resistance by some. A resistance that often stems from an unwillingness to sit with the discomfort that arises when faced with the truth.  

And so, I invite you once again to pause and reflect on the truths of this piece. Moving forward in 2021 requires a commitment from you to do the work by continuing to lean into that discomfort. Only then will we draw closer to being valued in a profession, legal system and world that quite frankly continue to tell us the opposite.

Marijke Bassani is a Lama Lama, Binthi Warra and Bulgun Warra woman from Guugu Yimithirr country in Cape York Peninsula, Far North Queensland. She is a human rights lawyer, PhD candidate, UC Berkeley visiting researcher/scholar, and lecturer at UNSW Sydney. She is currently conducting a cross-border PhD study at UC Berkeley and UNSW Sydney.

The façade of #auslaw’s social justice efforts
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