Stuck in a Colonial Mind-Set

Our last newsletter titled “Two Way Abuse in Aboriginal Communities” received great feedback. Many thanked us for saying what should have been said a long time ago. Among these were people who had spent years working in Aboriginal communities and who had left in a broken state. Yolŋu people who read the news also thanked us, saying they have also personally felt the cross-cultural abuse aimed at them.

There were also a few people who took us to task. Some thought we were exploiting the death of a colleague. I have some sympathy with these people although in reality it is only bad news that gets the attention of the media. And unfortunately it is often the only time that the people who need more information and training are listening. At other times no one listens, no matter how hard you push the subject or how bad the two way abuse has become. In fact it’s now so bad that it has become almost normalised.


Another Opinion

Some people also expressed that they thought we were putting ourselves above everybody else and were suggesting that we are the only ones who know how to work with Aboriginal people and that nobody else’s experience counts.

These are the people I want to challenge here because it seems they are locked in to a colonial mind-set of times gone by. That is, just as the colonials of the past believed they knew what was best for Aboriginal people many people now coming to work in Aboriginal communities believe they have got it all worked out and they need to just ‘service the people’.

Some will even tell you they have travelled all over Australia and worked in many Aboriginal communities. I call these people the, “I’ve been everywhere” people. Many are modern day nomads, having spent a little bit of time in lots of different Aboriginal communities but have actually learnt very little, just like colonials of the past. In many cases they are simply paid tourists, telling tales about their travels.


Who is culturally competent?

This conversation led me to ask the question, “Who is really culturally competent”? And I had to answer that I don’t think anybody is ever really culturally competent, including me.

In the last Bridging the Gap seminar in Darwin a week ago I asked my Yolŋu colleagues how many cultural mistakes I make while working with them. Their response was, “Lots”. This is a reality of cultural competency. In fact the first step in becoming culturally competent is being mindful of that fact that you are making mistakes.



Mindfulness requires individuals who are moving into a cross-cultural space to be consciously aware that many of their interactions with people in that strange and new environment are going to be flawed or even disastrous. If we are not mindful of the cross-cultural traps then we will fail in communicating and working in this area even before we start.

We call this working in the Grey Zone. The Grey Zone is an interaction/experience zone that exists between cultural groups. As you move from one culture to another there are many different ways of communicating and being. This could include a different language, worldview, and communication style, historical view, living environment, which family you were born into, peer group and lastly cultural customs and mores. These factors all influence the Grey Zone that exists between cultures and therefore the interaction that occurs between them.

Expecting people to work in the Grey Zone without proper training is just madness. It’s like expecting a professional tradesperson to have suddenly become a professional without any special training. Yet everyday people are sent into Aboriginal communities without any special training whatsoever. However if the same people were being sent overseas they would have received lots of additional training.

One of the reasons for this is that many of the individuals who go to work in Indigenous communities also don’t think they need special training. Some have even been there 10 or more years and say, “I don’t need any training. I can communicate with Aboriginal people”.

How can a person be truly culturally competent if they don’t speak the language of the people, understand their world view or any of the other factors needed to become culturally competent? There should be a commitment to constantly train ourselves to sharpen our skills and knowledge, including becoming more mindful of our own flaws.

When these people attend our training sessions many shake their heads and say, “I didn’t realise how much I didn’t know and how many mistakes I’ve been making”. The sad part is that without being mindful of the potential mistakes that can occur our colonial mind-set locks us into a cultural blindness. We suffer because we don’t realise just how ineffective our work is and the people also suffer because of our blindness. We also suffer because we don’t learn the deep richness of the Original Australian culture. It would be great if more mainstream Australians actually started learning Australian culture, the original one that is, rather than sticking to their strong European culture.


Do Balanda have culture?

I’m shocked at the number of mainstream people who think that they don’t have culture. As though their way of looking at the world is the only human way of existing and knowing. As if everyone else’s way of understand, communicating and interacting is weird, wrong or inferior.

A question that many Yolŋu people ask me is, “Do Balanda (English speaking Australians) have culture”? Many times I respond to them by saying, “What do you think”? To which they reply, “Of course they do”. But many Balanda think that it’s only those people over there who “do strange things” that have culture. Sadly many Balanda do not realise this and so they are culturally blind to the real facts.

Operating between different cultures requires us to recognise and work around many of the blind spots our own culture creates within us. The only way to do that is to participate in training that helps us recognise these things, especially the aspects of ourselves that we have great difficulty even knowing are there.

Even for me having learnt the language and having now spent many decades learning and teaching the art of cross-cultural communication and cultural competency skills and theory, I can still get it wrong. But; and it is a big BUT, the more I do learn about all these interacting cultural factors the more I become mindful of just how culturally incompetent I’ve been. That allows me to apologise to people for my incorrect behaviour, and adjust my future behaviour. So on the positive side I become more effective and the people suffer less damage from me.


Stuck in a colonial mind-set

Many people still come to Aboriginal communities with a colonial mind-set locked in. It is no different from the missionaries of old. However because people now live in what we consider a modern progressive society they think that their attitudes are different from the colonials of the past. From my experience there is no difference between the way Captin Philip treated Aboriginal people and the way many decision-makers treat them today.

We see the same paternalistic attitudes as existed in the past. But now it is blurred with the idea that “us moderns” couldn’t possibly be as bad as people in the past. Well sorry, we are. And in fact with the vantage point of history we should be more aware of it than ever. So that makes us more culpable today than people in the past were.

If we place any value on our close friendship with Aboriginal people we should be concerned about their best interests and therefore should be ready to move out of the Safe Zone of our own culture, and into the Grey Zone where we need to learn the people’s way of communicating and understanding. Cultural competency needs to be learnt as a subject, as it will never happen by a process of osmosis because colonial mind-set is so locked in that it will just leave us culturally blind.

The more culturally competent we become the safer it is for Aboriginal people and for ourselves. Every Human Resources person in government and industry should be concerned about this and be working towards the goal of a safe cross-cultural working zone.


Richard Trudgen’s © May 2016

About Richard Trudgen

Richard was born in Orange NSW and trained as a fitter and turner. He moved to Arnhem Land in the NT in 1973 and became a community worker, learning to speak Djambarrpuyŋu. Has now worked with Yolŋu people for over 45 years. He was the CEO of Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS) for 10 years during which time he developed discovery education methodology with Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM and also established Yolŋu Radio in 2003. He is the author of Why Warriors Lie Down and Die and facilitated ‘Bridging the Gap’ seminars, and delivered corporate training across Australia. He is currently the CEO of Why Warriors Pty Ltd, a community development social enterprise organisation working with Yolngu people. He spends his day writing, producing podcasts and building online learning platforms, producing videos and working face to face with Yolngu. He is also involved in building online cross-cultural training material to build understanding between Indigenous peoples and the Dominant Culture.


Add your comment:

  1. Andrew Peers

    Richard, how true is all of what you have said. Being an ex-teacher and having taught in community (Cape York – CY) at the Primary level, I gained insights because the two Wik Munkun mentors I had were wonderful patient people who would readily forgive my mistakes. Both senior community members, one male and one female. They were equally diligent as mentors and were not averse at correction, but more importantly, as a parent would input to their children; held an expectancy of learning and internalising with the resultant behaviour change in me. Your articles on eye contact and par lingual hand gestures being two examples. I would like to add to the ‘communication’ aspect something that was pointed out to me. Yolngu describe life by relationships and metaphors; mainstream quantify into the abstract. The First Australian spoken communication is so rich in ways mainstream, i.e. Anglo Saxon heritage English speaking people; cannot appreciate. I found on CY that when the language was translated into English, the English language was the deficient one in terms of depth and shades of meaning.

    • Richard Trudgen

      Andy I wish more people could have that sort of experiance. So many of us who were born from the spirit wells some where accross this great country “Australia” have this deep hole within us to know some of the real deep Intellectual knowledge and views of the original Australian languages and culture.

      That comes best when it comes from the close long relationship with those First Nation People who still have their roots deep within that culture.

      However for that to happen we need to become culturally competent, gainig the mindfulness, knowledge and skills that are necessary for us to learn from these great teachers. Your experience has been a privilege that many English speaking Australians will never experience.

      Let’s commit to cultural competency training to a deep level so when the opportunity does arise our communication with these great teachers can be a more fulfilling two-way experience rather than just a drain on them. Thanks RT

  2. Gil Hardwick

    Hi Richard, even more sadly, ‘protection’ of all those unprepared, risk averse staff too often comes at the expense of people who are culturally competent, speak language and spend their time out with the people instead of restrained within their quarters. Still today, unless you find other ways to protect yourself and the people you’re working with, ‘going native’ is among the worst of crimes. Ostracism and punishment can be severe, and your way blocked even as far away as university. Still, we have to find our own way.

    • Richard Trudgen

      Right on Gill. You have raised a subject that I should write a full article on.

      Yes many English speaking people who come to work in communities and who do learn language become culturally competent then get classed as, “going native” by those in the central colonial control Centres of; Darwin, Alice Springs, Canberra etc.

      I was once told if I could teach Aboriginal people about contemporary disease, sickness, economics and law that we would receive all funding we needed to continue our good work. But the truth is the more culturally competent I have become the more I’m seen by those in the neo-colonial control Centres as being some sort of problem. Gone Native.

      This shows us just how stuck we are in the colonial mindset. Locked into bygone era with its roots clearly back in Europe. To the extent that the Original Australian Culture is still seen as abnormal, primitive and inhuman in some way. So the colonial mindset attacks anybody who really relates well to the people and who are productive; helping to “Close the Gap” even. Why? Because our productivity, really helping people, is seen as opposing the neocolonial position.

      You are right. If this is your situation put your head down and protect yourself anyway you can. At the same time we need to continue to talk about the need for real cultural competency to stop the other major epidemic, which also must write about, which is the community violence continually perpetrated on Aboriginal people due to the ignorance that exists around these issues.

      Stay strong brother as I believe the truth will break through one day. RT

  3. Sharon Castle

    Dear Richard
    This is nothing short of brilliant! The message here is simple, loud and clear. I especially would like to reflect on the last paragraph, and to reiterate your message here, may “they” (Government and Industry) open their hearts and minds to recognise the importance of working towards this goal of a safe cross-cultural work zone. It does not take Rocket Science to figure this out. Keep up the good work in standing united with our wondrous Aboriginal brothers and sisters.

    • Richard Trudgen

      Thanks Sharon. You’re right it’s not rocket science yet sadly many tens of millions of dollars are just poured down the drain in recruiting, recruiting and recruiting some more, without spending 1% of those dollars in value adding to the personnel that is sent to communities; or those that stand in frount of First Nation Australian students in school class rooms. These personal suffer unless a protected shell, with a dominant culture communication and mores values set, opperates in their working environment. If that is the case the personal can be protected at the absolute expense of the misery, frustration and hopelessness that the Aboriginal people experience in that same foreign working environment. So thanks for your comments.