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.
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