Race relations tries to explain how different racial groups relate to each other, particularly within a community or country. Race affects everyone, however it is not “real” in a scientific (biological or genetic) sense. Race is a social construct, and historically it was created and manipulated to serve the needs of the dominant group. For some people, their race gives them privileges they have not earned in any other way than being that race. For others, being a certain race presents them challenges or disadvantages that are not experienced by those in other races.
Race refers to a group of people that share some socially defined characteristics. These may include facial features, hair texture or skin colour. Ethnicity is different to race, but it is also a social construct. Ethnicity refers to a group of people that share a culture, nationality, ancestry and/or language. Physical appearance is not linked to ethnicity. Considering these two definitions, it is easy to see why they are sometimes confused and used incorrectly – they do overlap.
Australia has a multicultural national identity. Most Australians seem to be accepting and even embracing this. But sincere and genuine multiculturalism needs to first acknowledge the dispossession of First Nations peoples. First Nations race relations have a long and turbulent history in Australia. The very development of the Australian Constitution excluded (and continues to exclude) First Nations peoples. The Constitution began on January 1, 1901 and was intended to unite Australia as a nation. But how could it when First Nations peoples were not consulted? A new nation was established on ancestral lands but First Nations people were not invited to the discussions.
So, it’s no surprise that race relations problems continued to emerge. Up until the 1950s, it was public policy to measure someone’s Aboriginality by their “percentage” or “blood-quotum.” Legislation referred to degrees of First Nations blood – “full-blood,” “half-caste,” and “quadroon.” This produced inconsistent results in legal matters, ultimately based on skin colour over other factors. So, why use a system that encouraged prejudice and fuelled racial tensions? Because using the caste system allowed the government to implement the policy of assimilation.
The idea of assimilation presumed First Nations peoples could be “absorbed” into white society (but without the rights and privileges white Australians enjoyed). This was done by forcing First Nations people to abandon their own cultural practices and lifestyles. Assimilation was based on the belief of white superiority and, in practice, caused more harm to race relations between First Nations and non-Indigenous people. Assimilation was also used to justify the removal of First Nations children from their parents. The reality that First Nations people did not identify with white Australians, no matter how much European “blood” they had, was not considered. It was not considered because of the effects of what has been called the white gaze.
The white gaze refers to seeing white culture as the norm, the superior and the preferred. It shapes how people see the world and is a vehicle for colonial thinking. White gaze is a metaphorical lens or pair of glasses. Looking through this lens gave colonisers a way to justify the dehumanisation, dispossession and oppression of First Nations peoples.
Wiradjuri man and journalist, Stan Grant, talks about the white gaze in his book Australia Day.
“The white gaze: it traps black people in white imaginations. It is the eyes of a white schoolteacher who sees a black student and lowers expectations. It is the eyes of a white cop who sees a black person and looks twice – or worse, feels for a gun.”
He urges non-Indigenous Australians to acknowledge the influence of their own white gaze. He says recognising First Nations people in the Constitution is important, but so too is recognising the role race plays in all our lives. He advocates for striving to see beyond these destructive lenses.
“Why is this important? Well, for white people it may simply be a matter of choice – the fate of black people may not affect them. For us it is survival – the white gaze means we die young, are locked up and locked out of work and education.”
In Australia, First Nations perspectives on race relations are often overlooked. There has been a lot of research on how non-Indigenous Australians view First Nations people, but little is known about how First Nations people feel.
Telling it like it is: Aboriginal perspectives on race and race relations is a 3-year research project by Larrakia National Aboriginal Corporation (LNAC), the University of Tasmania and the University of Sydney. According to the study, this inequality of race relations is “an obstacle for reconciliation which, by definition, must be a reciprocal process.” The project aims to “turn the lens” by asking First Nations people to share their views on race relations. The findings show many First Nations people reject white Australian values, priorities and lifestyles. It also showed First Nations people viewed non-Indigenous people as both materialistic and overly self-interested. The people surveyed thought white Australians cared too much about their own material success, having little to no concern for their wider communities. This is quite the opposite of First Nations cultures. In First Nations communities, the needs of family, Mob and Country are priority.
Unfortunately, race relations are still suffering in Australia. We can (and should) acknowledge the progress made, but it is just as important to talk about the challenges we still face. Historically, mainstream Australia has excluded and ignored First Nations people. And the white gaze that justified this exclusion is still present today. For race relations to truly improve, attitude change must occur. Racial harmony cannot be achieved without first improving public understanding between First Nations peoples and non-Indigenous Australians. At the same time, white ignorance about First Nations cultures must be addressed and better education is key.