When I was in my first year of Uni I found myself in a conversation about Aboriginal people and all the things wrong with them. It was a conversation fuelled by misconceptions and stereotypes perpetuated by mainstream media. I wondered if anyone present had actually ever met an Aboriginal person. It was awkward. When should I speak up and tell them that the people they were talking about were my people? That I was one of these Aboriginal people they spoke so negatively about. My opportunity came when one of the group stated that he had never met “a good one”.
‘What about me?’ I said.
The group stared back at me, unsure what to say. They were quiet for a minute, clearly confused and not really sure what to think. My awkwardness became theirs as they realised that they had been caught in their racism, not that they would identify it as that. Finally, one of them spoke “Are you really Aboriginal? You don’t look it”.
Now this is a conversation I had had a thousand times, and have had a million more times since. I explained that Aboriginal people are diverse, not cookie cut outs of the stereotypical black person that mainstream media would have the world believe and it inevitably leads to the person declaring that I am somehow different, because I don’t meet their stereotype of an Aboriginal person – that somehow by doing well I have overcome the deficit that is associated with being Aboriginal. It is a conversation that most Aboriginal people are well versed in.
The deficit perception, the view that Aboriginal people are not capable, is something that still persists and Aboriginal people are still forced to prove themselves when other people don’t have to. Even when we have done something that shows we are capable, a question lingers about how we manage to achieve it. The fact that we achieved something overshadows what we have actually done and many people think we were only able to achieve because of a loop hole or handout.
As children, people often don’t expect us to achieve much. Our kids are often not pushed to their full potential because it is assumed that we are excelling just by scraping by. We go to Uni and people assume we got there on a hand-out, a mystical free pass. As adults many of us find ourselves in jobs where we are not utilised to our full potential.
I believe that the deficit perception is left over from the years when Government policy portrayed us as inferior in order to justify the way it treated us. They under-estimated our abilities and worth then and that has unfortunately continued and become part of the unconscious bias against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that permeates today’s world.
This year I would like to actively and directly start to change the deficit perception. If you are a teacher, I encourage you to get to know your Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, see their strengths and let them know you see their potential and expect them to achieve it. Encourage and support them to do this – work with them and their community to make sure they don’t get lost in the assumption that good enough is all they can achieve. Opportunity rather than ability is the barrier we face.
If you are an employer, talk to your Aboriginal staff – do they feel you are utilising their skills as well as you can be? Are there growth opportunities they would like to undertake?
This year, Wingaru will be sharing the stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who counter the deficit perception. Whose everyday life shows that our First Nations people are strong, determined and capable. That the deficit perception is the biggest myth of all.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.