Whiteness, Racism and Power

White Women, Racism and Power

Here’s a typical example of how White people exercise and maintain racism. Kerri-Anne Kennerly flies into a rage about Saturday’s protests, led by Aboriginal people, seeking to change the date of Australia Day and establish systemic reform that includes a Voice to Parliament and Makarrata (treaty). Kennerly taps the table angrily, ‘Has anyone of them been out to the Outback where children, babies, 5 year olds are being raped. Their mothers are being raped. Their sisters are being raped. They get no education. What have you done? Zippo.’

Here, Kennerly evokes the same strawman argument that politicises rape and child abuse that has been used since colonisation to deny Aboriginal people rights. She could be referring to the Northern Territory Intervention, where the army went into remote regions to justify removals of Aboriginal children. The Intervention was NOT based on evidence – that’s already been proven. It has been catastrophic for communities.

She could be taking about the same ill-founded arguments rehashed by another White woman on the TV program Sunrise in 2018 – which was found to have breached code of conduct.

Or it could be from 2015, when Western Australian White politician did similar.

In fact, Kennerly reproduces the same racism White women academics level at Aboriginal people, sensationalising remote communities (holding them up as ‘real’ Aboriginals on the one hand, and dismissing them as helpless on the other), using rape as a paternalistic tool to minimise Aboriginal women and their leadership. See Jackie Huggins AO’s fight against this rubbish in the 1980s and Dr Aileen Moreton-Robinson in 2000.

What else is happening here? Kennerly is called out on her racism – albeit gently – by a non-Indigenous woman of colour, Yumi Stynes. Stynes says Kennerly ’*sounds* a bit racist.’ Australians generally think racism is calling someone ‘a bad name.’ Racism is actually about institutional power, which includes being a highly paid TV personality reproducing the racist machinery that dispossessed Aboriginal people and continues to remove kids from family. Dr Moreton-Robinson noted 19 years ago that White women constantly talk down to Aboriginal women, which is what’s happening here, where a White influential woman dismisses the leadership of Aboriginal women who have organised the Australia Day protests for years.

White Women benefit from racism. To dismantle racism, White women need to give up their power, which includes the platform to talk down to Aboriginal women (especially on a show that talks about Aboriginal people without them in the room). White people also have to recognise that the ideas Kennerly gives voice to are NOT ‘just’ an opinion. This is not ‘JUST A BIT racist.’ Racism is NOT a debate with two equally valid sides. To be anti-racist means not putting up with this logic, and following the leadership of Aboriginal people. This weekend it was a march. Soon it may be a referendum. Let’s be ready. And stop excusing racism as ‘just’ anything but the clamor for White power.

Roma: FIlm Review


Roma is a beautiful film that covers issues of gender, race, class and violence in Mexico. Dedicated to, and based on, writer/ director Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood nanny and housekeeper “Libo” (Liboria Rodríguez), the film follows Cleo (the sublime Yalitza Aparicio), a young Mixtec woman employed by an affulent Mexican family. She has lived with them since the children’s birth, herself perhaps still in her 20s. She is beloved by the children, but is still treated like a servant.

Her woman employer, Sofia, also tells Cleo she loves her at a pivotal point in the film, even as we see how she flies into rage, diminishes Cleo and blames her for insignificant details. Sofia’s mother also lives in the household, mostly indifferent to Cleo, until tragedy strikes. At one stage, having been on her feet all day working, Cleo sits on the ground, holding the children’s hands, as the rest of the family sits comfortably on the couch watching TV. Sofia then directs Cleo to get her husband a drink after Cleo is settled.

These are women separated by race and class, but who are bound together by the men in their lives who neglect and mistreat them. The men are a wreck. Everyone, including Sofia, call the philandering husband ‘The Doctor,’ his status, vanity and whims disrupting everything around him.

Cleo is a stoic, patient but complex woman, who witnesses inequality and hardship largely silently, but when she speaks, particularly of her hometown, she is resplendant. Her final monologue shows she’s reflexive, more aware about her motives and mixed emotions than all the other characters. She is tough, making a long journey to find her listless lover. When others struggle to follow the instructions of a martial artist, Cleo quietly completes the move, at the back of the crowd.

The role that Indigenous people play in the economy, and their challenge to political life, are the backdrop of this slowburning masterpiece. While cinema continues to write women as caricatures, and erase Indigenous women in particular, this film has created a thoughtful Indigenous woman character whose language and struggles take centre stage. Her friendship with the beautiful and jovial Adela, the second houseworker, is a joy, as they joke, whisper and support one another in both Mixtec and Spanish. Go see it at the cinemas if you can, but it’s also now also streaming on Netflix.

Nick Cave: Until

‘Until’ by Black American artist Nic Cave uses sequins and found objects to make a statement about gun violence, gender politics and racial relations. The title inverts the phrase ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ instead exploring the idea of ‘guilty until proven innocent.’

Source: The Other Sociologist.

Sun Xun on the Universe, Time and Propaganda

‘Maniac Universe,’ Sun Xun (2018), made with mineral pigment on bark paper with UV-A lights. The artist, born and lives in China, drew inspiration from Australia’s Southern Lights (Aurora Australia). ‘With the extreme natural spectacle of Aurora, you have a feeling of something impossible to capture or to comprehend in its entirety, much like the animal kingdom in Australia.’

Sun Xun, exhibition drawing on mixed media to depict a parallel reality of propaganda figures, mythical creatures, cities, ancient townships and our relationship to time.

Thelma: Film Review

Let me tell you about Thelma, screening at the Scandinavian Film Festival. A young woman, the titular Thelma, has led a sheltered and conservative Christian upbringing in the country. She rocks up to university having never really partied, including no alcohol or drugs, and without experience with dating. While she has a strong bond with her parents, especially her dad – with whom she shares all her deepest thoughts – she is very lonely in her new environment. That is until she meets the vivacious Anja.

As it turns out, Thelma starts to be attracted to Anja, who promptly breaks up with her boyfriend. It seems Anja begins to fall in love with Thelma too. Thelma struggles with self loathing and tries to deny her sexuality and at the same begins to have inexplicable seizures that baffle doctors. Around this time, I was thinking: if I have to watch another ‘internalised homophobia’ horror (oh, forgot to mention it’s promoted as a horror), I’m going to throw my popcorn at the screen. (Except not really as someone would have to clean it up.) But the film goes in an unexpected direction.

Thelma is exquisitely filmed. It’s not really a horror in the classic sense, as there is more intrigue than gore and shock, but the twists have you on tenderhooks. There are some answers along the way for the vexing Thelma, but not everything is resolved neatly.

Intersectionality: Anja is a woman of color and bisexual; no other people of colour live in Scandinavia apparently. Depiction of disability (mental health, epilepsy, paraplegia, suicide) is ableist. Warning; there are multiple scenes with strobe lights. LGBTQIA themes are mixed: ultimately, this is a story about seeking self acceptance (great) but the resolution is terrifying if you think about it long enough. The sex scenes mostly about women finding self pleasure and slightly less driven by the male gaze than usual, but then again, there’s also snake symbolism which is phallicspeak for men should stop writing about lesbians. Depiction of religion is xenophobic (religiosity as ‘backward’ and punishing).

These themes of otherness are not well-handled but as a film about loneliness and finding empowerment (albeit through weird paranormal happenings) Thelma is top notch. The film is recommended to those who love cerebral horrors; these are the best kind. Score: 8/10

How to Increase Voluntary Participation in Programs Using Behavioural Insights

Reducing reoffending is a state priority in New South Wales. New sentencing reforms will increase referrals to behaviour change programs or other support services for people who are at high-risk of reoffending. Yet non-mandatory programs can often have low participation rates, particularly when programs are new.  

We set out to better understand the social context affecting voluntary participation in programs for people at-risk of reoffending. Here’s how we used behavioural science to promote better service delivery for this vulnerable cohort.

What we did

Our project involved three stages of fieldwork, which included a total of 46 interviews with service providers (35 interviewees representing 18 organisations); two experts on recidivism; nine interviews with clients; and site visits to five sites across metro Sydney and regional NSW.  

What we found

The key approaches to overcoming behavioural barriers to engagement are:

Reduce overly-complicated steps in signing-up clients. Sign-up process for voluntary programs can be protracted and cumbersome for both clients and case workers, introducing challenges that make a program unappealing (friction costs). Use default settings to make signing up easier and reduce hassle by consolidating appointments.

Increase a program’s appeal by clearly highlighting its unique benefits that are relevant for the individual participant. Eligible clients perceive that there are too many programs seemingly addressing similar rehabilitation services. This makes services of new programs seem less valuable (scarcity heuristic). Personalise delivery, giving clients a choice for specific services tailored to their needs.

Reduce the cognitive load (by reducing the number of options, or chunking information), and make the decision-making process motivating for clients. Due to past negative experiences with other services, and because there are too many decisions to make when considering new services, clients are put-off joining a new program (choice overload). The behavioural science tool of commitment devices and the intention gap can help clients make useful goals to keep them motivated.

Use simple communication tools, such as a script, to draw attention to important details. Program aims are not always clearly communicated, making it hard to respond to program requirements and other information (salience). Make joining attractive using a behaviourally-informed communications strategy. Present information in language that resonates with clients (framing effect). Use a clear call to action. Redress the risks that clients might associate with seeking help (risk aversion).

Positive reinforcement and culturally-meaningful approaches can reduce the stigma of seeking help. Clients often have life-long negative experiences with services which have left them feeling judged, or like they are “failures” (social stigma). Program screening tools and assessment can sometimes reinforce this negativity. Programs using motivational interviewing and other interactive techniques engender stronger engagement. Strengthening client’s self-worth and celebrating minor achievements throughout their program participation can motivate them to stay.

Consider timeliness of messages, tapping into the desire for a “fresh start.” Readiness to get rehabilitated is variable depending on age and life circumstances. However, clients will almost invariably experience a sense of exhaustion at the cycle of reimprisonment. They are especially open to the prospect of taking back control of their lives as they face the uncertainty of a sentencing outcome (fresh start effect). Experts tell us that the first 48 hours of being released into the community after an arrest is an especially pivotal time. A path to reuniting with family (especially children and grandchildren), or making amends with important people, is an appealing reason for change (where this contact is safe for family and others). SMART goals can help engage clients during this period of reflection (that is, setting specific, measureable, achievable, relevant and time-bound goals).

Read our report to find out more about how to increase engagement in voluntary programs.

How to Increase Voluntary Participation in Programs Using Behavioural Insights

Applying Behavioural Insights to Emergency Decision-Making

Flood-related fatalities have been an ongoing problem in Australia since the early 1900s. Deaths during floods rank second only to heat waves in natural disaster fatalities. Approximately 159 people died from flooding in Australia during the last 15 years, with half (53%) due to driving through floodwater. NSW, together with QLD, represent 74% of flood fatalities. Rural and regional areas in NSW are especially at-risk.

Driving through flood water is a pressing issue, and has been a persistent problem behaviour that has been tough to shift.

The following reflects how our team worked through this behavioural issue, and brainstormed problems, during a recent masterclass we ran with NSW State Emergency Service (NSW SES).

Identify behavioural barriers or triggers

There are behavioural biases acting as barriers to the desired behaviour of avoiding the flood water. Drivers who venture through flood water seem to overestimate their ability to survive and underestimate the risk, displaying an optimism bias. Research by Julia Becker and colleagues suggests that this is even more the case if drivers are very familiar with the environment. This same familiarity with the environment and a particular road could also mean that the status quo bias is at work. Deviating from the usual route taken regularly, such as their route home, would require more effort and planning than sticking with the tried and tested.

Drivers may also consider themselves atypical, using the representativeness heuristic. They might think: “only old ladies or inexperienced youngsters get stuck”. Yet research shows the biggest flood fatalities in Australia are men (up to 80%). One of the most devastating floods in NSW in recent times occurred at the Shoalhaven, just over half (53%) of the people who drove into flood water were men, 38% were women, while the rest were unknown (9%).

Based on their expertise, NSW SES discussed how the emotional decision-making was an especially strong pull. It’s not just about driving to a time-pressed situation or the desire to get home, but rather why individuals might feel compelled to continue to reach their destination. If people have children waiting for them, or cattle that need tending, or some other priority they feel strongly depends on them, they will drive through floodwater to fulfil their commitment.

In Figure 1, we modified the work of Irving Janis and Leon Mann to look at critical decisions faced in emergencies.


From this decision pathway, the following reflections by the driver could be possible:

  • The first question a driver may ask could be “Is there a serious risk if I do nothing?” To this the answer could be “Yes my kids won’t be fetched from school”.
  • This would lead to the next consideration of whether there is a serious risk if action is taken. “Yes I could get stuck”.
  • This would bring on the question on whether more information would help: “yes it would help to know my kids are safe and it would help to know if it’s safe to cross”.
  • To answer these questions would require time and the driver may decide that there is insufficient time to research and deliberate, and so make a bad decision, venturing into the floodwater.

Each of these decision points offers potential for a behavioural insights solution.

To see how we workshopped these questions, developed solutions for behavioural change, and how you can apply this to your work, head to the BIU website: https://bi.dpc.nsw.gov.au/blog/2018/07/03/using-bi-emergency-decision-making/

Applying Behavioural Insights to Emergency Decision-Making

Police Brutality of Young Aboriginal Girls

Police brutality in Glen Innes, New South Wales, against a group of young Indigenous girls. You can hear one of the girls say she’ll comply with police but she wants to call her parents as they’re under 16. The policeman says no. It seems his partner, a woman’s voice off camera, tells the girls to comply: ‘Don’t make it worse for yourselves.’ Policeman says: ‘It already is worse for yourselves.’

Policeman raises his voice saying he will arrest them and give them a ticket for swearing near a school. He barks at them to get in the police van but has not appeared to tell them why they’re under arrest other than swearing. He says he will throw the girls in the van ‘head first.’

Policeman yells when the girls don’t get on the ground. The girls start crying. He is seen kicking them to the ground. The girls cling to one another. He also threatens to arrest passerbys who also appear to be young women. This is disgusting police behavior.

Police are trained to diffuse public conflict and we’ve seen plenty of evidence they are highly capable of doing this when the public is White. Black people are overpoliced and subjected to brutal force routinely. This conduct is racist and dangerous.

Please share the video.

Police Brutality of Young Aboriginal Girls