Reconfiguring Racism: Conference Review #2

This is part two of a three part series by Elena Meredith about Reconfiguring Anti-racism; Tolerance, Harmony, Inclusion or Justice - an international conference hosted by the Centre for citizenship and globalisation at Deakin University, Melbourne December 2013. Post one summarised her views on the conversation around conference themes ‘Tolerance’ and ‘Harmony’. Part two discusses her experience of the conference discourse around ‘Inclusion’ and ‘Justice’.


Being based in Australia, much of the focus on this aspect was couched in conversations about and experiments on promoting  multiculturalism (the “M” word) which was described in populist and political contexts  as “being in crisis”.  Allan Lentin suggested that this “Australian” view is “the contemporary articulation of racism”. She explored the concepts of:

  • “good diversity” which is seen to add colour, richness and individuality and can become a USP (Unique Selling Point)  and

  • “bad diversity” which is seen to  impede progress, based on the belief that society has been “too tolerant of difference”.

Lentin’s fear is that with an orthodoxy uniting left and right, society may be “sleepwalking to segregation” with a focus on a return to “national values” and a positive teaching of the colonial past. This resonated for me as a familiar scenario and likely outcome in Aotearoa also.

Sessions I found particularly interesting, both for their presentation and the reception by delegates were on “racial literacy” or “what do you mean I am white?” citing Richard Dyer’s comment on the general discourse that there are  “raced people” while others/we are white. Whiteness studies/Racial Literacy is embedded in the curriculum of some Australian primary schools and Dr Odetta Kalada’s question “how can whiteness be a revelation in the classroom today?” resonated with me as one that is rarely raised in our continuing comfortable use of the term “mainstream” in educational contexts in Aotearoa. Her intention as a teacher was to follow Burnside’s (2006) development of “racial awareness vs. white blindness” and to encourage her students to “take off their own white blindfold” and lose the “blindness to racism”. Again, the fundamental need for this process for Pākehā educators and learners is rarely made visible in our discussions of an “inclusive bicultural society” in Aotearoa. Heather Came’s description of those perpetuating racism as often being “benignly incompetent” aptly captured the challenges Odetta Kalada described facing in their own systems.


Paradies suggested that in neo-liberal thought of a “post-race society”, racial injustice is denied to the extent that the only form of racism is seen as being the “crime” of using the term itself. Professor Adrian Little (self-described as “a little fat man from Belfast”) and Dr Mark McMillan (“a Wiradjuri man from Trangie,NSW” – conference programme p35) presented a challenging session on “resisting reconciliation? Keeping conflict in view” with insights from the experiences from South Africa and Northern Ireland. They foregrounded the impossibility and danger of avoiding the legacy of the past with Foucault’s belief that “we’re always writing the history of the same war”. Both expressed concern that non-indigenous Australians saw reconciliation narratives simply as “historical wrongdoing” and that there was no sense of engagement or sense of being party to any ongoing conflict. They believed that their proposal for intergroup dialogue (rather than debate) taking a pro-active approach to understanding the ongoing conflict would provide an opportunity to build capacity for making change together. They stated the paradigms of conflicts as being:

  • Resource-based; tangible, transactional and mediated

  • Identity-based; relating more to relationships; beliefs, heritage (noting that anti-racism works on these)

It will be no surprise to many that another strong presentation on anti-racism as a justice issue was Dr Heather Came’s plenary paper on “Exposing Institutional Racism within the public health system in Aotearoa”. Basing her presentation firmly on racism as a breach of Te Tiriti o Waitangi articles, human rights and the professional/clinical requirement for health professionals to “do no harm”, she described institutional racism as “the violence of one group against another, disadvantaging others...”. She presented a racism policy cycle which privileges a particular world view and uses flawed consultation processes [“wrong people; wrong questions; wrong timeframe”].

Foreshadowing Yin Paradies’s later call to academics to “get into the real world”, Heather assured delegates that her own activist working group is “…gonna end racism in the public health system by 2017” and exhorted us to ensure that “whatever leverage you can have, you should run with it”. As one of the first papers in the conference, I hoped that hers would set the kaupapa for the remainder with a strong focus on power rather than prejudice and on more collaboration between those who studied and researched and those who practised. From my perspective, few of the papers or presenters developed this strong lens of injustice/justice on anti-racism further to enable some real exploration of where to now?

To read parts one or three of this series, click on the 'Reviews' category or the 'Elena Meredith' tag.

Elena Meredith 

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