Rotten fruit: soft white supremacy on the Apple Isle
A report released in April by the Australian Human Rights Commission revealed unsurprising, yet staggering statistics on non-European representation in leadership roles.
Of the Australian chief executives studied, 97 per cent were found to be of Anglo-Celtic or European backgrounds, with particularly low diversity within the senior leadership of Australian government departments and in universities.
This is not new information. The report, Leading for Change, is a revisit and recalculation of a 2016 analysis of the same name. The initial release in 2016 was a challenge to the movers and shakers of Australia to do better, it’s 2018 counterpart is a follow up and evaluation of the state of play. This new iteration is worthy of a mournful cry at the slow pace Australia, a country widely celebrated as a multicultural triumph, has made in living up to its accolades.
In the preface the report states ‘it is important to highlight what leaders and organisations are doing to support cultural diversity and inclusion’ and in follow up reporting outgoing race discrimination commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane noted change often begins with decisive action by leaders.
The timing of a series of ‘countdown’ articles featuring Tasmania’s most powerful public servants by statewide newspaper the Mercury, is therefore almost poetic. The countdown coincided to the day with the release of statistics by the Australian Human Rights Commission, and is a damning example of the lack progress on the Apple Isle. The feature continued throughout the month of April without critique by the Mercury. Surely, the release of a national report on overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic and European leadership was worthy of a mention, or opinion piece, in a leadership countdown that illustrated the point perfectly?
Tasmania's most powerful public servants according to the Mercury newspaper (2018). Images credit: Mercury Newspaper.
The failure of the Mercury to draw a correlation between the month-long feature and the Leading for Change report; when the images collectively show an almost blindingly white government leadership team, is an example of white power and privilege in itself.
In 2016 the Mercury ran a countdown on Tasmania’s most powerful people. The 70 person feature painted a similar picture to the 2018 edition on public servants.
Not being aware of colour under certain circumstances is a privilege afforded almost exclusively to white people. In the workplace, schools, when job-seeking, when being interviewed, and in day-to-day interactions with people you don’t even know. I imagine power and colour can be difficult concepts to understand when your white skin is the coveted norm.
It seems the Tasmanian government is also afflicted by this colour blindness .
I had the pleasure of attending a Tasmanian government event in celebration of Harmony Week in 2017. Harmony Week is a 7-day push for positive messaging about multiculturalism in March where the words ‘vibrant’ and ‘diversity’ become overused. It is difficult to strike a balance between tokenistic and meaningful change, but Harmony Week is a strong effort and reminder to us all that multiculturalism is not only a reality, but can and does do great things for Australia.
The event, however, like the Mercury’s countdown of Tasmania’s most powerful public servants, was very white. Every speaker was white, people of non-European and non Anglo-Celtic background were relegated to the role of entertainment, and guests were served a mix of deep fried spring rolls and sweet chilli sauce. Is this the best our leaders can do in the name of multiculturalism?
Structural bias is damaging. If I were to gauge my standing in society on what my government presented to me that day during Harmony Week - I would be rendered voiceless and in a position of servitude. If I were to gauge my standing in society on what my government looks like, going by the Mercury newspapers countdown as well as representation in Tasmania’s state parliament, I would be invisible.
It does not seem right. This is my feeling, and this feeling is reflected in the words used by the Australian Human Rights Commission as the opening statement in its exploration of fixes.
The commission calls for committed action in three areas: leadership, systems, and culture. It believes Australia is in danger of losing culturally diverse leaders to greener overseas pastures.
As a test run – the three areas for change could be applied to the Harmony Week event I attended. The breakdown would be as follows:
Leadership (commitment from senior leaders): employ a person of colour to lead the event, or work in partnership with an organisation such as the Multicultural Council of Tasmania.
Culture (dealing with bias and professional development): acknowledge your white lens and work to ensure it does not impact the event. Intern a person of colour, who may not have had as many opportunities due to structural bias. Equip them with skills through experience, and they’ll be able to use this as a platform from which to seek further opportunities.
Systems (data and accountability): set targets for representation and create tools for self-assessment. A simple list of speakers and entertainment would highlight a disparity in representation.
The three areas can apply to large scale situations, and the small stuff like events, where communities interface government and see their leaders.
In a recent opinion piece featured on the Mercury newspaper website, journalist Frank Chung accuses human rights commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane of having an ‘obsession with skin colour and apparent distaste for anyone from an “Anglo-Celtic or European background”...Or in other words, white people.’
It’s fascinating to see a journalist try to paint a negative picture of a leader who is trying to fix a norm that’s fallen out of sync with society.
It’s okay to be obsessed with white people when they make up 97% of our leadership team, it’s time for them to be obsessed with us too.