If you are white, you can make sure where you work, doesn’t do this, look around you and if you see something happening stop it or step in.

Colleen Lavelle, Subversive Racism, Aug 2016


I’m sitting in the rain in my car listening to the radio, waiting for my daughter. There’s a senior corrections officer from the Northern Territory on the phone to the radio station explaining why restraints are used on “challenging prisoners”. He’s talking about Malcolm Morton, an Aboriginal man who has an intellectual disability and has been strapped to “the chair” 17 times in four years.

He has all the words in the right order, the rehearsed explanations of safety and benefit and conscience and proper governance. He’s trying to make “the chair” into something that sounds like good practice, a practice of care. These are words that have been put on his tongue.

Tressie Mcmillan Cottom taught me the phrase “cornbread that turns to shit in your mouth.”

He says it’s the worst week he’s ever had.

Until the last couple of weeks, Australians could be sorted into those who knew about “the chair“, and those who had no idea.

Now we can sort ourselves into those who are still shocked, angry and disbelieving, and those who are exhausted by their fellow citizens’ ability to keep being surprised by the reality of what’s going on in this country. We’re playing the stupidest game of catch-up in the world. We are barely on the map of this continent’s history and we keep claiming that we’ve arrived, we get it, we’re in this. We take to the streets again, or Twitter, or wherever it is that we express our concerns.

We have no idea.


Colleen Lavelle is a blogger who has entirely reshaped my sense of what it means to be an Australian with cancer. She has shared her own story of living with a brain tumour with extraordinary generosity: working with cancer, living with cancer, being a parent with cancer, managing debt with cancer, dealing with cancer drugs and cancer professionals and setbacks and fears and anger.

Time and again I’ve gone to her blog when I just need to hear the voice of someone who knows that there are days when all of these things are messed up.

But I also go because I’m a narrative researcher and Colleen does this incredible thing: other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people share their cancer stories with her, and she puts them out on her blog. Thanks to her, there’s a platform where the hidden voices of cancer care get heard, where people get to speak about having cancer while Black, having cancer in a country and healthcare system that is entirely failing to get to grips with structural racism.

Because cancer patients don’t just have cancer. We do other stuff. We drive cars and rent homes and stand in lines at the shops, and absolutely every one of these simple, self-affirming efforts at keeping it together while having cancer is messed up for Colleen in a way that it will never be for me.

How do you fight the system that leaves you out? How to you gain real equality when you are profiled and stereotyped? As a patient, I have been denied pain relief because of the colour of my skin. I have had medical professionals assume that I drink and take drugs. How do you fight against an entire health system? How do you deal with the police that pull you over because you are a black person in a new car? Don’t think it doesn’t happen because it does, it has been happening for years.

Please read the rest of what she has to share.


In her last blog, ever practical, Colleen suggested that she doesn’t need white Australians to march or tear our hair or feel bad. She needs simple, practical, direct action.

If you are white, you can make sure where you work, doesn’t do this, look around you and if you see something happening stop it or step in. It’s not hard to say ” That lady was first” when shopping, When you vote, ensure that you are not voting for a bigot. Read about Aboriginal people and I am not talking just the negative stuff in the papers but positive and novels. Get involved in local activities to show your support and be willing to learn.

I work in higher education. And on the days where I wonder how print newspapers survive, I know that one way is that large institutions like the university where I work have multiple subscriptions to the daily papers. I wander round offices and there they are, put out and tidied away at the end of the day. I respect and admire many journalists who write for these papers, and I know it’s important that we try to keep some kind of national conversation going, for which national newspapers are still pretty well set up.

But The Australian, our most national newspaper, which to be honest rarely fails to disappoint on some level or another, has today responded to the national crisis in Indigenous incarceration with a cartoon so awful that for me it takes down the whole proposition.

I’m not linking to it. If you read one thing about it, read “Here We Go Again” by Luke Pearson, founder of @IndigenousX, who’s absolutely right that the problem this cartoon represents is way bigger that one individual, one editorial decision, one issue.

But there it is, and I look at it with tears in my eyes and I think about Colleen going about her work, having to step out into her community and know that this newspaper is in cafes and bars and homes and universities and concerned white Australians all around her are saying with a shrug “Oh, that’s too much”, and turning the page and moving on.

If you see something happening, stop it or step in.

“You Are The System”. I found this written on a whiteboard where I work in May 2016.

Here’s what Australia’s universities could do: cancel your many subscriptions to The Australian, and explain why. We are Australia’s peak organisations for fostering ethical and critical thought, and that still has to mean something. So take a stand and say that even though this is the only national newspaper where there is anything like coverage of Higher Education issues, if this cartoon represents their editorial standard then the price for getting our sector’s news from them is too high.

And to the leading journalists working there who are so important to our understanding of higher education issues: I am so sorry, I know this is about your jobs and not mine.

But if the place I worked published something like this, I would not walk in the door.

Stop it.


And if cancelling your subscription to The Australian is too much to contemplate (although do think about that for a moment, given the standard of this cartoon), then here’s a second thing you can do.

At the end of 2014, when I was beginning to pull myself together after chemotherapy and radiation, I came across a video in which a woman who looked to be about my age spoke to the camera with a fierceness that made me sit up. She talked about her struggle with chronic illness and for her the symbol of her determination to be well was to be able to walk up a hill that she found particularly tough. I was walking up a similar hill every day, trying to bring my damaged self back into some kind of order. So I contributed to the Hope4Health campaign that was fundraising to help Dianne Biritjaluwuy and other women from her community to develop a model of healthcare in harmony with Yolngu principles of culture and nutrition.

They have made it work, and they just met their target of raising the next $80,000 to run “a world-first, indigenous-led health retreat”, with their own meaning. You can follow them on Twitter @OurHope4Health, and read about their journey here.

So if what The Australian has done today makes you despair for this country, then don’t. There’s hope about, and you can help: read here and contribute to what these extraordinary women are doing.

Step in.

One Responses

  • The “permission” to denigrate people based on race I think feeds back into the apparent right to exclude anyone who doesn’t belong–which I’m beginning to see as anyone outside the institution. This is not to diminish the direct permission law enforcement takes upon itself to openly disrespect the lives of People of Colour. It’s not an ‘all lives matter’ argument. Rather I’m thinking of health care as an institution that feels itself so well intentioned it can disrupt a person’s life narrative, rewrite it without input and then dismiss it in a fit of petulance.
    I’m convinced that were we to stop bad treatment of the sadly judged “unimportant” targets like Aboriginal People, we would have to come to grips with the extensive hierarchy of care. The exclusion by judgement of character through appearance bleeds out into how much inconvenience a patient represents, how poorly we fit into expectations or even how much illness in others a reasonable person should tolerate.
    Racism is a model of openly declaring empathy negotiable. Medically, many of us simply have no claim to treatment. For some reason our exclusion goes unvoiced, our hurt imaginary and, if by chance we are noticed, it’s because we are taking care that belongs to someone else. We are Other, we are nothing.
    Because we allow ourselves the luxury of sorting people out AND still feel adequately human, we have nothing to answer for.
    This is a very valuable resource: Movement for Black Lives https://policy.m4bl.org/


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