This conversation matters
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests across Australia calling for racial equality and highlighting deaths of Indigenous people in police custody, physiotherapist Cameron Edwards shares his perspective on the importance of the truth around the issue and discusses why we all should take steps to Close the Gap in healthcare.
It goes without saying that I do not speak on behalf of all Aboriginal people, or any other group of people for that matter. There is an undeniable apprehension when speaking ‘as an Aboriginal person’ that your words will be used to represent an entire sub-population, or otherwise be dismissed and condemned if it does not fit the narrative of the majority.
I have been asked to weigh in on the current political/social climate and how I see its relevance for physiotherapists. Word limit: 600–800. My heart sank. How could 800 words be adequate? I immediately called a friend and mentor and asked him, ‘But what if my views aren’t a good summary of how people are responding, feeling, and how can I be sure that this is what people need?’ He offered some sage advice, and I paraphrase, ‘You can only speak from your heart, your perspective. They have asked you, so they are interested in your view’. This was humbling. But it is also empowering.
Let this be the lens in which you view what I have to say. I hope to weave a brief but comprehensible thread through these uncertain and, frankly, tumultuous times. This is by no means exhaustive.
Divisive language, doublespeak and confusion have flooded our news feeds and condition our responses to global and local affairs. It becomes difficult to think outside the mainstream or to hold a semi-objective or informed view. Slogans and activists demand political action or upheaval, often before the facts emerge. In the US, George Floyd died brutally and unnecessarily, undressing layers of deep racial pain across the US. However, we cannot know what the officer was thinking, and we cannot assume that his actions were racially motivated.
Many onlookers from Australia were then challenged to turn their gaze towards issues within our borders. The facts demonstrate that Aboriginal people are not dying at a disproportionate number in prison. However, as there is a much higher rate of imprisonment among Aboriginal people (29 per cent of the total prison population as of the March 2020 quarter), there are more deaths as a proportion of their total population (approximately 3.3 per cent of the total population of Australia as of the 2016 Consensus).
This is my major concern: disproportionate incarceration rates. Research shows that young Aboriginal offenders are less likely to receive a police caution and more likely to be referred to court (Snowball 2008).
Additionally, ‘there remains a legacy of profound distrust towards the police, welfare and other government agencies … flowing from past practices’ (ATSIL Committees 2010). So why point this out?
‘Readers should bear in mind that the problem of death in custody is by no means limited to Aboriginals. Moreover, the problem of Aboriginal deaths in custody is linked to fundamental issues which go beyond matters of criminal justice. It would be unfortunate if, by focusing on the criminal justice system, we lost sight of the profound social, cultural and economic problems which confront Aboriginal people.’ (Chappell 1988)
We should be cautious to call something racist/sexist/homophobic etc, not because we do not ‘care’ but because I believe it hurts the cause to falsely represent reality. This is enabling to those who seek to dismiss the legitimate case that lies within the conversation.
There are real issues. I do not engage in explicit prejudice and I am deeply distressed by the way people perceived as ‘other’ are treated. I have called out racism many times both when I have experienced it or when I see others subjected to it … my concern is that the crowd solution seems to be a megaphone that calls for judgement and punishment either for perceived crimes or for those ‘thought crimes’ which are intrinsic or unconscious. We can be the change we want to see.
The remedy? Makarrata. Truth-telling. Education. Cultural safety and awareness. Reflexive skills. How about we unite against those things which are explicit instead of ignoring them, and extend a guiding hand with love to those who may not be as ‘enlightened’ as we think they should be?
Hang on? Isn’t this a physiotherapy publication? How is this relevant to us? First, we are humans. No man is an Island. Secondly, did you know that more than a third of the overall disease burden experienced by Aboriginal people could be prevented by removing exposure to risk factors such as tobacco and alcohol use, high body mass, physical inactivity and high blood pressure?
We are often the faces of health interactions, and we are well positioned to play an important role in preventing and managing many health conditions that are prevalent among Aboriginal people. I want you to consider how you can be a part of ‘Closing the Gap’ in your practice? If the conversation over the last month has stirred something within you, then do something. Volunteer, be creative, reach out to your local mob!
Lastly, our actions matter. Our language matters. Learn. Be critical of self before judging others. ‘Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger’ (James 1:19). Defend the oppressed. Clarify the facts. Grow in empathy. Seek the truth.
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Cameron Edwards, APAM, is a proud Kamilaroi/Australian man. Cameron obtained his Bachelor of Applied Science (Physiotherapy) Honours Class 1 from the University of Sydney at the end of 2017, and began his career at Blacktown Hospital. Now in his third year as a physiotherapist, he works at Westmead Hospital rotating through clinical areas. Cameron has a passion for health and desires to help his local community as well as disadvantaged populations. He is on the APA’s Reconciliation Action Plan Implementation Committee as well as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Committee.
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