Tackling racism is always the message


In recognition that First Nations people have occupied and cared for Australia for more than 65,000 years, the theme of this year’s delayed NAIDOC Week (8–15 November) is ‘Always Was, Always Will Be’.

It’s a theme very close to the heart of Professor Marcia Langton, a face familiar to many physiotherapists. 

Professor Dr Marcia Langton AO, a proud Yiman woman from Queensland, is an anthropologist and historian well known throughout Australia as an advocate for Aboriginal rights.

A most senior and esteemed academic at the University of Melbourne, she holds the following positions: Associate Provost, Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor, and Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies in the Centre for Health Equity, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health.

She is also an eminent author with her non-fiction book Welcome to Country a best seller.

In the lead-up to NAIDOC Week this year, Marcia explored issues of historical and endemic racism, native title and the Mabo High Court case during an online presentation at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI), which was streamed live from Sydney recently and which InMotion attended.

After being introduced by event host, media personality, political commentator and author Stan Grant, Marcia led the discussion by exploring historical and modern racism in Australia and the impact it continues to have on Aboriginal people.

Having published in the fields of political and legal anthropology and Indigenous agreements, and as the Foundation Chair in Australian Indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne in the Faculty of Medicine, Marcia says she believes that racism continues to evolve and permeate the national psyche.

‘People think that racism is just discrimination by one group against another group on the basis of some physical characteristics.

'In Australia, what we see is racism expressed most commonly as a kind of white racism against people of colour, or against people who appear to be Chinese,’ Marcia said during the FODI presentation.

‘There’s something very strange happening in Australia…the racism towards Aboriginal people is something more than racism.

'There is something peculiar about the hatred of Aboriginal people in this country, and most Aboriginal people sense it from a young age.

‘Australia has a black history. Our ancestors have been here for 65,000 years on present evidence. And there’s a group of scientists who are trying to prove that our ancestors have been here for 120,000 years,’ Marcia said. ‘So, it’s now beyond refute that Aboriginal people are the oldest continuous living culture in the world.

Marcia says there has been recognition that ‘terra nullius’ (nobody’s land) was an illegal fiction which ‘effectively rendered Aboriginal people invisible on the basis of assumptions about their supposed racial inferiority’.

This, she surmised, was followed by the Mabo court decision of 1992, which, with the ‘stroke of a judicial pen’ saw Indigenous people reappear as persons with law and property, or at least possessory rights.

‘That decision was understood by legal thinkers as a judicial revolution equivalent to the scientific revolution described by Thomas Kuhn when reigning paradigms are overthrown by the development of a new principle, such as the impact of the theory of relativity on quantum mechanics,’ Marcia says.

‘Unfortunately, I have to say that since then the magnificent vision that was laid out for us by the High Court in Mabo Number Two has been whittled away by mean-hearted bureaucrats in state governments, and most particularly by mean-hearted politicians.’

Marcia argued that having failed to properly acknowledge, recognise and respect the place of First Nations people was a barrier to true reconciliation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia.

‘We live in a country that in many parts of the world, is the envy of the world. A multicultural country and one of the richest countries in the world, and yet, we have First Nations peoples still impoverished and imprisoned at the rates that we do,’ she says.

Marcia is a face familiar to many physiotherapists, having spoken about institutionalised racism at the 2018 APA Momentum scientific conference in Sydney.

Speaking often and broadly is part of Marcia’s bailiwick to change the narrative, through education, on the history of Australia’s First People, racism and the denial of constitutional rights to Aboriginal people.

At the 2018 APA MOMENTUM scientific conference, which was also opened by keynote speaker Stan Grant, Marcia shared with her audience some startling figures about the physiotherapy profession, laying bare the historic low numbers of Indigenous registered physiotherapists as compared to the number of registered non-Indigenous physiotherapists.

In 2013, Marcia says, there were 113 Indigenous registered physiotherapists, representing 0.4 per cent of the total number of registered physiotherapists. In 2014, there were 123 Indigenous registered physiotherapists (0.5 per cent of the total number of registered physios), in 2015 there were 142 Indigenous registered physiotherapists (0.5 per cent of the total number of registered physios), and in 2016 there were 157 Indigenous registered physiotherapists (0.5 per cent of the total number of registered physios), out of about 35,000 registered physiotherapists.

‘You can see the increase since 2014 is only 0.1 per cent. The Indigenous population in this country, including Torres Strait Islanders, in 2016 was 786,689 and it represented 3 per cent of the total Australian population,’ Marcia says.

‘So to reach parity of 3 per cent of 135,000 registered physiotherapists, your target should be 4050 Indigenous registered physiotherapists. So there is a long way to go.

‘This disparity is what institutionalised racism looks like in physiotherapy. This is not to say that all physiotherapists are racists. It’s not to say that all Australians are racist, but it does say that there is a disparity. And this disparity speaks to a number of things.

'If you have 135 Indigenous registered physiotherapists and you need 3900 to reach parity, you are talking about a scale of exclusion that goes back generations and it reflects on the profession in that you are part of an historical exclusion of Indigenous people. This is something that your Association should address.

‘You should look at those figures and say “We can do something about this”. We can set a target … and it means there is a lot of work to do and many strategies will be needed to reach parity.

Marcia went on to say that if there were only 135 Indigenous registered physiotherapists to serve a population of almost 800,000 Indigenous people, the problem of the radical underservicing of the Indigenous population becomes quite evident.

‘Like everybody else in the population, Aboriginal people have need of a physiotherapist whether they know it or not, and for the same reasons as other Australians—workplace injuries, sporting injuries, physical problems as a result of illness, disability and so on,’ Marcia says.

‘I probably don’t need to explain to you that the health data on the Indigenous population tells us that the disparity in Indigenous health remains at alarming levels. Although there have been some improvements, there’s been a gradual improvement in infant mortality rates, but on most other indicators we’re not making much progress at all on Closing the Gap on Indigenous health.’

She told the audience at the APA conference that working the numbers was a good way to establish approaches and policies, as well as to set targets in the APA’s Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP).

‘The RAP is good but I think not sufficiently mindful of this disparity in the number of Indigenous physiotherapists required to reach parity in your profession,’ she said at that time.


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