Addressing Organisational White Privilege

The following article is by John Bonnice, Chair of the O’Sullivan Centre Board. John is also Co-Chair of the Bendigo Reconciliation Committee and is a facilitator of forums on organisational white privilege, cultural self-reflection sessions and Conversation Circles

During Reconciliation Week in May 2018, the Bendigo Reconciliation Committee organised a range of Conversation Circles with the focus on creating dialogue between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal around issues of mutual concern.

One of the Conversation Circles centred on exploring what it means for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and agencies to work in partnership. In exploring the issue of partnership, it quickly emerged from the feedback of Aboriginal people present in the Conversation Circle that a key barrier to true partnership between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people/agencies was the failure of mainstream organisations to recognise and address the impact of organisational white privilege that exists in mainstream organisations.

Whilst it is commonly recognised that white privilege exists for individuals, the issue of white privilege existing for mainstream organisations is not recognised, discussed or explored. It was agreed at the Conversation Circle in May 2018 that there was a need for a resource that enabled mainstream organisations to start the process of reflecting on their ‘organisational white privilege’, the benefits that exists for organisations by virtue of this privilege and also a resource that supported actions which addressed the impact of ‘organisational white privilege’. The Bendigo Reconciliation Committee worked on the development of such a resource which was completed in September 2018. The resource was titled ‘Identifying and Addressing Organisational White Privilege’.

The aim of the resource is to support organisations in exploring the nature of organisational white privilege, the circumstances in which it exists and provide some questions that organisations could use to explore their ‘organisational white privilege’ and its impact on Aboriginal people. It has been hoped from these discussions within organisations that this will lead to actions which address the impact of‘organisational white privilege’.

To see the resource link to https://innovativeresources.org/exploring-organisational-white-privilege/

The Bendigo Reconciliation Committee distributed the resource to over 150 organisations across Victoria inviting organisations to work with the Committee in using the document in their organisation. It was also distributed to over 12,000 subscribers to the St Luke’s Innovative Resources online newsletter. The response to the resource was very revealing. The feedback from Aboriginal workers and leaders was highly supportive of the resource and the need for organisations to explore the issues raised. Comments included:

  • I experience white privilege every day in working within a mainstream organisation (senior manager in a government agency)
  • I deal with White Privilege on a daily basis, it is surviving well in Australia. (Aboriginal worker, Qld)
  • I am very surprised that someone (from the mainstream) has taking the time to confront this serious matter (Aboriginal worker)
  • It is brave to confront this issue as there will be push back.

The reflections from Aboriginal people on organisational white privilege highlights the ingrained nature of this privilege. Examples include:

  • The belief by organisations that the way they do things is the ‘right way’ without realising that their organisational culture is driven by and unpinned by white Anglo culture.
  • Collaboration and partnership with Aboriginal people/agencies is done through the cultural norms and processes of mainstream agencies.
  • Subtle covert racism that can exist amongst workers and agencies without any realisation of this racism existing.
  • Lack of willingness to discuss racism and privilege.
  • Organisations are not open to working differently and hide behind beliefs that Government policy, agency procedures, and designated service design does not allow them to work with Aboriginal people that respects Aboriginal approaches to service delivery.
  • The lack of realisation by mainstream organisations that they experience advantages and privilege as a white organisation and how this can impact on Aboriginal people.

The response from mainstream organisations was very mixed. There was support from individual workers who committed to passing on the resource to their senior management. However, the response from the senior leadership of mainstream organisations was extremely limited. Through contact with organisations about the resource it seemed there was an indifference to engage on the issue bordering on blatant reluctance. Yet, many of these organisations profess to being culturally competent. It has been a slow process to get organisations to reflect on the issue of white privilege.

In addition to the resource, the Bendigo Reconciliation Committee has developed a 2-hour workshop for organisations to explore the issue of ‘organisational white privilege’ using the resource as the basis for the discussions. The workshop focuses on the following areas:

  • Reflection on the main tenets of white mainstream culture, the benefits received from this culture, and areas of mainstream culture that impact on Aboriginal and the Torres Strait Islander people.
  • Reflection on nature and benefits of white privilege with a focus on organisational white privilege.
  • Reflection on how white privilege influences professional practice and the impact of organisational white privilege.
  • Identifying the barriers and opportunities for change in organisations that would enable organisations to become more culturally safe and competent.
  • Future areas of action by mainstream organisations.

In 2019, the Bendigo Reconciliation Committee has conducted the organisational white privilege workshop with 7 individual agencies plus 4 other workshops involving multiple organisations.

Discussions during these workshops the following has emerged:

  • Organisational white privilege has not been on the radar of mainstream organisations.
  • There is a need for greater reflection by mainstream organisations on the nature of organisational white privilege and its impact.
  • Organisations are not aware of the cultural bias that they operate from and the impact this has on the relationship and work with Aboriginal and Torres Islander people.
  • Organisations and their staff need to look at their values, beliefs and attitudes around the issues of racism, white privilege and what it means to work in true partnership with Aboriginal people/community/agencies.
  • Organisations need to rethink their approach to reconciliation and partnership work with Aboriginal people and communities. Indeed, the starting point may need to be reflection on the cultural bias and covert racism that many organisations are operating from.

The workshops have also highlighted a range of actions that organisations could do in the future to address organisational white privilege. These included:

  • The need for reflection on organisational white privilege to occur across the whole of an organisation.
  • Organisations to rethink their approach to reconciliation action plans and the need for addressing organisational white privilege to be a key component of reconciliation action plans.
  • The need for organisations to highlight and name unconscious bias and covert racism.
  • The need for organisations to challenge current thinking and approaches to partnership work with Aboriginal people and agencies.

In summary, the workshops have highlighted how much work needs to be done by organisations in addressing organisational white privilege and the current lack of thinking on this issue.

For further information on the resource ‘Identifyingand Addressing Organisational White Privilege’ and how your organisation may start on the journey of reflecting on organisational white privilege please contact John Bonnice on jbcb54@tpg.com.au

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The O’Sullivan Centre seeks donations and funding to develop resources that enhance the social and economic participation of people who are disadvantaged in the labour market. In Timor-Leste we support health, employment and community education projects that are initiated by young people aged 18-24 through their new organisation Juventude ba Dezenvolvimentu Nasional (JDN). One-off donations as well as monthly contributions can be made using PayPal