Whose responsibility for dismantling racism? A brief rejoinder to Niyi Afoweso’s article ‘Racism: a major impediment to optimal Indigenous health and health care in Australia’.

Brief report
Published in the HealthBulletin
Posted on:
24 April, 2017

Schiff R (2017)

Whose responsibility for dismantling racism? A brief rejoinder to Niyi Afoweso’s article ‘Racism: a major impediment to optimal Indigenous health and health care in Australia’. Retrieved [access date] http://healthbulletin.org.au/articles/whose-responsibility-for-dismantling-racism-a-brief-rejoinder-to-niyi-afowesos-article-racism-a-major-impediment-to-optimal-indigenous-health-and-health-care-in-australia/

Associate Professor Rebecca Schiff, Department of Health Sciences, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario, P7B 5E1, Canada. email: rschiff@lakeheadu.ca , ph: 807 766 7199, fax: 807 766 7225


I want to acknowledge and thank the Indigenous peoples on whose traditional territories we reside (North America and Australia) and whose kindness, generosity, and patience informs and makes the work that we do possible.

I thank the editorial team for providing the opportunity to express concerns about the article entitled ‘Racism: A Major Impediment to Optimal Indigenous Health and Health Care in Australia.’ by Niyi Awofeso. By facilitating healthy dialogue the Australian Indigenous HealthBulletin shows its deep commitment to academic discourse and engagement with those social justice issues that disproportionately affect Indigenous peoples. I also want to thank and acknowledge Dr. Kristin Burnett for her guidance in developing this rejoinder.

Racism is complicated. It is not just the everyday bad behaviours of individuals and groups who use violent and derogatory words and actions but also the function of a system of structural oppression that produces very different outcomes and experiences for people/groups based on their race. It ensures that disproportionate rates of Indigenous people and other racialized people face poorer health outcomes, higher rates of incarceration, lower educational attainment, greater police brutality and much much more. However, the most dangerous aspect of racism is often the knowledge or the meaning making processes that are used to justify or legitimize the enactment of embodied and structural racism in all of its violent manifestations. We see this most visibly when racialized groups (note group not person) are collectively characterized in derogatory ways. I draw on Frantz Fanon who eloquently illustrates this point:

“I couldn’t take it any longer, for I already knew there were legends, stories, history, and above all historicity…I was responsible not only for my body but also for my race and my ancestors. I cast an objective gaze over myself, discovered my blackness, my ethnic features…Yet this reconsideration of myself, this thematization, was not my own idea. I wanted quite simply to be a man among men. I would have liked to enter our world young and sleek, a world we could build together” (Fanon, p.92)

‘Racism: A Major Impediment to Optimal Indigenous Health and Health Care in Australia’ attempted to address some of the complex and multifaceted issues that shape the health and well-being of Indigenous peoples through an examination of the role that structural racism plays within the health care systems, making minor allusions to broader social beliefs and practices.  The article made an honest effort to acknowledge the role that racism played and continues to play in Australian society and the health care system in particular. The issue of racism, as a determinant of health and a barrier in healthcare for Indigenous people is critical and has received growing attention in recent years from health researchers and allied health care professionals (Paradies Y, Harris R, Anderson I 2008; Gracey and King, 2009; Reading and Wien, 2009; Durey, 2010; Loppie, Reading, and de Leuuw, 2014; Greenwood et al, 2015).

The move within health fields to incorporate an analysis of the social determinants of health, particularly racism, is extremely important given the structural embeddedness of racism within the contemporary health care system and society more broadly. Racism must be central to any discussion that seeks to address health care inequities for Indigenous people. Dismantling racism and decolonizing relationships demands action and what is often uncomfortable self-reflection on the part of providers and health researchers. While the article by Afoweso made suggestions designed to identify the impact of racism on health care provision, and strategies to alleviate the problem through improved cultural competence training for health care workers and redesigning service delivery, there were a number of concerning comments in the article that demanded a response.

First, however, I should begin with how I came to write this rejoinder. My interest stems from a graduate class on Indigenous Health that I taught during the 2015-2016 school year. A student submitted a final term papers that explored racism as a determinant of health for Indigenous peoples. As the paper was being marked, one very concerning statement stood out – in the conclusion, the student suggested that Indigenous people should take responsibility for the racism they experience and help address racist attitudes by changing their behaviours.  In other words, the oppressed were responsible for the behaviours of the oppressors. The student was asked to a meeting to discuss the paper. During the meeting the student said that they had come across the idea in an article by Afoweso (it had been cited properly). However, I had difficulty believing that a peer-reviewed and scholarly article would offer such a suggestion. I immediately searched for, downloaded, read the article and found that it did indeed make this suggestion. I was stunned that not only would a racialized scholar advocate that ‘Indigenous Australians may also play key roles in reducing racist community attitudes, in part by conforming to basic norms of public decency, and by being active community development participants, both politically and socio-economically’, but surprised that it slipped past editorial and peer review in a journal such as the Australian Indigenous HealthBulletin.

This comment is of significant concern for several reasons. First, such a statement perpetuates racist stereotypes about Indigenous people that characterize them as dissolute and chaotic bodies. The author made a generalization based on race about the social behaviours of Indigenous peoples in public spaces. There is a long history of the presence of Indigenous peoples being criminalized and removed from public space – this removal or erasure persists in ongoing stereotypes that characterize Indigenous bodies as ‘dangerous’ and inappropriate. If we recall the meaning making processes of racism mentioned earlier, we can see how the imposition of those behaviours considered to be respectable by the dominant society (read white society) and the belief that racialized people have to conform to them in order to ensure fair treatment or bodily integrity guarantee and legitimize these stereotypes. This fuels racism and violence towards Indigenous peoples.

Making the link between Indigeneity and inappropriate behaviour perpetuates stereotypes about Indigenous people based on race. The suggestion itself is incredibly racist since it links race to undesirable traits instead of treating each person as an individual.  The privilege of dominant groups means that members of those groups can be individuals and not be held responsible for the actions of other people who happen to possess the same skin colour or race as we do. When a non – racialized person behaves badly it is because they are a ‘bad’ person as an individual. When a person from a racialized group behaves badly it is regarded as a function of their skin colour or race and indicative of all people who are believed to look similarly. I use the term white supremacy here very intentionally to point out that it is not the people who experience racism that are the problem but rather those people who enact that racism and receive unearned benefits as a result.

The second issue with the comment, which is also reflected in the previous paragraph and elsewhere in the article, is that it suggests that the victims of racism are responsible for reducing or preventing racism. Victims of racism are not and should not be held responsible for the racist attitudes and actions of others. It could be akin to suggesting that all victims are in some way responsible for the crimes committed against them. I draw an analogy with victims of sexual violence – if a woman is sexually assaulted it was not because she was dressed provocatively or was drunk, rather it is the fault of the person who chose to assault her. The idea that a victim is responsible removes responsibility from the perpetrator; it also removes responsibility from the broader society which may be the roots and facilitator of such actions and attitudes.

A final concern that I would like to highlight is the way in which colonialism is discussed throughout the article. In this article, the author notes that while an important historical factor, colonialism is a matter of history. Numerous indigenous groups and literature cite ongoing colonialism in Australia, Canada, and other settler nations (Reading & Wien, 2009; Greenwood et al, 2015). Colonialism and racism are alive in contemporary legislation and relationships and often intersect in violent and productive ways.  Colonialism must be treated as an ongoing issue which needs to be addressed and dismantled in order to achieve equity and justice for Indigenous peoples.

I would like to conclude with two suggestions for addressing these issues: we need to take responsibility as academics and researchers not to perpetuate and facilitate racist discourses that can potentially harm and denigrate marginalized people. Academics and researchers must carefully interrogate the language they use, and at the very least, we have to work towards dismantling racism and colonialism in partnership with Indigenous peoples. As academic and researchers, we need to be self-reflective (even if it is uncomfortable) and be aware of the legitimacy that our work is allowed when it is published in peer-reviewed journals and the potential damage that our words and ideas may have, however, unintended. It is also important that the press and peer reviewers take responsibility and make concerted efforts to identify and address ideas that perpetuate racist or colonial attitudes in academic publishing.  As a final note I look forward to continuing discourse to address ongoing issues of racism and colonialism and work towards achievement of health equity and justice for Indigenous peoples.


Awofeso, N. (2011). Racism: a major impediment to optimal Indigenous health and health care in Australia. Australian Indigenous Health Bulletin, 11(3), 1-8.

(2015) Determinants of Indigenous Peoples’ Health in Canada: Beyond the Social edited by Margo Greenwood, Sarah de Leeuw, Nicole Marie Lindsay, and Charlotte Reading. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.

Durey, A. (2010). Reducing racism in Aboriginal health care in Australia: where does cultural education fit?. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 34(s1), S87-S92.

Gracey M, King M.  2009.  Indigenous health part 1: determinants and disease patterns.  Lancet, 374: 65-75. 2.

Loppie, S., Reading, C., and de Leeuw, S. (2014). Aboriginal Experiences with Racism and Its Impacts. Prince George, BC: National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health.

Paradies Y, Harris R, Anderson I (2008) The impact of racism on Indigenous health in Australia and Aotearoa: towards a research agenda. (Discussion Paper No. 4) Darwin: Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health.