Whiteness and Australian social work:
In conversation with Maggie Walter
Maggie Walter presents some challenging ideas in this podcast, particularly how white privilege dominates within Australian society to the point of invisibility. Her research examines whiteness in Australian social work through the lens of Bourdieu and whiteness theory.
Dr Maggie Walter, Associate Professor, School of Sociology and Social Work, University of Tasmania, is a descendant of the Trawlwoolway people from North Eastern Tasmania, and her research focus is Indigenous peoples, policy and race relations.
Maggie is a member of the Research Advisory Committee at AIATSIS, a steering committee member for the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children (LSIC) and secretary of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA).
Recommended citation for this podcast – APA6th
Fronek, P. (Host). (2012, June 28). Whiteness and Australian social work: In conversation with Maggie Walter [Episode 11]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/whiteness-and-australian-social-work/.
Publications include ‘How White is Australian Social Work?’ Australian Social Work (2011 with D. Habibis and S. Taylor) and ‘The Politics of the Data: How the Statistical Indigene is Constructed’ International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies, 2011.
Walter, M., Taylor, S., & Habibis, D. (2011). How White is Social Work in Australia? Australian Social Work, 64(1), 6-19. doi: 10.1080/0312407x.2010.510892.
Transcription Podsocs 11: Whiteness in Australian social work: In conversation with Maggie Walter.
Thank you to Sue Brooke-Roberton and Jonathon Ng who both completed a transcript for this podcast.
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Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.
Today I’m talking with Maggie Walter from the University of Tasmania. Maggie’s research examines whiteness in Australian social work, through the theoretical lens of Bourdieu and whiteness theory.
Trish: Hi Maggie. Welcome to Podsocs.
Maggie: Hi Trish.
Trish: Are you speaking to us from the University of Tasmania?
Maggie: I am in Hobart, on a grey drizzly day.
Trish: (laughs). Everyone I talk to at the moment seems to be having grey drizzly days. Now, Maggie we’re talking about a very interesting topic today. You actually wrote a paper on, “How white is social work in Australia”, and I wanted to talk to you a little bit more about that. What led you to asking that question?
Maggie: Well I now teach in Sociology and have done for quite a while, but I am an ex-practising social worker, and I did my Honours in social work. So, I’m quite aware of social work practice, and I collaborated with two of my colleagues; Daphne Habibis who is also a qualified social worker but now, works in sociology, and our Head of Social work, Professor Sandy Taylor. And Whiteness theory is something that I’m very much interested in, I do most of my work in Indigenous race relations, and I’m much more interested in looking at race relations from non-Indigenous to Indigenous rather than the norm of the other way around, and that’s led me to the whole questioning of the norms that govern how we do ‘race’ in Australia.
Trish: Maggie could you explain to the listeners what whiteness theory Is?
Maggie: Whiteness theory is basically the theory that says - it disrupts the view that is the normal view that it is other people who are raced. White people tend to see themselves as individuals and that’s part of white culture so white culture is very much around the individual. So, they tend to see themselves as individuals and not raced but that other people are raced. But this normalisation of raceness, of whiteness as being human, has huge privileges for white people built into it.
So, it’s a system, like most racial systems of privilege and disadvantage and the accrual of benefit based round whiteness, and like gender and others its benefits are mostly hidden from those who receive them. So white people don’t tend to think that they get benefits by being white, but any empirical investigation will show that they do. The real trouble with whiteness and what is built into whiteness theory is the difficulty that people who are raised to think of themselves as individuals and not raced have coming to terms with the fact that they are actually raced, and they are in the dominant race position, and privileged race position and they reap the benefits of that every day.
Trish: So whiteness is so dominant that it really becomes invisible. Is that right?
Maggie: Yes, it does. It becomes incredibly invisible until of course it’s disrupted and some of the privileges of whiteness are threatened. And that’s when you see white dominance try and reassert itself. Many people would argue, including myself, that the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation was really all about race.
Maggie: …and was about whites working class, especially men starting to feel dis-privileged and the reaction was against anybody that they thought was getting a better deal.
Trish: And Pauline Hanson was a politician here in Queensland who had very racist perspectives in her politics [and 2019 is once again active!].
Maggie: Yes, and she regarded umm, she thought that Aboriginal people were over benefitting from welfare.
Trish: Mmm. So, you explored this concept in relation to social work practice and social work education, is that right?
Maggie: Yes, that’s right we did. And what we found in Australia, as opposed to say the U.S., there is almost no recognition of whiteness theory or the fact that the vast majority of social workers are middle classed white people in social work education. So there’s recognition of anti-racist theory and various other equity theories, which are good as far as they go but what they don’t do is they don’t disturb the power relations. So, they allow people who are white who are practising social work to claim the virtue of being non-racist themselves, and to promote non-racist views without ever disturbing the privilege that is accruing to them, both as middle class, and as white people.
Trish: I was interested to read that, people were quite offended by the question in some ways.
Maggie: Absolutely, and you’ll find I’ve had reaction from -a very offended reaction - by a number of people over that article. People are very offended when you ask-and I always ask- my classes this, I ask them, “What does it mean to be white?” They can’t answer me, they feel, often, the question is taken that I am accusing them of being racist. And when you actually look at that response, it is actually the deployment of white privilege. Because what they are doing is they are using that power from say Luke’s theory of power to take the subject off the agenda.
So, it then becomes about taking offence, which the person raising the idea of ‘white privilege’ then has to defend. The other thing I do with my students, which is always, usually gets them thinking about it more clearly, is that I ask them to rate different races in Australia according to the social status. And I give them ten different racial groups; Vietnamese, Aborigine, Sudanese, Greeks, Italians, and give one to ten, and even though people deny there’s a racial hierarchy in Australia the ten racial groups always come out the same. White Australians are on top, followed by New Zealanders, followed by Irish, followed by Italian, followed by Greek, followed by Asian, Vietnamese and Chinese, Vietnamese rank above Chinese, Middle Eastern, Sudanese and Aborigines are always on the bottom.
Trish: Hmm, and I suppose Australians are so heavily invested in a perception of egalitarianism.
Trish: Aren’t we?
Maggie: Yes, even that the evidence that this is not an egalitarian nation is all around us, um, the belief in the egalitarian ideal and the fact that this is a good country, there’s no denying it is a good country, however it still has incredible embedded social inequalities.
Maggie: and one of the key fracture points is on race and it’s not just Aboriginal people or people from Africa, migrants or wherever else who are disadvantaged. Disadvantage always has a flip side, so for every disadvantage there is a group that is advantaged, resources are a zero sum game. If somebody is not getting their fair share that means another group is getting more than their fair share, because, there are never any resources to spare.
Trish: Hmm. So it’s very unevenly distributed?
Maggie: Yes. So the default position is that white Anglo or white Euro – Australians benefit. And for social workers to take themselves out of that privileged position when they’re dealing with Aboriginal people, who they tend to know only as clients or as data, is very, very difficult. Um, to take, it’s not taking a non-race position… it’s actually recognizing your own race and recognizing your own assumptions and presumptions and your own culture, and what that brings to you your interactions with people from other races.
Trish: Hmm, and certainly people of other races do perceive that there’s a racial issue…
Maggie: Absolutely, people from outside white race can see the benefit accruing to white people all over.
Maggie: Um, the simple thing of going for a flat in a tight rental market. It never occurs to white people that race might be an issue for them. But in fact race will be an issue for them and it will be a positive issue for them.
Maggie: For people of other races, their race will also be an issue but they know it will be an issue.
Trish: Do you think people are concerned that it will stir up some kind of conflict that isn’t there? Or what was the basis of people’s concerns?
Maggie: People don’t like it to be discussed because the conflict is there already it’s just not recognised. So that conflict is going on all the time but by raising it, it’s like in the early days of feminism when women raised gender inequality, and even now women get some of this flash back. And I think that through the gender lens makes it easier for people to understand it.
Yeah, people mostly say that we shouldn’t be talking about this, that this is stirring up trouble and you sort of say, well, it’s not stirring up any trouble that isn’t there, what it is, is its disturbing white privilege and making you feel uncomfortable. It’s that discomfort that needs to be disturbed. And, I always ask people to look at in terms of gender. So in the early 70’s and 60’s when women were raising the problems of the huge gender inequality that existed in our society. It, first it raised a lot of anger from men and what it was doing it was disturbing the embedded patterns of male privilege. Now we know that a lot of that still exists but things have also changed dramatically for the better, and it had to change by society confronting the embedded and structural inequalities that were based around gender. And so, I point out to people and a man can be the nicest man in the world, a fantastic husband, loving father, absolutely equal in the way he treats women and sees women in society, but it doesn’t stop him accruing a patriarchal dividend in every aspect of his life. So it’s not something that he does that stops it, it’s the way society operates. So he cannot help but benefit, and that’s what happens with whiteness as well.
So in a white dominated society such as ours, despite the fact that many people and most social workers don’t hold racist views, and see other people as equal, it doesn’t stop white privilege accruing to those people. And, the work of Bourdieu and habitus gives us the explanation for why we see things as we do. So Bourdieu says that we live in three dimensional social space – cultural, economic and social. I would add that we live in four dimensional social space with race in there as well, and that we have capital across those things about where we’re situated in that social space. So those with high race capital can deploy it in their field, such as in their profession or access to university, to trade it for resources in the society - and that’s competitive - we’re always in that competition for resources, all through our lives.
Trish: So, Maggie. If that whiteness is invisible and it is privileged but yet it’s there, how does that interfere with social work practice and with social work education?
Maggie: Aah, well it interferes at a number of levels. First, it is never tackled directly in social work courses, so most social work courses will have a section on race, but generally they are always looking at the other and the other is disadvantage. So, other people are raced, they are problematized as raced, and social work is seen in that powerful helping position.
Maggie: Another thing that happens, which is a manifestation of whiteness, and it really disturbs me is that when race is taught, it is often an Aboriginal or a person of another race who is charged with the responsibility of teaching race. Now that is actually epistemic violence because what it does it that it puts that person, who is usually a junior person, often on contract, into the position of tackling the difficult area of race with many students, and it allows those who run the course to feel like they’ve done the right thing. While never questioning their own assumptions or presumptions, or directly tackling their own race or whiteness.
**Trish: **And does that absolve us from responsibility?
Maggie: Well its seen as absolving from responsibility. They say, look how good we are, we have this Aboriginal person or we have this [person] teaching race.
Maggie: It’s the standard white response when race really should be taught, co-taught, I know the University of Adelaide does co-teaching in many of race study in the Education faculty.
Trish: Uh huh.
Maggie: Ah, but certainly should be taught by a white person with a good understanding of whiteness theory.
Trish: And there would be people that would disagree with that, wouldn’t there?
Maggie: Yes, and you have to ask them why? What is their basis for their disagreement? And I think it will come down again to they see themselves as non-raced, and other people as raced.
Trish: Hmm. Hmm…and there could possibly be also that perspective that those messages are better coming from an Aboriginal person, rather than a white person.
Maggie: Yes, that is often voiced but yet again it is white privilege asserting itself. But basically they are saying, we don’t want to do it, it makes us uncomfortable. Therefore, we’ll dress this up, in terms of it would be better coming from an Aboriginal person and you have to say, why would it be better coming from an Aboriginal person.
Trish: Yeah say with say a dominant white.
Maggie: that’s right, so that Aboriginal person within the faculty has been raced in a way that the other white social workers have not been.
Maggie: They’re committed now to doing the raced bit.
Trish: And that certainly happens in practice, say in health when you have Aboriginal health workers. All things Aboriginal seems to be put on to their plate and they have been expected to manage horrendous workloads because of that connection.
Maggie: That’s right, and what I am not saying is that Aboriginal health workers, or Aboriginal social workers aren’t well placed, that work with Indigenous communities, of course they are because they have connections. But they should not be automatically raced and assigned to those. Nobody questions an Aboriginal social worker having to deal with white clients. It doesn’t go the other way. So, but they’re facing the same difficulty that white social workers have working with Aboriginal clients in that there is an ontological divide.
Trish: And Maggie you’re critical of cross-cultural awareness and competence…
Maggie: I am very critical of cross-cultural awareness because basically again it’s a get out of jail free card. It is about the ‘other’ coming in and explaining themselves to the dominant white group, who sit there and are given this stuff, and we never go beyond cultural awareness 101. There never seems to be a cultural awareness 102. So, the same level is given again and again and again, and people either absorb or they don’t. I would like to replace every single cultural awareness program with a whiteness awareness program. I think that would do a lot more good.
Trish: And, such a program would be about the privileges of white society…
Maggie: Yeah, and but white culture, I mean there is that book out now that sort of says what white people like, and that people find that very confronting because race is not just about skin colour, it’s a social condition.
Maggie: And so being aware of how whiteness impacts, just on the way you think about things, the way you see things, your view on the world, the fact that there is a white ontological, a white epistemological frame and a white axiological frame allows you to reflect properly. Though I know that social workers are a reflective profession. We pride ourselves on our ability to reflect and to be reflexive, and what I am hoping is that we will include race in that reflexivity. And, I think it will make us all better social workers.
Trish: So we really have to become aware of what white status is and what goes with that and, and the privileges in our society to be able to really work with everybody. Is that what, really what you are saying?
Maggie: I think so, cross-cultural awareness at the moment is not cross-cultural at all. It only goes one, it’s only uni-directional.
Maggie: It has to be both ways.
Maggie: And the ability for white people to say we’re doing cross-cultural, just because it’s one way is again just recognising these constant ways of ‘doing whiteness’ that pervade our lives and we do it naturally. We do it normally, because it has been embedded into us as we grow up, through our families of origin, our social-cultural milieu. All of those things embed these ways of doing things for us most of the time and they feel natural because they are culturally embedded.
Trish: And certainly Australian society is changing and we’re getting even more diverse society than we had.
Maggie: Yes, so becoming aware of your own whiteness helps you work right across, it does it with all sorts of other groups, you see them very, very differently if you see it through the lens of your own whiteness and so you then don’t need constant cross-cultural…yes, you do need to know something about the Sudanese community, you need to know something about culture and cultural practices there to inform your work. But that lens of whiteness gives you a whole different perspective no matter who you are dealing with.
Trish:And it would allow you to actually listen to people and hear what their cultural needs are or circumstances are; which perhaps can’t be taught universally.
Maggie: No, well it can’t. You can’t in any university course, you can’t cover, because Australia now is becoming such a diverse society, you can’t cover every other cultural group. But it does allow you to listen. It’s constantly hard. People will struggle with it all the time. We have the standard, ah...Peggy McIntosh talks about the nap-sack of invisible privilege- that white people wear it, and that’s a good basic reading if people want to get started and have a bit more of a think about it. Because it identifies 50 things that she identified that were white privilege that she had never recognized before, things like; constantly seeing your own race in privileged positions.
Trish:Maggie it brings to mind an experience that I had many years ago. I went to a restaurant with a group of colleagues, and one of those colleagues was an Aboriginal girl and she was extremely uncomfortable through that whole evening and I just couldn’t understand why. And your discussion has really brought that to mind.
Maggie: Because it was an environment in which you were very comfortable…
Trish: Yes, that’s right, and I couldn’t understand because nothing was actually happening, and I couldn’t understand why she felt so uncomfortable and so I think that’s maybe a classic example of what you’re talking about.
Maggie: Yeah, and so she’s (um) constantly being in places where she feels culturally out of place.
Maggie: And an examination of whiteness; makes white people think of being culturally out of place, as well. And I think that’s some of the resistance of learning about whiteness and of social workers of actually teaching about whiteness. They always want the Aboriginal person to do it. The thing is it’s a very uncomfortable feeling, feeling culturally out of place.
Maggie: Um, you can’t be, you have to be on guard the whole time. But that’s what other people from other races experience all of the time in this culture, and it’s very good for white people to have an experience of what that feels like.
Trish: Hmm. hmm. Maggie, what are the main messages do you think for social workers?
Maggie: I think you cannot, in Australia, which is a multi-cultural society and that has original Australians here as well, you cannot be a social worker, effective social worker unless you understand race. You need to know about race hierarchies and how they operate in Australia and that in that you need to know within that about whiteness and how whiteness operates at the society and cultural level. And also how it operates at the individual level within ourselves.
Trish: Maggie, thank you very much. That’s really food for thought and it will have us all thinking.
Maggie: Thank you Trish.
Trish: Thank you very much.
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