Keddie, A., Gowlett, C., Mills, M., Monk, S. & Renshaw, P. (2013) Beyond
culturalism: addressing issues of Indigenous disadvantage through schooling,
Australian Educational Researcher 40(1), 91-108.
Beyond Culturalism: addressing issues of Indigenous disadvantage through
This paper draws from a study that explored issues of student equity, marginality and
diversity in two secondary schools in regional Queensland (Australia). The paper
foregrounds interview data gathered from administration, teaching and ancillary staff
at one of the schools, ‘Crimson’ High School. The school has a high Indigenous
student population and is well recognised within the broader community as catering
well to this population. With reference to the school’s concerns about Indigenous
disadvantage and the various approaches undertaken to address this disadvantage, the
paper articulates the significance of educators being critically aware of how they
construct race and use it as an organising principle in their work. This awareness is
central to moving beyond the culturalism and racial incommensurability that tend to
predominate within Indigenous education – where cultural reductionism homogenises
Indigeneity within and against a dominant White norm. With reference to a specific
approach at the school designed predominantly for Indigenous male students – to
foster inter-cultural awareness and respect through sport – we highlight ways in which
notions of culturalism and racial incommensurability might be disrupted.
Creating more equitable societies has been an important mandate of mass education
for some time and is reflected in equity policy across the globe. A key concern within
western policy discourse relates to raising the schooling participation and
achievement of marginalised groups. A familiar theme within such policy is to ‘close
the gap’ in educational outcomes between disadvantaged students and their more
advantaged peers. In Western contexts such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand
raising the educational performance of Indigenous students has been a key equity
priority – given that Indigeneity is the strongest predictor of educational disadvantage.
In these contexts, Indigenous students fall well below their non-Indigenous
counterparts on every educational performance measure. Of particular concern in
Australia, for example, are Indigenous students’ low levels of literacy and numeracy
attainment; school attendance and retention rates; and tertiary under-representation
(ABS 2006). Such under-performance is associated with the high levels of economic
and social disadvantage that continue to plague Indigenous communities.
There have been many significant initiatives that recognise and seek to redress the
multidimensional nature of this disadvantage. Most recently in Australia, for example,
there has been strengthened focus on Indigenous cultural awareness with cultural
inclusion prioritised in the National Goals for Schooling Framework. The
Framework’s particular focus is Indigenous marginality and the role of education in
valuing the histories and cultures of this group (MCEETYA 2008). One of the key
goals is that schools support all young Australians to become active and informed
citizens who ‘understand and acknowledge the value of Indigenous cultures’ (p.10).
Following this, Australia’s recently introduced National Curriculum has Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures as one of the three cross-curricula
priorities to support the integration of culturally inclusive content across relevant
Other initiatives have focused on creating more inclusive schooling environments
through greater Indigenous staff representation, not always with great success (see for
example, Reid and Santoro 2006; Santoro and Reid 2006). In Australia the under-
representation of Indigenous teachers (at less than one per cent of all teachers) is seen
to be a contributing factor to the poor academic performance of Indigenous students
and their low levels of school retention (relative to their non-Indigenous
counterparts). A recent federal government initiative seeks to address this imbalance
with its mandate to increase the number of Indigenous teachers in Australian schools
– the aims of this increase are to foster greater cultural awareness and understanding
of Indigenous issues and to provide Indigenous students with positive role models
within schooling environments that reflect greater autonomy for Indigenous groups
(Queensland Department of Education and Training 2011).
While many schools and educators actively endorse these sorts of initiatives and the
broader notion of schooling as a vehicle for equity, they tend not to engage in
critically examining the assumptions and understandings that shape how this notion is
played out. Within Indigenous education, as with other minority identity groups,
culturalist assumptions have tended to inform equity efforts. McConaghy (2000)
defines culturalism as reductionist – where ‘culture is seen as a ‘knowable, bounded
and separate’ entity’ (2000, p. 43, see also Mohanty 2003; Benhabib 2002; Moreton-
Robinson 2000). She further explains:
Culturalism makes appeals to notions of ‘tradition’ as remote, past and exotic.
Cultural identities are stereotypical. Through culturalism, the other becomes
naturalised and normalised: we can know they are a real or authentic other, and as a
consequence, we can be vigilant to any transgressions of in-authenticity.
According to Benhabib (2002, p. 4-5) this reductionism has ‘grave normative political
consequences for how we think injustices among groups should be redressed and how
we think human diversity and pluralism should be furthered’. Certainly, it denies or
erases the complex, dynamic and contingent ways in which cultures are constructed
and re-constructed within particular contexts and historical periods. For McConaghy
(2000) it is informed by, and reinscribes, a ‘two-race’ binary framework
(Indigenous/non-Indigenous, traditional/non-traditional, authentic/inauthentic) where
‘other’ cultures tend to be either inferiorised or unproblematically exalted against a
dominant (White/middle class) norm. Within this binary frame, notions of cultural
incommensurability have arisen where Indigenous culture is constructed as
incompatible or incommensurable with non-Indigenous, or more accurately, ‘White’
(i.e. Anglo) culture (Donald and Rattansi 1992; McConaghy 2000; Nakata, 2007).
In Indigenous education these binaries have tended to manifest in a positioning of
cultural relevance (Indigenous knowledges and cultures) in opposition to mainstream
schooling (White knowledges and cultures). Even with the more recent, and what
some might consider, progressive policy frames promoting intercultural awareness
through the integration of culturally inclusive content, there is a sense of cultural
reductionism and incommensurability in efforts to distinguish Indigenous culture and
knowledge from western culture and knowledge. To be sure, the endlessly ponderable
questions raised by McConaghy (2000) in her work – such as: What constitutes
‘Western knowledges’ and ‘Indigenous knowledges’? Whose and which knowledges
should be privileged? Who can know and speak with respect to these knowledges?
And Who can authorise the incorporation of certain knowledge within curricula? –
reflect the complexity and perhaps irreconcilability of cultural relevance or inclusion
within mainstream education (see also, Nakata, 2007).
What is clear is that culturally responsive schooling demands that decisions made in
relation to these questions are mindful of, and responsive to, the racialised politics
specific to school contexts. While policy frames offer schools and educators
guidelines for working in culturally inclusive ways, it is evident that there is no one
correct way to pursue anti-racist schooling (Gillborn 2000; Dilg 2003; Nieto 1999).
As Gillborn argues (2000, p. 476): What succeeds at one time, or in one context, may not be
appropriate at a later date or in another context. Racism changes: it works differently through different
processes, informs and is modified by diverse contemporary modes of representation, and changes with
particular institutional contexts. Anti-racism must recognise and adapt to this complexity. In practice
this means facing up to the complexities of racism: identifying and combating racism will always be
With these issues in mind, this paper highlights the significance of approaches that are
mindful of, and responsive to, the racial (in this case Indigenous) politics, relations
and experiences within particular schooling contexts. Such approaches must, we
argue, reject notions of cultural reductionism and racial incommensurability. The
paper draws on interview data gathered from administration, teaching and ancillary
staff at a secondary school located in regional Queensland, Australia. With reference
to the concerns these educators express about Indigenous students at the school and
the various approaches undertaken to address these concerns, we explore the
significance of educators being critically aware of how they construct race and use it
as an organising principle in their work. In particular, we highlight the imperative of
educators understanding culture as an aspect of negotiated social practice rather than a
fixed entity. With reference to a particular approach at the school designed
predominantly for the Indigenous male students – to foster inter-cultural awareness
and respect through sport – we highlight ways in which notions of culturalism and
racial incommensurability might be disrupted through this focus. This is the key
emphasis within critical anti-racism education where working with ‘difference’ means
working with complex, non-stereotypical and dynamic identity constructions ‘and
‘talking to’ the actual ways in which people experience their lives, worlds, and
identities’ (Carrim and Soudien 1999, p. 154). Our contention in this paper is that
such ways of working are crucial in moving beyond simplistic versions of culturally
responsive teaching (i.e. that connect superficially with the funds of knowledge and
experience that might resonate with a particular cultural group). As much research in
this area argues (see Gay 2000; Bishop 2003; Banks 2010; Hingangoroa Smith 2003;
Lewthwaite and McMillan 2010), this version of ‘responsiveness’, consistent with
McConaghy’s notion of culturalism, can be highly problematic – with presumptions
of cultural homogeneity likely to lead to the further ‘othering’ of non-dominant
cultures. Consistent with this research, we advocate a more critical approach that does
not deploy fixed notions of culture but engages contextually with marginalised
knowledges and experiences towards creating more meaningful and relevant learning
encounters for marginalised students.
Research context and processes
The paper draws from a broader study that explored relationships between the
equitable distribution of academic outcomes and the valuing of diversity within two
large regional state secondary schools in northern Queensland (Australia). This paper
features interview data from one of these schools ‘Crimson’ Secondary School. The
school has a high Indigenous population at roughly 25% of all (i.e. 2300) students and
is highly regarded within the broader community as catering well to the educational
needs of this population. However, the community continues to be troubled by a long
history of difficult race relations with racism towards Indigenous members of the
Interviews were conducted with school administration, teachers and ancillary staff
nominated to us as educators working in the area of diversity and equity support. The
interviews were loosely structured to explore these educators’ concerns about
marginalised students in the school, their understandings of how the school
approached student difference and their ideas about the efficacy or otherwise of
strategies and practices for addressing issues of marginality and difference. In this
paper interview data from the non-Indigenous executive principal (Mr J), the non-
Indigenous principal (Ms M), Indigenous Community Liaison Workers (Ms R, Ms J
and Ms C) and non-Indigenous teachers (Ms S, Mr S, Ms K, Ms A and Ms L) are
featured as they relate to the key issues associated with Indigenous education
articulated in the introduction. The following sections are organised around these
issues and reflect the ways in which the data were analysed. The first sections
foreground the educators’ concerns about the key factors constraining the schooling
outcomes of Indigenous students, namely poor attendance and achievement, and the
strategies at the school designed to address these concerns (e.g. based on cultural
inclusion or recognition and Indigenous representation). The subsequent section
examines some of the tensions associated with the constructions of race/Indigeneity
framing these concerns, namely relating to culturalism and racial incommensurability.
The final section refers to a specific approach at the school that reflects potential in
terms of disrupting notions of culturalism and racial incommensurability.
In this paper we represent the voices of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous
educators. As race and class-privileged researchers investigating the racialised politics
within a White (i.e. Anglo-Australian) governed institution, we are mindful of the
problematics involved in representing Indigenous voices. Certainly, such
representation is vulnerable to reflecting the imperialism and paternalism that many
Indigenous groups remain highly critical of in their view of texts written about them
rather than by them or with them (see Moreton-Robinson 1998; 2000).
Notwithstanding the importance of this criticism, we are more concerned in this paper
with the problematics that can arise from bio-deterministic assumptions about voice
and representation – where an individual’s membership to a certain identity group is
seen as a literal determinant of their knowledge and actions in relation to the group
(see Spivak 1990) and where it is assumed that an individual needs to be a member of
a particular group to authentically represent the interests of the group (McConaghy
2000; Keddie 2012).
We position these assumptions as problematic in linking voice or representation to
identity in reductionist ways. Such representation drastically simplifies group identity
– it restricts who can know and speak about issues of marginality and ignores the
productive and important role that members of privileged groups must play to support
marginalised groups. It also places undue expectation and responsibility on members
of marginalised groups to authentically represent, and act on behalf of, the interests of
their group (see Moreton-Robinson 2000). We agree with McConaghy (2000 p. 2)
here when she contends that:
…we should resist the fashion to prescribe that only Indigenous people can know and speak
about Indigenous issues. The links between racialised identity, knowledge and legitimacy can
no longer be sustained within either imperialist or anti-imperialist projects.
We thus take the view that marginalised voices are complex and multifaceted and,
while they might represent the interests of a particular group, they will not necessarily
engage in anti-racist politics of the kind advocated in this paper – they will, for
example, sometimes engage in the culturalism and racial incommensurability that are
presented here as reproducing racialised inequities/binaries. In no way, however, is
our critique intended to undermine the significance of Indigenous representation in
schools – we strongly advocate such representation. Our view, as we illustrate in this
paper, is that such representation while warranted is not unproblematic and must be
subject to critical scrutiny (as indeed should all forms of identity-related group
representation). Such scrutiny, we contend, is all the more important given the
renewed emphasis in Australia and other western nations on increasing Indigenous
staff representation in schools and the danger in such emphasis of homogenising, or
making reductionist assumptions about, Indigenous voices.
Issues of concern
Consistent with the statistics delineating the key aspects of Indigenous educational
disadvantage, poor school attendance and its association with academic under-
achievement were the major concerns staff articulated in relation to the school’s
Indigenous students. Mr J’s comments were illustrative:
Indigenous kids don’t perform as well academically, and they don’t attend as much. Our
Indigenous attendance data, there’s a big gap. So there’s a huge job to be done … it doesn’t
matter what program you use – if they don’t come to school, nothing’s going to work. So
that’s got to be the first priority, to get everyone to school.
Following these concerns, a central priority at Crimson is to raise Indigenous
students’ attendance but also, as Mr J further remarked, to engage and motivate these
students – as he stressed: ‘of course you’ve got to get them to want to come to school
… there’s got to be something here for them’. There was strong agreement amongst
staff that education is the key to ameliorating some of the circumstances of
disadvantage that many Indigenous students are born into. For Ms M, education was a
way to ‘help Indigenous students to see that their life [and their community] can be
different’ and ‘ultimately more positive’. On this issue, one of the Indigenous workers
in the school, Ms R, reflected on her father’s instilling of the value of education as a
way out of the generational poverty and hardship that had faced their family:
[my dad], he’s 82 now. He had to go to work at 14 … to feed his family and keep his mum
alive ... He always instilled in the kids you have to have a good education, you don’t want a
shit job. You get in, put your head down, bum up and do education and everything. It’s what
you put in is what you’re going to get out.
Consistent with the view of education within these remarks and the policy initiatives
outlined earlier (i.e. that schooling is a vehicle that can create more equitable
societies), there were many programs and practices at Crimson that sought to address
the disadvantages confronting the Indigenous students. These programs/practices,
importantly, reflected a multidimensional approach to equity – especially in
attempting to remove some of the cultural and political barriers impeding these
students’ educational success (Fraser 1997; 2009). There was a strong emphasis, for
example, on cultural awareness in the form of recognising significant Indigenous days
and ceremonies, as Ms R explained:
…there is a lot of support in the school …we’re big on having traditional dancing at the
school and NAIDOC [National Aboriginal and Islander Day of Observance Committee] week
… we’re quite lucky here ’caus the executive up top there, they’re very, very for
acknowledging the traditional owners and “Welcome to Country” and that, so we’re very
As well as generating awareness, appreciation and respect for Indigenous culture in
the general student body, such recognition was seen to be particularly positive in
supporting the Indigenous students to feel a sense of pride in their cultural heritage
and a positive connection to other Indigenous students. Mr J commented, for example,
on a dance performance as part of the school’s observance of NAIDOC where an
older Indigenous boy mentored a younger Indigenous boy:
That was the best performance we saw yesterday because the guy who was leading them, they
had practice sessions, I was there a couple of times, he got up and said things like “This is
about our culture, and don’t muck it up”. Some of the kids would stop. And the little boy, who
is in Grade 8, he’s been in some significant trouble recently, the fact that he [was doing this]
did his self-esteem a lot of good, and the fact is that he takes direction from … the older boy.
In relation to cultural awareness, there was also strong emphasis on integrating
Indigenous perspectives and knowledges within the formal curriculum. This
integration tended to be referred to within the context of broader policy mandates
such as those identified earlier. In addition to the Indigenous Studies classes at the
school within the SOSE [Studies of Society and Environment] curriculum where, for
example, the junior students created an Indigenous bush garden, there were explicit
attempts to integrate Indigenous perspectives and knowledges across all learning
areas. For instance, in ‘Marine Aquatic Practices’ Ms S supported students to ‘look at
traditional Indigenous techniques and the sea-food industry’ and in Mathematics Mr S
challenged the notion that ‘Indigenous people don’t have a maths system’ with his
introduction of the Indigenous base 5 system of numeracy notation to juxtapose
against other systems such as the Babylonian base 60 and the European base 10.
These endeavors are highly generative examples of culturally inclusive and relevant
teaching practice – connecting with the histories, cultures, contributions and
perspectives specific to marginalised groups in such a manner can support greater
participation, motivation and achievement for students from these groups (see, for
example, Gay, 2000; Banks 2010; Bishop 2003; Sleeter 2005). Such connectedness is
important in disrupting the cultural exclusivity within western teaching that privileges
White and middle class ways of knowing and being and marginalises ‘other’ ways of
knowing and being. It is central to opening a space for more equitable patterns of
cultural recognition to be generated that reflect greater respect and esteem for
marginalised groups (Fraser 1997).
There was also a strong focus at Crimson on Indigenous representation. With the aim
of enhancing the school’s connection to its Indigenous community towards greater
student attendance and engagement, the school employed a number of Indigenous
support staff including three Community Liaison Workers (Ms C, Ms J and Ms R).
Alongside their important liaison role between Indigenous students’ home and school
environments, these workers also supported staff cultural awareness with their
involvement in various professional development and induction programs and their
support on integrating and respecting Indigenous perspectives and knowledges within
curricula and extra-curricular activities. Ms K expressed her view about the value
these workers represented in relation to their knowledge about some of the Indigenous
…particularly with last year I had a [class with a] high Indigenous student body ... [Ms C]
helped me, working with her actually helped me a lot to get to know some things that you
would not necessarily … [Ms C] would tell me things and she got to know the kids a lot better
too, because I guess she was more approachable to the kids than what I was as the teacher. So,
I think that helped. Working with [Ms C and Ms J] … like, if you have any issues, just say
“hey I’ve got a problem” or “can you help chase this up?” because they do home visits and
things like that as well. So they have a better understanding of the kids than sometimes we do
and we can access that, so that helps.
The Community Liaison Workers also adopted an advocacy role for students in
relation to behavioural/discipline issues. Indigenous representation was further
supported through the school’s Indigenous leadership program and the election of
Indigenous school captains. While wary of charges of tokenism, Mr J described this
as an important statement of respect to ‘show leadership amongst the Indigenous
students’. He was particularly thrilled that the elected male school captain, open to all
senior boys, was also Indigenous. For Ms R the captaincy was something for the ‘kids
to strive towards’. There were other initiatives at Crimson designed to represent
Indigenous voices, for example, an Indigenous parents’ group involving the school’s
Community Liaison Workers where, according to Ms M, parents can ‘come along’
and discuss any ‘issues or things that they want us to develop’. Crimson’s endeavors
to represent Indigenous voices are significant because they attend to, and think from
the space of, marginalised groups. While not unproblematic, as will be considered in
the next section, it is clear that connecting with these voices and thinking from this
space enables self-determination for Indigenous peoples – it can make transparent and
problematise the racial inequities that silence Indigenous voices (see Moreton-
These sorts of practices and programs are highly generative in beginning to
ameliorate some of circumstances of disadvantage confronting Indigenous students.
They are productive responses to the broader policy mandates referred to earlier.
However, working to support Indigenous equity is a highly complex process that is
informed by particular ways of thinking about race and culture that are often taken-
for-granted and unconsciously mobilised. It is crucial then to examine the politics
within which such inclusive and anti-racist schooling practices are situated (Gillborn
2000) – for it is clear that who educators understand students to be is a crucial matter
in any pedagogical design (Doherty and Singh 2004). The following illuminates some
of these complexities and, in particular, the sense of culturalism and racial
incommensurability that framed some of the thinking about Indigeneity at Crimson.
Culturalism and racial incommensurability
As suggested earlier, education at Crimson is seen to be the key to supporting
Indigenous students to take up more positive futures. This was a view that was
strongly expressed by the Indigenous Community Liaison Workers Ms J, Ms R and
Ms C towards students’ overcoming the generational poverty and disadvantage many
were born into. However, doing well at school seemed to be constructed as counter to
Indigenous culture. The following comments from Ms J illuminate this. In the two
data snippets below, she refers to the school’s cohort of ‘Island People’ – whose
children often relocated to the mainland to attend Crimson from a nearby Aboriginal
(Island) community. This Island originally served as a reserve created by the
Queensland State government (from the 1920s) to isolate those Indigenous people
who were deemed ‘disruptive’ or unlawful. The Island is now an independent
Aboriginal shire (since the mid 1980s), but remains troubled with very high levels of
welfare dependency and disenfranchisement.
A lot of the Island People, they want them to do well but they also don’t want them to lose
their culture so they do keep that fairly strong. One of [our students] … he came from the
Island when he was 1. He got to 15 and said “I want to go back to find out where I’m from”
… and I said “absolutely if you want to go back there later that’s fine, but do not go back
there and be a bum”. I said “you need to take something back to your community. Go back as
an Electrician or a Plumber, Builder or something, you know? … something that you can take
back to the community and add to it” … and I say “you can’t go and be a burden on a
community because then you’ve wasted all the opportunities in education that you had here”.
With loving your family you’ve got to say “but I don’t like this way of living. What can I do
to improve myself?” But it’s a hard rut to get out of. They’re grabbing you by the legs to pull
you back and saying you know “this is your culture and stay longer and learn your dances and
your cultural things”. But you need someone there pushing them up and saying “get out there
and get an education”.
In these remarks there is a sense of culturalism and racial incommensurability where
Indigeneity is constructed and understood within a two race binary framework
(McConaghy 2000). Ms J’s reference to the ‘Island People’ suggests that there is an
authentic and knowable Island culture that in their eyes is threatened with their
children’s exposure to mainland/mainstream (i.e. White) schooling culture. For the
Islanders (at least from Ms J’s perspective), this culture must be recognised and
preserved through, for example, the new generations learning their dances and
‘cultural things’ for fear of ‘los[ing] their culture’. It is clear that 1) recognising and,
indeed, preserving such cultural knowledges are significant in supporting equity for
the Indigenous (Islander) students at Crimson (akin to the cultural awareness
strategies noted earlier that recognise group identity as an important organising
principle in struggles for justice, see hooks 1994; Sarra 2003) and 2), as noted in the
introduction, that schools have not done this well – thereby verifying the ‘fears’ the
Islanders express about losing their culture within White governed institutions that
have paid little respect to it. It is also clear that such constructions of culture can be
problematic. For instance, they can work to simplify and deny the rich complexities,
multiplicities and contradictions of Indigenous identities (Fraser 2008; Moreton-
Robinson 2000) and especially the new cultural expressions that young Indigenous
people might embrace. Such constructions of minority culture (as authentic, unique
and natural), moreover, position social change as a betrayal to minority group culture
and tradition. These constructions have been strongly challenged in their assumption
that, while majority culture can change, innovate and endure the tensions created by
modernity, minority culture lacks the capacity to endure these tensions and must
adhere to ‘known cultural patterns’ (Tamir 1999 p. 51, see also, McConaghy 2000;
In these comments, furthermore, this idea of culture is positioned in binary opposition
to, and incommensurable with, mainstream education, as Ms J states: ‘they [the Island
people] want them to do well but they also don’t want them to lose their culture’.
Islander culture is homogenised and inferiorised at least by inference with Ms J’s
remarks: ‘don’t go back there and be a bum’ or a ‘burden’, ‘they need someone
pushing them up’. These comments are produced within a frame that privileges the
resources gained from mainstream education – e.g. being a plumber or builder. Here
‘giving back’ and ‘adding’ to the community are constructed as enabled through the
taking up of non-Indigenous, rather than Indigenous, ways of knowing and being. It is
important to acknowledge that there are opportunities and resources that Indigenous
students can and should gain through their involvement in mainstream education. It is
also important to locate these remarks within the context of the Island’s troubled
colonial/penal history – where different Indigenous groups were shoved together and
detached from their varying communities and places of origin – creating on-going
tensions and conflicts between families and groups. The situation and prospects on the
Island for the students are, in many ways, bleak given this history of oppressive
colonialism. The comments about students ‘taking something back’ to their
community, not being a ‘bum’ or ‘burden’ must be read within this context –
especially given the Island’s current status as an Aboriginal shire and the
responsibility this independence would represent for new Islander generations to ‘give
back’ and ‘add’ to their community.
Nonetheless, it is also important to recognise the problematics of the culturalism
informing these remarks. The binaries of Indigenous/non-Indigenous tend to
essentialise and normalise the otherness and marginality of Indigeneity and the
centrality and privilege of non-Indigeneity or Whiteness fortifying a sense of cultural
incompatibility that in many ways reproduces, rather than disrupts, racial inequities
and binaries (see McConaghy 2000; Moreton-Robinson 2000).
Another issue at Crimson that reflected a sense of culturalism within a two-race
binary frame was the charges of racism deployed by some Indigenous students
towards some staff members. Many of the staff expressed concern about this issue, as
the following comments from Ms S, Mr S and Ms A illustrate:
A lot of kids push your buttons at this school, and if you tell them to do something, they’ll
turn around and say “Oh, is it because I’m Black?” (Ms S)
The Indigenous kids are quick to cry racist. “You don’t like me because I’m Black”. It’s like,
well that’s got nothing to do with it. Three of my kids are Black. You know, like, I don’t like
your behaviour … some of the kids I’ve encountered have been quick to cry racist when…and
it’s not just between student and teacher, it’s between student and student as well. You know,
“you don’t like me because…” or “you won’t sit next to me because…” (Mr S)
We had a few clashes over a few things, like sometimes, with Indigenous students, if they feel
that you’re … picking on them, and then they make the comment that it’s because you might
be racist. There was that type of thing … I find it very upsetting because I’m not racist. It’s
not fair. I’m just expecting you to do it because that’s the rule! (Ms A)
In these comments, as with Ms J’s earlier remarks, there is a racialised pitting of
‘Blackness’ against the ‘Whiteness’ in the students’ ‘cries’ of racism. Such cries
essentialise race difference and produce relations of Indigenous and non-Indigenous
incommensurability. While it is, of course, imperative to identify and address all
instances of racism, these comments suggest that some Indigenous students at
Crimson reduce problems that may not be attributable to matters of race or culture –
to these matters (see Keddie and Niesche 2012). Given the importance placed on
Indigenous equity at Crimson and the severity associated with addressing/sanctioning
racism, it seems indeed, that students’ can ‘push buttons’ through accusing staff of
racism. Such accusations – and the cultural reductionism/incommensurability
undergirding them – might be seen then as a useful strategy of power in students’
relationships with teachers to avoid particular directives or sanctions.
Disrupting notions of culturalism and racial incommensurability
Importantly, the educators at Crimson expressed sensitivity to the Indigenous politics
within the school and the broader community that generate such issues and relations
of culturalism. In particular, their reflection on expressions of Indigeneity
acknowledged their construction in resistance to White domination (see Moreton-
Robinson 2000). Many of the staff, for example, noted the long and troubled history
of Indigenous/White relations within the community and spoke against the regular
instances of ‘racism and resentment’ arising from these tensions. Ms R noted, for
example, that ‘people’s lack of understanding’ meant that many in the community
unfairly and inaccurately equated Indigenous kids with gang culture and crime. Mr J
spoke further of the ways in which racism and resentment towards Indigenous people
in the community impacted on the school:
There’s been a community reaction to the growth of the Indigenous population in our school.
We used to have about 60 to 80 kids for many many years. Our Indigenous population has
grown only in the last six or eight years, to the extent it has. We had 450 last year. It’s about
20% or 22% of our total population. So it’s very significant. And I know when that was
happening, there were teachers who said “there are too many Black kids”, and there were
people in the community – if they saw 3 or 4 Indigenous kids walking home together – they
would think there was a Black riot on … we did start to get a name as a big Black school. That
has destroyed a number of schools in this town [with] big Indigenous populations, they got
known as the “Blackfella Schools”, and no-one would go to them ... there are principals
around who see their major educational job as keeping the “rubbish” out.
Mr J’s view was that the school had ‘overcome’ the negative connotations associated
with ‘Blackfella Schools’ through its many programs and initiatives designed to
recognise and value Indigenous perspectives and cultures. Thus, the school’s explicit
focus on developing pride in Indigeneity responded to, and against, the racism within
the broader community. Such ways of thinking, importantly, appreciate the
significance of recognising and preserving specific Indigenous cultural traditions – so
important to the Islander people (as articulated in Ms J’s earlier comments).
It is also important, however (as this paper has argued), to guard against the
homogenising of culture that can arise from this focus on cultural recognition or
valuing. Importantly, Mr J’s location of Indigeneity within broader racialised politics
enables culture to be understood as an aspect of negotiated practice rather than an
‘already-read’ and fixed entity (McConaghy 2000). For Moreton-Robinson (2000 p.
14) it is this thinking that opens spaces for understandings the cultural specificities of
Indigenous people’s lives as ‘enmeshed in historically constructed relations with
White people that continue to inform processes of inter-subjectivity in Indigenous and
White cultural domains’. It enables ‘cries’ of racism, for example, to be understood
within the town’s colonial history where wariness towards White institutions (such as
Crimson) is to be expected. Such cries within this context can thus be seen as an
aspect of social practice enmeshed in historically constructed relations with White
These situated understandings of Indigeneity are central to disrupting the negative
impacts of culturalism and racial incommensurability. At Crimson such
understandings were evident in some of the descriptions educators offered about
particular strategies they found useful for fostering students’ intercultural awareness
and respect for each other. One that seemed highly generative related to how the
school addressed the hostilities between their Indigenous and Maori male students.
Crimson attracted many Indigenous students to its sporting programs and, in
particular, its football program which involved many of the school’s Indigenous boys.
According to many staff, this program was instrumental in raising these boys’
engagement with school and their sense of self-esteem. Indeed, sporting programs
more broadly, have been important mechanisms in Australia for Indigenous males in
this respect for some time.
Hostilities between the school’s Indigenous boys and some Maori boys arose at
Crimson when this Indigenous space was threatened by the inclusion of Maori boys,
as Ms M explained, ‘the Indigenous kids felt that these boys were taking their place
and there was resentment in the school and the community’. While not deploying a
two-race binary frame where Blackness is pitted against Whiteness (as presented
earlier), this conflict seemed to homogenise and pit ‘Black against Black’ to use Ms
J’s terminology because it occurred between Indigenous and Maori students:
[a lot of conflict] has been Black on Black for want of a better way to put it. When I started
here … we had a big problem with the Maoris vs. the Murris [Queensland Aboriginal people]
of the Black kids… (Ms J)
According to Ms M, the school had to ‘work hard’ to foster a sense of reconciliation
of this conflict, especially (presumably) given the significant tensions between these
two communities within the broader township – and indeed, reflected in many
communities across Australia. Mr J referred to sport ‘if done properly’ as an
important ‘educator’ to foster reconciliation and this was the vehicle at Crimson that
was drawn on to address the conflict between these groups in ways that fostered
intercultural awareness and respectful relations. The sports program worked in
conjunction with other programs such as the Indigenous leadership scheme (where
older boys mentored younger boys) and mediation sessions with the Indigenous
Community Workers (that, according to Ms J, challenged ignorance and prejudice
through a focus on the commonalities between the students’ different cultural
backgrounds). This conjunction was focused on identifying and addressing issues of
concern (such as the hostilities between Indigenous and Maori students) in multi-
faceted and collaborative ways.
Mr J explained that sport in the curriculum was more than ‘playing games’, it taught
the boys to ‘be in a team’, to have ‘self-respect’ and to ‘look after your mates’, he
further elaborated on this point with reference to a particular incident during a football
trip with the boys:
…we worked hard. I think sport is a great equaliser … I’m very involved in the leadership
camp, and the rugby league program. We went away with a group of  boys … so we had a
night to spare, so we all sat down in the hotel room, and I said “Let’s talk about where we all
come from”. It was quite incredible. Everyone spoke openly about their background. We had
Aboriginals, we had Islanders, we had Papua New Guineans, we had people from the South
Sea Islands, we had Maoris, we had all sorts of people. There was one boy, for example, who
said he had never ever known his Mum and Dad, because it was in their culture, they were
given away. Everyone was just [silent] and people treated him differently the next day
because they knew him differently. Amongst those boys, there was a tremendous bond and
they cared for one another and I see that in the football team … [for example] one thing they
would never have done, they sleep together [on camp] … the Black kids and the White kids
do too. It’s an example of the sort of bond that those fellas had. I think sport, if it’s done
properly is... we don’t just have sport in terms of playing games. We try to use sport as an
educator, because the people in this community love sport. If you want to know about our
community, they’re nuts about sport – and rugby league, in particular.
Just as with the programs and initiatives articulated earlier organised specifically
around Indigenous identity (e.g. the celebration of Indigenous days), this approach to
sport at the school aligns with a multidimensional equity focus especially in its
capacity to support cultural and political justice – that is, it positively values the
culture of these Indigenous boys and it provides a context where they can enjoy a
sense of autonomy. Importantly, and also consistent with the earlier examples, this
approach reflects a pedagogy of ‘caring’ – which is a culturally responsive pedagogy
that combines social support with high expectations and is, according to Gay (2000),
requisite to enhancing the educational experiences and outcomes of culturally
marginalised students. Certainly, such a pedagogy seems to resonate with the school’s
general approach to Indigenous issues and engagement and is clearly instrumental in
its success at engaging Indigenous students.
While, to these ends, all of the strategies at Crimson designed to support Indigenous
students are likely to be (variously) productive, the approach to sport at the school is
less vulnerable to the negative impacts of culturalism and racial incommensurability
that can arise from programs and initiatives that focus on articulating or preserving a
distinctly Indigenous culture or identity – that can be pitted against White or other
identities. The sports program focuses, rather, on connecting with cultural expressions
of Indigenous male identity (i.e. sporting prowess) that are currently important to
many of the Indigenous boys at Crimson (as well as representing high status in the
community) to foster greater intercultural awareness and respectful relations amongst
many different cultural groups.
Rather than recognising Indigenous or non-Indigenous identity simply on the basis of
privilege/opportunity or marginality/lack of opportunity (McConaghy 2000), this
approach mobilises a group identity around cultural expressions that are not
delineable to a particular racial/ethnic group. In this context, sport as an ‘educator’
reflects potential to create a safe and respectful context that recognises the boys’
complex and multifaceted cultural backgrounds and identities towards ‘knowing’ and
‘treating’ each other ‘differently’. While it is important to acknowledge that there are
many aspects of football culture that are highly problematic in reinscribing harmful
versions of masculinity (see Keddie and Mills 2007), from these remarks, it seems
that there is potential for this space to support alternative constructions of masculinity
and race/ethnicity towards fostering – in Mr J’s words – ‘tremendous bonds’ based on
‘care’ and inter-cultural respect.
Importantly, using sport as an educative space along these lines, it is possible to avoid
the culturalism and racial incommensurability that continue to undermine culturally
responsive schooling initiatives/programs. This space reflects an understanding of
culture as an aspect of negotiated social practice – absent are assumptions that there is
an authentic or knowable Indigenous identity (instead there is a recognition of the
cultural expressions important, but not solely attributable to, particular Indigenous
students). Also absent is an isolation or binary pitting of one culture or race against
another culture or race.
Commitment to improving the educational outcomes of Indigenous students is a key
policy imperative in Western contexts such as Australia. While most educators in
these contexts embrace such commitment, they tend not to engage in critically
examining the assumptions and understandings that shape how this notion is played
out. Consistent with important anti-racist work (see Gillborn 2000), this paper has
highlighted the significance of educators’ critical awareness of how they construct
race and use it as an organising principle in their work. This awareness we contend is
requisite in moving beyond the notions of culturalism and racial incommensurability
that homogenise Indigeneity within and against dominant White norms. Such
awareness when drawing on an understanding of culture as an aspect of negotiated
social practice rather than a fixed entity opens spaces for a critical anti-racism that
works with complex, non-stereotypical and dynamic constructions of identity and
‘difference’ and responds to the actual ways in which people experience their lives,
worlds, and identities (Carrim and Soudien 1999).
At Crimson, such awareness was reflected in educators’ sensitivity to the racialised
politics impacting on the school that worked to undermine the educational
performance of Indigenous students, for example, resistance from teachers and the
community associated with Crimson, and other schools in the area, being seen as
Blackfella schools and the regular instances of ‘racism and resentment’ within the
community towards Indigenous people. The school’s response to overcoming such
racism was the implementing of programs and initiatives based on recognising and
valuing Indigenous cultures and perspectives. Programs and initiatives fostering
cultural recognition (in the form of recognising significant Indigenous days and
ceremonies) and political representation (through ensuring Indigenous staff were
consulted in matters concerning Indigenous students) to these ends were extremely
significant. However, as this paper argued, such recognition and representation does
not necessarily promote an anti-racist politics that rejects notions of culturalism and
Mindful of, and responsive to, the racial politics within the school and broader
community, we foregrounded the potential of the sports program at Crimson to reflect
such a politics. Designed to address the hostilities between the Indigenous and Maori
male students, sport played an educative role at the school – it was about teaching the
boys teamwork, self-respect and looking after each other towards greater intercultural
awareness and respectful relations. Mr J’s account of the football trip illuminated the
potential of this space to support cultural recognition and political representation – it
reflected a valuing of the expressions of culture important to (many of) the Indigenous
boys at Crimson as well as providing a context where these boys enjoyed as sense of
autonomy. We drew attention to the potential of this program to destabilise the
notions of culturalism and racial incommensurability that tend to predominate within
culturally responsive schooling. This context offered scope to explore some of the
rich complexities, multiplicities and contradictions of Indigenous (and other
marginalised) identities. While, indeed, culturally responsive, this program does not
presume a static or authentic Indigenous culture that is knowable and delineable to
this group. Rather it focuses on connecting with particular expressions of Indigeneity
that are significant to many of the Indigenous boys at Crimson thus recognising the
new cultural expressions that these boys are embracing as part of their Indigeneity.
We are not suggesting in this paper that sports programs like the one at Crimson can
be a substitute for initiatives in schools that draw on, and positively recognise,
Indigeneity as an identity marker. This identity marker remains an important
organising principle in struggles for justice and is imperative in pursuing cultural
recognition and political representation for Indigenous people. We are arguing that
working to support Indigenous equity is a highly complex process and that strategies
in this endeavor (especially those mobilised around a group identity politics) can
undermine anti-racism through ascribing to notions of culturalism and racial
incommensurabilty. Given this, our contention is that all strategies purporting to be
inclusive or anti-racist must critically engage with the politics within which they are
situated towards challenging and transforming these notions whether, as at Crimson,
they be endemic in the community, unconsciously mobilised through staff members’
assumptions about Indigenous and non-Indigenous culture and identity or deployed
by Indigenous students as a strategy of power in their relationships with White
There is no one correct way to pursue anti-racist or culturally responsive schooling.
However, it is clear that rejecting notions of culturalism and racial
incommensurability remains an important imperative in our continued efforts to
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