Indigenous public servants deal with ‘everyday racism’ and ‘white supremacy’ at work: academic prize winner

By Stephen Easton

Monday August 19, 2019

Dr Debbie Bargallie. Image: AIATSIS

The Australian Public Service is not the bastion of “fairness, inclusion, opportunity, respect and racial equality” some of its senior leaders hope or imagine it to be, according to an Indigenous scholar who has won a prestigious academic prize for her thesis on “structural racism” in the Commonwealth bureaucracy.

The APS is marked by “white supremacy” and is “complicit in maintaining and perpetuating the racialised conditions that impede Indigenous employment, engagement, promotion and general occupational interests” in the view of Dr Debbie Bargallie, who has won the prestigious Stanner Award from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

“Racism is vehemently denied by those who claim to be committed to Indigenous employee career progression yet racial microaggression and everyday racism mark their daily experience in the workplace,” she said.

“The voices of Indigenous employees in this research provide a counter-narrative to the destructive and pervasive myth of meritocracy and reveal the ways in which white supremacy is perpetuated in the APS.”

Dr Bargallie is a descendent of the Kamilaroi and Wonnarua peoples and a senior research fellow at the Griffith Institute of Educational Research, who moved into academia after 14 years in the public service herself. Her research is based on the experiences of 21 Indigenous employees of the APS.

She took a voluntary redundancy when she was unable to relocate because her mother was in hospital following a stroke and says the decision became “an act of political warfare” in her eyes.

“I wondered how many other Indigenous employees this had happened to,” she said.

The institute will now publish the prize-winning manuscript, Maintaining the racial contract: Everyday racism and the impact of racial microaggressions on “Indigenous employees” in the Australian Public Service through Aboriginal Studies Press.

The biennial Stanner Award is presented by AIATSIS to “the best academic manuscript written by an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander author, and provides an important avenue for Indigenous scholars to contribute to national debates” according to the institute’s statement.

Chairperson Jodie Sizer said Dr Bargallie’s thesis was up against a lot of strong work.

“The number and quality of entries is a great reflection of the research that’s being carried out by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholars, which AIATSIS is proud to support,” said Sizer.

“From history, to anthropology, cultural studies, health and education, all of these academic manuscripts are highly original and sophisticated contributions to their respective fields.

“Dr Bargallie’s work stood out in a very impressive field. Building on her own experience, and that of other public service staff, Dr Bargallie shines a light on the structural racism that is present in workplaces across Australia. The resulting publication through our publishing arm, Aboriginal Studies Press, will be a timely addition to our thought leading catalogue.”

The award is named after the pioneering anthropologist Professor William Edward Hanley Stanner, and came with a glass sculpture by artist Jenni Kemarre Martiniello as well as $5,000 in prize money, and mentoring and editorial support to bring the manuscript to a publishable standard before it goes to print.

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