Situating Race in Cultural Competency Training: A Site of Self-Revelation




Cultural competency, training, race, culture, Indigenous, Australia, Revelation

How to Cite

Fredericks, B., & Bargallie, D. (2020). Situating Race in Cultural Competency Training: A Site of Self-Revelation. M/C Journal, 23(4).
Vol. 23 No. 4 (2020): revelation
Published 2020-08-12

Indigenous cross-cultural training has been around since the 1980s. It is often seen as a way to increase the skills and competency of staff engaged in providing service to Indigenous clients and customers, teaching Indigenous students within universities and schools, or working with Indigenous communities (Fredericks and Bargallie, “Indigenous”; “Which Way”). In this article we demonstrate how such training often exposes power, whiteness, and concepts of an Indigenous “other”. We highlight how cross-cultural training programs can potentially provide a setting in which non-Indigenous participants can develop a deeper realisation of how their understandings of the “other” are formed and enacted within a “white” social setting. Revealing whiteness as a racial construct enables people to see race, and “know what racism is, what it is not and what it does” (Bargallie, 262). Training participants can use such revelations to develop their racial literacy and anti-racist praxis (Bargallie), which when implemented have the capacity to transform inequitable power differentials in their work with Indigenous peoples and organisations.

What Does the Literature Say about Cross-Cultural Training?

An array of names are used for Indigenous cross-cultural training, including cultural awareness, cultural competency, cultural responsiveness, cultural safety, cultural sensitivity, cultural humility, and cultural capability. Each model takes on a different approach and goal depending on the discipline or profession to which the training is applied (Hollinsworth). Throughout this article we refer to Indigenous cross-cultural training as “cultural competence” or “cultural awareness” and discuss these in relation to their application within higher education institutions. While literature on health and human services programs in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and other nation states provide clear definitions of terms such as “cultural safety”, cultural competence or cultural awareness is often lacking a concise and consistent definition.

Often delivered as a half day or a one to two-day training course, it is unrealistic to think that Indigenous cultural competence can be achieved through one’s mere attendance and participation. Moreover, when courses centre on “cultural differences” and enable revelations about those differences they are in danger of presenting idealised notions of Indigeneity. Cultural competence becomes a process through which an Indigenous “other” is objectified, while very little is offered by way of translating knowledge and skills into practice when working with Indigenous peoples.

What this type of learning has the capacity to do is oversimplify and reinforce racism and racist stereotypes of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous cultures. What is generally believed is that if non-Indigenous peoples know more about Indigenous peoples and cultures, relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples will somehow improve. The work of Goenpul scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson is vital to draw on here, when she asks,     

has the intellectual investment in defining our cultural differences resulted in the valuing of our knowledges? Has the academy become a more enlightened place in which to work, and, more important, in what ways have our communities benefited? (xvii)

What is revealed in a range of studies – whether centring on racism and discrimination or the ongoing disparities across health, education, incarceration, employment, and more – is that despite forty plus years of training focused on understanding cultural differences, very little has changed. Indigenous knowledges continue to be devalued and overlooked. Everyday and structural racisms shape everyday experiences for Indigenous employees in Australian workplaces such as the Australian Public Service (Bargallie) and the Australian higher education sector (Fredericks and White).

As the literature demonstrates, the racial division of labour in such institutions often leaves Indigenous employees languishing on the lower rungs of the employment ladder (Bargallie). The findings of an Australian university case study, discussed below, highlights how power, whiteness, and concepts of “otherness” are exposed and play out in cultural competency training. Through their exposure, we argue that better understandings about Indigenous Australians, which are not based on culture difference but personal reflexivity, may be gained. 

Revealing What Was Needed in the Course’s Foundation and Implementation

This case study is centred within a regional Australian university across numerous campuses. In 2012, the university council approved an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander strategy, which included a range of initiatives, including the provision of cross-cultural training for staff. In developing the training, a team explored the evidence as it related to university settings (Anning; Asmar; Butler and Young; Fredericks; Fredericks and Thompson; Kinnane, Wilks, Wilson, Hughes and Thomas; McLaughlin and Whatman). This investigation included what had been undertaken in other Australian universities (Anderson; University of Sydney) and drew on the recommendations from earlier research (Behrendt, Larkin, Griew and Kelly; Bradley, Noonan, Nugent and Scales; Universities Australia). Additional consultation took place with a broad range of internal and external stakeholders.

While some literature on cross-cultural training centred on the need to understand cultural differences, others exposed the problems of focusing entirely on difference (Brach and Fraser; Campinha-Bacote; Fredericks; Spencer and Archer; Young). The courses that challenged the centrality of cultural difference explained why race needed to be at the core of its training, highlighting its role in enabling discussions of racism, bias, discrimination and how these may be used as means to facilitate potential individual and organisational change. This approach also addressed stereotypes and Eurocentric understandings of what and who is an Indigenous Australian (Carlson; Gorringe, Ross and Forde; Hollinsworth; Moreton-Robinson). It is from this basis that we worked and grew our own training program. 

Working on this foundational premise, we began to separate content that showcased the fluidity and diversity of Indigenous peoples and refrained from situating us within romantic notions of culture or presenting us as an exotic “other”. In other words, we embraced work that responded to non-Indigenous people’s objectified understandings and expectations of us. For example, the expectation that Indigenous peoples will offer a Welcome to Country, performance, share a story, sing, dance, or disseminate Indigenous knowledges. While we recognise that some of these cultural elements may offer enjoyment and insight to non-Indigenous people, they do not challenge behaviours or the nature of the relationships that non-Indigenous people have with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (Bargallie; Fredericks; Hollinsworth; Westwood and Westwood; Young).

The other content which needed separating were the methods that enabled participants to understand and own their standpoints. This included the use of critical Indigenous studies as a form of analysis (Moreton-Robinson). Critical race theory (Delgado and Stefancic) was also used as a means for participants to interrogate their own cultural positionings and understand the pervasive nature of race and racism in Australian society and institutions (McLaughlin and Whatman). This offered all participants, both non-Indigenous and Indigenous, the opportunity to learn how institutional racism operates, and maintains discrimination, neglect, abuse, denial, and violence, inclusive of the continued subjugation that exists within higher education settings and broader society.

We knew that the course needed to be available online as well as face-to-face. This would increase accessibility to staff across the university community. We sought to embed critical thinking as we began to map out the course, including the theory in the sections that covered colonisation and the history of Indigenous dispossession, trauma and pain, along with the ongoing effects of federal and state policies and legislations that locates racism at the core of Australian politics. In addition to documenting the ongoing effects of racism, we sought to ensure that Indigenous resistance, agency, and activism was highlighted, showing how this continues, thus linking the past to the contemporary experiences of Indigenous peoples.

Drawing on the work of Bargallie we wanted to demonstrate how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experience racism through systems and structures in their everyday work with colleagues in large organisations, such as universities. Participants were asked to self-reflect on how race impacts their day-to-day lives (McIntosh). The final session of the training focused on the university’s commitment to “Closing the Gap” and its Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). The associated activity involved participants working individually and in small groups to discuss and consider what they could contribute to the RAP activities and enact within their work environments. Throughout the training, participants were asked to reflect on their personal positioning, and in the final session they were asked to draw from these reflections and discuss how they would discuss race, racism and reconciliation activities with the governance of their university (Westwood and Westwood; Young).

Revelations in the Facilitators, Observers, and Participants’ Discussions? 

This section draws on data collected from the first course offered within the university’s pilot program. During the delivery of the in-person training sessions, two observers wrote notes while the facilitators also noted their feelings and thoughts. After the training, the facilitators and observers debriefed and discussed the delivery of the course along with the feedback received during the sessions.

What was noticed by the team was the defensive body language of participants and the types of questions they asked. Team members observed how there were clear differences between the interest non-Indigenous participants displayed when talking about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and a clear discomfort when they were asked to reflect on their own position in relation to Indigenous people. We noted that during these occasions some participants crossed their arms, two wrote notes to each other across the table, and many participants showed discomfort. When the lead facilitator raised this to participants during the sessions, some expressed their dislike and discomfort at having to talk about themselves. A couple were clearly unhappy and upset. We found this interesting as we were asking participants to reflect and talk about how they interpret and understand themselves in relation to Indigenous people and race, privilege, and power.

This supports the work of DiAngelo who explains that facilitators can spend a lot of time trying to manage the behaviour of participants. Similarly, Castagno identifies that sometimes facilitators of training might overly focus on keeping participants happy, and in doing so, derail the hard conversations needed. We did not do either. Instead, we worked to manage the behaviours expressed and draw out what was happening to break the attempts to silence racial discussions. We reiterated and worked hard to reassure participants that we were in a “safe space” and that while such discussions may be difficult, they were worth working through on an individual and collective level.

During the workshop, numerous emotions surfaced, people laughed at Indigenous humour and cried at what they witnessed as losses. They also expressed anger, defensiveness, and denial. Some participants revelled in hearing answers to questions that they had long wondered about; some openly discussed how they thought they had discovered a distant Aboriginal relative. Many questions surfaced, such as why hadn’t they ever been told this version of Australian history? Why were we focusing on them and not Aboriginal people? How could they be racist when they had an Aboriginal friend or an Aboriginal relative?

Some said they felt “guilty” about what had happened in the past. Others said they were not personally responsible or responsible for the actions of their ancestors, questioning why they needed to go over such history in the first place? Inter-woven within participants’ revelations were issues of racism, power, whiteness, and white privilege. Many participants took a defensive stance to protect their white privilege (DiAngelo). As we worked through these issues, several participants started to see their own positionality and shared this with the group. Clearly, the revelation of whiteness as a racial construct was a turning point for some.   

The language in the group also changed for some participants as revelations emerged through the interrogation and unpacking of stories of racism. Bargallie’s work exploring racism in the workplace, explains that “racism”, as both a word and theme, is primarily absent in conversations amongst non-Indigenous colleagues. Despite its entrenchment in the dialogue, it is rarely, if ever addressed. In fact, for many non-Indigenous people, the fear of being accused of racism is worse than the act of racism itself (Ahmed; Bargallie). We have seen this play out within the media, sport, news bulletins, and more. Lentin describes the act of denying racism despite its existence in full sight as “not racism”, arguing that its very denial is “a form of racist violence” (406).

Through enhancing racial literacy, Bargallie asserts that people gain a better understanding of “what racism is, what racism is not and how race works” (258). Such revelations can work towards dismantling racism in workplaces. Individual and structural racism go hand-in-glove and must be examined and addressed together. This is what we wanted to work towards within the cultural competency course. Through the use of critical Indigenous studies and critical race theory we situated race, and not cultural difference, as central, providing participants with a racial literacy that could be used as a tool to challenge and dismantle racism in the workplace.

Revelations in the Participant Evaluations?

The evaluations revealed that our intention to disrupt the status quo in cultural competency training was achieved. Some of the discussions were difficult and this was reflected in the feedback. It was valuable to learn that numerous participants wanted to do more through group work, conversations, and problem resolution, along with having extra reading materials. This prompted our decision to include extra links to resource learning materials through the course’s online site. We also opted to provide all participants with a copy of the book Indigenous Australia for Dummies (Behrendt). The cost of the book was built into the course and future participants were thankful for this combination of resources.

One unexpected concern raised by participants was that the course should not be “that hard”, and that we should “dumb down” the course. We were astounded considering that many participants were academics and we were confident that facilitators of other mandatory workplace training, for example, staff Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO), Fire Safety, Risk Management, Occupational Health and Safety, Discrimination and more, weren’t asked to “dumb down” their content. We explained to the participants what content we had been asked to deliver and knew their responses demonstrated white fragility. We were not prepared to adjust the course and dumb it down for white understandings and comfortabilities (Leonardo and Porter).

Comments that were expected included that the facilitators were “passionate”, “articulate”, demonstrated “knowledge” and effectively “dealt with issues”. A couple of the participants wrote that the facilitators were “aggressive” or “angry”. This however is not new for us, or new to other Aboriginal women. We know Aboriginal women are often seen as “aggressive” and “angry”, when non-Indigenous women might be described as “passionate” or “assertive” for saying exactly the same thing. The work of Aileen Moreton-Robinson in Australia, and the works of numerous other Aboriginal women provide evidence of this form of racism (Fredericks and White; Bargallie; Bond). Internationally, other Indigenous women and women of colour document the same experiences (Lorde). Participants’ assessment of the facilitators is consistent with the racism expressed through racial microaggression outside of the university, and in other organisations. This is despite working in the higher education sector, which is normally perceived as a more knowledgeable and informed environment. Needless to say, we did not take on these comments.

The evaluations did offer us the opportunity to adjust the course and make it stronger before it was offered across the university where we received further evaluation of its success. Despite this, the university decided to withdraw and reallocate the money to the development of a diversity training course that would cover all equity groups. This meant that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would be covered along with sexual diversity, gender, disability, and people from non-English speaking backgrounds. The content focused on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was reduced to one hour of the total course. Including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this way is not based on evidence and works to minimise Indigenous Australians and their inherent rights and sovereignty to just another “equity group”.    


We set out to develop and deliver a cross-cultural course that was based on evidence and a foundation of 40 plus years’ experience in delivering such training. In addition, we sought a program that would align with the university’s Reconciliation Action Plan and the directions being undertaken in the sector and by Universities Australia. Through engaging participants in a process of critical thinking centring on race, we developed a training program that successfully fostered self-reflection and brought about revelations of whiteness.

Focusing on cultural differences has proven ineffective to the work needed to improve the lives of Indigenous Australian peoples. Recognising this, our discussions with participants directly challenged racist and negative stereotypes, individual and structural racism, prejudices, and white privilege. By centring race over cultural difference in cultural competency training, we worked to foster self-revelation within participants to transform inequitable power differentials in their work with Indigenous peoples and organisations. The institution’s disbandment and defunding of the program however is a telling revelation in and of itself, highlighting the continuing struggle and importance of placing additional pressure on persons, institutions, and organisations to implement meaningful structural change. 


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Author Biographies

Bronwyn Fredericks, The University of Queensland

Bronwyn Fredericks is a Professor and the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement) at the University of Queensland. She is responsible for leading the implementation of the Indigenous strategy and strengthening leadership within the University in relation to Indigenous Engagement, as well as building links with the community. She is leading the implementation of UQ’s first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP).

Professor Fredericks is a member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) Research Advisory Committee (RAC) and a member of the Beyond Blue National Research Advisory Committee. Most recently she was research lead in the health node of the Australian Research Council-funded National Indigenous Researchers and Knowledges Network (NIRAKN), and is a member of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA). 

Prof Fredericks's research is multidisciplinary and cross-discriplinary and she has received over $10 million in research funds. She has been a recipient of research awards and fellowships, including both Endeavour and NHMRC awards and has a body of research grounded in public health and community health for which she was awarded a National Public Health Association of Australia Award (PHAA) in 2019. She has over 30 years of applied experience working in and with the tertiary sector, State and Federal Governments, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-based organisations.

Debbie Bargallie, Griffith University

Dr Debbie Bagallie is a postdoctoral Senior Research Fellow with the Griffith Institute for Educational Research, Griffith University. Debbie holds a Doctor of Philosophy from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and was awarded a QUT Dean of Creative Industries Award for her thesis. She is the 2019 national recipient of the Stanner Award for her recent manuscript. Her book Unmasking The Racial Contract: Everyday Racisms and the Impact of Racial Microaggressions on Indigenous Employees in the Australian Public Service was recently pulished by Aboriginal Studies Press (2020).  

Dr Bargallie is a member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium (NATSIHEC). Her research interest are in Indigenous Knowledges, decolnising methodologies, race, racism, critical race theory, and racial literacy.