In a groundbreaking study, an Aboriginal researcher at James Cook University has placed mainstream Australian culture under the microscope to de-mystify it for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
While it is commonplace for mainstream cultures to dissect minority cultures, JCU College of Medicine and Dentistry researcher, Dr Lorraine Muller, decided to reverse the process in her latest PhD thesis, Shifting the Lens: Indigenous research into mainstream Australian culture.
“Cross-cultural education is usually shorthand for learning about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, not learning about non-Indigenous Australians,” she observed. “We have to explain our culture, but no one ever bothers explaining non-Indigenous culture. In some ways you’re rather a mystery to us – and we have questions to ask too.”
Her research was prompted, in part, by the need to promote greater inter-cultural respect and understanding in healthcare delivery – a crucial factor in improving health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“Without basic inter-cultural respect and understanding, the gap is never going to be closed,” she said.
“There has to be a concerted effort by both non-Indigenous Australians and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to gain some understanding of each other’s cultures.”
Dr Muller’s research included a qualitative survey of “influential” non-Indigenous mainstream Australians, which featured interviews with senior health professionals, public servants and academics (including one university vice-chancellor).
She posed questions about a range of concepts; asking interviewees for their understanding of terms such as respect, gender roles, spirituality and time, after giving them examples of how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people perceive these ideas.
The interview results revealed that non-Indigenous mainstream Australians possess a very different cultural mindset and agenda that can tip over into accidental racial stereotyping behaviour, even among highly scrupulous healthcare professionals.
“The Indigenous concept of respect is based on a fundamental truth of equality. Basically, everyone should get respect,” Dr Muller said.
“For non-Indigenous people, respect is earned and commodified. There is respect in relation to politeness, as well as a component based on fear of authority figures, such as the police. Respect is often linked to money, power and social strata – and Indigenous people are the lowest on the social scale.
Dr Muller cited a doctor who told an Indigenous patient that their health problems no doubt stemmed from heavy drinking and smoking, despite evidence to the contrary.
“The patient told the doctor that they were allergic to alcohol, so didn’t drink, and had never smoked tobacco or any other substance,” she said.
“The doctor admitted that he already knew that. He’d just read it (in the patient’s history), so had no idea why he said what he said.
“In that particular case, if the patient had taken offence and walked out of the doctor’s surgery, the consequences could have been fatal, health-wise.
“But that doctor was not a racist, in our understanding of the word. He knew immediately that his comment was triggered by deeply embedded cultural differences. And he didn’t like it. I’m sure he never did it again.”
Dr Muller was surprised by the degree of monetisation in so many aspects of non-Indigenous culture.
“A researcher in the Northern Territory said Indigenous people there refer to this obsession with money as ‘dollar dreaming’.”
She believes that emphasising the dollar value of effective health care delivery could – ironically – act as an incentive to promote greater inter-cultural respect and understanding.
“In terms of nice, non-Indigenous performance indicators, it makes financial sense to develop inter-cultural respect to progress the closing the gap agenda,” she said.
In broader terms, Dr Muller hopes her findings will not only offer Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people greater insight into what makes non-Indigenous Australians tick, but also help non-Indigenous people better understand themselves and their relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“It’s about opening a conversation,” she said. “I do think most non-Indigenous Australians want to find a way to live in harmony and respect – to engage in decolonisation. It’s very clear we need to harness that. My work provides a framework to encourage that process.”
Dr Muller is the only student ever to have been awarded two Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degrees by James Cook University. Her second PhD was awarded cum laude and with the university medal.
Dr Lorraine Muller
Professor Sarah Larkins
Associate Dean, Research
College of Medicine and Dentistry
Co-Director, Anton Breinl Research Centre for Health Systems Strengthening
Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine
P: 0 7 47813139