Maintaining the Racial Contract by Debbie Bargallie wins the 2019 Stanner Prize

Stanner prize logo

We are very proud that ACRAWSA Secretary Dr Debbie Bargallie’s thesis, Maintaining the racial contract: Everyday racism and the impact of racial microaggressions on “Indigenous employees” in the Australian Public Service, has won the 2019 Stanner Award winner. The prize is awarded yearly by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) for the best academic manuscript written by an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander author.

Click to read the AIATSIS statement and watch a video of Debbie Bargallie’s speech, and read on for the text of her speech in full.

Good afternoon. I begin by acknowledging that we are meeting on the unceded land of the Ngunnawal peoples and pay my respect to Elders past and present.

I am a descendent of the Kamilaroi and Wonnarua peoples of New South Wales through my father Steve Bargallie – who was born in Manilla and raised in Werris Creek on Kamilaroi country.  My mother Beryl is a non-Indigenous woman of Irish descent from Pallamallawa near Moree.  My great-grandmother, Rose Ethel Griffiths, resided at the Walhallow Aboriginal reserve with her parents until she married Tom Bargallie in 1903. At that time, as an Aboriginal woman, she would have required permission to marry and leave the reserve. My great-grandfather, known as Barg Alli, came to Australia in the 1890s from the Punjab region of India, with his brother and cousin-brother – Ram Alli and Budda Deen. The three Mohammedan men married Aboriginal woman with Barg Alli and Budda Deen marrying sisters. The men apparently stowed away by ship from Bombay and entered Australia illegally. They initially took up work with family members who were cameleers and hawkers. Bargallie is listed on the 1913 Queensland Coloured Labour Asiatic Aliens register.  This is the shortened story of Us Bargallie Mob or what I call – “our Punjabi Dreaming”. 

Dr Debbie Bargallie at the 2019 Stanner Prize awards ceremony hosted by AIATSIS
Dr Debbie Bargallie at the 2019 Stanner Prize awards ceremony hosted by AIATSIS

Thank you to Jodie Sizer, Craig Ritchie, Michael Ramalli and team at AIATSIS and the Stanner family.  I am deeply honoured to receive this prestigious Stanner Award in recognition of my doctoral thesis – Maintaining the Racial Contract. 

This thesis would have not been possible without the 21 Indigenous participants whose experiences as Indigenous employees of the Australian Public Service give unique substance to this research. Their voices are privileged, and I consider them my co-theorists. Collectively – their narrative is one of survival, defiance and resistance.  I also recognise my fellow nominees and their contributions as Black Excellence in scholarship. 

In accepting this award, I recognise the work of William Edward Hanley Stanner. In his 1968 Boyer Lectures, he exposed a ‘cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale,’ regarding the plight of Aboriginal peoples for which he coined the phrase ‘the great Australian silence’. My doctoral thesis refers to, and resonates strongly with, W.E.H. Stanner’s frustration with government’s Aboriginal policy-making and practice. In his essay ‘White man got no Dreaming’ published in Essays 1938–1973, he wrote:

As it stands, Australian native policy and administration is a curious mixture of high intentions and laudable objectives, loosely formulated in vague principles; almost unbelievably mean finances; an extremely bad localadministration and an obstinate concentration on lines of policy which 150 years of experience have made suspect. (Stanner, 1979, p. 6)

W.E.H. Stanner’s words hold their own today. 

Indigenous employees to this day grapple with the irony of the APS placing importance of recruiting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the first place. While we may at times get a seat at the table, and occasionally a “voice”, our voices are rarely listened to and little robust substantive action is taken to redress.  This vastly inadequate response perpetuates epistemic violence. 

Before I speak a bit about my research, I want to say that – to stand here and accept this honour and recognition is especially significant to me because – at 15 years of age – like many of us – I was coerced into leaving Dapto High School in year 10. The headmaster told me that I wasn’t smart enough to study for the higher school certificate. I had wanted to be a PE teacher.  He told me – ‘being good at sport isn’t reason enough for us to keep you in school – your grades will never get you through the Higher School Certificate”.  At the time- 1981- there were limited employment options for unskilled young people in Wollongong and I was too young to collect unemployment benefits.  My father somehow raised the money to send me to a private secretarial school.  Even there, I was never good enough. I didn’t wear the right colour nail polish or didn’t wear the right colour stockings – there was always something else.

When my school friends were undertaking the entry level public service examinations, I didn’t – because I was too scared to fail. There is nothing like being told you are not good enough!  

I entered the Australian Public Service in 1999 and there, I acquired a Bachelor of Social Science and a Master of Social Policy and Planning and began my PhD Journey. This would have been my 20thyear in the APS had my career in APS higher education not come to a sudden end in 2013, when I was forced to take a voluntary redundancy. At the time, my mother had suffered a major stroke, which left her in a lengthy coma and hospitalised for a further 15 months. The department refused my request to relocate to a Wollongong or Sydney based office to remain close to her. The options given to me were – take leave without pay, return to Canberra or take a voluntary redundancy. The dehumanising actions taken by this department is evidence of how disposable we are as Indigenous employees. My decision to take a voluntary redundancy – what for any other person may have been a personal matter – became for me an act of political warfare. I wondered how many other Indigenous employees this had happened to?

My thesis draws on yarning sessions with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who work or have worked in the APS. Grounded in Critical Race Theory, it draws links between theory, practice, and importantly, the lived experiences of Indigenous Australian peoples at work to reveal how everyday racism manifests experientially for racialised Indigenous employees. The study CLEARLY demonstrates that racism is prevalent in the Australian Public Service workplace.  Despite increasing numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within the bureaucracy, Indigenous employees exposed multiple experiences of covert and overt racisms that manifest through the perpetration of racial microaggressions and commonly marked their everyday experience in the workplace.

Racial microaggressions are just one manifestation of structural and everyday racism that is a feature of the permanence of racism in the APS. Racial microaggressions threaten to keep Indigenous employees in their place and do not occur in isolation from white supremacist racial structures – they are linked to those structures.  

Having a better understanding of the APS workplace as a site of racial microaggressions informs not only critical race scholarship, it also illuminates the salience of structural racism in the Australian workplace.  

APS Indigenous employees strive to work to make a difference against the disparate conditions that Indigenous Australians are forced to endure in the racial state. Yet, their efforts to make a difference are obstructed by institutional barriers they face – including – the expectation to ‘leave their Indigeneity at the door’. 

And despite the APS being notionally based on meritocracy, hidden processes of exclusion remain, perpetuating a racial division of labour. Indigenous employees are underrepresented at senior levels and overrepresented on the lower rungs of the APS employment ladder. 

The book based on this thesis will be one of the first in Australia to use race and racism as a central category of analysis to interrogate structural and individual issues experienced by Indigenous employees in a workplace, from an Indigenous perspective.  It argues that there is an ‘invisible presence’ of a racial contract which underpins the ‘absent presence’ of racism. This racial contract is maintained through everyday acts of racism in the form of racial microaggressions. While not all non-Indigenous employees may be signatories to this contact – all non-Indigenous employees benefit from it.

Engaging with a range of scholarly materials from critical race theorists, my book will be a timely contribution to wide-reaching debates on race and racism. Racial literacy must become fundamental to education at all levels, a project urgently needed in the Australian context. Increasingly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are entering this historically white workplace where racism as a complex system of power is entrenched. The aim in this publication is to disrupt the normal working relationships of institutions where racism is embedded, and where simply conducting “business as usual” – is all that is required to maintain it.  

Laying bare this racial contract represents an important step in the direction of exposing structural white supremacy in the Australian Public Service that is maintained and reproduced through a contract that – to quote Charles Mills – “is still unbroken after all these years”!

The PhD journey is long, hard and lonely with many challenges that I could not have met without my academic mentors and colleagues. 

I was first encouraged to go on this PhD journey by Professor Steven Larkin and started my candidature at Charles Darwin University under the supervision of Dr. David Bennett. Following my confirmation, I took a lengthy period of leave from my PhD to manage my mum’s hospital care. I was also unemployed. In July 2014, Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson threw me a lifeline offering to transfer my candidature to Queensland University of Technology (QUT). There I won the inaugural QUT/NIRAKN Indigenous Postgraduate Award scholarship. 

Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson and Dr. David Singh became my supervisory team. The expertise, constructive criticism and intellectual commitment given to me from these scholars led me to a successful final seminar in late 2017. In the lead up to submission there was an unforeseen change of supervision. I was fortunate that Professor Clive Bean and Dr. Julie McLaughlin from QUT Creative Industries agreed to be my supervisory team and guided me through to successful completion. Thank you, Professor Bean, and Dr. McLaughlin for believing in me.

From the depth of my heart, I am ever grateful for my late dad and mum. My dad, Steve, a coal miner and strong unionist raised me up to be strong and resistant, to work hard, to “speak” up for those oppressed – especially in a workplace, and to “never take shit from anyone”. I remember as a little girl marching down Crown Street in Wollongong with my dad, demonstrating with coal miners and their families for workers’ rights. Standing on the steps of Parliament House with a train load of miners and steelworkers, I still remember how big and white that building was. Although –  it took me many years to understand how “white” that institution really is.  It was with my Dad that I first learned my ‘racial literacy’.  Those lessons, and the unconditional love and kindness we received from my mum Beryl, no formal education can give you. They would be very proud today if they could be here.

As I go forward in my scholarship, I deeply appreciate the ongoing support, encouragement and friendship from my remarkable ‘sisters in the Hood’, Professor Bronwyn Fredericks, Professor Bronwyn Carlson, Associate Professor Sandra Phillips, Cheryl Leavy and Robyn Forester.  You always have the ‘right words at the right time’. I also pay respect to my late sisters Rachel Marczak and Kerry Reed-Gilbert. I deeply appreciate the support of Professor Boni Robertson and Professor Susan Forde at Griffith University, the Griffith University Indigenous Research Unit and the Griffith Institute for Educational Research.  I am indebted to my critical friends and colleagues: Professor Elena Marchetti, Dr Shane Hopkinson, Dr Will Sanders and Associate Professor Alana Lentin. I value the many friendships I have with Indigenous and non-Indigenous APS colleagues.  

Finally, I thank my husband Joko for his patience and support in keeping the home fires burning and Milo, my chocolate Labrador, who laid down patiently in my study over many years, never failing to remind me when it was time for his afternoon walk. 

Just as I am inspired by those who came before me, and those who came with me on this journey, I hope that this work will inspire a community of Indigenous scholars who follow. Telling my story, I also hope that all who work with future Indigenous scholars will inspire them in deep acknowledgment of our on-going determination to create a just and equitable Australia for us all.

Whether Indigenous employees remain in the APS –  or opt out – we are still here AND we will not be silenced.

I am very proud to be publishing my work with Aboriginal Studies Press and to contribute to ASP’s esteemed list of Australian Indigenous scholarship and voice. 

Thank you!  

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