Shame, Guilt and Vulnerability: The next steps forward towards reconciliation

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The following is the transcript of a speech made by Shantell Bailey, Student Representative for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students on the outgoing SRC. It was delivered at the Sorry Day event last Friday, where the University’s Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) was launched.

Firstly, I would also like to pay my respects to the Wattamattageal clan of the Darug nation and to elders both past and present, as well as to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here with me today. Thank you, Leanne, and thank you Professor Dowton for coming and showing your support for the launch of the University’s Reconciliation Action Plan.

I’d also like to extend this thanks to everyone here today as this launch marks the beginning of a new journey for all of us. My name is Shantell Bailey and I am an empowered and educated young Aboriginal woman originally from Lithgow, NSW. I am also the first and only person in my family to go to university. Having almost completed my degree, preparing this speech allowed me the opportunity to reflect on some the things that I’ve been able to achieve over the last five years. Writing this speech, however, was a lot harder than I thought.

As an Aboriginal woman, I’ve had the opportunity to travel overseas to study and engage in international conferences on human rights. I have had the chance to travel across Australia to learn more about our indigenous cultures and meet with Aboriginal elders to speak about some of the nation’s sad realities. I’ve been able to engage in a number of legal internships, and was one of the first students at Macquarie to found a student group for Indigenous students, as well as represent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students across the university more broadly as an SRC representative. And over the last two years, I’ve been able to engage in a working group to develop the Reconciliation Action Plan we are here to celebrate today.

As I mentioned earlier however, I am still the first and only person in my family to go to university. I am the eldest of six children but do not know my family ancestry, and despite all my achievements and ability, statistically:

  • There is still a 17-year gap between my mother’s life expectancy and the life expectancy of non-Indigenous people in the same age bracket here today.
  • There is an 80% chance that I will lose a friend or loved one who is also Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander due to suicide, or I myself will suffer poor mental health due to intergenerational trauma alongside minority stress and micro-aggression.
  • My own children will be 1.7 times more likely to be lost to infant mortality.
  • My brothers and sisters are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than their non-Indigenous peers.
  • My cousins are 7 times more likely to be removed from their families.

The question I ask today however is why?

Today is a positive celebration of our commitment to work towards achieving reconciliation. However, it is clear that by looking at these statistics, my reality and the experiences I’ve had greatly differ from the reality of many other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country today.

These statistics are confronting. They are uncomfortable. They are upsetting. But predominately the most challenging thing about these statistics for me is that they are not talked about enough. So today I’d like to open up the conversation.

I’d like you to think that considering what you know today, what does reconciliation really mean to you?

And furthermore, for any non-Indigenous people here today, how can we start talking with you about reconciliation more openly? Particularly when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country face such grave and serious realities in 2017.

To dig a little deeper to try to understand how we might navigate these difficult conversations that are yet to be had about reconciliation, I turned to one of my friends who is here today, who is not only a critical thinker but also an amazing writer.

He told me to look closely at Brené Brown, who is a psychologist from the United States who has spent her life exploring the concept of vulnerability. What I found from watching some of Brené’s TED talks was that the only way she was able to do extensive research on vulnerability was by exploring the concept of shame.

This is where I need you to concentrate, as from the outset it needs to be known that guilt is very different from shame. When we talk about guilt there is a significant focus on behaviour; for example, if you feel guilty, that guilt comes from having felt like you made a mistake which had an impact on another person.

Shame, on the other hand, is the feeling some people have when they feel like they are the mistake.

For me, hearing Brené talk about shame was the first time that I was able to acknowledge that even as an empowered and educated Aboriginal woman, I have carried my own shame as a burden for many years.

“THAT SHAME IS INTRINSICALLY LINKED TO MY ABORIGINALITY AND THE FACT THAT HISTORICALLY IN THIS COUNTRY ABORIGINALITY WAS SEEN TO BE A MISTAKE.”

Essentially Brené describes shame as having a fear of disconnection. A fear that society has made you feel that there is something about you that people will see, judge and immediately disconnect with. That society has made you feel as if the part of you that you fear people will disconnect with was a mistake.

In reflecting on what Brené speaks about in her work, I realised that for years my shame, which presses against my chest each and every time I talk, get political, advocate and step into my identity, that shame is intrinsicially linked to my Aboriginality and the fact that historically in this country Aboriginality was seen to be a mistake.

This is really challenging for me to speak about as I’m standing here today as an advocate for my community and to speak about how important reconciliation is. However, at the end of the day as an Aboriginal woman, I carry a fear that people will disconnect from me if I tell them I am Aboriginal, as has occurred in the past.

What is even worse is that at the same time people disconnect they often also question my identity. This is a conversation I’ve had with people I trust but something I have never shared with my community.

For example, the first question some of my friends asked when I got into to university was ‘how many ATAR points did you get for being Aboriginal?’

The first question I was asked when I went to my first SRC meeting was, ‘You don’t look Aboriginal, what percentage are you?’

One of the first Facebook posts I had to respond to during my time as a student representative was ‘Why do all the Aboriginals get their own space on campus?’ in words which were written far less eloquently.

In reflection, my shame is overtly correlated with all of these questions, which may seem somewhat harmless in reading them today, however each of these questions is also based on our society’s misunderstanding of what it means to be Aboriginal.

What is important is that shame isn’t constructive and is highly correlated with addiction, depression, poor mental health, violence and suicide.

In the context of our society and some of those statistics I mentioned before, it is clear that this information tells us a lot about who carries shame in our communities and also a lot about who carries guilt. When it comes to addressing the issue of race inequality and reconciliation, we cannot talk about it without addressing privilege, and we cannot talk about privilege without talking about shame and guilt.

Shame is not only an epidemic in Indigenous communities, but in our society more broadly. It is universal and can be felt by anyone based on their identity. Those who experience shame are often those who lack the ability to speak openly about their experiences.

I am tired of not having this open conversation.

If we’re going to have this discussion about reconciliation into the future, we need to be vulnerable and we need to reach out to one another to talk about our collective fears when it comes to reconciliation. Do we run hand in hand into the sun today and say that having a reconciliation plan is enough, or do we collectively come together to really understand what we mean by reconciliation today so we put this plan into action into our own communities?

My measure for reconciliation is that if I and those within our communities across Australia still have the fear that people will disconnect with them over their Aboriginality – despite how strong or empowered or educated we might be – then we have still not achieved reconciliation. This is the vulnerable conversation we need to have after today.

Throughout our lives were often taught that vulnerability is a weakness. We’re told not to show our flaws, not to let anyone see us cry, and to push on. Today I can 100% guarantee you that I will walk away after giving this speech and feel like I have a ‘vulnerability hangover’ because I was completely open with a group of people in a public place and for once let my guard down to discuss a feeling I’ve had my whole life, but rarely every voiced.

However, vulnerability is not a weakness, it’s a strength, and it’s a realistic way of coming together to discuss what really matters. I am hopeful that my vulnerability in this moment will encourage change and for our community will be an accurate way for us to measure our achievement of reconciliation in the future.

While our Reconciliation Action Plan exists today, it will not become a living document until we physically engage and be vulnerable. More recently one of my friends, Bohdi, who is a student here at Macquarie, submitted an autobiographical account of what growing up as an Aboriginal person in Australia means to him for an anthology to be edited by Anita Heiss.

In his submission, he wrote ‘We cannot talk about reconciliation without talking about shame, guilt and accountability, and the reality is that it is not a simple, easy conversation… I think a lot of people are well-aware of the things they are ignoring, but in ignoring them and pretending they don’t exist, this means further avoiding this uncomfortable conversation.”

I think this truly summarises the work that needs to be done to achieve reconciliation today but also the difficulties we need overcome by having those uncomfortable conversations. While this speech may seem removed from the concept of reconciliation in some ways, for me I see vulnerability as the only way can come together to fully achieve reconciliation today. I could have spoken much more about how great it’s been to be involved with the RAP working group, as it has and I thank those who were involved and how promising it is that we finally have a solid commitment in 2017, however now that the moment is here that we’ve all been waiting for, please remember that our work here is not done and that it’s now time to take this plan and make it a reality.

I’d like to challenge you to think about the concept of shame and to engage in a conversation after this event where you too can be vulnerable.

What I have spoken about today isn’t about how Macquarie University can reflect on reconciliation, but as the people who can change the landscape of this country, it’s about how you can.

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