At a recent Weenthunga Members Meeting a discussion was held regarding: Asking THE question – “Are you or your child of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage?”.

Attendees expressed their appreciation, saying “I really enjoyed the event and thought it was great to have two speakers offering different perspectives with conversation in between”. “Seemed too short!”

Speakers: John Whyte and Terori Hareko-Samios

 Terori Hareko-Samios is a Salt Water Woman with Melanesian and Polynesian heritage, with a strong Islander identity. She is a passionate advocate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Liaison Officers aspirations into high education, career and education progression having worked in this role at the Royal Women’s Hospital. She is now team leader of the ATSILO Team at CoHealth.

Associate Professor John Whyte, Deputy Dean, Critical Human Services, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University has been involved with urban and rural community efforts, internationally, for more than twenty years.  Most recently he was a co-developer of the ‘Stepping Up’ initiative that facilitates entry and transition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students into higher education programs.

 Summary of key points and discussion:

  Key points – John Whyte:

John started our discussion asking the group to consider the layers in us all and how they influence whether we feel comfortable asking the question or not.

  •  Acknowledging that we will not always get it right is an important step on the journey to feeling comfortable asking the question
  •  Understanding reactions from community and what might be behind them is important.  Not trying to over-compensate is important, as is avoiding being defensive.  Be authentic in your engagement.
  •  92% of people rated themselves from ok to very good in engaging with community.  However, 92% of community rated engagement as less than ok.
  • § Recognise the history of your organisation and how this might impact on whether someone will feel safe or not.
  • In mainstream, our legitimacy is attached to our role.  In community, establishing legitimacy is very different.  Whether someone can be trusted as an individual is an important question for community.   Think about your sense of self and how you behave – personal and professional? 
  • Dynamics are important depending on where you sit within an organisation and what your relationship will be with a First Australian.
  • i.e. point of contact?  Ongoing?  
  •  Biopsychospiritual aspects of the human condition.   
  •  Value is placed on formal education.  When our personal beliefs and what we have learned formally don’t align with what a client is saying we tend to disregard or minimalise what the client is saying.
  •  Practices in institutions, systems, procedures etc are behavioral
  •  Cultural comes from psychological and spiritual beliefs
  • A seemingly inoccuous question actually implicates broader systems, community beliefs, personal beliefs etc etc 
  •  When working with community the past is always present.


Key points:  Identification DVD

  •   An understanding of the reasons behind asking the question will help people to feel more comfortable to ask the question
  •  Negative reactions from people can make us less likely to want to ask the question again next time.  Educating yourself and practicing responses to different reactions will help to increase your confidence to continue asking new people the question
  •  Understand privacy, understand service delivery, providers, referral pathways available.
  •  Don’t say:  “it’s for statistics.”  “It’s for budget planning.”  “Aboriginal people get more funding than non-Aboriginal people.”
  •  Normalise asking the question.
  •  The majority of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people access mainstream health care.  There is a misconception that most Aboriginal people access Aboriginal Health Organisations
  •  Ask the question confidently and never question the response you get

  Key points from group discussion:

  •   How do we respond to the statement “we don’t see Aboriginal patients here.”    How do you know if you don’t ask? 
  •   In mainstream we ask direct questions.  When working with community you don’t ask direct questions.  Not asking directly is the more culturally sensitive way – this is an interesting tension in mainstream health – clinicians are time poor and more direct in communication.
  •  Not being able to take the time with people makes things impersonal
  •  Importance of role of AHLO and consent
  •  Understanding consent is really important
  •  If we celebrate Aboriginal identity it may be easier to ask the question
  • Understand where the woman in community is coming from and why
  •  When you ask the question make sure you do what needs to be done with the information – i.e. don’t just collect data, make sure that information can be used to individualise service
  •  Aboriginal people can be shamed up by feeling like they need to tell people who don’t ask the question.  It is Aboriginal people’s right to answer the question.
  •  People can be good advocates for other people but when they are in the position where they need to advocate for themselves that can be really difficult.
  • It is important to understand the Close The Gap policy and what services are available to Aboriginal people through this.
  • There are many ways you can engage in conversation with someone who wants to know why they are being asked the question
  • Important to train reception staff as first point of contact
  •  Some people feel uncomfortable to ask the question.  If someone thinks that they are asking something that is going to make someone feel uncomfortable.  The idea that someone might be ashamed of being Aboriginal.
  •  In education there is a fear of teaching Aboriginal history because teachers worry they are not going to ‘get it right’ 
  •   Asking the questions could be included in induction
  •  Asking the question could be included in position descriptions and performance reviews
  •  Health professionals ask very personal questions so why is this so challenging for us?
  •    This highlights where we are at as a society, as a nation. 
  •   It was suggested that we all prompt receptionists/health professionals to ask us the question when they have not done so and provide positive reinforcement when they do
  •  Asking about mother and baby is really important as mother may not be Aboriginal, while father is Aboriginal

  Key points Terori Hareko-Samios:

  •   Identity and wellbeing – one cannot exist without the other and both are essential to the development and keeping of cultural practices.  Also important to pass that knowledge to family and local community
  • §Identity and wellbeing are a married couple with skins of many different colours
  •  Do you want to learn in the way that Aboriginal people want to teach you or do you want to learn in the way that you have been taught to learn?
  • Identity at the core of wellbeing.  A holistic concept of wellbeing
  •  Community – connectedness to each other
  •  Sistergirls in a safe space – really loud because feel safe to communicate.  The importance of Yarning, telling each other’s stories.  How each person’s story connects to another