Taking action for cultural safety


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Catalysed by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police and the increased burden of COVID-19 on minority ethnic communities, Black, Indigenous and People of Colour worldwide are calling for justice and equity.

It’s a dangerous time, in which some of us are more vulnerable than others. Listening to the voices of the vulnerable is an act that’s devastatingly overdue. It is crucial for the arts community to reflect on how it can mobilise in such a precarious time.

Cultural safety is an approach we can use to look at how our behaviours, opinions and actions can negatively affect the cultural identity and wellbeing of the people we work with.

Individuals and organisations can use the idea to reflect on their work and positively address imbalances of power through building equal partnerships.

Where does ‘cultural safety’ come from?

The term was taken up by the Nursing Council of New Zealand (NCNZ) in 1992 in response to advocacy from Maori nurses, in particular Irihapeti Ramsden. The nurses wanted to make sure the cultural identities of Maori people were respected by health professionals and organisations that were knowingly and/or unknowingly biased towards non-Indigenous people and practices.

According to NCNZ, cultural safety now refers to both an ethical framework and its intended outcome, in which:

  • The person delivering a service ‘will have undertaken a process of reflection on their own cultural identity and will recognise the impact that their personal culture has on their professional practice.’
  • ‘Culture includes, but is not restricted to, age or generation; gender; sexual orientation; occupation and socioeconomic status; ethnic origin or migrant experience; religious or spiritual belief; and disability.’
  • ‘Unsafe cultural practice comprises any action which diminishes, demeans or disempowers the cultural identity and wellbeing of an individual.’

When we build upon this idea in non-health related contexts, it is important to be respectful and recognise cultural safety’s history and original intent. Cultural safety is an Indigenous peoples’ approach strengthened by over twenty-five years of development.

How is cultural safety relevant to the arts and cultural sectors?

A cultural safety approach not only recognises the validity of beliefs and practices of people and communities that may differ from our own, but also challenges us to act to make spaces safer.

As arts and cultural workers, we can use this approach to ensure that we do not impose our own values and beliefs in ways that result in a loss of power for others.

Cultural safety helps us develop different ways of thinking and talking about discrimination and then act to effect change. It helps us draw attention to and combat the effects of dominant culture bias in our institutions and identify how this impacts the diversity of the arts and cultural sector.

A cultural safety approach also provides a consistent language that can be used across our sector at any level (not just in community-engaged practice).

Why do we need cultural safety?

Australia is a white settler colony, in which British invasion and colonisation have institutionalised whiteness.

Like other sectors, this history is strongly reflected in the arts, including the ways our practitioners, organisations and institutions develop and deliver projects in collaboration with artists and communities.

Arts organisations often prioritise and centre whiteness. For people and communities who are not white, these organisations may not be seen as appropriate, accessible or acceptable, which can prevent participation and engagement.

Australia Council for the Arts statistics from 2015 show that the arts and cultural sector does not currently reflect the socially, culturally and politically diverse contemporary society within which we all live.

  • Professional artists from non-English speaking backgrounds make up only 8% of the 44,000 practicing professional artists in Australia.
  • 63% of people from a non-English speaking country of birth attend the arts (compared to 71% of all Australians) and 38% are engaged in creative participation (compared to 48% of all Australians).

In 2017, cultural economists David Throsby and Katya Petetskaya also found significant differences in payment for artists’ creative work.

  • For artists from non-English speaking backgrounds, income from creative work is 5% less than professional Australian artists overall.
  • For disabled artists, it is 51% less.
  • For regional artists, it is 29% less.
  • For female artists, income is 30% less than male artists despite spending similar amounts of time on their creative practice.

The arts sector can be as racist, ableist, transphobic, homophobic, classist, ageist and sexist as our broader society. Cultural safety requires us to be conscious of the whole context within which we operate, and work across historically isolated categories of difference.

As Melbourne writer and arts worker Andy Butler observes: ‘Staying sane as a person of colour in the arts in Australia means being able to hold two oppositional ideas as simultaneously true. One is that there is a community of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour in the arts who are doing important and incredible work. The other is that the sector is aggressively and institutionally White.’

In this context, cultural safety has the potential to address the ongoing harm caused by colonisation in order to address racism and improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Cultural safety also has the potential to transform institutional responses to these statistics. It is a stakeholder-centered approach that emphasises sharing decision-making, information, power and responsibility.

Cultural safety opportunities

Cultural safety offers a well-developed language and layered approach to critically reflect, discuss and act on issues of privilege, power and difference.

It connects individual actions to broad-based approaches to systemic change.

It supports reflection between cultures and experiences, but also within cultural groups.

It is broad enough to recognise issues and concerns across a range of individual and collective experiences and creative practices; enabling an intersectional approach to the challenges we face as a sector.

Cultural safety principles

Cultural safety can be put into action by applying its principles to our work.

Health educators Kerry Taylor and Pauline Thompson Guerin have adapted the work of Maori nurse educator Irihapeti Ramsden to identify four core principles of cultural safety:

  1. Practice critical self-reflection: as part of an ongoing process of developing our understanding of ourselves. In particular, we need to commit to increasing our awareness of the way we see the world and how our identity and the groups we belong to are formed and influenced by history, society and the context within which we live.
  2. Use engaged communication: with the commitment to accepting another person’s point of view, not making assumptions and approaching difference with equity rather than judgment. It is particularly important in culturally safe communication not to speak or act on behalf of anyone else.
  3. Minimise power imbalances: by developing an awareness of power, how power can be different in each new context, and how we can take appropriate action to share power with those we are working with. Employment can give us different types of power such as access to funds and equipment but it can also give us status and authority.
  4. Decolonise practice: by identifying and changing parts of our work such as language, processes and structures that reinforce colonising processes. In cultural safety, ‘decolonising’ does not only refer to the historical events of colonisation but to the processes of domination or control of one group over another.

Nine ways you could begin working on cultural safety

We cannot declare ourselves to be culturally safe. Instead, our work is identified as culturally safe or unsafe by the people we work with. But don’t wait for someone to lead you towards cultural safety. Take responsibility and do the work yourself.

  1. Understand and know your own biases through self-education and self-analysis.
  2. Read and research. There are plenty of books, blogs, articles and websites on cultural safety and related areas that invite us to reflect on our biases and worldviews as well as the ways power and control operate. These include: critical whiteness, racial literacy, queer theory, cultural democracy, ableism, intersectionality, decolonisation and feminism.
  3. Attend workshops, talks, events and conferences that support you to unpack how your own cultural background structures your thinking and behaviour. Seek to expand your appreciation and respect for people whose experience and knowledge differ from your own.
  4. Self-evaluate and invite peer-evaluation of your arts activities, projects and practice. Ask yourself how you have applied cultural safety principles to your work and what actions you have taken to address culturally unsafe spaces within your sphere of influence.
  5. Find or develop a community of practice. This may be a network, a small group, or even a few friends you can meet in a safe space to discuss the ideas and principles behind cultural safety. This is a group where you can collectively draw on each other’s skills and knowledge, brainstorm challenges and support each other’s ongoing development.
  6. Commit to communicating about cultural safety and the lack of it with those you work with.
  7. Examine and challenge organisations, institutions and structures. Think about the values that are evident in the arts and cultural organisations you work with. Seek to collaboratively amplify the values that reflect cultural safety and challenge and disrupt those that do not.
  8. Lead, steward and/or support your organisation towards a commitment (and actions) to being a culturally safe place.
  9. Above all, persist. Working towards cultural safety in your creative practice is a life-long commitment. Acknowledge and celebrate the effort and the learnings along the way.

Dr Ruth DeSouza is a 2020 RMIT Vice Chancellor’s Fellow, based in the School of Art and a member of the Design and Creative Practice Enabling Capability Platform (ECP). Ruth has extensive networks across the Melbourne creative industries and is on the Fair Play project reference committee. Ruth’s origins lie in Goa, India, but she has lived in East Africa and Aotearoa New Zealand and now lives on unceded Boonwurrong country as an uninvited migrant guest. Ruth has been involved in nursing education and the teaching of cultural safety in both Aotearoa and Australia.
Twitter: desouzarn
Website: ruthdesouza.com

Robyn Frances is a multi-disciplinary artist and writer living on unceded Larrakia country in Darwin with settler colonial white heritage. Robyn has worked for over 19 years on research-led community arts, cultural development and social justice projects, in Australia and internationally. Robyn is currently undertaking their PhD by creative practice at the Tasmanian School of Art on the relationship between authority, documentation and truth and has recently begun ‘The Connection Curve’, a project exploring social connection within the context of the global COVID pandemic and its cultural, economic and environmental impacts funded by Arts NT.

An extended version of this article was first published in The Relationship is The Project (Brow Books, 2020).

This article appeared in Spotlight, the Arts Wellbeing Collective magazine:


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