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Unsettling white noise: Yarning about Aboriginal education in Western Australian prisons

Carnes, Roslyn (2014) Unsettling white noise: Yarning about Aboriginal education in Western Australian prisons. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Though representing less than 4% of the Western Australian population, almost 40% of incarcerated adults and more than 70% of juveniles in detention in Western Australia are Aboriginal. Despite these figures prisoner education is rarely investigated in Australian academic research especially from an Aboriginal perspective. In response, this research focuses on what Aboriginal people themselves have to say about their experiences of education in Western Australian prisons. The intent is to identify what they believe helps and hinders education for Aboriginal prisoners.

Consistent with critical theory this research questions society, structures and systems in context. Specifically it is grounded in critical race and whiteness theory which argues that racialised categories are socially constructed by dominant Settler systems with whiteness unmarked as a racial grouping. Attempting to counter this often unrecognised privilege, Aboriginal and other Indigenous academic voices are prioritised in this thesis. From the standpoint of a critical ally, the culturally appropriate methodology of yarning is adopted to learn from the experiences of Aboriginal ex-prisoners who volunteered to participate in this research.

What is revealed relates to and goes beyond prisons and education, reflecting the interrelatedness of Indigenous life, worldviews and problem solving. Therefore experiences in prisons cannot be divorced from the broader structural and cultural influences shaping participant’s experiences of life. Based on experiences of the participants two major areas of hindrance to prisoner education can be identified. First is the impact of intergenerational trauma. Second are a range of challenges inside and outside prisons. Inside prisons there exists a lack of physical and human resources. Outside prisons Aboriginal inequality such as housing, employment, education and health are raised. Such hindrances are exemplars of white noise created by historical legacies, unquestioned white privilege and denial of Aboriginal sovereignty. What participants identify as helpful is programs, practices and relationships that value Aboriginal agency and reciprocity where non-Indigenous people and systems become informed of Aboriginal processes and perspectives of history.

Having recognized that white noise requires systemic transformation, the thesis attempts to move beyond deficit and victim-blaming approaches to Indigenous prisoner education with a view to closing ‘educational gaps’. Building strong relationships is the major goal in constructing this transformative educational framework based on the four cornerstones of Honouring Aboriginal Sovereignty and Healing of Historical Trauma and actions of transformative education that recognise the need for starting with Aboriginal Agency and Becoming Informed as Whitefellas.

Ultimately, it is not appropriate for Indigenous people alone to be expected to make shifts in thinking in order to match expectations of dominant Settler cultures. Changes are also required of non-Indigenous, mainstream systems, habits of mind and cultural self-awareness. Without such mutual transformation the din of white noise continues and reciprocal dignity and respect remains elusive whether inside or outside a prison.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Education
United Nations SDGs: Goal 4: Quality Education
Supervisor(s): Down, Barry and Thompson, Greg
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