Dealing with the wicked problem of racism – using theory as praxis

Date & time
1–2pm Thursday 23 February 2017

Phillipa Weeks Staff Library

ANU College of Law, 5 Fellows Road, The Australian National University

Marcelle Burns, University of New England
Jennifer Nielsen, Southern Cross University


For interstate visitors, we offer suggestions for accommodation near ANU.

Nicole Harman
College seminar
Event image

In 2014, we co-facilitated the specialist elective ‘Race and the Law’ as an LLB summer school intensive. Our pedagogical design was informed by Indigenous philosophy and knowledge (Watson, 2014; Morgan, 2012; Moreton-Robinson, 2007) and by Critical Race and Whiteness Theory (Delgado & Stefanic, 2012; Goldberg, 2001; Moreton-Robinson, 2009). Our aim was to prompt students to think critically about the ongoing significance of race to law (and law to race), how systems of race structure social relations, the capacity of mainstream law to operate as a racialised system of power, and whiteness as a position of privilege. We also sought to empower students by engaging them in a reflexive praxis through which they could develop self-awareness of the significance of race and respond to its influence in their personal and professional lives.

As Liptsitz argues, there is a ‘possessive investment in whiteness’ because of the close relationship between white supremacy and the accumulation of assets, or what he calls the ‘wages of whiteness’ (Lipsitz, 2006).  This ‘possessive investment’ became evident in our class discussion once we turned attention to an examination of special measures, affirmative action and other mechanisms that aim to equalise opportunities and alleviate the material inequities mediated by race. Yet there it was in our classroom – the wicked problem, racism.

In this paper, we share our reflections on our success in using theory as a practice to challenge the wicked problem of racism in the law classroom. In particular, we will reflect on the value of team teaching in this complex and dynamic teaching space and the significance to legal institutions and the profession of engaging law students in critical learning on race and whiteness. 


  • Marcelle Burns »

    Marcelle Burns is a Kamilaroi woman and descendant of the Stolen Generations. A strong advocate for recognition of First Nations peoples’ law and culture, Marcelle’s practical legal experience includes working as a solicitor with the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT Limited, and in private practice. She is a pre-doctoral fellow in the School of Law at UNE; previously at QUT, she led the inclusion of Indigenous knowledges and cultural competency in the LLB program.  She is currently the Project Leader for the Indigenous Cultural Competency for Legal Academics Program (funded by the Australian Government Department for Education and Training), and a member of the National Indigenous Research and Knowledges Network.

  • Jennifer Nielsen »

    Jennifer Nielsen is an Associate Professor in the School of Law and Justice at Southern Cross University. She is an active researcher in the field of race and the law, applying Critical Race and Whiteness theory to mainstream Australian law in order to expose its normative standards and tendency to privilege ‘white’ interests. Since 2013, she has been part of a four-person team that delivers staff training on race and racism – Courageous Conversations About Race – to the SCU community. 


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