The irony of the Aboriginal academic

20 May 2018

I was the first in my family to attend University and I remember my father being less than impressed at my decision to study rather than do real work. “Places like that weren’t meant for people like us”, he stated.

I can’t recall ever aspiring to be an academic. And certainly there was never an intention or expectation for me to become one.

As the youngest of four children, in a working poor Black family located in one of the most outer southern suburbs of Brisbane, the ivory tower of academia was not visible to us. Instead, each morning at our front window we were greeted by the dusty grey foundry that my Dad worked at, which lay on the other side of four lanes of traffic and the railway tracks.

I was the first in my family to attend University and I remember my father being less than impressed at my decision to study rather than do real work. “Places like that weren’t meant for people like us”, he stated.

And maybe he had a point. The sandstone walls of the Great Court at The University of Queensland have Aboriginal heads etched into them, featuring alongside the poinsettia, cockatoo and flying fox. The reasoning, it turns out was they wanted to mark the sandstone “with a few Australian things which the average Australian does not recognise”. Each classified under the label of “Australian Flora and Fauna” these “things” were to add “atmosphere and pleasure to the building fabric”.

The foundations of our most learned institutions were built upon the premise that the Aborigine was not human, and thus incapable of learning or knowing. Our presence was merely an accessory adding to the aesthetic of white knowing, and to this day as a Black academic, I’m still forced to contest this ideology as an everyday practice.

Aboriginal carving from UQ

As a Blackfulla, I had a very privileged education – not because I attended a sandstone university but because my undergraduate degree in Applied Health Sciences consisted of no more than 15 other students, almost all of which were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. With most being mature age students, they were as much my teachers as the paid teaching staff.

It was in this learning place that the critical consciousness nurtured at my kitchen table was cultivated.  Having just turned 17, I was questioning not who I was but instead interrogating and questioning the knowledges that had been constructed about us, and the things that were supposedly meant for us.

At University I learnt many interesting and surprising facts about the Aborigines – facts which bore a striking resemblance to the fictions I had heard about the Aborigines from teachers, strangers and friends in the outer suburbs where I grew up. The only difference was, at University they were articulated in a far more sophisticated way. Here, these claims were not stereotypes and prejudices, these claims were dressed up as knowledge and truth – objective and scientific.

I reckon it was only because I was surrounded by mob within that institution, that I gained the courage and conviction to use the tools I had acquired, as weapons to resist the knowledges produced about us, and the expectations put before for us.

There have been any number of Whitefullas and Blackfullas, on the left and on the right, who insist that those of us who get access to a western education become latte-sipping elites out of touch with our mob. And I guess, if you’ve accepted or internalised the knowledges produced about us, that would be a likely conclusion. Certainly there remain some that believe that a western education is something that is reserved exclusively for Whitefullas, or alternatively is a pathway to Whiteness. I don’t discount that possibility but I refuse to accept it as the only possibility.

Knowledge is power and while knowledge has been weaponised against us as Blackfullas, it presents us with an opportunity to develop the emancipatory weaponry that we need. I am by no means suggesting that this task can only be achieved through access to western academic institutions; but I do believe that these places represent an important site in which we as Blackfullas must be fighting in also.

Sadly, I think there is a tendency to see both the Aborigine and the Aboriginal activist in a fairly narrow kind of way. We are forced into a false binary, a spectrum of the traditional versus modern Aborigine of which Moreton-Robinson contests, as well as the grassroots versus the uptown Blackfulla of which mob have to contest everyday also. Our locale is often seen as indicative of where we lay on that spectrum. Inasmuch as the real Aborigine is situated in the outback, the real activist is on the street. To suggest that there is a location or occupation in the colony where we could be Blacker, more authentic, more grassroots is a misstep, a mistake, and a lie.

And this is not to diminish the important work that our mob have done and are continuing to do on the streets – I’m not sure where we would be without the sustained and coordinated efforts of the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance and the many warriors that have come before them since 1788 who have put their bodies on the line, who sat in, sat down, spoke out, stood up and stood their ground.   I also do not wish to discount the labour of the mob who are working within the machinery of things negotiating and navigating the daily wins and losses for us behind closed doors, whose acts and names remain unknown, but whose bodies bear the brunt of colonial violence too. As a Blackfulla, I am energised by the various text, talk, thoughts and acts of Blackfullas and the different ways in which Black resistance is undertaken, in which Indigenous sovereignty is exercised to name, reclaim and reframe what is ours, including who we are. I’m more interested in examining how our emancipatory work, works together collectively, simultaneously in these different spaces to reconfigure how we are imagined, rather than contesting whose work or location is more legitimate, radical or more palatable.

It isn’t easy for the natives in the colony, no matter where we or our work resides. If the recent Commonwealth Games did anything for Blackfullas politically – it was the opportunity to see that it doesn’t matter whether we are in their arena, or outside of it – the colonisers will insist that we are vile and disgusting, proclaiming that our presence is a threat to them and their children while they insist upon their right to steal ours. It doesn’t matter what we do, or how palatable we think our presence might be for them – they will continue to imagine us as the problem.

It is through the writings of Indigenous scholars, from Langton’s ‘Urbanising Aborigines: The Social Scientist’s Great Deception’ (1981), Dodson’s Wentworth Lecture, Rigney’s articulation of ‘Indigenist Research Methodology and its Principles’, Nakata’s ‘Disciplining the Savages’, Huggins’ ‘SisterGirl’ and Moreton-Robinson’s ‘Talkin Up to the White Woman’, that I could see a possibility for activism in the academy and the requirement to reconfigure the imagined ideological spaces that imprison us, literally and figuratively.

It was in their work that I could see a kind of labour that was real and necessary for us as Blackfullas to be undertaking.  It was via their work that I came to see the University not as tower, but as a factory – much like the one I lived across the road from.  Instead of producing steel, it produces knowledge, knowledge that is racialized and violent and enabling to the colonial project.

Every day it churns out the knowledges that make the racialized inequities we experience possible, rendering moderate propositions for co-existence unpalatable, making the ongoing brutality of the state plausible.

Almost 40 years ago, Native American scholar Vine Deloria Jr declared;

The problem of Indians have always been ideological rather than social, political or economic…it is vitally important that the Indian people pick the intellectual arena as the one to wage war.  

Indeed, for the natives here, there remains both real work, and a real war to be waged in the academy; it just requires a few more warriors to serve.

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