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Decolonising? Not at Uni

21 Aug 2019

The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is due to open a sponsored undergraduate major at the University of Queensland in 2020. Named ‘Western Civilisation’, it features such ‘exemplar’ topics as ‘The Judaeo-Christian Tradition’, and ‘Creating the West’ (see: theft).

Andrew Beitzel

The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is due to open a sponsored undergraduate major at the University of Queensland in 2020. Named ‘Western Civilisation’, it features such ‘exemplar’ topics as The Judaeo-Christian Tradition, and Creating the West’ (see: theft). For anyone Aboriginal with remotely left politics enrolled at university, we can only stare, mouth agape, in dread. The Ramsay Centre is a perfect example of the old guard asserting white supremacy at the university. The old Judaeo-Christian defenders in Tony Abbott and John Howard, both on the board of the Ramsay Centre, are raising their swords and shields, eager to defend the noble order of so-called Australia and preserve their racist terra nullius hegemony in the colony. In reaction to their assault, images are conjured up in my mind of Marlon Brando at the end of Apocalypse Now, at the edge of death, whispering his famed line – “the horror, the horror.”

Meanwhile, Griffith University stands as the ‘progressive alternative’ to the sandstone universities. I’ve been enrolled at Griffith since 2015, undertaking a Bachelor of Arts majoring in History & Indigenous Studies. I’m a Nyigina & Gubbi Gubbi man, descended from my great-grandparents who were both stolen from their families and taken to Moore River Native Settlement in the early 1910s. Their cultures, identities and languages were ripped from them in a genocide designed to wipe Aboriginal people out. Despite the struggle and horror, they survived for the next generation of their family. They fought and survived so I could live a better life than they did. As a result, my family are everything the old colonial guard in Australia hates – a living reminder of the failure of colonisation & genocide, and I’m proud as hell of that. On Nathan campus, you are bombarded with inclusive pictures of happy people of all colours, fitting in just great. ‘At Griffith, everyone belongs’: their proud slogan. I found out the hard way that I didn’t belong at all.

At Griffith, I assumed I would have my history respected and acknowledged, just as the slogan said. Earlier this year, I enrolled in a class called ‘First Nations’, hoping to learn more about my own culture and other Indigenous peoples across continents. I’d never considered that I could mix higher education with Indigenous knowledge – studying our stories and dances with the same vigour and discipline as any Western text. Instead, I was lectured on the German enlightenment, how it justified German colonial missions, and how missions actually prevented the genocide of my people. All of this research was ‘consulted’ with Aboriginal Elders, of course.

When I questioned the white lecturer, she said I had to ‘unlearn what I already knew’ and that she would ‘teach me a new perspective I hadn’t considered’. In other words: unlearn Blackness, forsake my ancestors, and assimilate. Bring forth the fire in my belly.

After a post on social media detailing the racism in the course, support and outrage from a thousand Blackfellas or more followed. Flooded with messages, I helped organise together Aboriginal students and lecturers who were furious over the content, and Elders from our communities came aboard with us. Within 2 weeks, we succeeded in our demands. The lecturer stepped down and was replaced with an Aboriginal lecturer, and the course content was agreed by the university to be revamped completely as per our demands. We came together in class and spoke on a panel composed entirely of Indigenous people and opened with Gamilaroi welcoming dance Yammaa Yuligi. We spoke frankly about missions and the true history of genocide against our people, and power and knowledge were in Black hands – as it always should have been. It was decolonisation in action, and it was so beautiful.

Notwithstanding this triumph, the following semester I enrolled in history subjects and I was having the same conversations with a different lecturer who failed to consider anything beyond the European normative discourse. The same lines, the same arrogance, all coming back at me. The white faces change, but the lines are always the same. ‘I can’t tell people what to think’, ‘I’m here to teach objective research, I can’t be biased’, ‘I can’t do justice to history outside of Europe because I don’t have enough time’.

No research is objective, no academic position is ever neutral – there is always a bias and socio-political context that defines a researcher’s work.

I find myself hopelessly lost at university, without any sense of being challenged or being able to challenge curriculums and the white norms that dominate them. Universities aren’t places for Aboriginal students that question the system and if they want to be inclusive, they have some serious work to do.

Despite the understandable disgust at Universities partnering with the Ramsay Centre, it is disingenuous to suggest that the fight against whiteness and supremacy ends with denouncing the teachings of The Ramsay Centre  because it is a microcosm of the pre-existing European dominance in the university system, an open declaration by colonial elites that exclaims ‘White Australia is in charge of your university’.

We cannot whitewash ongoing genocide for a white audience – we need truth-telling of Aboriginal history. We need to leave behind the objectifying notion of ‘Indigenous Studies’, designed for white students to study and ‘understand’ us as objects. We need Aboriginal Histories, community consulted education that teaches us our culture, our languages, our dances, our dreaming. Majors in Native agriculture, astrology, medicine and law could be taught from a purely Black perspective. We could study our culture with the same higher intellectualism and dedication that any white history class would study their own self-appointed masterpieces. We can dream to study the true history of all our peoples, extending far beyond colonisation and capitalism. Black students, in Black courses, from Black majors, at Black universities.

Regardless of what the university system thinks of us, and how are treated in it, one thing is for certain: White Australia has a Black past, a Black present, and a Black future. We are coming for you, and you’d best come with us – or get out of the way.

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