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Decolonising Uni? A follow up.

Andrew Beitzel

One post, five Blackfullas and a week. That was all it took to decolonise a course with a pro-mission curriculum at a major university. For the last 5 months, I’ve kept asking myself, ‘How did we do it?’ More importantly, I’ve asked, ‘How can we help other mob use this?’

It was day after my post on Facebook went viral: showing that a First Nations course, taught by a white lecturer at Griffith University, was teaching impressionable undergraduate students that missions prevented the attempted genocide of our peoples. In the days that followed this post, approximately two thousand Blackfullas shared the post, commented and emailed to communicate their outrage at what we saw as racist content. Encouraged by the response on social media, I lodged a formal complaint through the Indigenous support unit at Griffith, GUMURRII. A meeting was arranged with the Elders at Griffith where we could yarn about the issue. During this process, I was supported by and worked together with other Indigenous students and their Elders from their home communities.

Initially, GUMURRII, nor the Griffith Elders, would not back our stance beyond individual support. We perceived that this was as a result of a sense of distrust or of us not knowing our place and causing trouble, despite this not being the intent. I was told I needed to make this an official student complaint, but I held concerns that this would not be considered in a way that addressed the institutionalised nature of racism. We pushed on – the answer lay in community action.

Although GUMURRII and the Griffith Elders did not support our approach, it is important that I address that it was ultimately not their issue to take forward – I acknowledged my responsibility to take the issue forward as I raised the grievance. However, it provided an interesting reflection. I found this to be an example of how institutions such as universities often have grievance policies that fail to address the social and cultural paradigms within this country, and this failure often results in White Australia pitting Blackfullas against one another to uphold its supremacy.

The university with predominantly white structures and systems places the responsibility for “fixing” racism or white supremacy onto Elders/Black staff. Elders are given little power to change institutional racism and Black staff cannot react in fear of losing wages and employability.

In turn, the risk is that the Black student directs their anger toward the Elder/Black staff and both parties attack one another instead of capitalism and colonialism. When Blackfullas fight each other, White Australia laughs at us.

Notwithstanding the difficulties we faced internally, we held our ground. We emphasised that this was a community issue affected all mob attending university and asked to escalate absent of GUMURRII and the Griffith Elder’s backing.

In escalation, three Black students including myself and an Elder from outside the university, attended a meeting with the Pro-Vice Chancellor and the Head of Humanities of Griffith University. The issue was able to be laid bare without distraction of internal politics, and we communicated that we were laying this responsibility at their feet. We addressed what we viewed as the university’s racism permeating a course that should have been taught by an Indigenous academic, from an Indigenous perspective, with consultation from Elders in the community. In that moment, they did not see three students and an Uncle, but two thousand Blackfullas sick to death of racism and injustice, about to tear them all down. Their reputation as a university was in our hands. We explained our position, shed our tears, and read out our demands. They committed to carry out what we wanted.

Despite what we saw as a victory, it would be naïve to assume we had truly won against the institution that is built upon and maintained by the Australian colonial system. The university system is an ebbing and flowing beast. When you take one class down and decolonise it, another will emerge to reproduce and re-centre white supremacy. Black academics have long identified the university as an instrument of White Australia well before me. Just this year, Associate Professor Chelsea Bond (Mukandi & Bond 2019, 261) wrote:

“For a long time, I had been trying to find the way to get beyond the veil – to outperform and outsmart racism. But I have resigned myself to the fact that the academy, as a world in which we are longing for a place, is theirs, not ours… What I am instead seeking is a way for us Blackfullas to be more at home in our own lands, more at home in our own skin. I want what is ours, not what is theirs.”

It is Bond’s recognition that the university is a white institution, that it ‘is theirs, not ours’, that I find so key to struggling for ‘what is ours’. There is an order between Black and white – we are oppressed, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and we have an oppressor, in White Australia. We do not carry the trauma and pain of our ancestors without context, our pain and grief exist because we are oppressed and because we were forced into a structure that attempts to make us powerless.

Our existence in the white system depends on inequality, on staying quiet, on subservience, on racism, on incarceration, on dispossession, on genocide. To White Australia, if Black voices are silenced, there can be no claim to the country the invader stole.

In contrast, the riches, privilege, and blind success of White Australia is no coincidence, their power was taken from our people, from country. White Australia is the oppressor, because they attempt to have power over us – through violence oppression, exploitation, coercion and racist education.

Black students, staff and Elders cannot speak out as individuals when White Australia so expertly divides and silences us. The process of undoing 231 years of colonisation, genocide, dispossession, paternalism, assimilation, child removal, incarceration and intergenerational trauma takes work. None of us can do this work alone. We need a union of Blackfullas pushing for a decolonised system together. We can decolonize university curriculums and teach the true Black history of all our nations, from an unfiltered Indigenous perspective that represents us, not teaches about us. Outside of curriculum, we can fight for better conditions within the university, against casualisation and towards secure, permanent positions for Black academics and staff. Black academics and staff deserve better wages, students need increases to Youth Allowance and Abstudy. Beyond all of that, we must also fight for our own institutions, to develop our own curriculums, to teach in our own classrooms and eventually, to form and control our own universities.

Decolonisation doesn’t lie within individual change. Decolonisation is power, it is country, culture and community, permanently in Black hands. When one Black voice spoke out, an entire course changed. One can only imagine what would what happen if a thousand Black voices organised together. White Australia as a structure of governance is terrified of our Black power – and it’s time we used it.

Always was, always will be.

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