Indigenous academic women: treated as ‘black performer’ in higher education

12 Aug 2020

Despite being highly qualified within the academic system, and sovereign beings of these unceded lands, Indigenous academic women are often positioned as ‘black performer’ by their fellow academics and colleagues.

In recent decades it has become increasingly common for higher education institutions in so-called Australia to engage in institutional branding and marketing which position their organisations as ‘inclusive’, ‘equitable’ and committed to ‘indigenising’ their curriculums and research practice. Goals of increased Indigenous engagement, consultation, staffing, course content, and student enrolment and completion rates are often noted within formal institutional documents such as Reconciliation Action Plans (RAP). They may also be noted in speeches performed by executive members of the university, commitments made within Ethics applications as part of research project and grant applications; and communicated via the university’s online and community presence through social media and marketing campaigns. However, this study reveals that how and by whom such institutional goals and commitments are actually enacted within the academy remains an ongoing point of tension, and one which produces a significant burden on a minuscule workforce of Indigenous academics.

It is undeniable that Indigenous academics are in high demand, but with less than 430 Indigenous academics currently employed within Australian higher education institutions, and 69% of that cohort identified as female, what does it look like to experience this demand as an Indigenous academic woman? In 2019 I travelled this continent and spoke with Indigenous women who are presently employed within academic roles in Australian higher education institutions. Due to their belonging to a small, highly identifiable workforce, in order to ensure their anonymity, I cannot share the specific institutions they work in or identifying features such as which Nation group they belong to.

A novel finding of this study, and the focus of this article, is that despite being highly qualified within the academic system, and sovereign beings of these unceded lands, Indigenous academic women are often positioned as ‘black performer’ by their fellow academics and colleagues.

These experiences were storied with me by academic women from various faculties, holding varying titles, positions, and duration of employment.

When discussing the public commitments made by the university, including the creation of documents such as RAPS, numerous participants spoke of the workloads and ‘grunt work’ of creating and enacting these commitments falling on the miniscule number of Indigenous staff – regardless of their formal role and academic title.

Note: The ‘data’ below is collective, poetic transcription. Meaning that direct quotes from numerous participants have been woven together to create poetic blocks. This retains the meaning, without risking their identity.

You go into a lot of institutions that struggle with their Indigenous KPIs around students, undergraduate students, HDR students, staff.
And they’ll say, ‘Oh we’ve got a RAP plan, it’s been done by our Indigenous unit.’
And it’s just that all of the
movement about supporting Indigenous work within the University falls on the Indigenous people.
As though it’s their responsibility, not that they are
able to give insight into how this should be the core University work and everyone’s responsibility.

 These findings support the existing literature which shows that non-indigenous academics often turn to Indigenous academics for support when it comes to completing their own workloads, in ways which are positioned as ‘invisible’ despite being very visible to the person asking the Indigenous academic to complete the task/service for them. In this way the actual work of enacting institutional commitments to ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ which one might assume is being shared across the academy, is instead placed on the miniscule Indigenous workforce. To comprehend the sheer burden this behaviour creates, you must understand that there are over 120,000 people employed in Australian higher education institutions, but less than 1,300 Indigenous staff if you include both academic and professional roles, and less than 430 if you isolate to Indigenous peoples in academic specific roles. Participants in this study spoke of receiving numerous inappropriate requests for free labour from their colleagues – including from those who ‘know better’.

“It’s intense and it’s… because of the institutional arrangements and the context around it, it always comes… it always falls back to you to make that choice.
So, even people who are well-informed and understand the pressures,
they will still ask”.

These interactions, where an expectation of service is placed upon an Indigenous academic woman, costs. Participants spoke of these requests not only coming from faceless emails, but coming from people crying in their office, or messages through social media, adding an additional level of emotional labour on the recipient of such requests/demands.

If they, as Indigenous academic women, say ‘yes’ to these approaches, to the crying in their office, they then have to undertake tasks and lectures which were never actually meant to be theirs – exploitative, unfunded, ‘invisible’ in their formal workload. If they say ‘no’ and refuse, they risk being positioned as the angry black woman, uncollegial, perhaps not demonstrating the level of ‘patience’ and ‘good natured-ness’ required to gain general support within their workplace.

Numerous participants spoke of positive engagements with senior executives (those holding Faculty Dean or higher positions) in their workplaces, but some noted that support was linked to being ‘liked’. When considered in line with the above, this creates a noteable tension.

And sitting behind all of that support I think has been on my part, you know, frankly just a really exceptional amount of, of knowledge and patience and good natured-ness, right? You have to be liked. People have to like you.

Participants shared experiences which indicate experiential differences of working alongside those who engage in inclusive and collegial behaviour, at times referred to as ally-ship, and those who as non-Indigenous academics simply sought to “bring on the black performer”.

It’s not okay for them to duck out of their responsibilities and say ‘bring on the black performer please’.
We have to do that work because they can’t or they refuse or they are worried about the precarity of their positionality in that place, yeah.
That is being cowards, and not actually holding their own responsibilities to do the work together.

 Overall, this study speaks of ongoing racialized and gendered power dynamics in institutions which speak of decolonisation but achieve less than 1% Indigenous employment. These findings indicate while there appears to be goodwill at the senior executive level, there is a lack of sustainable approaches within higher education when it comes to doing the actual work of inclusivity, including the indigenisation of course content, research and teaching practices. The consistency with which participants from numerous institutions spoke of being mistreated, and spoken to inappropriately, indicates ongoing normalisation of such behaviour within the academy. Calling on Indigenous academics to be a ‘black performer’ is not sustainable for the institution, nor the Indigenous academics positioned in this way… if they deliver that lecture for their colleague this semester, who will do it next semester?

The work of Indigenous academics, by way of reports, writing, and existing presentations, can be drawn on to support many. But if the many call on the Indigenous academics, for personalised, individualised, black performer contributions, there are too few of us to sustain that level of demand. This approach also diminishes and dismisses their actual contracted role, and the right of Indigenous academic women to utilise their own time and expertise to accomplish their own work within a culturally safe environment. The cost includes the burning out of a limited pool of Indigenous academics, which impacts us personally but also limits our ability to contribute to and support the institution and academy broadly.

In conclusion, this study showed that an identifiable hurdle and frustration for Indigenous academic women in delivering on their own workloads and goals, is the treatment they experience from non-Indigenous academics and staff. This approach burdens the Indigenous academic workforce and exempts non-Indigenous academia from reform. Further, while some positive experiences with executive staff were reported, only half of the existing Indigenous academic workforce hold tenurable term, permanent contracts. Such conditions limit the choices of the miniscule pool of Indigenous academic women, create barriers for their work, impacting productivity and voice, and indicate continued racialized gendered power imbalances within academia. The women who storied with me recalled non- Indigenous colleagues refusing/rejecting inclusion, so a recommendation from this study is that action research on non-Indigenous staff reform is needed.

This article is part of a series titled ‘wuu-rri-lay’ (give each other) which translates Amy’s peer-reviewed academic publications from her PhD into accessible, plain language articles, held in spaces not hindered by pay walls. This article relates to the peer-reviewed academic paperDon’t make me play house‑n***er’: Indigenous academic women treated as ‘black performer’ within higher education (Thunig and Jones, 2020) which can be read in full in The Australian Educational Researcher (AER) and is available here

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