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Meet one of the 2022 Charles Perkins scholarship winners

3 Aug 2022

Warumungu and Warlmanpa man, Ethan Taylor has been awarded a Charlie Perkins Scholarship. This thoughtful and generous account from Ethan shows this is a vital step in his journey towards becoming a philosopher. This is the letter he wrote for his application.

Ethan Taylor with his arm around Tom Calma AO.
Ethan Taylor with Tom Calma at the 2022 Charles Perkins awards.


Introduction: 

Born into a working-class Aboriginal family from Alice Springs, I grew up in a small country town in Western Australia. I am driven to be a Charlie Perkins scholar by experiences that I had when I was younger, as well as by an unwavering commitment to serve my community. 

Personal History: 

From an early age, most considered me to be academically inclined. However, my life took a dark detour around the age of fourteen when I got caught up in drugs and gang violence. I wish I could say there was a single factor that led me to this, but it was a combination of intergenerational trauma, structural discrimination, and social exclusion. At the time, I was in the top classes in my school, and while these classes are designed to support academic excellence, they became places where I experienced deep isolation and overt racism. These experiences pushed me to seek cultural connection, and while I couldn’t talk about parabolas with my cousins, at least they understood me. They talked like me, looked like me and had the same heritage as me. Even if they were doing some bad things, I didn’t care at that time. What was it that Tupac Shakur said? “Even though they selled drugs, they showed a young brother love.” I felt that. I was barely a teenager, and yet I was captured in the underbelly of my town. I stopped engaging with my high school education, and consequently, I lost my academic standing. 

As with what is all too common with stories of young, isolated, and traumatised blak men, I eventually found myself on the wrong side of the law at fifteen, when I was referred to the local Juvenile Justice Team (JJT). Many write about that critical juncture when they realised they had a clear choice of how they were going to live their lives – this moment was mine. Thankfully, the JJT didn’t imprison me. They gave me a second chance, so I took it. I started re-engaging with my high school education, and I realised that with hard work and indomitable spirit, I could get back to where I was. It wasn’t easy though, that’s for sure. I’d missed out on learning much of the high-school curriculum over the years. I had a lot to catch-up on, to say the least, but I was willing to put in the work. 

Eventually, my grades improved, and I found myself back in the top classes in the school! Unfortunately, though, I developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of some of what I had experienced during my time astray. I tried my best to recover, but my mental health wouldn’t let me into a classroom towards the end

of year twelve. I subsequently dropped out of high-school just before finishing. This was heartbreaking, I had to give up all of the hard work I dedicated to regaining my academic footing. Once again, life threw me a curveball. But this didn’t deter me from my dreams of going to the best university I could. Despite my humble beginnings and set-backs, I have always pushed myself academically. After leaving school, I immediately entered a bridging course, and despite none of my parents having gone to university, I secured my entry into the University of Melbourne and Trinity College. I didn’t have any support networks in Melbourne, but that didn’t deter me. I trusted that Trinity College would provide me with a new family – and it did. 

University and Extracurricular: 

When I first entered university, I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to use what I had lived and experienced as a child as a beacon of justice and hope within the courts. However, this changed toward the end of my undergraduate degree, when I realised that the law, to the best extent it can, ought to be based on moral and political philosophy. After this realisation, the unjust legal system in this country became merely a symptom of an even deeper systemic issue: that being that there is an exceptionally impoverished, if not non-existent, set of professional philosophers in Australia who are Aboriginal. What this means is that there is almost a complete lack of Aboriginal people professionally employed to interrogate and re-think the most foundational ideologies standing behind institutions like the courts. Here again, I was faced with another critical juncture on my journey – only this time it would lead me to discover the field to which I want to dedicate my life. I want to inject my lived experiences into academic philosophy, and use this to drive deep, structural change for my people. 

When not studying or thinking about my future research, I used my time at University to give back to my fellow Aboriginal people. Over the past four years, I built a successful not-for-profit, hosted two national student conferences, coordinated a national network of Indigenous mental health advocates, worked in remote communities to grow Aboriginal electoral participation, and helped to shape new gambling policy. I’ve contributed to movements for the environment, higher-education reform, suicide prevention, and gambling harm reduction. Now, I’m working as an election organsier for GetUp, in their First Nations justice team. I am working to raise the political participation of Aboriginal people in remote communities in the Northern Territory ahead of the 2022 federal election. Though, and it goes without saying, I could not have completed any of this without working closely with so many courageous individuals – lone-wolfs rarely get

much done. I know that taking society one step forward requires teamwork amongst change makers. 

Future Prospects: 

I would like to study philosophy – or, failing that, politics – at the University of Oxford or Cambridge. 

In terms of the role philosophy can play in helping to shape the lives of Aboriginal Australians in a positive way, there are two key contributions to be made. The first is in political philosophy, in that Aboriginal justice in Australia is in critical need of a philosophical analysis. This will provide a clear and coherent path forward for reconciliation in Australia by answering questions at the heart of the issue, such as: what is First nations justice, and how can it be achieved? Are Treaty and Constitutional Recognition contradictory, or complementary projects? How do we move past paternalism in Indigenous public policy? Keeping these key questions unanswered by an Aboriginal political philosopher will leave policy makers at a normative loss. If I am unable to gain entry into a philosophy course, I hope to be permitted into the MPhil in Politics (Political Theory). In which case, I will undertake the same task of philosophically investigating the nature of justice for Aboriginal people. 

The other important contribution to be made in Aboriginal philosophy is in epistemology. There are several epistemic challenges to including Aboriginal knowledge into the Western academy. Aside from the well documented issue of non-Indigenous people bringing assumptions about Indigenous people to the ‘cultural interface’ – discussed most notably by Martin Nakata – there is also a less discussed semantic issue of English words being used to describe Aboriginal knowledge, and this needs to be addressed. On the one hand, some scholars argue that there are many Western terms that apply to Indigenous people, while others argue that they do not. A great example of this is the ‘Dark Emu debate’. On the one hand, Bruce Pascoe argues that Aboriginal people were farmers; on the other hand, Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe argue that this is a misapplication of the term farming. How are we to resolve this issue? Moreover, the forthcoming book by University of Melbourne Astronomist Duane Hamacher, ‘The First Astronomers: How Indigenous Elders Read the Stars (2022),’ is likely to attract the same criticism in the field of Astronomy, whereby some Western astronomers might argue that the term ‘astronomy’ does not ‘really’ apply to Aboriginal people. What should we do if the same semantic impasse is reached?

While one might say that an easy solution to this issue is for Aboriginal people to use their traditional languages, this is presumptive, given that many Aboriginal people do not have access to their traditional languages due to colonisation. I classify these individuals as living exclusively at the ‘linguistic interface’, whereby they have Indigenous experiences, but can only express such experiences through the language they have been assimilated into – in the Australian context, this is English. Another solution might be to use other Western words, but this solution does not guarantee that the same alleged semantic shoehorning will not unravel. Afterall, no Western words were designed by Aboriginal people – if they were, they would be Aboriginal words. The final possible solution is two-step. Firstly, it involves conceptualising the meaning of the same word as open to temporal and regional variation. For example, the meaning of the word ‘farmer’, in the Australian context, need not mean the same thing as it did in the 1960s, or in the British context. Secondly, it involves assuming that Indigenous people living at the linguistic interface are entitled to use Western words in their research when describing Indigenous knowledge, and, as a corollary, that Indigenous people, in the Australian context, are entitled to participate in the ongoing process of re-shaping the meaning of English words. English words, in the Australian context, are words whose meanings are equally up for contestation by Aboriginal people as non-Indigenous-English-speaking Australians. This is the solution that I intend to develop as a professional philosopher. Regardless, by providing a philosophical analysis of the incorporation of Aboriginal knowledge into the academy, I will make the production of knowledge in Australia adequately service Indigenous people. 

Conclusion: 

While the road to decolonising philosophy is a long and hard one, I believe that life has given me the unique experiences I need to handle the pressure and difficulty that will come with completing this task. And again, should I not make it into a philosophy course, I hope to take the next step in reshaping Indigenous politics by undertaking a Masters course in political science. In any case, I hope to work tirelessly for my community as a Charlie Perkins scholar, and bring all these projects to fruition as a researcher.

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