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Universities think they are Star Fleet, but really they are the Borg.

They say they want us to ‘Indigenise’ them, but really they want to assimilate us.

I’m tired of institutions saying they want to ‘Indigenise’ the space.  There, I’ve said it.

Universities think they are like the basic synopsis of the series Star Trek. I know this is a strange way to start a story but bear with me.

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You get the reference – the star fleet academy embodies a utopian existence where diversity and equality are paramount, and a strong social conscience politic exists. They strive for good in the universe but also face mortal foes. Where their enemies, the ‘Borg’, a collective of assimilated function that share a hive mind, are the apparent antithesis of this, as they want conformity, sameness, and as they often say in the script, ‘resistance is futile’.

But if you look at Star Trek a little deeper, you begin to see the good guys differently. There are cracks under the surface, and it is very one-dimensional and, well, ‘vanilla’. Plus, inevitably they show a certain diversity of people and alien form, but usually the minority they have just introduced gets killed off pretty quickly.

Sometimes I think some educational institutions are the same. They think they are Star Fleet, but they are really the Borg. They want our bodies, our welcomes, our acknowledgements.  They want our labour, our social capital and our trauma, our community engagement and connections. Don’t forget the academic rigour, the paying your dues and the waiting your turn. I always loved watching when a star fleet officer ‘energised’, transporting to another place by ‘beaming up’.  Universities want us to transport to something sanitised; they want all of our knowledge but don’t want it to impact on the structure or the power and the people who hold it.

They say they want us to ‘Indigenise’ them, but really they want to assimilate us.

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Ok, so this is a bit of a ramble but I’m here at something that demonstrates a genuine place where social conscience, equality and diversity thrive with our knowledge, and not just western paradigms. The Lowitja conference is currently being held in Darwin, with 750 delegates from Australia and the rest of the world.  Their theme this year is ‘Thinking, speaking, being, and the degree of black excellence here is astounding.

Who (should) run the world? Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics, that’s who.

The level of knowledge brought about by this mob could easily fill our own university and often when bearing witness to this I, as an early career academic, become perplexed.  If we have so much going for us in our theory, our story, our research, why are we still being told we need to do more to be accepted into the academic community? Why aren’t they changing things for us, instead of expecting us to mould to them? And when we try to mould the space, at their request, why do they fight back against us so hard?

Educational institutions pride themselves on the production of knowledge, and regularly we hear that Western knowledges and approaches are expressly treated as legitimate over something that doesn’t sit within a place where usually a white male has written or said it first.  We see it currently in conversations on science, and our knowledge which easily pre-dates theirs is finally seeing a breakthrough. But while we are on the subject of Western knowledge, what is even with that? We all recognise that there is embedded in that the strong and overpowering element of colonising practice, like, much of this knowledge has been stolen from non-Western countries, and non-white people, right?

Universities across Australia have been experts at writing Indigenous Employment Strategies, Reconciliation Action Plans and pushing an Indigenous enrolment agenda. Yet there is still an issue with using the word ‘Decolonise’, and ‘Indigenise’ is more their safe word that satisfies their white fragility enough to give them the appearance of doing something. There is still a resistance to us in subtle and overt ways – through that older white anthropologist who should have left the academy long ago, through to that woman working in the health faculty that only wants to position us blackfullas as poorly and sick, or through that Black star academic with the strongest research and teaching output not been given that promotion – this stuff is relentless.

We are still here.  We navigate, we learn and acquire a particular set of skills that combine deep cultural knowledge and ways of being, with the apparently legitimate academic milestones and rigour that is required in order to fit into their design of a utopian existence. We know who we are, and we are trying to disrupt in ways that effectively change the nature of universities. This is a long journey, but this week I’ve seen 700+ individuals who at varying levels are working to do just that.

I don’t know if we will ever see an institution built by, for and all about Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander knowledges in Australia.  Maybe in a virtual sense, we kind of already have one, built through our online networks and through such things as this conference. All I know is that I won’t be told to Indigenise anymore.

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