Decolonising academia

Evelyn Corr’s double life as an Indigenous academic

Evelyn Corr's double life as an Indigenous academic

It was my very first literary conference. I was nervous, excited, and frantically unprepared. It was a long drive to Armidale and we had arrived late on the first day of presentations. My friend? Alice and I joined the collective in a charming old hotel for drinks and h’ors d’oeurves, and shared anticipatory remarks with other presenters for the next two days of Australian literature. When a very friendly postgraduate working on Richard Flanagan asked how I was finding things, I gave a nervous, self-deprecating laugh, I knew I really shouldn’t be there. I was twenty one, and yet to be formally enrolled in the PhD I was due to begin the next month. In two days I was to present a yet unwritten paper on social media and Indigenous resistance, alongside the astoundingly eloquent Maori academic, poet, and author Dr Alice Te Punga Somerville who was presenting her paper on Aotearoa and the politics of Maori literary scholarship.

Later, Alice took me aside, and told me never to say I don’t belong in an academic space again. Never give them a chance to dismiss you, she told me. It’s not about proving yourself — it’s because you owe it to all the other female and Indigenous academics who have come before you to make your being here possible, and all those to come. Be proud, be assertive, take no prisoners: you’re here to talk about your people. You belong here.

A week later I’m standing on the outskirts of a march to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Student Action For Aborigines Freedom Rides in the 45 degree Walgett heat, watching a young family approach the festivities with a hand drawn sign.


And nothing is okay.

In sitting down to write this article, there were so many moments I could reach to for the appropriate sting to demarcate the double life of the Indigenous academic. From microaggression to outright racism: if you’re Aboriginal and you want to study literature in this country, prepare yourself to be patronised, silenced, misrepresented, and tokenised. Increase this tenfold if you choose to study those disciplines in which our elisions and injustices are woven into the very fabric of the institution: health, law, ecology, psychology, history, the list goes on. Everything the West know about us — or rather, all the knowledge they have decided to give power to, regardless of its veracity — is there to reinscribe its own hegemony. Recent debates over the Daily Telegraph’s discovery of a twenty-year old terminology guide which rightfully suggests the term “invasion” over more peaceful notions, such as “settlement”, “discovery”, “friendship exercise”, “he probably saved your lives”, “you weren’t even using all that land anyway” and “omg just please get over it and how could it even be genocide if you’re still here annoying me?” exemplify the reluctance for many non-Indigenous Australians to come to terms with the bloody legacy behind their culturally manufactured perception of us. This ANZAC season, white Australians will gather to celebrate their national identity; codes of courage, mateship, and sacrifice, and to commemorate all those who have served and died in war. Unless, of course, you’re Aboriginal. Unless, of course, it was a war fought on our own shores. It is no surprise that Aboriginal voices and perspectives so often slip between the cracks when we are still struggling to convince the rest of Australia that we exist.

“From the vantage point of the colonised,” writes Linda Tuhiwai Smith in her 1999 epic Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, “a position from which I write, and choose to privilege, the term ‘research’ is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism. The word itself, ‘research’, is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary.”

Decolonising Methodologies is the kind of book that changes worlds. As a young Indigenous academic and activist, it spoke to me with acknowledgement, ambition, and an almost painful awareness. Smith configures Indigenous research as an integral process in affecting change, and demands a level of critical self-reflection that goes beyond mandatory inclusion and tokenistic representation. Change must be systemic, and it requires time, collaboration, support, capability, compassion, leadership, courage, and determination. And the research which generates this change must be decolonised from the Euro-Western ways of knowing and inscribing, lest our role as academics becomes the mere replacement of one corrupt knowledge practice with its newly authored twin.

It is important to stress that decolonisation is both an ideological and material process; states decolonise just as they can be colonised, and this means far more than the metaphor of colonisation so oft used to signify any form of adoption or unbalanced dynamic of power. I recall with horror listening to a story in which a middle aged white woman felt “colonised” by the gaze of her equally middle aged white partner from across a pool. South Saami translator and academic J. Sandberg McGuinne of Indigeneity, Language and Authenticity argues for an approach to decolonisation which resists academic and political hijacking which seeks to institutionalise resistance into the very system it is resisting. “Decolonisation is frequently represented as something academic, and often confused with a Western representation of postcolonialism, when the truth is that decolonisation is what happens in our communities on a daily basis, far away from an academic Ivory Tower.” He writes that the road to reconnect with the culture from which Indigenous peoples have been so violently dispossessed is self-determination and empowerment.

Last week I spoke to Dr Juanita Sherwood, a Wiradjuri academic who has been working in health, education, research, and management for some thirty years. In 2010 she completed her doctoral thesis, Do No Harm: Decolonising Aboriginal Health Research, and she has published countless chapters, essays, and articles on the need for a decolonial approach to Indigenous health and wellbeing. It combines a deeply personalised voice with a deeply self-reflexive critical framework. Her references and appendices are longer than the entirety of my supposedly half-completed dissertation, and her work is ruthlessly precise in supporting all its claims and recommendations with carefully collected data on the centuries-long history of ill-informed policy and practice. This is how you do Indigenous research. “I think we always know that we’ve got to do everything better than anyone else. We’ve got to be the best, and we know that, and we work harder, which is probably why we die twenty years younger,” she tells me. “We have a lot of responsibility in our hands, but on another level, I love researching around community, I love being in community. I’m not doing that enough; that’s the problem. I want to be doing more of that.”

This speaks closely to my own experience as an academic in the making. My academic work — on methodologies for resituating Aboriginal literatures out of the constantly renegotiating settler sphere of Aus Lit into dialogues with other First Nations across the world, and reclaiming our right to represent ourselves — feels frustratingly isolated from the lived realities of Indigenous Australia, and from the outcomes and objectives of my work as an activist. “In a decolonising framework,” Smith writes, “deconstruction is part of a much larger intent. Taking apart the story, revealing underlying texts, and giving voice to things that are often known intuitively does not help people to improve their current conditions. It provides words, perhaps, an insight that explains certain experiences — but it does not prevent someone from dying.” I tell Dr Sherwood that I feel we as Indigenous academics must not only be better, but that we must do twice the work: we are constantly required to step between the worlds of academy and community, and reconcile the two. For her, particularly in her work in health, these worlds will often bleed into each other. As a Family Health Nurse in Redfern in the late eighties, her work in decolonisation began a good decade before the publication of Decolonising Methodologies. In Redfern she observed high rates of otitis media, the infection of the middle ear, and began raising concerns with the Department of Health. When it was suggested that she conduct some research on the issue, despite her initial resistance, she began to train, and out of her initiative came policies, support, and services. “And our kids started getting support in classrooms, which was fantastic,” she says. “They weren’t getting thrown out of the classroom for being naughty, and people realised they just couldn’t hear.”

For Dr Sherwood, decolonisation is more than a methodology; it’s a process. It’s about acknowledging power differentials, and recognising that those who hold and use the knowledge have the power. She uses decolonisation as a critical teaching strategy to establish balance and connection in knowledge spaces, to say: “We’ve all been told different stories about each other, its impacted our relationship, how we come to know each other, and this is still going on. So you unpack that space. You unpack what you don’t know, what you haven’t had opportunities to learn about.”

Despite Dr Sherwood’s extensive history with these ideologies and practices, decolonisation has only recently been brought onto the table as an alternative to “diversity”, a notion which is still being vehemently contested in institutions across the world. In an article published earlier this month on The Chronicle of Higher Education, Russell Jacoby compared diversity enthusiasts seeking to furnish institutions with an even dispensation of every axis of privilege, disadvantage, or allegiance, to rearranging deck chairs on a sinking Titanic. Zoé Samudzi of Harlot Magazine sees diversifying educational institutions as a hindrance to justice and quality. “The inclusion of marginalised identities and experiences without decentring dominant narratives is an understanding of diversity that leaves oppressive structures intact, and in fact, insulates them from criticism,” she argues. “Diversity is very frequently the linchpin of liberal racism in education, and inclusivity becomes functionally useless if we do not also exclude via decentring violent normativities.”

This debate has entered into a broader critical conversation about the imperial allegiances of universities and other institutions, along with the so frequently misunderstood Rhodes Must Fall movement (see Must Rhodes Fall? in Honi Soit, 27/02/2016), which began in the University of Cape Town last year. The Guardian‘s Amit Chaudhuri argues that the figure of Cecil Rhodes, imperialist, racist, and architect of apartheid, is merely the interface of a much more ambitious movement awaiting articulation: “that is, to bring out into the open institutional racism in university life in South Africa and Britain, and to decolonise education.” It is not a movement that will be satisfied with the removal of a statue, but rather, it seeks to deconstruct the ethos that gives space and power to the legacy of a man so intrinsically embedded in the oppression of southern Africa’s Indigenous peoples.

Even more radical than decolonisation, however, is the notion of “Indigenising” the academy. Mohawk Professor Taiaiake Alfred claims that “it’s impossible to Indigenise the academy. Because the academy is the academy.” However, just as Smith understands decolonisation as being a sight of both struggle and hope, he continues that Indigenous intellectuals must take advantage of their space within the academy, work with people who understand, of who have elected to learn about the problems and flaws of these institutions, and refuse to be undermined by them. “You can’t Indigenise the academy, but you can create very effective spaces for mobilising indigenous people as decolonising agents by remaining committed to that.”

Again, Dr Sherwood has a history here; in the early 2000s, while working for the Centre for Remote Health, she helped train staff from the Tangentyere Council in Alice Springs to conduct a research evaluation of the Northern Territory Liquor Commission’s twelve-month liquor restriction trials. After the research findings and recommendations were presented to the Northern Territory Licensing Commission the researchers from the Tangentyere Council Research Hub noted, “They taught us how to conduct good research”. Sherwood explained that “we needed support from the university researchers to ensure that our research was of high quality, but Aboriginal people like to have their own people conduct the research. The project showed that we could indeed take charge of our own research.” This Research Hub works with ongoing support from the National Drug Research Institute, the Centre for Remote Health, and the Centre for Social Research, and continues to conduct surveys on the eighteen Town Camps under its jurisdiction. Dr Sherwood is still in contact. “Our mob know exactly what to do in this space,” she tells me, speaking of research and knowledge spaces. “I set up an Indigenous staff network to try and back us all up so we actually have support across the whole country, I did a whole lot of things as an Indigenous researcher so we could support each other. Because we’re often, like you, isolated, the one and only in a whole organisation, and we need the backup of each other, so networking together, getting to know who you can trust and who can back you up, is really important.”

The focus must be in not merely diversifying or reclothing the same structures and institutions in which our disempowerment was built: it is in creating new spaces, new territories, new terrains, and in doing so, reclaiming our ways of knowing, being, and doing. In this process, however, we need not deny those tools that we have gained from the academy, so long as we use them to empower our communities. “I love our way of knowing and being and doing which is about balance and sustainability and about those particular issues that are about our survival,” Dr Sherwood tells me. “This Western way of knowing is our road to despair, whereas there’s other ways of knowing that are about caring for people and concern about people.”

I leave Dr Sherwood’s office and walk across the campus. My friends have just finished up a meeting for Students Support Academic Communities, a grassroots initiative we began last year after recognising a need for ongoing dialogue with the communities passed over in the memorialisation of the Freedom Rides. We’re discussing another trip up country to protest mining and CSG, but soon the Grandmothers Against Removal will be coming to Sydney, and we need to begin pasting flyers. From Manning I walk to Eora College on Abercrombie St, where I have been learning my father’s language for the past six months. Tonight I will learn to count, and will discover with delight a triangulation between our numerical system, our bodies, and our cultural practices. The class is boisterous and our teacher ensures we are each learning in our own ways. On the weekend we will go out bush to learn weaving. Tomorrow I will teach my own class at the university, and tell my students of how we build our kinship around the earth. On the train out to Dharug country I begin making notes for the launch of the Free University of Western Sydney, a new initiative to generate a space for critical discussion and learning about the architecture of racial oppression in Australia. The organiser, Dr Omid Tofighian, tells me this is an “emancipatory intellectual environment”, an imitative to rest radically different pedagogical techniques that “deconstruct exploitative and hierarchical structures the patterns of exclusion entrenched in traditional university models.” It is decolonisation in practice, and one of the first projects of its kind to hit Sydney: a welcome anti-capitalist strategy in a time of increasing educational commodification. I know from friends and colleagues that this is not the life of most academics, but this is certainly life for me. There can be little separation from my Aboriginality, my activism, and my academic work, but I know my priorities, and I know what I will always put first. If I achieve nothing more in academia, let it be this: I know I have a right to be here.