Black Lives Matter is unlikely to end the racism rife in Australia’s academy

Progress will be very difficult if there is a loud cohort of academics who remain fundamentally opposed to it, says James Blackwell

July 8, 2020
Black Lives Matter protest
Source: Getty

As the global protests against racism sparked by the death of George Floyd go on, the higher education sector has seemingly discovered what it is like to be #BlackintheIvory. So many white and non-Indigenous colleagues in Australia and elsewhere express shock, horror and indignation at accounts of our experiences – as if these things have not occurred for as long as there have been universities.

It is never easy being an Indigenous person in Australia. Our society is at heart still a colonial one. You are up against racism from the police and medical professionals – not to mention three out of four in the general population, according to a recent study. There is also the systemic violence and oppression that often comes from government and public services.

As a proud Wiradjuri man, I am well aware of all these issues. Yet as someone who can easily pass for white, I came across them rarely – until I entered higher education. Our institutions have a cultural problem with race.

I have studied and worked at several top Australian universities. I have proudly proclaimed my heritage, yet, in more classrooms than I care to recall, there have been students who have publicly derided Indigenous people as intellectually sub-par savages who don’t deserve recognition or respect. One even described us as a “race that deserves to go extinct”. In such situations, any Indigenous people present are usually asked to give the “Indigenous perspective”, as if we could rebut all that prejudice within the few minutes allotted.

You could argue that students don’t know better. They are here to learn, and we shouldn’t penalise them for insensitive or misguided opinions. This is true to some extent. Although a level of respect should be assumed, we can’t expect every graduating high school student to have a detailed understanding of Indigenous history and culture, or to even have met any Indigenous people.

But the leeway we give students hinges on their having opportunities to properly learn about Indigenous perspectives and knowledge. In my own classes, I am upfront about what is and is not acceptable, or true, to say regarding Indigenous people. But Indigenous content needs to be more widely available in universities, and students need to be taught how to engage with it, and its authors, respectfully.

Who will facilitate this, though? I ask because, sadly, racism seems even more common among staff than students. Comments are routinely made, both around students and within faculties, that disparage Indigenous people. Comments such as: “Indigenous academics and students are of worse quality than ‘normal ones’”; “Indigenous academics and students focus too much on activism rather than their work”; “We shouldn’t prevent racist speech in the classroom because it stifles intellectual freedom”; and “Indigenous people struggle to fit into university culture”.

Most shockingly, such comments are made without fear of repercussion. Meanwhile, those who push back, openly bringing race into the debate, are dismissed as too “empathetic”, “disruptive” or “bothersome”.

Such comments contribute to the deficit narrative around Indigenous people in higher education. They reinforce the false idea that it is impossible to be both bona fide students or academics and active members of the Indigenous community. In essence, they convey the message that we don’t belong. This view is maintained despite all the successful Indigenous doctors, lawyers, engineers and researchers. Imagine the outrage if the same were still said of women – as it was until relatively recently.

Worse, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard academics say – in more or less thinly veiled ways – that university programmes designed specifically for Indigenous people are acts of reverse racism. This goes even further than a deficit narrative, ignoring the ongoing impacts of colonial violence.

The people voicing such views are in every discipline, at every level. They are both the people teaching our students and the system administrators and gatekeepers. All of them, if pushed, would claim to have been taken out of context or misunderstood: they aren’t racist for engaging in some honest talking about academic merit. But what else would you call it? It can be subtle, but it is pervasive and damaging.

Universities should be held responsible for their graduates’ views on race. But how do we introduce critical race scholarship and culturally respectful behaviours? Must Indigenous people – just 3 per cent of the Australian population – fight the battle alone? These are not rhetorical questions.

We need to focus universities on the need for fundamental change and how to go about it, acknowledging institutional history and current practices around race and cultural respect. We need to introduce more people of colour and change the academic culture that forces them out. We need to diversify what and how we teach. We need issues of race to be intersectionalised with issues of class, gender and sexual orientation.

But taking such steps in the right direction will be very difficult if there is a loud cohort of people who remain fundamentally opposed to progress: if the foundation of institutions is Eurocentric whiteness.

We should certainly use this moment to push for change. Still, I fear that racism will only get worse as the financial burdens imposed by the pandemic take precedence over everything. Balancing institutional budgets under pressure shouldn’t come at the expense of cultural respect and rooting out racism. But it probably will.

James Blackwell was an academic at the University of Queensland. He now works on Indigenous student engagement at the University of Canberra.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Indigenous academics need allies

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