Transcript: Broadly Speaking: Aileen Moreton-Robinson: 20th Anniversary of Talkin’ Up to the White Woman
A full transcript of the event Broadly Speaking: Aileen Moreton-Robinson: 20th Anniversary of Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, held on 2 September 2020 and available as a video.
This event is the first in the new Wheeler Centre series, Broadly Speaking – a collaboration between the Wheeler Centre, the State Library of Queensland and the RMIT Social and Global Studies Centre. It’s supported by Krystyna Campbell-Pretty AM and family. Today’s conversation is taking place across unceded sovereign land. The event stream comes to you from the Wheeler Centre on the lands of the Kulin Nation. I’m speaking to you from Canada in Treaty 6 territory, homelands of First Nations and Metis people. Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson joins us from the lands of the Turrbal and Jagera people. We pay respects to these communities’ elders past, present and emerging, and to the elders of all communities and cultures that this conversation reaches.
Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson is a Goenpul woman of the Quandamooka people in Moreton Bay, and she’s a Professor of Indigenous Research at RMIT University. She was appointed as Australia’s first Indigenous Distinguished Professor in 2016 and was a founding member of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. She’s the author of Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Property, Indigenous Women and Feminism, by University of Queensland Press; The White Possessive: Property, Power and Indigenous Sovereignty by Minnesota Press, and she’s the editor of several books including Critical Indigenous Studies Engagements in First World Locations from University of Arizona Press, and in 2020, this year, she was appointed a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences – the first ever Australian Indigenous scholar to be elected. I’m really grateful to Professor Bronwyn Fredericks, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Indigenous Engagement at the University of Queensland. She presented some bibliometric data in a recent speech, celebrating Aileen’s contribution to Australia’s intellectual life.
Talkin’ Up to the White Woman has been nominated for multiple awards. It has never been out of print in 20 years, it has over a thousand citations and is in collections of at least 340 libraries all over the world. It’s also taught in universities all over the world. Bronwyn also noted that Aileen was the 22nd Aboriginal person in Australia to get a PhD, and only the 12th in a field other than theology.
Speaking from the standpoint of a non-indigenous queer white woman academic, I want to introduce Aileen not only as an academic at the height of her powers, but also as a public intellectual. Now, there are many definitions of a public intellectual. The one I use here is someone who is well trained in one or more academic disciplines, but is not subservient to them. That is, Aileen is someone whose work creatively engages academic theories and methods together with knowledge gained from her experience and the collective knowledge traditions, and she’s able to present a vision of the world that I think can help us survive and even thrive in these most challenging times.
Watch the video
Okay, um, Aileen – I’m going to stop talking about you and start talking with you! When we first met, which was over 20 years ago, I was a newly-minted PhD who attended a conference at Griffith University that you organised.
Something powerful happened to me after participating in an academic conference that put non-indigenous people into conversation with Indigenous academics, professionals and activists. After that conference, we were invited to dinner with some of the academics involved, several of whom were other queer white women. You joined me outside to have a smoke, as we did in those days, and shortly after sitting down, you said … ‘I think I’m colonising the lesbians.’ [laughs] And at that point 21 years ago our friendship began.
Before that conference, I’d understood whiteness both as a serious problem for Indigenous and other Australians who weren’t racialised as white, and as an identity that could be worn with more or less pride, more or less shame or guilt. After that conference, whiteness became visible to me as an object of research, and as something which we all needed to take a stand on in our everyday lives as well as our professional careers. Having seen whiteness, I couldn’t unsee whiteness, and this meant I had to be prepared to change my ways of knowing and being in the academy, and in the world.
Once the subject position ‘middle class white woman’ became visible as a research problem, I was able to work in a different way. Not only as a researcher, but also as a teacher and as a non-indigenous partner, working on projects related to Indigenous knowledge, that have reached thousands of people. This work is never easy or comfortable. It can be fun! Um, it always requires me to recognise and deal with my ignorance before I can offer any expertise. It requires me to understand and to account for the fact that I am never thinking and acting only as an individual, but also and always as part of an intergenerational and institutionalised set of discourses that operate to rationalise and defend, sometimes violently, the sovereignty of white possession in Australia.
So even as I work to undo injustices, I always do so as part of a system that invests in the dispossession of Indigenous territories, cultures, languages and knowledges. And just one example of this is our legal system. It enables a culture of impunity for offenders and violators of Indigenous sovereign countries, knowledges and bodies. So Aboriginal kids can be locked up as juvenile offenders for things like graffiti tagging or driving without a license, but when white CEOs of mining companies drop the ball on Aboriginal heritage protections and literally detonate and obliterate spaces of Indigenous history, spirituality and knowledge, part of their million dollar bonuses are removed.
Such corporate acts of ethnicide remind us that the problems that Talkin’ Up to the White Woman addressed 20 years ago remain very much, and very literally, part of our landscape. I want to begin early in your academic career. And I wondered, Distinguished Professor, if you would tell me a little bit about your research journey as an undergraduate and honours student. What were the disciplines that you studied at the Australian National University? What did you learn from your studies there? What do you think your teachers learned from you?
Thank you, Fi – easy question! Okay, so I basically studied sociology and anthropology. I was the only Indigenous student as an undergraduate in 1985 at the ANU, the Australian National University. I began uni with basically a year 7 education – I failed everything at a high school – so I had to teach myself to read and write, basically, for the academy. Um, and I was absolutely petrified, I guess, of being there, because I felt this was the last chance that I had to become qualified, in some way shape or form, and I was there because I really wanted to learn about white knowledge, white people. It was something that I worked out as an activist – that I didn’t know enough … I didn’t know enough about them, and I didn’t know enough about their knowledge.
So my entering the university was really to find out about society, which is why I took sociology, and I wanted to know about anthropology, in terms of how anthropology had constructed us. So I was acutely aware in that political sense of why I was there, and what I was supposed to learn. And I think one of the first things I learned was, um, how to reach … I didn’t know how to get six thousand words down to a thousand for the first essay I had to write. And, uh, so I went along to the English as a Second Language unit to talk to Brigid Ballard, who was in charge of the unit, because I thought there was something wrong with me, and maybe I didn’t understand and I probably shouldn’t be there.
So she … she read my essay and then she just smiled. And she said, look, this is really amazing but what you’ve got to learn to do is not to consider the relationships between everything, and you’re going to have to separate, you know, and disassociate. And so, when she said that to me, it was like the light bulb went on. And I realised what I needed to do. So … I did it. But I also kind of understood during that first year, that I was having an ontological or, well, an existential crisis, I guess, in the sense that I could see that I really had to think differently to the way in which I had been raised, and the kind of cultural logics that informed my being and doing in the world.
And that was … so … so, I guess at one level, my experience was different to other undergrads that were around me, because they were all kind of concerned with the knowledge that we’re being taught. So what … ‘these are the theories’, whereas I was realising that there were things that informed the theories, rather than, like … I could most of the time understand the theories, the logics of the theories themselves. But I didn’t kind of understand how these things got built, and … So going through the ANU, because it was, it was an amazing experience in the sense that I witnessed some of the best debates in my life between, um, academics – ah, Jack Barbalet and Barry Hindess, for example, um … I engaged mainly with the professors. I didn’t really debate with students that were in the class with me and I wasn’t even consciously aware of that, and it wasn’t until, ah, I met up with a friend – Ian Coates, we’d gone to uni together – and he said to me, he said, oh we all knew you were going to be a professor and I said, well, I didn’t think I was going to be a professor. And he said, oh well, we all knew. He said, because you were the only one that would debate with them! And I thought, did I? And he said, oh yeah; he said, we … we knew we didn’t really have to do a lot of work because we could go in the room and just watch you engage with them! And I thought about it, and I thought: you know, that’s absolutely right! I did do that. And I was kind of like, wasn’t even conscious that that’s what I was doing. Because I was so … wanting to, to learn and understand, but I didn’t think I’d become an academic.
Um, that again is a … another story. But I didn’t understand when I’d been offered honours in, you know, three disciplines in the first year, that … um, I didn’t understand what honours was, and I tried to get clarification. Anyway, finally, um, somebody kind of did give me clarification. I still didn’t want to do honours, but then, you know, my husband said to me, well you know, like … you, you don’t have to go down that road if you don’t want to, but why don’t you just do it because you can? And I did.
So I graduated with first class honours out of the ANU in Sociology and won an APA and started a PhD on citizenship. But then because, you know, I was a mature age student with a mortgage and stuff, I had to leave that one. But my entrance into the academy, um, really took off I guess after the book, and that was the appointment in Women’s Studies at Flinders University. But I have never been able to secure a job in sociology. And have never been interviewed for a job, despite applying, because I’m told that I’m not a sociologist, an I find that often very interesting because I see people with undergraduate degrees in social work, and they do a PhD in sociology and then they’re understood as a sociologist. And yet the work is quite mediocre and you can see it, because they don’t have that theoretical grounding that you get in an undergraduate programme. And in an honours programme.
Anyway, I have always in that sense therefore been contained, you know … women’s studies was something I did. I taught justice studies but mainly I couldn’t get jobs other than in Indigenous studies, despite the fact I didn’t do Indigenous studies as an undergraduate. You know. And that’s that’s fundamentally a statement or an indictment on the racist logics that informs what Aboriginal scholars can be or can’t be. So even though we can go through and basically be, you know … we’re in mainstream, we get a mainstream degree – this is not an Aboriginal degree – um, but once you come out the other end the only thing you can do is Indigenous studies. Um, you know and I mean how does that work, you know, other than through racism?
And so when they talk about, you know, trying to recruit Indigenous scholars to universities, what they mean is we want to recruit Indigenous students to universities, ah, in Indigenous studies. Right? We don’t want to employ Indigenous scholars who graduate in education to teach, you know, early childhood. Um … you know, we just have to give them the subject of Indigenous and early childhood to teach. So, even the way in which we are understood as scholars is very much through the prism of race. And has been–
[laughs] So, I guess that speaks to the journey.
Yeah, no, that’s a really um … I think it tells us a lot. And I think it tells us a lot about, um, Talkin’ Up to the White Woman and certain aspects of its reception, which we might talk about later. But just that challenge where the centre of your expertise is on social constructions of gender and in particular, the subject position of the middle class white woman, and how that pervades discourses and institutions throughout Australia, and that you can understand given that background, the challenge that was.
Um, so I want to talk about the really innovative structure of Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, because by then you had absolutely hit your strides and you’ve never looked back. And just to familiarise readers with this book, it begins with an explanation of Indigenous women’s identity and relationality, and moves through Indigenous women’s life writings to explore the persistence of an anthropological gaze through white feminist debates on violence against Indigenous women within Indigenous communities – um, the Bell-Huggins debate. Then it moves on to demonstrate the invisibility of the subject position ‘middle class white woman’ to white feminists who are engaged in anti-racist teaching and advocacy, and the book concludes with an overview of the national and international human rights activism of Indigenous women over generations.
And just thinking about that structure, it’s almost like there’s this containment of this subject position of the middle class white woman that has shaped white feminism so much. And what you seem to do is frame that subject within this sustained, detailed and generous education about the history and experiences of Indigenous women, both in their everyday lives through the life narratives – as domestic servants, as mothers, as daughters, and as friends – and in their expression of Indigenous sovereignty in the various contexts of state, national and international political forums.
So in addition to, um … I guess centring the knowledge work of Indigenous women, there’s I think an understanding that white feminist discourses on gender tend to efface the operation of race, except when race is referred to as an expression of an ethnic or Indigenous cultural difference that can be celebrated, or included, at least, as part of a national story.
And another thing I noticed rereading this book is that you never simply … um, simplify the broad political project of feminism. And that there’s quite a detailed, very detailed account of first wave, second wave, socialist, Marxist, post-structuralist, postmodern, women of colour, queer and eco-feminisms. Not only does that make your book one of the earliest intersectional studies of gender politics, I think this complexity informs your analysis in important ways. Navigating through these feminisms.
So what I wanted to ask you, is you’re reflecting 20 years later on subsequent work on Indigenous women and feminism. What do you see as some of the most important methodological and theoretical innovations of Talkin’ Up to the White Woman?
Right. I think that the methodological innovation of it is that I tried to basically, um, create an inter-discourse entanglement. And I structured the book so that chapters spoke to one another as you moved through, with the thread of middle class white women being woven through them, because that is the subject position that we are measured against and by.
I think that at the time, I was trying to really bring things into conversation to not only, I guess, inform white feminists about Indigenous women’s issues and positions, but also Indigenous women’s positions in relation to feminism. So it was to create, I guess, in some ways, a dialectic which never really came off. And I put that down probably to the Marxist training, and I’ll hold Jack Barbalet responsible for that.
So I think that I tried to pursue an innovative methodology where Indigenous knowledges are operationalised. But I also wanted to show that my training, you know, as a sociologist, ah, was being operationalised. And for those two things to come together. Hence, you know, I started to talk about the standpoint in the beginning of the book, which I’ve subsequently expanded on, in work in later years. But it – it’s a book that I might add, it’s actually a book I wrote in … or, that dissertation was two years, So when I was immersed in it, I was totally immersed in it. And I again wanted to know and understand. But I wanted to bring knowledge and understanding to those that actually would read it. So it was … as much as it was an intellectual intervention and a new way of doing discourse analysis, it was also, um, a way to bring women into conversation.
Um, yeah. I was thinking about building on that point with the title itself. Because I think the title suggests a different kind of relationship to academic knowledge and communication. You’re not talking ‘as’, you’re not talking ‘for’, you’re not talking ‘from’, you’re not talking ‘with’. And I think that really stages this political relationship that’s at the heart of this challenge to a certain, um, … to a whole lot of white feminist knowledges and activisms. I just want to ask you about how you imagine the audiences for Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, you know, in those two years when you’re just immersed to it and and writing it. And, you know, were there some audience that were most important for you to reach? And you know, what surprised you most about the responses of some of the actual audiences, um, to the book?
You’re not talking ‘as’, you’re not talking ‘for’, you’re not talking ‘from’, you’re not talking ‘with’… What happens when you talk ‘up’?
Yeah, what happens when you talk up?
So the audience that I really wanted to reach was Indigenous women. You know, I wanted to celebrate the amazing strengths and knowledge production of Aboriginal women and to put quite firmly a sovereign position to say: this is who we are, this is what we think, and this is what we know, right? And that reality, to some degree, is incommensurable with being a white woman. And you know what? That’s okay. Right? Because we don’t aspire to be white women. You know. Just as I’m sure if we asked, you know, a whole room full of white women to put up their hand if they want to be Aboriginal women, not a lot of them would stand up.
Um, you know, so I … I really wanted this work to claim a sovereign space within the academy, to also say we have arrived. Right? We have arrived, and we can engage, and we will, because this is our land, and you are on it, and you are here illegally. And you have to deal with that as part of the history of this country. So in the formation of the middle class white woman, that very much is tied to colonialism. Yep? And so that’s the other dimension of the book. It basically is trying to say, understand how gender is socially constructed through colonialism. You know.
Understand this: that you are a product of empire. And your politics are still very much tied to that. Your politics come out of the Enlightenment, right? They come out of the Enlightenment, but that Enlightenment also was the impetus for colonisation. And the spread of empire. And so you cannot assume a position of innocence within a politics that actually is epistemologically connected to a process of dispossession of Indigenous peoples. Thank you.
Okay. [laughs] And another question about this … this important book is the cover. And that women from your Stradbroke Island community, family members, including family members, were pictured on the cover and they’re pictured on the new edition. When you were writing a new preface earlier this year, how was the knowledge of these women present in your current reflections about Indigenous women’s relation to white feminism?
Their knowledge is very much a part of who I am, because I am not an individual. I am somebody who is always in relation to my female relatives, my creative beings, and the Country. So I … I basically wanted to complicate the visual representation of what people think Aboriginal women look like, you know, but that was also because all the women on that cover see themselves in terms of whether they’re Gorenpul, you know, Wiradjuri – whatever. They’re on there as these with strong women, knowledgeable women, you know, women who have grown me up and women who are also my tiddas and my sisters.
Um, so, and – and my grandnieces and my grandchildren as – as on there now – but I am only who I am through my relationships with all of them. Yeah, so they very much shape the way that I think, be and do.
Understand this: that you are a product of empire. And your politics are still very much tied to that.
When you visited the University of Alberta a couple of years ago, you made a memorable statement: ‘Indigenous people don’t need Foucault.’
At least one early career Indigenous researcher found that statement very empowering as she completed her original PhD research. I thought, hang on! Um, you know, concepts developed by the historian and political theorist Michel Foucault, and prison activist of course, and some … mental health activist, so – concepts developed by him including epistemes, discourse, counter-discourse, have been quite important to some of your arguments about knowledge power and sovereignty. So I wondered if you could share a little bit about the ways that you do, and don’t, draw inspiration from this important thinker.
I think what Foucault did for me was make me understand how disciplinary knowledge is produced. He gave me an understanding of the way in which the episteme was developed in the Enlightenment, and how that continues to structure the way that we think about the world, and are in the world. So I really, um, you know I love his work, because he is so queer and he … you know, even though he’s against the Enlightenment at one sense in the ways which he’s trying to produce knowledge, he is still very much a product of it. So he never gets out of that … that episteme.
And he made me think about power in ways in which I hadn’t been taught in my undergraduate degree. So for him to kind of talk to me about, you know, power as being relational, as being enabling as much as it is, you know, containing, I could understand and I guess relate to that. But the problem with Foucault, and the limits – and he admits that there are limits to the way in which he has envisaged power – the limits of that is in when you come up with another form of power. So when you … and he doesn’t take into consideration the power of Mother Earth. So his power is always restricted to the human production of it, not the fact that power can exist elsewhere in different forms that actually circumscribe our power. And we are at this very moment in history understanding that. So I could bring Indigenous understandings of power through relatedness into a conversation with him, and it allowed me to see the limitations of what he’d done. But he had – he gave me a window to look through, to basically see where these people’s ways of being and knowing in the world came from. And he gave me a way to understand white western logics.
So I, I mean, he’s only one, but for me, he is probably someone that I, you know, when you have the wish list about who you want to have dinner with? He would be right there, you know, he would be right there.
Um, and my grandfather. I’d love – would have loved him to have met my grandfather. So I think that’s the importance of Foucault for me. Now, why raise my grandfather who was an amazing philosopher, I do tell the story about how I was asked not to return to Sunday school on Dunwich, because I was seen as being disruptive. And so when my grandfather and grandmother went to the church to find out what I’d done, they basically explained that I was asking really, um, rude questions. Like, you know, one of the instances apparently … we were all singing ‘Jesus loves / all the children / all the children of the world / red and yellow, black and white / all the children in his sight’, right? And then we had to go into the bible reading lessons for kids. And I’m like seeing all these kids are white. So like, I’m asking the questions like: Where are the black kids? Where are the red kids? Where are the yellow kids? Um, and so that was not good, and then I listened to them talk about Jesus and turning the other cheek and stuff, so I’d you know stick me hand up and say, well, how – how many times do you have to turn the cheek when, you know … why does my grandmother have to go down the back of the stairs – at the back of the store to be served?
You know, why is it that we’re always pushed out of lines when we go to town, why do my grandparents get spit on? So I was really trying to understand this notion of the Christian. Um, and – and the hypocrisy, you know. And I’m 11 going on 12 with this. So what happens is I go – so I come home and my parents, um, would send the other kids to church. But my job was I got given the Communist Manifesto, and the bible, and my grandfather said to me: “these are two white fellas’ ideas of philosophy”, and he used that term; he said, “you need to read them and you need to understand them, and we will have discussions”. So that was my Sunday. And, you know, so I grew up in this household of these amazing grandparents.
My grandfather said to me, ‘These are two white fellas’ ideas of philosophy,’ and he used that term. He said, ‘You need to read them and you need to understand them, and we will have discussions’
My grandparents, they only went to year three on the mission. And they had this amazing understanding of the world, and what was in the world. Like they were they would have discussions about John F. Kennedy; they would have discussions about Martin Luther King. So I grew up in a household where I was empowered by these wonderful old people. I don’t know if I’ve answered your question, Fi! [laughs]
Um, I don’t think Foucault was your first theorist. [laughs]
I hear that you’re working on a new book manuscript that extends some of the work on Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, to provide a new theoretical framework for understanding Indigenous social constructions of identity, sovereignty and gender. And I wondered if you’d be prepared to talk about some of the most interesting things you’ve learned about Indigenous social constructions of gender in the archives, and maybe you might want to talk a bit about Lizzie and her English lessons.
[laughs] Yep. So, I think that one of the interesting things about doing and reading archival materials is that for me, and I’m doing my work on the women of Quandamooka on the frontier, is that I’m … I’m reading things that I already know.
So it … through oral history, right. So it becomes a really interesting take on the archive methodologically. Yeah, um, and I’m absolutely amazed at Quandamooka women, and speaking of Lizzie, she would visit a guy by the name of Gustavus Birch out at Pulan Pulan, out at Amity on Stradbroke, and she would invent chores for him to do and then she’d just appropriate the calico and the soap. And this poor lad reads … like he’s writing about … the two things he’s obsessed with are Lizzie and constipation, right, and the fact that Lizzie’s not putting it out for him, you know. And despite the fact that he’s trying to teach her English, and, you know, he lets her basically take soap and that, Lizzie is not putting it out. And Lizzie is putting it out for her husband and whoever she wants, except she’s not putting it out for him. So in reading, like, reading what he’s writing – and of course he doesn’t talk about it as putting out – but it is … it’s … it’s just a comedy. Like a diary. So she says things to him like, and this is again, is about, you know, the autonomy of this woman and the strength of this woman and how she’s working with relations because there’s other women involved in the ruse, but she does things to him, like, she says, oh there’s a whole heap of mullet up in Wallen Creek, so can you get your rifle and go and shoot some?
Now – I’m just saying, who gets … like, who believes you can go and shoot a fish, especially a mullet, and the fact that he just goes and does this, and when he gets back she’s cleaned him out, right, of, of his stuff! [laughs] And so … and what she does … steals other things, like she tells him – now this is in the middle of the day – oh, there’s bandicoots down eating your pumpkins; now bandicoots don’t come out in the middle of the day, right? So she does … kind of does this stuff, and he goes, and of course when he comes back, all of his stuff’s gone. And so there’s a great deal in which I see Lizzie as practicing her sovereignty.
She’s in a particular relationship with this lad, in which she’s appropriating, um, and she is doing it fundamentally by tricking him, but also through kindness, because she basically subjects herself to his English lessons in order to have to set up this relationship, and her, um, you know … determining who she will be intimate with and who she won’t, um, and still abiding by the by the law, so she’s married proper way, but she is you know, deciding, well she might go and have sex over here, and tomorrow she might go back to the husband. So what you see, and she’s only one with this kind of understanding of her sovereignty, she’s exercising her rights within the context of kinship rights and relations to land.
So, I’m trying to think through more about the configuration of gender and sovereignty through kinship, ancestral beings, etc etc. So she’s one, like I said, that’s making me think more about Aboriginal women, because we are written up as, you know, in history as – particularly on the frontiers – being victims. You know, being, women that don’t have agency, we’re sexually promiscuous, or we’re slaves, like it’s … it’s the representation. And what are the… you know, in doing this work on the Quandamooka archives and the women, what it does is it shows this amazing agency. Like they were the reconnaissance for the war, the women and the white soldiers know this, right. They finally twig that it’s the women who do the reconnaissance, because the next day they’re hit. Um, and, you know, they also fight – that’s the other thing – so there’s a whole heap of rethinking that needs to be done in terms of those representations against what, you know, Aboriginal women’s gender roles are.
And I think that because the lens by which those representations are being constructed position those women on this, on the frontier, as victims, basically, or in terms of passivity, they don’t really understand the dynamics of the use of passivity, as well as the ways in which they – Aboriginal women– strategised.
And look, you know, just giving an example of Lizzie, right, and Lizzie is distributing those goods amongst her network, so we need to kind of think, well, I mean, I know the women on, I come from very strong, amazing women and that doesn’t just happen overnight. You know, the strength and the resilience of the Quandamooka women is well documented in the archives. So I don’t know if I’ve answered your question, Fi! [laughs]
Yeah, I think … I think it’s kind of your archival turn, and it does, you know, it is extending like these, um, Indigenous cultural constructions of gender in a whole lot of ways that are very concrete, and that bring together both that oral history and that archival material to produce a different understanding of how identity works and how power works and how conceptions of identity or preconceptions on the frontier, you know, were subverted in ways that enforce the pre-existing sovereignty of those women. So, yeah, that, that’s … quite clear.
I’ve also been thinking about your more recent contributions to cultural studies and, um, in particular something I’ve been thinking about is the distinction between what is often called identity politics by conservative thinkers and alt-right activists and the politics of culture, which is where we study how power works through social institutions and discourses and practices. Um, I know you’ve been working on Aboriginalia, and I wondered if you would just talk a little about what Aboriginality is, and how you understand its cultural and ideological significance as an expert on now whiteness and gender.
Okay, well, Aboriginalia here is the kind of material that was produced by white men and women from really the turn of the century until the 1970s. A lot of it is on ceramics. So utilising Aboriginal motifs and images, like appropriating and creating representations, and it was seen as a way of branding Australia – this is the iconic, or the uniqueness of Australia. It was to represent supposedly Aboriginal art or, and people on objects.
And I really have been trying to think through that and to understand the idea of representation, not just as a re-presentation, but representation in terms of how the representation in itself brings into being an epistemological possession. So when you actually portray or draw Aboriginal people on plates, you’re bringing into being an image that’s supposed to reflect something, but in that very process you’re creating this epistemological possession, right, so it’s so ownership is very much a part of the construction, the representation. So even though it’s a re-presentation, in that it isn’t something that reflects reality, it is actually something that is also taken into possession, in bringing it into being. Yeah? So I’m trying to think about that in terms of the way in which it is a particular kind of white possessive aesthetic at work, and how that white possessive aesthetic utilises and operationalises the Aboriginal body and symbols to say that this is what’s unique about Australia, but at the same time totally erases Indigenous sovereignty and the history of colonisation in this country, in the very production of the epistemological possession, yep?
So I’m looking at how these things – which are collected by Aboriginal people as well, I might say, as and, you know, non-Aboriginal people. They were mainly produced by immigrants, you know, particularly after the first War, and, they are … they are interesting objects that have a social life that were meant to create, you know, a particular production of national identity that at the same time is erased in terms of the real bodies, the real people. So this stuff is happening while we’re on reserves, we’re on missions, you know, children are being stolen, taken away; legislation is becoming far more containing, the surveillance becomes heightened.
So this is what they’re actually doing to real Aboriginal people at the same time as they’re drawing them and utilising our art on these, um, these objects. And I find that kind of, um, contradiction just permeates very much the way in which Australia sees itself. So on the one hand we can paint a Qantas plane and have Aboriginal, you know, stylistic iconography, but we can incarcerate Aboriginal people and children. We can put 10 year olds in jail.
We can refuse your sovereignty. We can basically continue to perpetrate your poor health through lack of resources. We can not basically allow you to become a part of the economy. Instead, we structure through administrative and legal discourse: you’re reliant on the state.
So the people don’t understand that through administrative and legal, um, or legislative works, Aboriginal people are incorporated into the state in particular ways that don’t enable our disassociation and separation from the state. Um, instead, we in a lot of cases, in terms of the welfare dollar, are the things that prop up economies. If you were to take out all of the welfare dollar out of Alice Springs, that economy would fall over tomorrow. Right? So you know, welfare has always been a means of actually injecting money into the economy. Can we please think about this in terms of JobSeeker? Can we think about this in the way in which the state is actually responding to the virus? And that is what … they’re the logics that it utilises with Aboriginal people.
Thank you. It’s like a, um, aesthetics of containment.
Yeah, it’s, um … yeah I’ve … Folks, um, check out this work! It’s really great.
At this particular time, that many are calling the Anthropocene, there have been some renewed calls to reconsider foundational arguments of eco-feminism and I just wanted to hear from you about how well you think that eco-feminism has taken on board Indigenous women’s knowledge as it relates to catastrophic climate change.
And how you see the, I guess, like, the question with Foucault some of the possibilities but also some of the limitations of that. At just where we find ourselves.
I think that eco-feminists on the ground are trying to work with Indigenous communities to take care of land and to put in place more sustainable, you know, if it’s in terms of food production, etc … but the logics of eco-feminism are still very much in the sense of a contractual relationship. And what I mean by that – the earth is … they’re not … it’s not about being seen as being or understanding yourself as being in and of the earth. It’s still a sense in which the human is contracting to utilise in some way the earth. And I think that there is … that’s a fundamental difference in the way in which Indigenous people understand themselves and their relationship to being in and of the earth. So, when we talk about sovereignty, it is not through the logics of basically that being conferred from a god that gave it to a king that then operationalised it in terms of democracy, right, so that ontological roots of the Westphalian notion of sovereignty – which also determines the relationships with the earth – is different to the way in which Indigenous peoples configured their sovereignty. That is, being in relations with non-humans: that’s plants, that’s all living things, and trying to be a good relative, like being in good relations, is the way in which we understand ourselves as not being worth any more or any less than every other living thing.
So your being is really determined by the relations that you’re in with everything. And capitalism, you know, precludes that to some degrees. And some of us still, you know, understand and were basically – and … like my … it’s a hard thing to …I try to talk about how … what it is like to feel that you’re walking on something living. You know. If you can imagine that.
And I grew up with that. That we are working – walking on something living. So you take care in basically how you treat that living thing that you’re actually a part of, and sustained by, but you’re also walking on it. So that sense of respect even to think about where you put your feet.
Like, how many people do you think get up out of bed every morning, and think, the heaviness of what capitalism has produced for the planet? And you know, you might think I’m mad but a lot of the … the volcanoes, ‘vulcanists’ or whatever – I probably haven’t got the correct term – [the people] who monitor volcanoes, basically said that first big lockdown, the earth was quiet. And our imprint – like that, that our noise, and our vibration when it went, it was like the planet was breathing. The animals were coming out. You know, plants were responding in particular ways. So what I’m saying is not some kind of, you know, craziness. It’s actually seeking to conceptualise the planet, and our relations with it, in a different way. We have to think differently. We cannot continue, you know, to think the way that we do.
And it’s, you know, understanding first and foremost that we are nothing without … it is the earth that sustains us. And it’s the power of the earth that can also destroy us. So that Foucauldian notion which is still human-centered – like it’s all human-centered power, all Western theory is human-centered power, right? Um, that has to be changed. You know, we can’t continue to think that humans have the power.
‘I grew up with that. That we are working – walking on something living’
Not everything can be made commensurable with that ideology. We’re getting towards the end of this conversation-
That’s pretty good, Fiona!
– and I feel that um, I’d like to share a question from one of our audience members. What are your tips on building resilience for academics of colour who are trying to navigate and survive white academia? I imagine you’d have a few.
Hm. I don’t know if I’m really good at giving tips. I think, um, the … look, I survive, I believe, because I try and understand human-centered power in its multiple forms, and I try to outmanoeuvre and work in that kind of context, but one must always have things that sustains the self. It’s difficult for me to respond and to … you know, to say you know, women of colour, because I don’t know culturally where you come from. I don’t … I don’t know that. All I can all I know is that I centre myself in terms of my Country and my ancestors and the … the place, and I carry that with me. I’m not just disassociated from it just because I’m in the academy, and I think that’s something that a lot of vice-chancellors have found really difficult to understand: you know, that I act sovereign. So in terms of tips, I’m not, I’m not sure, because I think what for me it’s about is: what is your relationship to the Indigenous sovereignty that still prevails where you are, and how are you setting up relations with the traditional owners in the university where you are?
You know, like this, you know, resilience occurs I think through many forms, and I … I honestly don’t know if I could come up with a list of tips. It, you know, it’s …yeah, because I’m not …
I’m only in and out of place when I’m on other people’s Country. Yeah. So when I’m in and out of place, I know that there are protocols that I have to abide by, but I also know that I’m a stranger on somebody else’s land. This Country.
And so my capacity to, I think, do things is again only in relation to others. Yep? So … Yeah. I’m … I don’t … people ask me about, you know, resilience and about how I do what I do. I only know that I do what I do because of the people and Country I come from. And I don’t … that’s kind of unwavering in everything I do.
Thank you Distinguished Professor Moreton-Robinson, and thanks to everyone – I hear there’s quite a lot of you – for watching this. I hope you’ve learned as much as I have. I never leave a conversation with you without learning something very, very new. And, and also without learning how to think differently.
So thanks to those of you who are viewing this. If you haven’t done this already, please do yourselves a favour: purchase a copy of the Second Edition of Talkin’ Up to the White Woman. It has some extras in the preface and and in the end. It’s published by University of Queensland Press, and you can purchase it through your local independent bookstore. Neighbourhood Books are the official online bookseller for this event, so you could go there.
And thank you Fi for as always being as engaging, and you know, your … if I could … there was a question, I know, about how does … how to be an ally. I think you and I have discussed, it’s not about being an ally. It’s really I think about being in good relations, and that’s something that you and I have had for decades. So you’re the person that should really answer that question. [laughs]
Well maybe we’ll speak again and share that secret, okay? [laughs] But I think we need to wrap up! Okay, I think so. Thank you everyone! Thank you.
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