Professor Chelsea Watego’s response to being told to have hope is: “Fuck hope. Be sovereign.”
In her essays, she examines the ongoing and daily racism faced by First Nations peoples in Australia.
Drawing on her own experiences and observations of the operations of the colony, she sets out strategies for living in a society that has only ever imagined Indigenous peoples as destined to die out.
She speaks not about fighting back but of standing her ground against colonialism in academia, in the courts, and in the media.
This is an essay from her collection Another Day in the Colony.
I was raised in a home in which “never forget who you are and where you come from” was almost a daily mantra, where Black people were sought out and sought after, whether that was via the occasional Black artist or film on television, the family reunions, the Black families on our street over several generations who became family, or the Black family members from out of town who occupied makeshift beds in our lounge room throughout our lives.
I knew Blackness not only as a matter of living — I knew it to be strong, funny, silly, fierce, proud, beautiful.
It wasn’t until I got to university that I came to realise how sick our state was as a people — beyond that of my own deviant behaviours in high school. I studied an undergraduate applied health science degree focused on Indigenous health, with a predominantly Indigenous cohort of students of varying ages. And together we learnt from white lecturers how ill, how tragic, how risky and problematic our existence was.
It was a genuine shock to me to learn how sick we were as a people because, at our kitchen table, I was regaled with stories about Aunty Dora, for instance, who as a child was rounded up like cattle and brought to Brisbane from her traditional country up in the gulf region — but the story wasn’t a tragic story, even though it was. The ending was that she lived to be over a hundred years of age.
The moral of the story, its function in my dad retelling it over and over again, was to remind us of the strength of Black people despite the violence of white people. Dad would never say that explicitly, but it was the terms of reference for how we came to know ourselves in this place, one of outliving white violence rather than a survival predicated upon white benevolence.
Within the health sciences, we are not known as genocide survivors. We are unknown as living, as healthy, or as well. We are instead known via our premature deaths, via illness and ailments, the cause of which can be explained through a knowing of us as a people who don’t know what’s good for us.
And, if by some chance we did, we don’t actually care about our health, and as such we are undeserving of appropriate health care or the conditions for better health because we won’t make the best use of those investments anyway.
When former Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared this continent “nothing but bush”, he tapped into the colonial settler sentiment whereby the land was for taking because we weren’t making the best use of it.
Under this logic, we too are determined incapable of and undeserving of the proper use of colonial institutions and systems. Instead, we are told by the colonisers that “the dying race” actually want to die earlier of almost every condition for which they have data on. It is why “discharge against medical advice” is reported on in annual Closing the Gap reports and not the systemic failure of the health system. Just like “unexplained school absenteeism”, it is those damn Black people who are to blame.
Of course, in the classroom I sat in, much like the kitchen table I was fed at, Black people contested these claims every day in our being, and our thinking. It was this disjuncture between the stories we were told about us and the ones we told each other that led me to do a PhD. I wasn’t trying to become an academic, having experienced academia’s violence; I just wanted to tell a different story of Indigenous peoples that did justice to the stories we tell.
In my desire to correct the record, I naively thought that if I just produced the evidence base on their terms in their house, then maybe things could change.
Audre Lorde had warned us of the uselessness of the master’s tools but sadly I didn’t encounter her scholarship in the Indigenous health degree I was enrolled in, despite its commitment to the liberation of Blackfullas via better health.
I encountered few Black or Indigenous scholars during this time and we were not taught about race and sovereignty. We were taught how to monitor Black bodies, to master the tools for surveillance, to measure blood pressures, HbA1cs, heart rate, health behaviours, risks and diseases. It was the ailing Black body that we were taught to know and to surveil.
So my resistance was to talk of strength, to refuse the logic that insisted Blackness and wellness were mutually exclusive and that our apparent illness was not a product of Black lack.
My PhD findings claimed a “discovery” of Indigeneity as understood by Indigenous peoples, which had nothing to do with illness and/or risk of it, but rather was central to our understanding of wellness. And while the work did do something towards shifting imaginings of Indigeneity within public health, particularly in advancing strength-based approaches, it came at a cost, which I continue to pay to this day, particularly when I shifted from speaking of our identity, our culture and our strength, to speaking about race, whiteness and the violence of the health system.
This is why, despite the academic medal, the dean’s commendation, the national lifetime achievement award, research grants and keynotes within my discipline, I was not located within my discipline; not even at its margins.
I remember once being permitted for a minute to sit in another school that was neither health nor population health. But even then, I didn’t actually occupy an office on either of the floors that it takes up in the building. Instead, I was placed in an office two floors further up, in a rented room on another school’s floor and each day I walked two flights of stairs to collect my lunch from the tearoom or my photocopying from the printer. I did have a printer in my office but getting the ink cartridge replaced presented all kinds of challenges for the administrative staff. So, I would take the stairs.
As a Blackfulla, I am used to having to walk further and work harder. I don’t know if I would even feel comfortable at the same table, let alone on the same floor as my supposed peers, which included those archaeologists, anthropologists, criminologists and other social scientists responsible for the racist knowledges produced about us, which have inflicted and continue to inflict violence upon Aboriginal people.
But there is also something really sick about the situation of Indigenous peoples as described within the health sciences, which consistently insists that we accept the inferiority of our culture. And that the very ideological foundation upon which we become visible is as statistically inferior — on terms of their choosing yet again. And despite over a decade of policy failure, we are being subjected to a refresh of those statistical “targets” rather than a radical reframing.
Despite my intellectual labouring in health, often at its margins, the centre remains intact. I guarantee you that there is not one Indigenous health research question drafted anywhere in this place, by an undergraduate, postgraduate student or principal investigator, that doesn’t effectively ask, “So what is wrong with Aboriginal people?”
I remember getting some respite, for a moment, teaching critical Indigenous studies out of an Indigenous studies unit away from the health and social sciences schools. Importantly, I wasn’t teaching the 1970s Aboriginal studies version that the anthropologists and archaeologists constructed, of artefacts and ancientness. I taught the “Aboriginal people must be your source for your claims” kind of Indigenous studies built by Indigenous scholars locally and globally, the one that made room for talking about race inasmuch as it talked about culture.
Here I could bring in texts by Aboriginal people, and they didn’t have to be clinicians, anthropologists or epidemiologists mimicking white expertise. They just had to be Black, and in fact, there was room for all kinds of Blackness: the funny, the beautiful, the angry, the poetic, the political, all those shades that I had known growing up. I could think about my being through song, fictional texts, poetry, protest signs, all kinds of ways.
It was “a peculiar sensation” to think of oneself via possibilities rather than risk; to theorise rather than be pathologised. I think this is why the Indigenous academic, regardless of their disciplinary training, finds a home in Indigenous studies at some point in their career. It is not because we can’t hack it in a mainstream faculty and those damn stairs we are forced to climb. It is that critical Indigenous studies is one of the few intellectual homes in which we get to exist in the here and now, as real and lived, as knowers not just known.
And for the most part, I was “good in the hood”; at least I thought so. It was from critical Indigenous studies that I was able to create an intellectual home for the work that I and others were doing, which bridged the divide between, while attending to the violence of, both health and humanities. This place is called Indigenist health humanities.
I’m not for a minute suggesting that the humanities are any more of a safe haven than the health sciences.
While the health sciences were all too happy to bury the bodies of a dying race, the humanities pillaged our graves in search of the remnants of a dying culture; some would have us skinned alive.
Having been shifted to the margins of the social sciences in among the anthropologists, archaeologists and criminologists, I realised how nothing had changed; how some days that office outside of the school’s actual footprint in the building gave me the sense that my home did, a safety in being away from the place where the stockwhips get cracked, bones collected, and Black bodies flayed.
Yet that building I was once based in is home to an anthropology museum located on the bottom floor. Each day, as I marched up and down those stairs, I couldn’t help but think of my own footprint and what it was I was forced to step on each day. My sixth-floor office also offered a vantage point that overlooked the sandstone building that frames the great court of one of the nation’s “elite” universities. That building is engraved with Aboriginal people including Aboriginal heads, which at the time signified the flora and fauna that most Australians were described as being unfamiliar with.
But my time in that ivory tower didn’t last too long.
Upon receiving a prestigious research grant that provided five years of my salary to build Indigenist health humanities as a new field of research, I found there was even less room available.
I scoured spaces within the faculty in which the work could be situated, only to be told there was no room for the $1.77 million investment. I was shipped back to the Aboriginal studies unit, the place where the institution felt the work belonged, but which also had no actual physical space to accommodate me or my growing team. The school I was leaving was unable to provide me with any boxes to pack up my office, but with the help of colleagues I got out of there. I loaded my belongings into my car and had to transport them to my actual home, having no office to move in to.
It was a peculiar sensation to find that, having secured the resources to exercise Indigenous intellectual sovereignty, there was absolutely no room at the inn, even in the ‘hood I was returning to.
Sometimes I would ask myself, “What am I doing here?” My eight years of undergraduate and postgraduate study within that institution, even in its excellence, did nothing to remedy that sense of unbelonging to that place. I will never forget the sense of indignation of a member of the senior executive when they asked me why I thought I “belonged” in their faculty. It was as though they had thought that I had forgotten my place.
But they did not realise that I had never accepted the place that the colonisers have reserved for us, that supposed place of unbelongingness. My answer to their question thus was not an appeal for inclusion, but an assertion of my sovereignty as an Indigenous scholar who had to remind them of whose land they were on.
Native American scholar Vine Deloria Jr declared “the problems of Indians have always been ideological rather than social, political or economic . . . So it is vitally important that the Indian people pick the intellectual arena as the one in which to wage war”.
The war that I am interested in waging does not involve appealing to the colonisers to be seen, as human or healthy. Instead, I am more concerned with those “warring ideals in one dark body” and minimising the violence inflicted upon it.
I want my children to see themselves and to know themselves beyond colonial caricatures, which insist we are incomplete, and inauthentic. I still remember Aunty Mary Graham talking about the important work that has yet to be done in finding ways to describe ourselves to each other.
Frantz Fanon, too, talks of the emergence of a national consciousness, perhaps the true one Du Bois thought eluded Black folk. This consciousness is not concerned with charming or resisting our oppressor but in speaking to one’s own people, which he argues is a literature of combat because it “moulds the national consciousness, giving it form and contours and flinging open before it new and boundless horizons; it is a literature of combat,” he says, “because it assumes responsibility, and because it is the will to liberty expressed in terms of time and space”.
My work as an intellectual — “native”, “Black”, “public” or otherwise — is not to be of service to the coloniser and their institutions.
I am all too conscious of the limitations of what the academy can offer both the “native” and “the native intellectual”. I care little about sustaining the institution that exists to insist upon our non-existence. I am interested in what we might take from it and how I might wrest some of that academic freedom afforded the scholar to speak to each other. In the course of such acts, we must be careful not to get caught or caught up in the domestic duties they insist we occupy our time with.
I remember Mum telling me about my great-grandmother, known to us as “Nanna Slockee”. As a young woman, Nanna Slockee received an exemption from the Act in the 1920s, but the only role available to her was still that of domestic. In her later years, no longer in such work, Nanna Slockee would still ready herself for the day ahead, hair pinned back and apron on. Mum said she would always put that apron on to meet the day.
How might we escape this role of servitude in our being? How might we know ourselves beyond the role that they have assigned us? How do we know ourselves as relating to each other amid the ongoing violence we are subject to, in ways that nourish us as Blackfullas?
Chelsea Watego is an Aboriginal Australian academic and writer. She is a Mununjali Yugambeh and South Sea Islander woman and is currently Professor of Indigenous Health at Queensland University of Technology. Her first book, Another Day in the Colony, was published in 2021.
Copyright © Chelsea Watego 2021. The Work is made available for viewing for personal use. All other rights are reserved by UQP.
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