We here in Australia are finally reaching the stage where the terms of the discussion of Black-White relations are being set by Indigenous activists. And that is a good thing. For as long as the discussion was being dictated by white liberals and running along the lines of, “Oh you poor darlings, we understand, and we will allow you such and such” – and Labor governments, state and federal, are still trying this on – then we were/are getting nowhere.
Another Day in the Colony (2021) is a major step up in this discussion and as my first attempt to get you to read it was such an obvious failure, I am making a second.
Doctor Chelsea Watego is a Munanjahli and South Sea Islander woman born and raised on Yuggera country – Brisbane southern suburbs. Her father was a Munanjahli and South Sea Islander man, and a truck driver. Dr Watego by her own account messed up a bit during her last couple of years of high school, but went on to a degree and then a PhD in Indigenous Health.
Another Day in the Colony started out as “a hashtag I and other Blackfullas have used on Twitter to describe the types of colonial violence that Blackfullas are subjected to every day and everywhere in this place in real time.”
One of the reasons my first post was an exhortation rather than a review was that this book and those conversations on Twitter are not intended as educative for white “allies”, nor as a venue for liberals to carry on white-splaining, but as an opportunity for Black activists to reinforce each other with stories, and which I guess are out in the open so that we whites can (shut up and) listen.
When I speak of the uppercase Blacks, I speak of those who simultaneously recognise and refuse the racialised location we’ve been prescribed, as well as those who’ve been haunted by it. In writing for/to them, I have presumed a prior knowledge and a shared frame of reference… Parts of this book speak to a pain and a vulnerability that need not be fully paraded about this place, but which the Black reader no doubt will know and feel intimately.Introduction
The book consists of six or eight pieces in which Watego uses her own life experience as an example. Growing up, in the 1980s, she discovers that ‘Aboriginals’ typically live in the desert, carry spears and eat witchetty grubs – I remember learning these things in the 1950s, but apparently even Watego’s daughter, so in 2010 say, was being taught these same ‘facts’. And of course she is attacked for not being black enough.
By and large, Watego doesn’t use the book to name names, but she did her degrees at University of Queensland and “worked there as Principal Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences… in 2019 she lodged a race and sex discrimination complaint against UQ and left the university for QUT” where she is Professor of Indigenous Health (wiki).
Her descriptions of how white academics, anthropologists especially, insist that they are the experts on Black culture; of Indigenous Health studies always beginning with the premise, “So, what is wrong with Aboriginal people?”; are to be expected, I suppose; but her treatment by the department that housed her in the “sandstone buildings of one of Australia’s elite universities” in an office two floors away from her fellows, and then refused her room at all to accommodate a prestigious research grant she had been awarded, is just plain shocking.
I don’t want to summarize this book for you, or even to draw conclusions from my reading of it. That is for each of you to do for yourselves. But I guess its theme is that ‘Australia’ is an ongoing colonial project from which we settlers continue to benefit: that white settlement of Aboriginal lands was and is violent; that ownership of the lands has never been resolved; and that, apart from the obvious violence inflicted on Blacks by police (and by racists), there is also the violence of white liberals overriding Black independence and sovereignty.
Within the current Indigenous social policy context of gap closing, the Aborigine is constructed as the problem; a problem that can be resolved statistically, through increased control and surveillance by the state. So, naturally, they need texts [from white academics] which simultaneously construct us as the problem and themselves as the solution.
As this is notionally a Lit.Blog, one chapter I will mention is on the representation of Indigenous people in Australian Lit., with particular reference to Larissa Behrendt’s critique of ‘the white damsel in danger from savages’ trope, Finding Eliza. Watego then goes on with a savage takedown of Cathy McLennan’s Saltwater, a critique which had been commissioned by Australian Feminist Law Journal but was eventually refused publication.
Another Day in the Colony is not easy reading. Your liberalism, your ally-ship will be challenged. Her use of ‘violence’ as a consequence of bureaucracy and academic reports is confronting. I, at least, stopped a number of times and thought ‘do they think that!’. And ‘they’ is the right word. We have a huge amount of work to do before there is an ‘us’.
Dr Watego does not show us settlers a way forward, that is not her job, but, importantly, she has taken the trouble to at least let us see where we are starting from.
Chelsea Watego, Another Day in the Colony, UQP, St Lucia, 2021. 250pp. Cover photograph from Michael Cook’s Broken Dreams series.
Postscript: I was thinking about this for an introduction but Dr Watego shamed me into not centering myself in what should be an important post. In short, the Holloways have been Hawthorn (AFL) supporters for 80 years. Earlier this year Cyril Ryoli, perhaps the club’s most loved player ever, announced that he would have nothing more to do with the club after his partner was shamed by club president and former Liberal premier Jeff Kennett. Then just recently, two other (unnamed) young Indigenous players told the ABC that they had variously been separated from family support, told to live apart from their partners, and one partner told to consider an abortion. Kennett of course said “nothing to see here.” After a lifetime, I no longer have a football club.
see also: SBS, 11 Oct. 2022- Professor Chelsea Watego loses racism case (here). The incident which led to the case is discussed in the book. Prof Watego says she was out late ‘celebrating’ when she was accosted by a white man. When the police arrived she was arrested while the man was allowed to leave.