Friday, 27 June 2014

The Academy- A Colonial Project in Settler Colonialism?

The following entry is based on notes I developed for my presentation at the 2014 International Indigenous Legal Conference, held in Brisbane from 25- 27 July.

Congratulations to the organisers and to all my fellow presenters for a wonderful, inspiring experience.

A common practice in Maoridom when giving a speech like this is to begin by telling a story, the purpose of which is to set the scene for the content of the presentation, and the main argument I wish to present:

Budapest - September 2013: In response to a presentation I gave on members of the restorative justice industry purposely utilising Maori/Indigenous cultural artefacts to market programmes, a gentleman in the audience stated the following: 'when I was in New Zealand in the 1990's research family group conferencing, people told me that Maori meant 'other people', so since I was from overseas that would make me Maori'.  

The intent of his comment was clear: I am an 'other person', Maori means other person, so I can call myself Maori and are free to use Maori culture as I see fit.

This type of behaviour can only be described as White Privilege writ large.

Since then other Indigenous scholars and I have been sharing our experiences of this kind of behaviour.  The regularity with which this type of racist, unethical conduct occurs got me thinking that in all our critical analysis of the many and varied Colonial Projects that are deployed today by non-Indigenous individuals and institutions to empower themselves and disempower us, perhaps the one we have failed to take as seriously as we should, is the very institution that many of us work in – the Academy.

The Argument

The challenge of ‘being Indigenous’, in a psychic and cultural sense, forms the crucial question facing Indigenous peoples today in the era of contemporary colonialism – a form of post-modern imperialism in which domination is still the Settler imperative but where colonisers have designed and practised more subtle means (in contrast to the earlier forms of missionary and militaristic colonial enterprises) of accomplishing their objectives (Alfred and Corntassel, 2005: 297-289). 

The quote from Alfred and Corntassel marks out the problem-field with which this presentation is concerned.  What follows represents the tentative explorations of a critical criminological/sociological question of significant concern to Indigenous scholars and to many Indigenous peoples: what role, if any, does the Academy, play in the Settler Colonial subjugation of Indigenous people? 

It will come as no surprise to anyone that my answer is 'a significant one'.

I will argue that the Academy, and in particular its research function, is a key Colonial Project in this, the contemporary settler colonial context.

Colonial Projects and Settler Colonialism
In his critical commentary on the role of the discipline of Anthropology in the subjugation of Indigenous peoples, Nicholas Thomas identified a set of processes of social control which he labelled Colonial Projects, strategies and interventions that were fundamental to the successful establishment of a settler colony and the colonial subjugation of the Indigenous inhabitants. 

Thomas argues that from the moment of first contact colonisers utilised colonial projects to expedite the eradication, or failing this, the subjugation of the Indigenous peoples they encountered in the ‘new’ territories.  The following ‘projects’ were vital to advancing the ‘civilising’ mission of colonialism:
  • economic trade; and
  • religion (especially religious conversion).
Later, the impact of enlightenment thinking saw:
  • science (and the developing social sciences and education displace religion as key colonial projects.  At this point colonialist strategy changed focus from saving our souls, toward policies and interventions that facilitated our removal from our lands, and prepared us for (targeted) participation in the emerging western society and capitalist economy;
  • relatedly, Social Darwinism was utilised by colonisers to validate the ideological construction of Indigenes as inherently inferior, biologically, genetically and intellectually, to Europeans, a 'process' that Malik (1996) and Wolfe (1999) refer to as the racialisation of colonialism;
  • a process exemplified in Colonial Projects we refer to now as identity categories.  These included the introduction of measurements of indigeneity based on blood quantum, for example ‘full’, ‘3/4’, ‘half-Maori’ and so forth;
  • all of which were supported by ideological constructs such as the drunk Abo, happy,  slightly dim, guitar-playing Maori, and, my favourite, the angry, violent, over-emotional Aboriginal, because of course we are unable to control our emotions, etc;
  • which in  turn supported the implementation of eugenics programmes, such as forced sterilisation that were deployed across Canada, Australia and the U.S in the latter half of the 19th, and early part of the 20th centuries; 
  • and justified a range of projects focused on eradicating Indigenous peoples’ ability to practice their culture, most notably in the form of child removal programmes and residential/native schools, especially in the Canadian, U.S and Australian contexts.
And finally, there are the colonial projects that can be collectivised under the heading structural violence, exemplified via direct military action, forced removal of children, and the policies and actions emanating from the imported criminal justice system. 

The numerous colonial projects that littered the settler colonial landscape formed a complex web of subjugating strategies across a range of social and economic policy platforms. Underpinning these projects was the colonial states’ judicious use of structural violence.  It was a web from which a single colonial project could be discretely deployed to overcome ‘wicked problems’ that evolved from state-Indigenous interactions; wicked problems being those social issues that, at least in the eyes of the state, emanate exclusively from within problem populations and, as a result, define them as such. 

Or, as often happened, the state combined projects in coordinated campaigns of subjugation, such as the combined strategies of militaristic policing, child removals and reservation schools deployed in the American, Canadian and Australian jurisdictions throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

Colonial Projects in the Contemporary, Neo-Colonial Context

Our respective geographical locations are framed by nation states such as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand where colonisation has not ceased to exist; it has only changed in form from that which our ancestors encountered (Moreton-Robinson, 2009: 11).

Criminal justice in fact remains one of the most potent Colonial Projects utilised by the Settler Colonial state in the ongoing subjugation of Indigenous peoples.  One of its key functions is in assisting the state to ‘control’ what it identifies as significant wicked problems, one of which is the Maori/Indigenous over-representation, represented in governmental discourse as a ‘fact of (criminal justice) life’ that poses a significant social problem and threat to social order requiring meaningful intervention. 

In New Zealand the ‘Maori problem’ is described in governmental and media discourse as being so significant that our crime problem would likely disappear if not for the high level and nature of Maori offending, because, according to an ACT Party spokesperson, reported in the Otago Daily Times in 2012, we are “full of crime”. 

And it will come as no surprise to many of you that much of the criminal justice system response to us and our ‘wicked problem’ is in the form of structural violence - perpetrated through:
  •  militaristic-style policing strategies;
  • biased application of public disorder offences and discretionary powers;
  •  the criminal justice-led large-scale removal of Indigenous children and youth to detention centres, and
  • indigenous adults to the prison system.
Along with child care and protection processes, the colonial projects of removal and sequestration remain significant structurally violent colonial projects deployed by the settler colonial state in its ongoing ‘war of manoeuvre’ against Indigenous resistance to assimilation, and, at times, annihilation

Doing Imperialism Quietly?  The Academy as Structural Violence

Around the turn of the century there emerges a mythic, masterful silence in the narratives of empire, what Sir Alfred Lyall called ‘doing our Imperialism quietly’ (Bhabha, 1994: 177 – emphasis added).

What I have discussed so far are what most people would identify as ‘obvious’ institutionally-derived structural violence.  However, I contend that the settler colonial state has become much more subtle and manoeuvrable in the development and deployment of Colonial Projects. 

No longer able to maintain legitimacy by deploying overtly racist, assimilationist strategies such as the forced removal of our children in militaristic fashion – least they draw international condemnation, or employing legislation that specifically bans our language and cultural practices, or indeed replicating the physical genocide of the Indian Wars carried out in Canada and the U.S, or the killing times in Australia, nevertheless the neo-liberal settler state continues to deploy structural/epistemic violence against Indigenous peoples. 

This brings me full circle, to the story I told at the beginning of the presentation.  To reiterate, I argue that the Academy, the very institution that many of us here work in, is a key Colonial Project, if not one of the most important and nefarious strategies of subjugation deployed by the settler colonial society, against Indigenous peoples.    

On what basis do I make this claim; what evidence exists to support it?  For a start, the comment from the European restorative justice advocate I spoke about earlier is simply a more honest expression of the attitude of many working in the Academy, towards Indigenous peoples, our knowledge, our philosophies and our cultural practices. 

The western Academy’s response to Indigenous peoples, and especially its response to any Indigenous challenge to its hegemony over knowledge construction and dissemination, and as the evidence factory for informing policy development, demonstrates that structural violence is being deployed in much more subtle, yet no less destructive, formulations in this the settler colonial context. 

There are a number of ways/processes, etc, through which the Academy performs structural violence against us, and I have only a little time to highlight a few, including:
  • the assimilation of ourselves (our bodies), our philosophies and customs within standardised, Eurocentric research ethics processes;
  • corralling us and our work as ‘outputs’ to be reported against meaningless Aboriginal Strategies, Reconciliation Plans and such like; and
  • through us becoming little more than names and CVs employed to exoticise funding applications.
Think of all those times your name, and your research and academic record has been added without consent by colleagues to their funding applications; or when not long after the launch of an institutions Aboriginal Strategy, you suddenly find that the Indigenous units you teach have decreased instead of increasing, as the said strategy seems to imply will be the case.

I think the most powerful evidence that exists to demonstrate the power of White Privilege within the Academy, comes from the way in which some of our colleagues and the institutions we work in respond when we challenge the structural inequalities that frame these institutions. In discussing these issues with a range of Indigenous colleagues over the last 10 months or so, as part of a project I refer to as Racism in the Academy, I find that when our resistance to the hegemony of the Academy results in the resurrection of those tired, racist stereotypes and responses formulated during the colonial era, especially the violent, over-emotional, angry brown boy/girl who is unable to control their emotions.  In comparison,said institutions expend little energy in scrutinising the acts of White Privilege that us angry, emotive natives are responding to.

Over the last year I have received a wake-up call about the state of the Academy.  This was emanated not only from my own experiences, but also from my Indigenous colleagues who have recounted their own, often much more violent, disempowering experiences.  But perhaps the one experience I have had that has upset me the most is finding that many of the perpetrators of the sorts of actions I have described are often western academics who most readily, and ardently present themselves as our Allies. 

Let us recall at this point the English philosopher Edmund Burke once famously said that:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Well, I have recently discovered a situation much worse than that, and much more damaging for Indigenous academics, and that is the failure of western academic colleagues to live up to the ideals they readily claim in their research and publications; ideals like:
  • supporting the most disaffected and powerless in our communities;
  • supporting the eradication of racism, and
  • supporting Indigenous scholarship and empowerment. 
Easy statements to make; and they make nice sound bites for speeches exalting the values of a particular individual or institution, but in the end they are only words - you will be judged by your actions.

It is worthwhile remembering in the future the following 'warning': if you stand by and say nothing when your Indigenous colleagues are treated no better than academic field hands, then you are not an ally; you are an accomplice to the perpetuation of a Colonial Project and to the application of structural violence against us.


Alfred, T and Corntassel, J (2005) Being Indigenous: Resurgences against Contemporary Colonialism, Government and Opposition IX: 597-614. 
Bhabha, H (1994) The Location of Culture.  London: Routledge.   
Malik, K (1996) The Meaning of Race: Race, History and Culture in Western Society, London: Macmillan.
Moreton-Robinson, A (2009) Introduction: Critical Indigenous Theory, Cultural Studies Review, 15(2): 11-12.
Otago Daily Times (2012) Maori Full of Crime and Welfare: ACT Donor, Saturday 19 May.
Thomas, N (1994) Colonialism’s Culture: Anthropology, Travel and Government.  Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
Wolfe, P (1999) Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology.  London: Continuum Publishing Group. 

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