Tuesday, 11 November 2014

A Comment on the Epistemic Violence of White Academic Privilege - Part 1

The following blog is part 1 of a two part entry which provides an overview of the strategies and techniques of neo-colonial, epistemic violence perpetrated by the Academy against Indigenous scholars and communities.  Part 2, which will be posted in December, will report on recent research by the author and his colleagues, on Indigenous scholars’ experiences of racism within academic institutions.

Indigenous peoples in all Settler-Colonial societies experience a number of issues when confronting both the criminal justice system and the academic discipline of criminology, including:

That the imposition of a criminal justice system, modelled on existing and developing Western models, was key to advancing the colonising process, especially the control and eventual subjugation of Indigenous peoples.

That the criminal justice system itself plays a significant role in the over-representation of Indigenous peoples.

That the criminal justice system and its supporting discipline, criminology, respond to Indigenous justice philosophies, theories and practices by portraying them as primitive, myth-based, and, therefore, illegitimate.  Furthermore, the ‘system’ marginalises Indigenous knowledge by employing rhetorical devices that construct it as ‘traditional’ and therefore as the antithesis of the preferred ‘scientific’ approach.  Except that is, for beliefs, practices and rituals policy makers and criminologists deem to be ‘culturally acceptable’, such as sitting in a circle or saying an ancient pray.  In other words, elements of the Indigenous world are utilised for their ability to eroticise and legitimise the criminal justice system, and not so much for their ability to empower Indigenous peoples.

And, a major player in the processes of marginalisation previously described is the discipline of criminology, or more accurately a particularly virulent derivative I have referred to previously as Authoritarian Criminology

Authoritarian Criminology
The charge that Criminology was a major player in the colonising enterprise within Settler-Colonial societies and other colonial contexts has only recently been given serious attention from those working in the discipline, such as Biko Agozino and Chris Cunneen; although we must acknowledge the work of Franz Fanon and others in the 1950s onwards is point out the importance of the social-behavioural sciences (Psychology, Anthropology, Sociology), and even history, in the colonial enterprise. 

Authoritarian Criminology can be identified by the following core practices:

Research, publications generally focuses on the conceptualisation of crime (and its definition) and what constitutes legitimate enquiry, as defined by the state.

Practitioners confine their critical criminological gaze to issues relating to state-defined problem populations: more often than not the targets of their empirical enquiry are people of colour and working class youth; and too often the research is carried out with little or no direct engagement with individuals, organisations or communities from these population groups.

Confine their enquiries to problems and questions that the state deems important for which they receive remuneration via the establishment of contractual relations.

Limit their critical analysis of state systems and policies on programme effectiveness and evaluation largely devoid of historical context and wider political economy of the state’s dominance of justice in the neo-liberal moment.

Empower themselves through the veil of scientism, an ideological construct that privileges their approach to measuring the Indigenous life-world, whilst denigrating Indigenous (and other) forms of knowledge that seek to explain the social world from the perspective of the Other.

Utilise the process of myth construction and maintenance in a hegemonic exercise aimed at privileging its ‘way of knowing’ in the policy making process, over that of potential competitors.

Silence Indigenous academics (and our critical, non-Indigenous colleagues) by deploying well-worn, racist strategies such as focusing on our ‘emotional’ responses to unethical or racist conduct (more about these strategies in Part 2 of this entry). 

So, what needs to be done to combat the hegemony of Authoritarian Criminology in deciding what is/is valid knowledge and dominate policy-making, especially in the development of Indigenous policy; activities that can most accurately described as contemporary manifestations of colonialist, epistemic violence?

The Unfortunate Truth about Policy and the Academy
Before we begin to construct effective strategies for empowering ourselves, we must first acknowledge the following unpleasant truth about policy-making, policy makers and certain influential members of the academy: Neither the state (the policy makers) nor the predominantly white, middle class, privileged Western academy is simply going to stop what it is doing.  There is too much at stake for them to do so, including power, authority, prestige and, most especially of import to their institutions, grant monies, for them to voluntarily hand over the authority they have given themselves to speak for us, to the Indigenous Other and our critical, non-Indigenous collaborators.  The truth is we will have to break the hold they have on speaking about ‘our experience’, and fight them for the privilege of being able to directly influence the development of policy that impacts our communities. 

The importance of breaking this monopoly was brought home to me recently when I read two papers by non-Indigenous academics who had picked up government-funded research contracts on Indigenous issues, and then had to go and find out how to actually ‘do research’ with Indigenous peoples!  What?  You apply for a project for which you actually do not have the methodological know how or the cultural competency to carry out, and after you get the nod you then try to find out about ‘Aboriginals’?  As an experienced Indigenous academic, two questions immediately sprang to mind when I was confronted with these two examples:  a) why are government agencies giving contracts and grant monies to academics who demonstrably lack the requisite skills or knowledge to carry out emancipatory, empowering research with Indigenous peoples?  There are a number of ways we can explain this situation, but for now I’ll offer just two: i) because the government officials who make these decisions have just as little knowledge and experience of the Indigenous context so they go for academics who ‘look and act like them’; and/or ii) they go for the ‘safe option’, namely academics who will toe the line by only asking safe questions (meaning questions that will not elicit direct criticism of an  agency or their Minister) and who will stick to the institutional script.  And, what is for me the most important question, b) why are non-Indigenous academics without the requisite methodological and ‘cultural’ experience and knowledge applying for these grants? Is it ego, ignorance, or a combination of both?  I will finish on this issue by saying that I believe that one of the reasons why they feel they are able to apply for said grants when they clearly should not, is because for so long now they have been able to do so without being challenged by the Indigenous Academy.  Furthermore, it was/is possible for them to do so because we have historically done little to confront the government officials who handed the grant monies over to them to carry out their ‘Indigenous research’.

Breaking the Hegemony of Authoritarian Criminology
There are a number of ways we can respond in order to extract authority and respect from policy makers and the academy:

Continue to work ‘within the system’ (or systems) and provide meaningful support to the academy and the state to enhance Indigenous participation in their knowledge construction exercises, as some are doing already.  For example, in the New Zealand context we could use our Treaty settlement monies to fund scholarships so that we make our peoples more attractive to the academy and the public service.  However, 10 years of experience in the public service and numerous conversations with other Indigenous peoples working in the policy environment, informs me there are significant limitations involved in putting all our eggs in that particular basket. After all, the state is the entity thru which the immediate post-colonial and current neo-colonial disempowerment of Indigenous peoples is facilitated.  It (the Settler-Colonial state) is reluctant to treat us as human, as capable of looking after our own.  A recent case in point was the racist NTER policy implemented in Australia in the mid-2000s.  Continuing engagement and involvement with the policy sector is a legitimate and necessary approach, but much more is required.

Working within the academy by using the tools and methods of the academy to challenge the processes it utilises to achieve hegemony, with the added factor of engaging in research with Indigenous peoples, and not ‘on’ coloured people.  We must continue to develop our own counter-colonial theories and methodologies that challenge the legitimacy of the Academy’s tools and the exalted position its practitioners give themselves, too often on the backs of Indigenous peoples.  We must actively challenge the knowledge constructed about us, but rarely with us.  In other words, we must become or remain political (or, if you work in policy, ‘radical’); and much more aggressive (intellectually) towards the work of policy makers and members of the academy, especially Authoritarian Criminologists.

As I have hinted in an earlier blog, for every diplomat and peacemaker, we must have an academic warrior, someone who is part of a developing ‘Warrior Criminology’.  We cannot afford to be afraid of being called ‘aggressive’ or ‘emotional’, as we often are when we critique policy makers and academics and confront them directly for their racist behaviour and for the methodological shortcomings of their work.  In fact, our goal should be to embarrass them as much as possible: too often crap gets published about us about which little is said publicly.  Instead, we get annoyed and then moan at each other about some recent rubbish published in an ‘A journal’, but then bow to the silly conventions of the Eurocentric discipline that are built to protect its practitioners from any direct criticism of their shonky work, and most especially when they exhibit racist and unethical conduct. 

Recent examples of work about ‘us’ that deserved Indigenous censure included a 2008 report on Maori and crime by New Zealand’s Department of Corrections, and one on race and crime; both of which managed somehow to avoid any meaningful engagement with the critical Indigenous lexicon.  Can you imagine a journal article getting the green light if it focused on the contemporary development of restorative justice theory, but avoided the work of Howard Zehr,  John Braithwaite or one of the other founding ‘fathers’?  No?  Well, too often that is exactly what happens when non-Indigenous criminologists write about ‘us’: all of a sudden white man’s magic makes Indigenous scholarship disappear.  What this argument demonstrates is that we must become more active and strident in critiquing work that ignores Indigenous scholarship, or where the authors report on the Indigenous experience while avoiding engagement with Indigenous peoples.  We cannot allow the voice of the Institutional Other, the so-called ‘scientific criminologist’ – or as I prefer to call them, the Authoritarian Criminologist - to remain the dominant voice on the Indigenous experience because too often these authors are not telling Our Stories.  

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