Thinking Relationally about Race, Blackness and Indigeneity in Australia: Reflecting upon ACRAWSA’s Symposium

At the close of her paper, entitled ‘Navigating Power with Poetry on the Hazardous Drive toward Decolonisation’, Carolyn D’Cruz posed the vital question of whether, or not, the work of decolonisation can be pursued through engagement with nation-state level Politics. Her question recalled my recent viewing of Angela Davis and Gayatri Spivak in conversation at the Akademie der Künste on a panel entitled ‘Planetary Utopias – Hope, Desire Imaginaries in a Postcolonial World’. Aside from my general sense of wonder at seeing Davis and Spivak in conversation, one particular topic of their discussion had stuck with me; they too had disagreed on the place of the State in the futurity of justice. Whilst Davis had underscored that ‘the bourgeois nation-state, ensconced as it is in capitalism, would never be able to do the work of ensuring justice’; Spivak, in response, had questioned the real-world utility of refusing to engage it; asserting that our work is, instead, to ‘insert the subaltern into the circuit of citizenship’, that is into a structure that they could ‘work within’ as opposed to no structure at all. Whilst Davis conceded that we are tied to engaging the State for now; she maintained that a world free of violence and domination would not be able to retain ‘any aspect’ of the State as she understood it; Spivak maintained that the State must be seen through a more complexed lens, as both ‘poison and medicine’. AWCRAWSA’s latest symposium, ‘Thinking Relationally about Race, Blackness and Indigeneity in Australia’ provided important interventions to these broader debates in decolonial thought and practice.

Before I begin, I must position myself in relation to the question of the State and its significance within the decolonial project. I am a white British feminist researcher whose work with Sudanese women in the UK is located at the intersection of critical perspectives on race, class, gender and the coloniality of power. This work consistently emphasises the multiplicity of the State violence which penetrates Sudanese women’s bodies, families, homes and communities in Britain, and the vestiges of colonialism as inherent to its technologies of power and its goals. At the same time as living some of the most precarious lives in Britain, my research underscores how these women are also amongst those most reliant on the State for their survival. As a white citizen of the United Kingdom, I am the subject around which the entire structural apparatus of the British State is designed; and despite my relative lack of need, I am also she who is by far the most likely to secure State resources upon request. The unequal prospects of our lives in Britain are to a large extent defined by the State’s differentiated construction of citizenship; indeed by the continuing ‘problem’ for the State that the British colonisation of Sudan – as elsewhere – never intended to produce British citizens, only subjects. More recently, I have left Britain and become a temporary migrant in Australia. Although I am not a citizen of Australia I continue to embody a privileged position and to have a right to both the land and resources of Australia which are remarkably close to citizenship, and which have no basis other than the coloniality of power intrinsic to my whiteness and Britishness. Again, the State is the nexus through which this status is proffered, managed, sustained and continuously reinforced, and with that the erasure of indigenous peoples and indigenous sovereignty. It is at the intersection between this double positioning of myself in Britain and Australia that my interest in the place of the State in the global work of decolonisation emerges.

Posing the question of the State then is, to my mind, central to decolonial work both academic and activist. In the case of the former, it is vital not least because the academy, both within Australia and without, continues to be so interconnected to the State financially, structurally and ideologically. Taking aim at States may also offer a lens through which to think relationally about the project(s) of decolonisation between the local and the global. Also at the core of this question is the tension between the utopic, on the one hand, and the politics of the everyday on the other in pursuing decolonial work. As aforementioned, as those who experience continuous and catastrophic State violence in their daily lives are the most vulnerable people vis-à-vis the State, they also increasingly require that State in order to survive. Indeed, this is a primary mechanism through which the State reproduces its hegemony. This dynamic demands those who pursue decolonial work to think deeply through the consequences of not engaging the State and, particularly for those who hold the most dominant positions in society, to critically understand who bears the most devastating brunt of disengagement. The converse question, however, is the extent to which an institution which functions through the denial of bla(c)k existence and right to survive could, or should, ever be relied upon as a transformative structure for those who it itself defines as ‘Other’. As queer black feminist Alexis Pauline Gumbs reminds us, the very presence of non-normative bodies is, to the State, an issue of National (in)security. Those who embody this (in)security are, quite simply, not meant to survive. As Alexander Weheliye asked in his keynote, ‘Black Life: Schwarz Sein’: ‘How do you be in a place where you’re not supposed to exist?’.

Opening the symposium, Irene Watson made central to her keynote ‘Thinking Relationally about Race, Blackness and Indigeneity in Australia’ this linkage between the State and survival. The survival of the Australian State requires that Indigenous people do not survive; thus it has always required genocide; it has always demanded the erasure of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander bodies, voices and experiences. The non-survival (the genocide) of Indigenous people is the only way the State survives. As Nikki Moodie would later assert in her paper ‘Decolonizing Race Theory: Place, Survivance & Sovereignity’, echoing Patrick Wolfe, the Settler-Colonial State as such can only function through a logic of elimination. The State’s white, colonial-modern and neoliberal logic of capital, property, individualism and ownership cannot make space for Indigenous peoples nor Indigenous ways of being; neither in the sense of relation to land nor of relation to each-other. As Irene Watson reminded us, despite the State’s professions to the contrary, there has been no decolonisation of Australia; not least because the ‘hierarchy of voice’ established by colonialism remains; thus the violent silencing and erasure of Indigenous peoples – and their calls for self-determination – also remains. Indeed, both the idea and formation of ‘the State’ is founded upon the structure of hierarchical leadership and, thus, the principle of the differentiated right to voice. For Angela Davis too (in the aforementioned panel discussion with Gayatri Spivak) the masculinist and individualist nature of leadership as epitomised in the workings of the State is a central obstacle to a politics of collectively, relationality and justice.

This, then, is also about taking feminist aim at the State as a matrix of power which cannot function outside of its masculinist structure of hierarchy, order, status and individual gain; a structure of course inherently tied to its white colonial/modern formation. This structure indeed penetrates other structures in our everyday lives: education (absolutely the academy), the military and the family, to name but a few. Much of the normative force of the State is located in its capacity to define worthy and surplus life through the category/its categorisation of the ‘citizen’. As speakers across the second and third panel discussions – ‘Relational Blackness in Colonial Australia’ and ‘Centering Black Feminist and Queer Critiques in Discussions of Blackness and Blakness’ – reminded us the ‘citizen’ is not only white, but is also male, is also heterosexual and is also middle class (and physically able and of a certain age and more). Thus, a decolonial politics must push back against the normative categorisation of humans in all of their forms. Categorisation is indeed the productive work of Othering. As the guardian of normativity, the State not only defines us by categories, but also constructs amongst us a politics of solidarity which is entrenched in these very categorisations; in doing so the State succeeds in managing resistance to it through its own politics of separation. This reflection was furthered in Kaiya Aboagye’s paper ‘Negotiations of Blackness in Colonial Australia and Re/Thinking the Afro/Indigenous Encounter’. As she poignantly pointed out, resonating with the work of Robbie Shilliam, colonial epistemology is exactly the science of categorisation; of separation; of taxonomy; of the simultaneously careful and ferocious ordering of proximity and distance. Might then we take aim at it too through the construct of the citizen?

If then, as Sandy O’Sullivan cautioned us to take heed in ‘Untidy Gender and Sexuality: Celebrating Unresolved Identity Loops for First Nations’ Peoples’, division is ‘the burrowing point in the colonial project’, might we take direct and deliberate aim at the colonial/modern State as at the productive intersection of both category and hierarchy, to which division is the very crux? As Todd Fernando and Oscar Monaghan’s papers were at pains to stress, the work of decolonisation has much to gain too from the insights of a queer politics which consistently seeks out both normativity and hierarchy as structural matrices of power, violence and domination. Their papers – ‘From the Margins of the Other’s Other: Queering Aboriginal Histories’ and ‘Decolonisation and Utopia: Are we Bla(c)k and Queer in the Future?’ – cautioned us to think more complexly about normative bodies, spaces and ways of being in the world, and about, as Fernando underscored, the ‘Other’s Other’. As the panel discussion afterwards posited, if – as Judith Butler suggests – queer is never an identity but a critique of identity itself, queer politics may bring a vital utopic mode of disaggregation so necessary to the futurity of justice and to the potentiality for other worlds ‘beyond a politics of survival’. If, the State is the guardian of categorisation, hierarchy and division can we, as Angela Davis asks, retain any aspect of its structure in the journey toward thinking relationally about justice and, moreover, in the struggle for Indigenous self-determination in all its heterogeneity?

I was left wondering, then, as we went into Alexander Weheliye and Irene Watson’s final discussion, if working continuously to not only disengage but, rather, to demolish the State may be the foundation of decolonial struggle itself. Might breaking apart the State as a necessarily colonial, imperialist, nationalist, racist, classist, heteronormatively sexist, ableist, and ageist structure and force then provide a relational directionality to decolonial work around which we might coalesce in the work of constructing new utopian worlds (with the caveat that the differentiated power and privilege between us must be a continuous process of self and collective reflexivity always at the forefront of our minds)? Then, and as if in direct response to my thoughts, came Irene Watson’s closing remark. On being asked by Yassir Morsi, acting as discussant, if an institution such as the academy,  so embedded in the colonial project could ever be a space for decolonial work, Watson replied quite simply:

           ‘It just is’

It just is. It must be. In speaking so, Watson was cautioning too against the potentially ab/distracting nature of utopia; underscoring instead the necessity to ‘do the work that needs to be done in a tricky space’. In Watson’s words were a poignant reminder that, just as a preoccupation with a pre-colonial past paralyses the efficacy of decolonial futures, a preoccupation with utopian futures might also abstract decolonial work from the messy actualities, the structural realities and the urgent needs of the present. That could be could, indeed, enact a politics of distraction away from what, in fact, is.

Considering the structural interconnectedness of the academy and the State – and their mutually-sustaining origins in the violence of colonialism – perhaps Watson’s words might provide a path through the impasse prompted by the question of dis/engaging the Nation-State. At the same time, it is clear that utopia does do vital work, both in the academy and in activist spaces. Whilst potentially ab/distracting from the practical necessities of everyday survival it also holds the potential to be emboldening, sustaining and mobilising; to be, indeed, productive of hope in that ‘tricky space’. Indeed, as papers across the symposium have shown us, the bearability of so many lives – in the midst of everyday violence and domination – is in the very promise of utopia; in the promise of futures free from violence, a future which is just in its just is. Yet, Watson’s words continue to reverberate; to serve as a bridge between the hope of utopia and the urgency of the present. I wonder then if the work these words must do is to encourage decolonial work to continuously negotiate – with both passion for the future and compassion for the present – between a politics of what ‘is’ and a politics of what ‘could be’…

(to be continued).

Charlotte Sefton is an ESRC funded PhD Candidate at the Institute of Arab & Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter and is currently holding the position of Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. Charlotte’s research interests are located at the intersection of critical theories of gender, class, race and de/coloniality. Her current doctoral project pursues at this intersection an ethnography of Sudanese women’s experiences of space in diaspora (in Portsmouth, UK). This work (re)constructs geographies of race, class, gender and coloniality in Britain by thinking through the politics of everyday life for those who inhabit it as citizen-subjects of the (post)colonial State.

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