Decolonising the Academy When They Say Identity Politics and Political Correctness Have Gone Mad

I start this reflection on decolonising the academy with the theme of acknowledging country to resist the sentiment that this protocol is an empty performative, unable to bring about the redress to sovereignty that it promises. I work and live on the land of the Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin nations, and in acknowledging that the traditional custodians of this land never ceded sovereignty I also acknowledge that I have inherited a debt that owes Indigenous people, past present and emerging, the project of decolonisation.

In 2011, the then premier of Victoria, Ted Ballieu made a decision to drop acknowledgement of country as compulsory for government ministers and officials, stating that the protocol was bowing to political correctness. More recently, left commentator, Jeff Sparrow remarks:

‘Today, many public events open with an acknowledgement of the value of Indigenous Australia. We’re assured that such ceremonies remind us to think about the necessity of racial justice. No doubt that’s true. But it’s also true that, in the context of the dire circumstances facing Indigenous Australia, an obsession with symbolism alone can, in fact, discredit the fight against racism. The most recent statistics show that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are 25 times more likely to be in detention than non-Indigenous children. In this context if we’re not talking about the need for structural change, we’re simply not acknowledging reality.’

Refuse the terms in which rhetoric against identity politics and political correctness frame debates

There are so many ways in which a conservative like Ballieu and a progressive like Sparrow are unalike that I would not normally put the two in the same paragraph. The way in which political correctness and this nebulous thing called identity politics has come to colonise public debate, however, has produced a frightening convergence between left and right thinkers. Both divide the line between the symbolic and the pragmatic in ways that fail to keep the settler colonial condition of Australia and the issue of Indigenous sovereignty on the agenda.

The rhetoric around facing reality and offering pragmatic solutions to Aboriginal disadvantage in Australia is more often used to undermine self-determination and land rights, as seen in the case of the notorious National Territory Emergency Response to deal with child abuse in remote Aboriginal Communities. Acknowledging that sovereignty was never ceded is not what discredits the fight against racism. The problem lies in relegating the question of sovereignty and decolonisation to a symbolic issue alone. So what sort of strategies can those of us in the academy deploy to promote decolonisation, and counter the attacks on laying the blame for this rise of the right on those engaged in social movements organised around identity markers, such as those dealing with Aboriginal sovereignty?

In public debates where national interest is pitted against identity politics, commonality against difference, universality against particularity and neutrality against partiality, the sense-making grid underpinning liberal democracies favours the first term in each of these oppositional pairs, all of which align with the interests of a state that privileges what Aileen Moreton-Robinson calls white, patriarchal sovereignty. These interlocking structures of power are captured well in the concept of kyriarchy, recently retrieved in the work of Berhouz Boochani, the Kurdish-Iranian journalist incarcerated on Manus Island. Connecting the settler colonial condition to a focus on border protection, Boochani’s intervention keeps in sight how the frame of national interest continues to set the terms of public debate in an ahistorical and assimilationist manner. Good citizenship is placed on the side of a commonality which masks its complicity with the settler colonial project. Within the binary that pits national interest—or indeed the struggles of ordinary people, whoever that might include—against all other liberatory struggles, Aboriginal sovereignty appears as a fringe issue rather than one that needs to be centered.

The idea that Aboriginal sovereignty is partial and particular rather than of national interest enables fields like Indigenous studies and critical race studies to be read as an ailment of identity politics and political correctness rather than corrective knowledge. From this angle, we can see recent controversies over the proposed Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation as symptomatic of a backlash against counter narratives that have challenged what has thus far passed as official history and canonised knowledge.

The optimistic reading of this backlash is that the truth about settler colonial nation states is getting more audible. The ire in which bigots are complaining and the frustration that some people on the left are expressing, tells us that social movements and areas of study based on centering Indigenous sovereignty, critical race approaches, and decolonising frames for understanding gender, sexuality and disability have made a big enough impact in the academy and public sphere for people to pay attention to the academic arm of social movements.

However twisted and venomous attacks are on this thing called identity politics by the right, and however irritated many sections of the left may be over getting drawn into debates about political correctness, one thing is for sure: whether on the grounds of national interest on the right, or calls for solidarity on the left, public debate about the future of democratic nation states like Australia are fractured along settler colonial and racial lines. Australia is yet to reckon with the disjuncture at the heart of its nation. In the name of national interest and the common good, Aboriginal sovereignty gets obfuscated in history telling. The intent to absorb and assimilate Indigenous people into an undemocratic version of the ideal of democracy remains.

One way of altering the terms of debate is to follow Irene Watson’s provocation ‘to take aim at normativity itself.’ She writes:

‘To make up of the historic and ongoing erasures of Aboriginal knowledges, there is a need to centre Aboriginal world-views as the norm, and an attempt to liberate space from the vast coverage of colonising and assimilationist processes. For this to occur, we need to take aim at normativity itself, to take aim at the proposition that the state holds the centre into which we are absorbed and assimilated.’

Rather than reinforcing the language of national interest, it is more accurate and just to emphasise the continued colonial interests of the nation that perpetuate kyriarchal structures of oppression. One step in this direction would be to start embracing the disfavoured side of the binary pairs in which the nation has been framing debates about identity politics and political correctness. A better start would highlight the actuality of partial knowledge (which does not, contrary to shoddy opinion, have to forsake objectivity), the facticity of difference, and the particularity of Australia’s settler colonial condition. At the same time, such reframing enables reckoning with the essential fractiousness and incommensurability between social movements when unsettling colonial violence. Decolonial work is not about reconciliation—as if there were ever two even parties having an argument—but dealing with disjuncture at the heart of the settler state. As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang put it in their paper, ‘Declonization is not a metaphor’, ‘opportunities for solidarity lie in what is incommensurable rather than what is common.’

Understand how ‘decolonization is not a metaphor’

Asking what it takes to decolonise the academy is to ask also what it takes to decolonise settler-colonial nation states. Decolonisation takes the settler (whether coloniser or migrant)[1] and the colonised as the primary relationship that structures how all other social relations are entangled within the biopolitical machinations of the state. Tuck and Yang articulate the decolonising project by first noting Aimé Césaire’s description of what it is not: ‘neither evangelization, nor a philanthropic enterprise, nor a desire to push back the frontiers of ignorance, disease, and tyranny.’ They extend this articulation through other negations:

‘It is not converting Indigenous politics to a Western doctrine of liberation; it is not a philanthropic process of ‘helping’ the at-risk and alleviating suffering; it is not a generic term for struggle against oppressive conditions and outcomes. The broad umbrella of social justice may have room underneath for all of these efforts. By contrast, decolonization specifically requires the repatriation of Indigenous land and life. Decolonization is not a metonym for social justice.’

This description clearly situates those of us working in fields like gender sexuality and diversity studies as not innocent from the colonial project on account of privileging the promise for justice for the oppressed and marginal; such projects are not decolonial if they do not anchor these studies with the unsettling question of Aboriginal sovereignty. Tuck and Yang include transnationalist, abolitionist and critical pedagogy movements in the same list of non-exemption from the decolonial lens. In the same way that Patrick Wolfe reminds us that ‘settler colonialism is a structure not an event,’ Tuck and Yang invite those of us working within fields of minor studies to ‘consider the permanent settler war as the theatre for all imperial wars.’

This invites non-Indigenous scholars to address the particularity of the settler colonial condition from where we are. This means approaching our work with the decolonial project as an organising principle from which we develop our curriculum and inform protocols and practices for setting the agendas for teaching, research and workplace relations. The task is not difficult in terms of what we teach and how we set readings. Even courses that take the nation-state as the given centre of analysis would be able to give an account of the specific circumstances in which particular settler states have been established. The staunchest supporters of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, such as Tom Switzer, are also those who are most inattentive to the partiality and violence in which settler nations were founded. On the other side of the coin, those most opposed to the idea of Ramsay Centre are those who have been most engaged in the area studies that emerged in response to critique the partiality of the Western canon.

In area studies, where the state is decentred, the task before us is to give an account of how ‘settler sovereignty imposes sexuality, legality, raciality, language, religion and property in specific ways. Decolonization likewise must be thought through in these particularities.’ Through such focus, we learn how the Western classificatory systems for dividing humans into types are historical and porous rather than natural and discrete. This knowledge is a strength that can be used against the current hysteria around identity politics and political correctness. If we ‘take aim at normativity itself,’ as Irene Watson suggests, we destabilise rather than entrench the current stereotypes that circulate regarding the supposed madness around identity.

‘Take aim at normativity itself:’ Write from below through bending the language from above

Of course decolonisation and decolonising the academy appear incommensurable with other imperatives for justice. For conservatives, liberals and some left thinkers, taking Aboriginal sovereignty as a starting point in teaching, research and activism is perceived as impractical if not impossible. Beginning with the incommensurable is precisely where we must pursue decolonial approaches. Following Watson’s direction in ‘the attempt to liberate space from the vast coverage of colonising and assimilationist processes’ within the academy, especially within the context of the neo-liberal turn, this seemingly impossible task calls for tenacity and inventiveness.

The language of the academy is already colonial, and the complicity between the university, the state and capital already assimilationist. This does not mean that the dominant language cannot be bent to better purposes than the banality of national interests, or serve those voices that have been subjugated and buried in colonial archives. It is not as though colonial knowledge and Aboriginal world-views have not already infiltrated one another.

It is not just land that has been stolen. As Oodgeroo Nunnucal reminds us in her poem White Man/Dark Man, there is theft also in the white man’s claims to propriety in knowledge and politics. When the white man speaks to the dark man in her poem he says: ‘To you have brought/our social science/and you we have taught/our white democracy,’ the dark man responds: ‘White man, who world/teach us and tame/we had socialism long before you came/and democracy too.’ It is not just the humanities and social sciences that can centre Aboriginal knowledge. Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu redresses the lack of recognition that settler colonialists gave Indigenous agricultural practices, and many published elders and young researchers are continuing the work of Indigenous astronomy. Decolonising the academy would also involve repatriating knowledge that was stolen or not cited in building what is widely understood as canonical knowledge.

Meanwhile, there are still bigots who yield enormous power in ensuring that the issue of Indigenous sovereignty gets used as a device from which to divide the Australian from the so-called unAustralian. Conservatives who claim to protect traditional values and Indigenous people from their presumed savage and dysfunctional selves echo the same division.[2] Sadly, the lure of national belonging and the obfuscation of alternative historical and cultural narratives can lead some migrants and non-black and non-Indigenous people of colour to have more in common with conservatives than with Aboriginal people.[3] While liberal thinkers believe themselves to be above prejudice, their commitment to pragmatism and their faith in a reason they believe to be neutral places them against the decolonial project. Perhaps most disappointing of all, however, are those on the left who perceive decolonisation as purely symbolic and a distraction from the real class struggle of ordinary people (as though Indigenous people are not also working class or ordinary). The failure of the left here is not one of alienating ordinary people, but a failure of reckoning with settler colonialism as a structure, not an event.

If Indigenous sovereignty and aiming against normativity itself were allowed to centre recent debates about academic freedom and autonomy—as discussed when former education minister Simon Birmingham vetoed eleven ARC grants in the humanities and the University of Sydney’s negotiations with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation—there would be a chance for building solidarity in the incommensurable. This would out-do the insipid taste for the common in the name of national interest that is not common at all.


[1] See J. Byrd. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism, University of Minnesota Press, 2001; see also, Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos, Indigenous Sovereignty and the Being of the Occupier: Manifesto for a White Australian Philosophy of Origins, re.press, Melbourne, 2014.

[2] For analysis of how this plays out in media representations see Ruth McCausland, ‘Special Treatment, The Representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Media”, Journal of indigenous Policy, Issue 4, http://classic.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/JlIndigP/2004/16.pdf.

[3] In this regard, see Roanna Gonsalves, “Are we Legit”, Southern Crossings, April 21, 2015 < http://southerncrossings.com.au/arts-and-culture/arewelegit/.


* My thanks to Maria Elena Indelicato for her incisive suggestions and editing.

Read on… ‘What Kind of Question is That?’ by Victoria Grieves-Williams

Having been constantly called to explain herself to complete strangers, Carolyn D’Cruz has ended up becoming a teaching and research nerd interested in collisions between persona, professional and political life. She is author of Identity Politics in Deconstruction: Calculating with the Incalculable and is co-editor of After Homosexual: Legacies of Gay Liberation. Carolyn is a Senior Lecturer in Gender Sexuality and Diversity Studies at La Trobe University.

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