“I am not your house nigga”: Indigenous academic women and institutional speech acts of inclusivity within higher education.

Year: 2019

Author: Thunig, Amy

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Abstract:
Less than 1% of academics employed in Australian higher education institutions identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Increasingly, these institutions are engaging in ‘speech acts’ and branding which emphasise a commitment to inclusivity, diversity, and Indigenous engagement. There exists a paucity of literature which considers how these institutional commitments, and the associated workload and enactment, are experienced by the existing Indigenous academic workforce. This paper draws upon 20 semi-structured, one-on-one interviews with Indigenous women employed in academic roles in Australian higher education institutions located across six of a possible eight States and Territories. Conducted by an Indigenous woman, utilising Indigenous research methodologies, and a decolonising lens, questions explored why participants chose and continue to choose academia, and whether they were fulfilling their own goals whilst navigating higher education institutions.

A novel finding of this study, and the focus of this paper, are the relational dynamics reported by Indigenous academic women with executives at their institution, and the way this contrasted with their experiences with faculty members and collegiate. Overall, participants reported positive relationships with executive level academic staff (e.g. Vice Chancellor, Faculty Deans). They also reported feeling ‘empowered’ in their roles, and both ‘heard’ and 'trusted' by executives who demonstrated genuine commitment to Indigenous engagement. However, regardless of the participant’s own employment level, many reported having experienced fraught and negative experiences with non-indigenous faculty members.

Significantly, participants noted that when non-indigenous colleagues were tasked by the executive with enacting inclusivity within their course content or research practise it was not uncommon to observe them respond by simply seeking to “bring on the black performer”. One participant compared constantly being called on to ‘perform’ for non-indigenous colleagues as feeling treated as a “house nigga”, a reference to the indentured service of Indigenous people throughout Australian history. Whilst some participants felt able to refuse these calls to perform, it was acknowledged that both acceptance and refusal was fraught and came at a cost.

While this participant pool is small, there are currently less than 300 Indigenous women employed in academic roles across the entire continent. Thus these findings provide valuable insight into experiences of the small pool of sovereign women engaged in academic roles during an era of increasing institutional commitment to diversity and Indigenous engagement.

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