Celeste Liddle is an Arrernte Australian woman who lives in Melbourne. She is the current National Indigenous Organiser for the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). She has previously worked in Indigenous student support and has been involved in union activism as a staff member. Celeste’s work has been published in The Guardian, Daily Life, Crikey and the National Tertiary Education Union’s publications. She also blogs at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist. Her writing engages with diverse aspects of Australian arts, education and politics, with a particular emphasis on Indigenous issues.
Maja Milatovic: In your article “Strategies for Inclusivity: Indigenous Women and the Academy,” you highlight intersecting oppressions such as racism and sexism impacting Indigenous women in academia, which remains a “bastion of white male privilege.” What are some of the strategies for challenging colonising knowledge and institutionalised whiteness and obtaining recognition for Indigenous knowledge in academia?
Celeste Liddle: I think in the first instance it is important for people to be aware that the existing knowledges are indeed skewed toward certain ways of knowing, and that the act of colonisation has privileged these knowledges in the academy. As a result, no matter how open universities are to knowledge-exchange and contributing to knowledge pools, they can still exclude because Indigenous knowledges have been considered, over a vast number of years, to be second class, and the way Indigenous people acquire those knowledges – via community, family, experiences, etc. – are different to the teacher-and-student methods preferred by most Universities.
One of the simplest strategies is to lobby universities to employ more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The number of Indigenous staff has doubled in a 10 year period and that’s the same time the NTEU included an Indigenous mandatory claim in the bargaining round. By having Indigenous people engaged in a number of capacities across a university, the existing entrenched systems are challenged. Additionally, with more Indigenous staff come more Indigenous students and the numbers here are roughly proportional. With more Indigenous students comes the capacity for more research higher degree students, and therefore the opportunity for existing departments to supervise more Indigenous people doing research from their own perspectives; thus more opportunity for an active knowledge transfer. Indigenous academic staff are vital here as mentors. So in short, I’d say targeted employment strategies to get more people working in the sector, and more encouragement for students to go further with their studies with the aim of eventually becoming university staff themselves.
MM: One of the elements you address in your writing is “authenticity” or the notion of a “true” Indigenous heritage. In your piece, “An Open Letter to Bess Price MLA,” you state that “Culture is not a static entity and has never been pre- or post- colonisation,” highlighting your belief in “a shared historical experience which is as valid a cultural element as anything else.” Can you elaborate on this argument more, especially considering current Indigenous politics?
CL: There is a tendency to refer to Indigenous culture as “traditional” and “contemporary” in this country (Australia). I feel that whilst colonisation has obviously had a huge impact on Indigenous culture, to label things as such paints a static image of what it was like prior to colonisation whilst also reducing the authenticity of what we have today. There is an entire knowledge pool and a system of governance that was built up before colonisation. Those rules and knowledges came from experience: from experiencing environmental fluctuations; from people challenging systems; from trade with neighbouring countries. Additionally, kriol languages, traditional-style dances about contemporary experiences, sports carnivals, etc: all these have become a part of our shared cultural landscape and are important.
Following colonisation, there have been many experiences that Indigenous people have shared as a people. There were, for example, very few families that were not pulled apart by the policies that led to the Stolen Generations and have not been impacted by transgenerational trauma. Language revitalisation programmes nowadays are, in a lot of cases the direct result of language removal back in the 1930s. Struggling to reconnect is therefore a common experience for Indigenous people. We’ve also had a number of key political movements such as the Freedom Rides, the Tent Embassy, Land Rights. All of these experiences form our histories. We have family that took part in them or we were there ourselves, and because the stories of those struggles are relayed on, they become a part of our shared cultural landscape. A good many of the things we now celebrate annually started as Indigenous political movements and these events are part of our cultural landscape.
MM: In your article published in Daily Life entitled “A platform for the people who are not always heard,” you write that Indigenous events and conferences provide opportunities for “being heard,” create inclusive spaces where “Indigenous ways of knowing can dominate” and challenge hegemonic culture. In your view, how do these events offer transformational and collaborative potential amongst Indigenous people globally?
CL: I have now had the privilege of collaborating with Indigenous peoples from other countries on a number of occasions. One of the things that always strikes me are the similarities colonised peoples share. There are enough similarities recognised that we now have the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples! So the sharing of these similarities as Indigenous peoples globally helps break down the isolation we have within our own countries and we can then collaborate on how we address the issues we face on a global level.
There are, however, many differences as well. One such difference I can think of is the existences of treaties that many peoples have, but that we don’t have here in Australia. Hearing how the Maori, for example, have a set of principles and conditions that they can hold their government to and how this works for them inspires and drives us in Australia. Hearing where they feel their treaty has not served the people as well as it could have allows us to learn from their experiences and push for different inclusions.
I often say that attending one of these conferences in the first place is what radicalised my mind. As an Aboriginal woman I was so moved and so inspired by what I experienced talking with other indigenous peoples and sharing knowledge, but I also became so aware of how the situation in Australia compares. It was a wake-up call and since then I have not only become more active in a number of ways here, but I have also relished the opportunity to engage more internationally. At the next WIPC:E conference in Hawaii in 2014 we are hoping to run a panel session on Indigenous trade unionism with educational activists from Australia, New Zealand and Canada represented. Fingers crossed this comes into fruition and from this engagement, a regional Indigenous education union caucus begins to grow! Academia is one of the most mobile fields a person can work in so it makes sense, as Indigenous unionists, to organise globally.
MM: In recent years, social media and blogging in particular have become increasingly popular ways of breaking silences surrounding structural inequality and challenging exclusions as well as a means of networking, strategizing and making marginalised voices heard. You use Twitter and were involved with curating the IndigenousX Twitter account. You also write your own blog called Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist. What is the potential of social media in connecting, constructing and empowering Indigenous people in Australia? Are there any risks involved with the use of social media?
CL: Had someone told me when I started my blog back in June 2012 that I would end up writing commissioned pieces for mainstream, and non-mainstream, media within 6 weeks, I would not have believed them. It happened though, and in one fell swoop I became aware of the potential of social media. From an Indigenous perspective, this is particularly powerful. Traditionally our issues, voices, opinions and so forth have been represented by non-Indigenous people in non-indigenous publications. We have had little control over how we are portrayed and the diversity of our opinion has been stunted by those the media sources deem are the “leaders” or at least the most palatable.
Social media throws that wide open. Aboriginal people are allowed to represent themselves, argue their opinions and engage in discussions in a way that we haven’t been able to do in traditional media. It’s no surprise that we’re seeing more diverse voices getting out there at this point in time from a number of political perspectives (and if you ask me, also no surprise that the Aboriginal left-wing have particularly embraced it). Additionally, Facebook became an invaluable tool to connect family and community over vast distances and from some incredibly remote communities. Because so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people use Facebook regularly, it has become an even more important tool for us as a point of connection and information dissemination than it probably has for everyone else. Twitter is important as well, but personally I find that it’s more useful as a tool for Indigenous people to broadcast our works externally, and that Facebook allows a more in-depth engagement.
The main danger is that social media removes the filter. Back in the “old days” opinions were countered via “Letters to the Editor” pages. Nowadays, people contact you directly and want to argue the points. I particularly got annoyed when I had hoards of non-indigenous conservative men writing diatribes on my blog telling me what the “real issues” were. From that point, I took the stand of actively moderating the space and stating that black and female opinions took precedence in my space. People are also only a Google search away from someone’s email address or contact details nowadays. I had to block people from my site after some regular commentators received abusive emails. We are more likely to be attacked directly if we do put ourselves out there on social media and I feel that turns many people off. Why would you put yourself out there to be abused virtually when you’ve been dealing with racism/sexism/etc your entire life?
MM: You self-identify as a black feminist. Are there any particular feminists or inspiring individuals who motivate your work and have influenced your feminist vision?
CL: I have been a bit of a magpie, to be honest: collecting shiny objects, or information that appeals anyway, and putting it all together. What I’ve found I’ve done more than anything is identified particularly with broader radical thought and adapted those thoughts into black feminist standpoints. I’ve also been one for analysing my own experiences and using these for the basis of broader analysis. So every time I am asked this question, I tend to fail it!
Therefore, my list of those that have inspired my thoughts may look a little random. Whilst a lot of them I would agree with, this is not a requirement and others I admire for their sheer capacity to analyse structural forms of oppression. The ability to engage, disagree and formulate an opposing argument is incredibly important particularly when investigating where systems of oppression intersect. Audre Lorde, Augusto Boal, Lisa Bellear, Catharine Mackinnon, Judith Butler, Dennis Altman, and William Cooper are a few names that spring to my mind. The book “The Bridge Called My Back” stands out as a key text. Former lecturers that challenged my view and expanded my horizons are Sheila Jeffreys, Geoffrey Milne, Peta Tait, Verity Burgmann and many others.
A lot of the people who inspired me the most though have been people within my own family: my mother, my grandmothers, a number of very politically-minded relations. Finally, because I have worked at universities and then at a union I have been lucky enough to have been continually surrounded by people who question everything. That environment has definitely encouraged my own views to grow.
MM: In her article “Australian feminists need to talk about race,” Aboriginal Australian feminist Kelly Briggs highlights the importance of intersectionality, writing that “Australian feminists must recognise and join the fight for racial diversity.” Taking this into account, what do you identify as current challenges in Australian feminisms, especially in the context of forming productive transcultural and transracial alliances?
CL: The main challenge I find right now is the focus on individualism rather than collectivism. With Indigenous politics, due to the fact that we make up such a small proportion of the population and because “choice” is something we were denied for many generations, a lot of our politics focuses on the collective, or at least needs to. A good deal of the dominant feminist theory at this point, however, seems to be more focused on individual agency. I honestly feel this is the point where Indigenous feminist voices can get lost. When Kelly states “I am uneasy about the narrow confines the term “equality” has taken in regards to feminism,” I strongly believe this is what she is highlighting too: Structures are not being questioned and challenged enough and black women are being left out because of this. When you’re engaging with more liberal narratives that highlight the rights of individuals and a group doesn’t have access to a great deal of choice in the first place due to structural oppression then clashes will occur. I think this is why I have found more synergy in radical thought. Indigenous women, at least in Australia, due to their intersecting sources of oppression, have much to share here and because they are not always actively engaged with, their voices get left out of feminist analysis.
On saying that though, I have run up against similar issues with leftist organisations. Because they argue that class is the foremost site of oppression, they can close off when issues of gender or race are brought to the table. I have had openly hostile responses when I have suggested that some patriarchal systems existed prior to colonisation and the installation of capitalism in this country. Recently I stated that I am not interested in a revolution that leaves the most vulnerable behind. Intersectionality is key for me.
MM: You frequently state that you are a socialist and a unionist. Your writing frequently underscores the importance of community and unionisation for Indigenous women. What drew you to getting involved with the trade union? What are some of the issues you encountered in the context of equality and diversity issues for women and Indigenous people, while working for the union?
CL: As mentioned earlier, I feel universities remain bastions of the white patriarchy, and when I worked within the university structure, I was working in Indigenous student equity. As a staff member though, I found that I, and other Indigenous staff in the sector, faced the exact same issues the students were facing. Universities remained somewhat hostile environments for Indigenous people. They excluded via preferred knowledges, via preferred life experiences to gain entry and remain in the institution, via their sheer elitism as places of educational excellence. In addition, as a woman I found continually that whilst we made up the majority of the university staff, we rarely held the top positions and therefore women were continually excluded from the highest level of decision making within the institution. Women’s and Gender Studies departments were continually under threat, and sadly, a good many of them ended up scaled down or even closed. The ability to cast a gender lens over existing subjects and topics was being continually diminished within the sector.
I was always a unionist and the opportunity to draw on the collectivism provided within an organised union structure to try and achieve equity for Indigenous people on campus was the main reason for me becoming more active. It is much easier to achieve equity when you have a collective of workers willing to stand alongside you. Becoming active at a branch level eventually led to me earning the job I am currently in. Since I started here three years ago, we have run Indigenous members surveys on their experiences of racism, discrimination, cultural respect and lateral violence in the academy. The results were shocking, although unfortunately not surprising, with a vast majority stating that they had experienced these issues within the sector. I am also a member of the Women’s Action Committee of the NTEU and our Indigenous membership just happens to be 70% female. I was able to cast a gender lens over the members’ survey data and I concluded that the intersecting forms of oppression – gender and race – were contributing to the high rates of racism and discrimination our members were facing. I also highlighted that lateral violence, a phenomenon initially highlighted within the women’s movement in the field of nursing, was even more prevalent in Indigenous communities due to intersecting forms of oppression. Essentially, our Indigenous female staff were at the coal face and therefore had much experience to draw on to benefit all working women.
I believe unions are important because they are the voice of the workers, and the more that women and Indigenous people get involved, the more that this voice reflects our needs within the sector and can therefore push for change.
MM: You are the National Indigenous Organiser for the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). In an article published by Crikey focusing on Aboriginal Australians and their personal identity, you describe your experiences of working in an “identified role” and acknowledge the advantages that come with undertaking such a position. You also identify issues which come with such roles such a patronising assumptions regarding Indigenous applicants’ competence. You write that “The Indigenisation of workplaces is still very much a work-in-progress.” In your experience, what is the transformative potential of identified roles in increasing community cohesion and improving Indigenous access to tertiary education?
CL: Identified roles acknowledge that there is a specific expertise and life experience that an Indigenous person will bring to that role. They acknowledge that this life experience leads to a better cultural understanding than most non-Indigenous people will have, and they also acknowledge that sometimes there is a need to have an Indigenous voice in an organisation in order to better communicate with broader Indigenous communities. More than anything, they make a statement that universities want to address disparities and see Indigenous employment as an important first step to achieving this.
As also mentioned earlier, one of the things I have continually found is that Indigenous student numbers are almost always directly proportionate to Indigenous staff numbers, so if universities wish to increase their student loads then it is in their interest to have proper Indigenous employment programmes in place. Indigenous people serving at many different levels, and in many different areas of a university means that existing structures get challenged. Universities have to become more inclusive to ensure that they are retaining those staff and students. In the past, a lot of this engagement has been tokenistic, where universities bring in guest lecturers for specific purposes. When there is an ongoing commitment by Universities to employ Indigenous people and recognise the unique skill sets they bring to a university, then this offensive tokenism is reduced and Indigenous knowledges can become core university business. Which is the way it should be in this country.
MM: In the panel discussion preceding the Australian federal elections published in The Guardian, you argue that “the Indigenous vote is of little importance to the major parties” and you identify a lack of diverse Indigenous policy and engagement. Considering Australia’s election results, the current political climate and discourses on minorities, what are some of the future challenges the country faces in terms of achieving equality?
CL: To start on a very cynical note, the new Prime Minister has already defunded an expert Indigenous educational panel, and has installed a new Indigenous Advisory Committee (IAC). This IAC is chaired by a person of the Prime Minister’s selection. So on one hand, we’ve lost yet another autonomous voice, and on the other, we’ve gained a committee that will be completely regulated by the government. Our Indigenous leadership has continually been chosen for us, particularly since the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) was dissolved, and this government looks to be taking this even further. We don’t have designated seats in parliament, we don’t have autonomous Indigenous elections for our political leaders and we don’t always get a say in what our important issues actually are.
What’s even scarier though is at this point the major parties seem to almost agree with each other on Indigenous issues. Indigenous people, whilst always political, are more disillusioned with a system where this agreement between major parties occurs. It means that our own debate is politically stunted. Take the recent push for Constitutional Recognition. There are many grassroots Indigenous groups opposed to this move because they fear that being written into the Australian Constitution will negate our claim as sovereign peoples of this land and therefore the ability to negotiate a treaty. Yet both major parties are stating that being recognised in the Constitution is important for Indigenous people and there is a huge campaign in full swing at this moment selling the idea to the public with the hope that when this question goes to referendum, it gets passed. How can voting Australians make an informed decision on this issue when many are not even aware that there is a debate occurring due to major party agreement?
So what I am most fearful of is that in 2013 we still have almost no autonomy. Our voting power is 2.5% of the population and we therefore don’t have the opportunity to use the current system as it stands to further our causes. We do not get to define our own issues in any comprehensive way politically, nor do we have much say in the policies that affect our lives and the lives of our families. We are still spoken for most of the time, and Australia will never be a place of true equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people whilst this continues.