BLM, anthropology, and the shadow of settler-colonial dreams

An update on thesis writing in troubled times.

On a Saturday in June 2020, as I was drawing together the disparate themes of my PhD thesis, I took a break from my writing to stand with some 30,000 other people in Brisbane’s King George Square. The protest against structural racism and Black and Indigenous deaths in custody was part of the Black Lives Matter movement, which, on the crest of social media, had swept the globe in the weeks following the death of African American man George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

The crowd overflowed from the square two streets up, with people of various ages and ethnicities straining to hear the echoing speeches about racial inequality in Australia. First-nations speakers raged in solidarity with Black Americans and all present were reminded that 432 Aboriginal people had died in police custody since the 1991 report on the matter. News helicopters whirred overhead. Still more people gathered. With restrictions surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic just lifting, many protestors wore face masks. Many more held signs. ‘Stolen-wealth’, one read, while another echoed it: ‘Always was, always will be’. The conclusion to the sentence—Aboriginal land—didn’t need to be written, the rallying call was so often used in Australia. White protestors held variations of, ‘I understand that I will never understand, but I stand with you’ and ‘silence=betrayal’. It occurred to me that the protest were as much a matter of non-Indigenous Australians attempting to locate their place in contemporary Australia vis-à-vis Indigenous people and the entrenched structural inequality arising from settler colonialism, as much as it was an immediate call for justice. The implicit question of the White protestors was, what does it mean to live on stolen land? What does it mean to be the benefactor of settler colonialist regimes? How should history be told? By whom? Should settler-descendants atone the crimes of invasion? And where do they belong in Australia today?

As I stood there, listening to the speeches ricocheting around the square and off the façade of Brisbane City Hall, the building’s tympanum caught my attention. The large sandstone sculpture above the entrance to City Hall depicts a robed woman, representing the colony of Queensland, sending forth her explorers and settlers into the lands with their companion animals of horses, sheep, and cattle. Native wildlife and Indigenous people flee into the periphery. In the corner, one Indigenous figure lies over a shield, either dead or sleeping—it depends who you ask. The tympanum, made in 1930 by Daphne Mayo, is called ‘The progress of civilization in the state of Queensland’. Throughout my PhD I had used the image in various talks and presentations to demonstrate the settler colonial ideology of the frontier: the rolling out of ‘civilisation’  over ‘wilderness’, the defeat of the environment and Indigenous inhabitants. As the Black Lives Matter speeches continued, I pointed out the irony of protesting beneath it to my friend, an archaeologist who works with Indigenous people. Despite living in Brisbane all her life she had never noticed the tympanum in the city’s centre. I was not surprised; few I’d spoke to had, and if they did they rarely contemplated its meaning. Such monuments, like the ideologies they represent, have blended into the everyday, often escaping attention. But as we stood there, in that spot Indigenous elders say had once been a hunting ground for ducks, beneath the icon of settler colonialism, protesting racial inequalities, I thought of the bearing that such ideologies and accompanying regimes of power continue to have in Australia today.

My thesis examines the ideologies of settler colonialism as it intersects with contemporary experiences of belonging in a place still viewed by many as a type of frontier: Outback Queensland. My examination of these topics through predominately non-Indigenous lifeworlds is rare in anthropology and Australian studies. Often during the course of writing, I have wondered if such an approach that gives voice to people who have always had a voice is morally indefensible. I have woken in the middle of the night panicking about the implications of writing about non-Indigenous senses of belonging. More than once, I have considered giving up on the project entirely–I felt so conflicted about what I was doing.

But as the Brisbane Black Lives Matter protests demonstrated, there is a need to further examine the dominant structures of our society, to study the ideologies of those who have power, and also to tease out the complexities of non-indigenous relationships to the history and land in what is now known as Australia. This involves extending critical attention to the taken for granted beliefs of one’s own people, demanding their practices be studied with the same scrutiny that anthropologists have often focused on the ‘exotic other’.

And perhaps this is where my thesis fits in. In turning critical attention to the ways in which people—particularly settler decedents—make sense of time, place, and belonging at the edges of Mayo’s tympanum,  I hope to illuminate the ongoing role that imaginings of the frontier have in contemporary discussions about environment and society. In doing so, I aim to add nuance to debates about inequality and power relations in Australia today.

If, as the signs suggested, one of the by-products of the Black Lives Matter movement was an ‘unsettling’ of some settler-descendants’ sense of privileged rights in place, then there is some value in examining the ways that other settler descendants, as well as marginalised groups, experience themselves as legitimately ‘settled’ in place. How is one to interpret claims of belonging alongside the violence of structures that supported those claims?

I hope that my thesis provides some semblance of a response, and does so in the ethnographic spirit, with an empathetic and critical eye. BLM Reminds us that anthropology can be a powerful lens through which to view a given situation. And I hope that my work can contribute to that. For now, I will go back to writing.

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