Words by Dr Sana Nakata
Torres Strait Islander
Associate Dean, Indigenous
Co-director of the Indigenous-Settler Relations Collaboration at The University of Melbourne
I first met Dr Sana Nakata at a Political Science Conference in Adelaide, I sat in the audience as she moderated the meeting of First Nations political scientists, and she blew me away. Dr Sana is articulate, passionate, knowledgeable and measured. I felt transfixed by the way she conducted herself, and the generosity of her time to emerging academics like myself. Here’s a bit of our yarn….
The academy as a whole has mainly been dominated by white men and it’s been notoriously hard for women to break into that area, let alone Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your experience of breaking through what could be called the sheer white ceiling and if there’s anything that stands out in your journey or any challenges that you had to overcome because of your being an Indigenous woman…
In a lot of ways my experience has been made easier by those who came before me and I’m very conscious of that. For all the things that made starting out as a student hard, those that stayed hard, and are still hard now, I’ve always had a very clear sense of the way in which it’s been made easier for me. I don’t say that to suggest that in any way it was easy, nor to let the institution off the hook or to deny that work remains to be done, but I’m saying that I’m a second generation, Indigenous PhD. I’ve benefited a lot from watching my father navigate a white colonial institution while being among the first generation of university Indigenous leadership to come through. When I came as an undergraduate student to university to study, I thought that it wasn’t going to be that hard. I thought the universities were welcoming now and that there were people up there in the highest way that were going to advocate for us or protect us or do good things for us. It wasn’t until I got into the university that I understood just how much work is still to be done, and that even when you open doors you cannot guarantee an equitable experience for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
However, I don’t really feel like I had to break a white ceiling at my institution because I had really great Indigenous leadership above me. I think that has always been a huge source of support and strength. At different times, knowing that Indigenous leadership has been there, has allowed me to focus on my studies and interests, and has meant that I did not have to engage at all with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander politics. There have been periods, particularly as an undergraduate student, where I wouldn’t go to the lecture on Aboriginal history or I wouldn’t go to the tutorial on the criminal justice cycle, because I just wasn’t interested in being the only Indigenous student in a room of white people where white people were lecturing, or pretending that they knew what they were talking about. That just never interested me. It’s not that I wasn’t up for those fights, it’s just that I always thought when I was a student, I was not there to educate, because they’re meant to be there to educate me. Also, my attitude was that when they’ve got nothing to offer, I don’t need to be in the space.
The reality is that the Indigenous leadership afforded me that space because I felt like there were other people there making those arguments.
There were people contributing to and creating that space and developing the initiatives to transform the institution in many ways. I never set out to break any ceilings, but I guess as I’ve moved from being a student, finished my PhD and then came into the Department of Political Science, I suddenly saw a responsibility to work at the level of the discipline and the faculty to consider what more specific work that I could do in my class, and impose upon my colleagues. The last three years or so has been where my work has really started to focus on the systemic structural work that needs to happen right across the higher education sector. I also work in a particular division and field of research that teaches those kinds of courses and curricula where I have an opportunity to make a contribution.
At university where you are sometimes the only Aboriginal person in the class there can be real issues of cultural safety, particularly if the study is about Indigenous matters. I sometimes find it really draining witnessing non-Aboriginal people having their epiphanies, or moments of reflection about Aboriginal business or whiteness, is that something you’re conscious of?
It’s exhausting, and beyond that, in terms of an intellectual life, it’s really boring. I think of universities as a space that should exist to further our own intellectual life. As Indigenous Australians, I think our intellectual life is much bigger than the university. I like to think it is for all people, but especially for us. I didn’t come to university to learn about the Torres Strait Islands. I came to university to learn about white people, their legal systems and their political structures, because that knowledge is useful for me. If I wanted to know about being stuck on an island, I can go home and talk to my grandma, my cousins, my Elders. I think there is a tension now in the academy where there’s a real kind of fetishization for the embedding of Indigenous knowledges and I question, is that decolonizing? I think Indigenous knowledge exists outside of the institution, and if you want access to it then you have to go and spend a lot of time on country, with Elders and knowledge holders. While there may be parts that we draw upon within the university, which is always a gift, I think part of it is about how you are, how we have to operate across different knowledge systems. In white spaces there’s a fundamental lack of understanding of what that dynamic involves, so it’s coming up against those epistemological differences that makes those spaces not just hard, or what is described as culturally unsafe, but also not in the interest of progressing our knowledge about the world.
I think the other thing I still struggle with is the university rhetoric about valuing and centering Aboriginal voices and Aboriginal knowledges, but there’s still people standing at the gates, arbitrarily appointing who they will listen to, what they’ll listen to, and in what form that knowledge comes in. How do we meet the goals the academy set for us, but still maintain who we are?
I think it’s deeply difficult work to understand. In the west, to learn theories of knowledge or the history and philosophy of science is actually really difficult, especially if you don’t major in it. It doesn’t matter who we are, or what disciplines we’re sitting in at the university, if you’re a black fulla that has to step into white classrooms, you have to use that. What you’re dealing with in the academy and also with white academics, is not just that they’re not trained or educated in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues, because some are very well trained in that stuff, it’s that they’re also not trained in more philosophical and theoretical understandings of what our knowledge production involves. For example, there are epistemological foundations for how you understand astronomical knowledge, how you understand geography, how you understand the wild landscape, how you understand timescales, all Indigenous knowledges. Then there are also things that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples know based on lived experience.
Our learning does not necessarily have to be in a traditional knowledge system to produce that knowledge.
The tension in my work has always been that I’m trained as a political theorist in the Western tradition, right? That’s what I do. I do it as a tourist right off the island and I do it in ways that don’t draw around traditional knowledge, but I still think that knowledge has a role to play. The difficulty is that I step into spaces with white academics who don’t understand the difference between those two things. Not just when they won’t accept your stories and it’s not just that they won’t accept what you’re trying to incorporate into your work, it’s because they don’t understand knowledge. It’s also that they will also ask you for those stories, or that knowledge when it’s not theirs to have. I don’t know how it is that we expect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to carry really high level advanced, sophisticated understandings when we don’t expect it of our white colleagues.
There are so many blacademics that I admire, including yourself, where I have been highly influenced by your work, and continue to get surprised to hear that you all experience a kind of imposter syndrome. What strategies have you put in place to combat or silence self-doubt, particularly given your unique position of being the first Indigenous tertiary qualified political scientist?
Yes, I think there might be two of us now and obviously there’s lots of PhD students coming through. I think it’s a weird sort of thing, because in a lot of ways, all Aboriginal and Islanders who have PhDs in this country are politics scholars because their work deeply attends to politics. The thing is that none of them until me, as far as I know, came through a political science department, which has a very particular kind of history, its own ideas and identity of how it relates to Indigenous politics and history. So in that sense, I think that I was the first but I would welcome being corrected.
How do I deal with imposter syndrome? I think it’s walking a fine line between acknowledging that it’s a real thing and that it has an effect on how you get up each day and approach your work, and forgiving yourself because it is a deeply forgivable thing…and then actually just telling imposter syndrome to get fucked. I think you have to use everything for your own good, right? So imposter syndrome can be a helpful motivation when it allows you to be self-critical in a constructive way by asking yourself, ‘why don’t I feel confident talking about this idea? Why don’t I feel confident, challenging these academics, or this body of work, or having this argument with others in public?’ That’s an opportunity for self-reflection. It says, ‘do I need to go and do some more work? Is there other people I want to talk to about things or that I want to read to be sure for myself of my position before I go forward?’ I think that’s constructive and I think I use imposter syndrome as a self-check sometimes.
The other thing is to stop that process from slipping into a really unconstructive cycle of negative self-critical thought, and reminding yourself that nobody in the academy gets to tell you what you don’t know. We have waited so long to have a seat at the table, which is a phrase I hate, but we’ve waited so long to have entry to universities, we’ve waited so long to be taken seriously in scholarly publication outlets, we work really hard in every meeting we’re at to be heard, and for our voices to be taken seriously and for that to have substantive effect…so, who gets to tell me that I’m not entitled to that place? It’s not for me. It’s not an individual thing. It is about the interests of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who come through the university as students, as professional staff, as people working in the mailroom, it’s for everyone. There is also a symbolic thing, which is about saying the university is for us. We might not want the university as it is. Many will not choose for university to be a place that they want to be at all and I absolutely respect that, but for those of us who choose to do our work in that space there should be no doubt in any of our minds that we are not worthy of that space.
It is common that every time we speak up, we disagree or dissent, that we get labelled as angry, black women. How do you manage that perception of our perpetual rage?
This is a tricky one for me to answer because I’m very diplomatic in institutional spaces, and that is to my detriment to be honest. Frankly, if I look back on my twenty years of being a student, and the five years of that being a career, I don’t think I’ve been angry enough. We all know the reasons for that. I know the risk evaluation that takes place when you consider the ways in which you’re interpreted.
I grew up in a very different place from Melbourne, where people who were interpreted as angry or aggressive got locked up.
So I learnt from a very young age to mediate my emotions, and in a weird way, that’s what’s given me such easy access to the institution because I’ve given no indication of being a threat. However, it also has made it hard because at different times where I feel like I’m saying something that’s quite clear, it has been completely misinterpreted or they have missed the point. I think the only way to manage this is to command knowledge for ourselves about ourselves, because there is always going to be those that expect us to fit their racial stereotype of us as the unintelligent, angry black. I am not interested in fitting any reductive stereotype of our people.