Dr Chelsea Bond
Munanjahli and South Sea Islander
Principal Research Fellow within the School of Social Science at The University of Queensland.
It’s fair to say that I’m a bit of a tragic groupie when it comes to Dr Chelsea Bond’s work. Having this opportunity to interview her was really exciting. We started off our yarn with me stumbling over myself with gratitude that she would take this time to yarn with me for a humble university magazine. Dr Bond tells me that she is very deliberate with her work and very mindful of where she invests her labour. I resist taking a screenshot of us on the same zoom screen, because I figure that would be weird, and my son had warned me not to fangirl and scare her off.
Academia has traditionally been a white, male-dominated sector, which has been notoriously difficult for any woman to break into, but particularly arduous if you’re a black woman. Could you tell me a little about your experience of breaking through that sheer white ceiling?
I don’t see the university as being necessarily just the domain of white men. I think, increasingly white women are doing reasonably well in this place, and also being equally violent as white men. I think that the kind of labour that you’re doing within the institution defines the challenge for black people in the academy. If you’re doing the work of the institution, reproducing racialized knowledge about the ‘native folk’, you can advance your career quite well. If you’re doing work that undermines the legitimacy of the very institution that you’re employed in, well, it doesn’t work so well…even if your metrics and your track record and academic portfolio outshines the colleagues on your floor. So I think, yes, it is challenging for black women in the academy but I think bound up in that is the kind of work that we’re doing in these institutions and what work is valued. You can advance in the university, even if your work is mediocre, so long as it sustains the institution that insists on our inhumanity and that’s the really fucked up part about all this.
For example, I don’t even sit on the floor of the school that my current appointment is in…I’m two floors up in a rented room. So I walk two floors down to get my printing. So yeah, the institution will let you know if you aren’t doing the work that they expect you to do. I think every colonial institution has a kind of violence that it perpetrates, and I don’t think that academic institutions are any less violent than the police service. It just manifests differently. I think people underestimate this kind of violence and how it plays out, because you can’t see the bruises in the same kind of way. With one kind of violence you can go to the doctor to have the bruises measured. I can’t do that with the violence in the academy.
I think people have this idea that racism is merely that people haven’t discovered our humanity, or haven’t realised that we are people too.
However, the very insistence that we weren’t human was produced in these institutions that are not prepared to relinquish that notion, in order to share. I think, oftentimes, even students coming through undergraduate degrees get surprised about the balance of the texts they encounter, because they think that this place should be better. It’s like ‘no, it’s a reflection’. The academy produces a knowledge that makes possible the everyday violence that blak fullas experience. So the challenge for the Indigenous academic is: are we going to accessorise that knowing? Or are we going to contest it? And are we going to engage in the ongoing daily battle to do that? I didn’t come to the academy to be an academic. This is a place I come to work to do the work that I want to do.
How do we challenge that? I ask this because, broadly in society, and particularly in academia, if we do speak out and speak back, we are type cast as angry, black women. I’m wondering how we manage this perception of our perpetual rage. When really we have 232 years of rage sitting within us…
There was a time where I spent a lot of my time pondering what they were thinking of me, wondering how I could be the exceptional one… and we laugh at that as a joke, but there is some of us, that at various times in our lives do subscribe to that idea of wanting to be the ‘black whisperer’ for a white institution, trying to be the palatable black that can somehow magically fix things for our people. More recently in my academic career, I’m thinking about race and how power works. What we know about power is it’s not just given up because people suddenly discovered that some of us are good and are deserving of access to that power. I know a lot of black fullas who are clinging to that idea that if we’re smart enough, good enough, nice enough that will free our people. It’s just another form of domestic servitude that we’re forced into trying to be who they want us to be rather than think about what it means to be sovereign: what it is to be who we are and to stand in our own feet and not have it defined by what the white men down the hall will think. I’ve discovered how violent it is on black souls when you continue to appeal to your oppressor to recognise your humanity. I’ve since learnt the only way you can survive is to compel change, and to be clever and try different techniques. Sometimes we use humour, and sometimes we do the intellectual work for the legal cases that are going on that people don’t know about. There’s all kinds of games that we have to run in terms of undermining how power operates in the lives of black fullas; but being the smart, the articulate, the shiny black is never going to do shit.
My best writing comes from anger, saying, ‘of course I’m angry, why wouldn’t we be angry about this place?’. They don’t get to tell me how I should feel, so it is a case of sometimes having to resist some of the logics that have been inscribed upon our bodies.
The other thing is to pay attention to who is applauding. There’s a lot of work that people are doing in public spaces for applause. This is the time we are in. There is a moment in James Baldwin’s, ‘Not your Negro’, when he delivers an iconic speech and he looks over and there’s white people giving him a standing ovation and he looks confused. I think there’s something really troubling if the people that are clapping for you are all white fullas. We cannot subscribe to the idea that by just performing for whiteness, that somehow we will be free from the violence of it. We must be constantly thinking about how it is working and start re-strategizing our resistance around it.
I’m always surprised to hear that black women I admire and are very accomplished, suffer from impostor syndrome or self-doubt. I’m wondering whether you can comment on how you combat or tackle any of those feelings of self-doubt or inadequacy…
I don’t think I’ve grappled with imposter syndrome, good ways. I don’t do things that I feel I shouldn’t do. We all have limitations and I am not uncomfortable with declaring limitations around my knowing. This doesn’t mean that I am less of a scholar. It means I’m human. It also means that I’m subscribing to the rules that govern our Indigenous knowledge systems, whereby you can’t just know and claim everything.
I also have a good community of people around me that hold me accountable. I surround myself with people who will critique me, because I critique myself more than anyone else can. I know this institution doesn’t want me here, but it doesn’t mean I don’t think I belong here. That to me is what it means to be sovereign: knowing who you are and where you come from. If you’re grounded in that, no one can tell can tell you where you belong or don’t belong.
However, when we subscribe to their way of being as academics, of course, we’re going to have all that anxiety around imposter syndrome, because we’re subscribing to the rules that you have to know everything and you can’t make mistakes. I make mistakes all the time. There are limitations to our work. The beauty of getting to be human is that you’re not perfect.
The other thing is that I don’t do a lot of stuff that’s just me. It’s really important that, in as much as we build our career, we build the community around us, with us. You’re nothing without your community. Also, my work has always been tested with black people. If you’ve been raised in a black family and black community and have not experienced black critique, then I don’t know what kind of family or community you come from! We owe to each other the gift of critique.
I think that’s the thing that frustrates me in this indigenizing moment is that it is ‘any Indigenous person will do’, and we’re not thinking about the quality of Indigenous scholarship.
We need to create spaces for people to come through and speak, and not think that there’s one black fulla that can be the representative of everything.
The dangerous part of the moment is that there is an appetite for the black commentator, even if they’re not well informed. If we follow our rules in our community, that will save a lot of the anxiety that people are carrying about imposter syndrome, because maybe there’s a reason you’re feeling that, maybe you’re not supposed to be speaking for that.
One of the things that I pick up quite strongly from your work, is about always being accountable to community, can you talk a little more about that?
If you’re not getting black critique, it means your community has stopped caring about you. I don’t waste my critique on people who I don’t believe are deserving of it.
Critique is a gift.
There are even people that I let go and think, ‘they’ll learn’. So, if someone’s let you go and not going telling you anything, then you know that you fucked up. There is not any bit of black critique that hasn’t made me think better…and if we don’t listen to our own mob, that’s fairly messed up in terms of ethics of practice.
Also, I’m used to being in an institution that has insisted that black women are not capable. So to be an academic in these places, to give advice to, to supervise students, I recognise that there are people who can’t see me as a knower and I’m not spending my time trying to convince them that I am. Oftentimes with students I’ll get them to think about my presence in that room. The reality is that when they encounter me for the first time, they’re wondering whether or not I am an authentic ‘Aborigine’ or a legitimate academic, because I cannot possibly be both, at the same time, in the one body. I know that’s how I’m read. I’ve got to be one or the other, I can’t be both; and so my body in its presence is a distraction for most people on this campus.
If you had to be locked in isolation with any of the great thinkers of any time, any place, who would it be?
There’s a few…. One of the ones that I’ve always come back to is Du Bois and his work on “the souls of Black folk’ and double consciousness. It’s always been foundational for when I speak and think. Then it would be my great, great, great, great grandfather, who of course, I’ve never met. There are different accounts of who he was as a person; from someone who supposedly helped the settlers navigate, to another account that he charged them money to come through and was actually a bit of a strategist. I’m interested in so much as I want to stick with people who know strategy, because it is not a matter of us being smart enough. It is about having the right strategy. I would love sit in conversation with my own ancestors about how they strategized and what their endgame was at that time given all they had to deal with.