Interview by Tabitha Lean
Dr Tess Ryan
Aboriginal woman of Biripai country
Writer, academic, consultant
I first “met” Dr Tess Ryan on Twitter, and since that time I have come to greatly admire her. Dr Tess has a gentle and considered way, and she brings people along with her on the journey. It’s her patience and persistence, and the way she gently articulates and crafts her words that has drawn me to her work. Dr Tess joins me for this yarn….
Could you talk a little about the challenges that black women have to overcome in the academy which is largely dominated by white men and white women?
To be honest, when I first began at university, I was pretty broken. Part of that brokenness was because I realised I’d spent a hell of a lot of time just being completely compliant and accepting things just the way they are. The wonderful gift that university education has given me is an understanding that the Eurocentric design is: a) not 100% Eurocentric in terms of the knowledge it has built as some of it is stolen and appropriated, b) that it’s not the be all and end all, and c) I could really clearly see the way knowledge presents itself is a whiteness-by-default position.
I feel as though education has been a fantastic gift. It’s been a gift to be able to recognize moments in the past where I might have excused someone because I thought they didn’t know any better. Now I know that they should know better. We aren’t the first people of colour to arrive at universities, and there are many, many people, in the world that have come to academia prior to us, and alongside of us. It really shows a sense of complacency to that default whiteness position. There’s definitely something that needs to be said for the institutions that believe they’re doing the right thing, and not being white centred because they have a RAP, when in fact, if it’s just a piece of paper to you, it makes you more white centred than you intend.
I think when a black woman speaks up or disagrees or dissents in some way, we are type cast as the stereotypical angry, black woman; and there is this perception of our perpetual rage. How do you manage that perception of being an angry black woman?
Once I started to change the compliance that was conditioned into me, and started expecting that the anger was going to be there whether I liked it or not, I thought maybe I should try and minimize it. I think, though, at the moment, where I am nearly 50-years-old, I’ve decided that I am not minimising this stuff anymore, for anyone, in any situation. That can have consequences though. However, the consequence for me is building my strength. So what people call anger and rage, is really just a talent in being able to call shit out. It’s about saying ‘actually, I see you now, I see what’s happening. I’ve felt this stuff for so long.’ Even as a child you get the feeling that it’s just not right but you don’t have the words for it. In talking to some younger Aboriginal women that are coming through the university space, they say ‘I felt all this stuff, but I didn’t know it was even racism. I didn’t know it was discrimination. I just thought they weren’t very nice people.’ I respond ‘they’re not very nice people’. I explain that it is all steeped in so much history that an unpacking needs to happen and once you begin to see it, you know. Obviously it can be quite confronting, but the way to deal with that feeling of, ‘I’ve been asleep for a while’, is to say, ‘I’m going to be the most awake person you can possibly meet.’ So now I definitely call things out. I call things out in institutions and in people, because if I don’t I feel as if all I would be doing is performing to a space, and that has no authenticity in it for me. Unless you’re actually going to follow through with action, then it is just a space that you’re building to prop yourself up or to prop up an institution brand. It needs to be more than that for me even if has implications on my position in an academic space. I think the most powerful Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women that I know are regularly told they are being angry black women. I think if people have to call me that, well great that means I am in fantastic company, and thank you for that compliment!
I’m also really fascinated in the way discourse is regularly used against us.
Anger really is just showing a power to people in a space where people don’t think we should be.
I’ve moved along a trajectory of thinking from ‘if I meet people halfway, if I’m collaborative with them, then we’re going to build an understanding’, to realizing that you can’t actually be collaborative with that kind of power. I think a lot of non-Indigenous people find it quite confronting because they are used to being a certain way and perhaps don’t realise that they are compliant to a system as well as a particular way of being. These days, I don’t think of anger as such a terrible thing, I see it as an act of self sovereignty, and that’s really, really important.
The other thing that I am conscious of is how not being the compliant Black can actually impact your career trajectory within the academy. How people respond to racism or micro aggressions that they encounter every day at work or as a student at university, would largely be motivated by their ambition. If your ambition is centred on your career, you might make certain concessions. I think it depends on whether you want to move forward within the academy or bring knowledge back to the community… and those priorities might shift over time. I have worked in universities with some really high profile, black fullas that are doing this work, and I respect and admire them because they’ve had to work hard for many years to get into those positions. They are still facing barriers and most are still trying to fight through, not for themselves, but for the people that will follow.
I am also really vocal about my motivations to become an academic. My motivation to go to university was to get out of a situation where I felt I was ticking every statistical box you could possibly imagine. I didn’t like that rendering of myself, nor did I like contributing to some story that people constructed in their minds. I was a single parent living in public housing, on a part disability payment and I wanted to improve myself and my financial status. I’ve gone through that journey, and I’ve gotten to a point now where my work is for me, and the thing that I actually really value is being able to use my voice. We don’t all have to be at the chancellor level and we aren’t just here as knowledge production machines for the university either (or even for other black fullas for that matter). However, there are other things that are happening in our ways of being that need to also be talked about and considered. I am very open about the fact that I have a chronic health condition. Therefore, I have to think about how and where I spend my energy and what the purpose is in everything I am doing.
I really appreciate reading your personal accounts online and the way you share so much of yourself in your work, I think there is real strength in that relatability….
Sometimes I forget about that and think I should just rely on my publication history, and while that is building and is important, I think as a mob of people we need to be able to relate and connect. We need to be able to say that this stuff can be hard sometimes, and actually, it’s hard all the time, in many ways, but we’re here together, we can talk about this stuff openly. I have had some academics tell me to censor my voice on Twitter because of current and future employment. I feel quite disheartened by that suggestion and I have to bring myself back to that idea of why I am here. What is my purpose? My purpose is to connect with people. I love the fact that people contact me and say my work connects with them. I think that’s worth more than a high paid salary
How do you combat or tackle any feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt, or imposter syndrome in your work?
Honestly, it’s something that I feel I struggle with every day. I have really open conversations with my support networks, and I talk about how I feel, but a lot of it does stem from the colonial project. It can’t not, right? So, if I think about this strange dance that would happen to me even as a young child or as a teenager, of being told I was really smart, that I could do amazing things juxtaposed with being told I should probably be a typist or a secretary, because apparently our smarts don’t entitle us to a key to certain doors or seats at certain tables. I always found that really fascinating that you could be told in one space that you’ve got what it takes and you can do well, and then be told that you can only go so far.
Often now when I go through a struggle, I tell myself, ‘hold on, what am I trying to say here?’ Everyone has a voice. It’s up to you to decide what you want to do with it. You can’t get hung up on who is going to find it more powerful, who it’s going to resonate with, because if you don’t put it out there, and you don’t give it a go, then it’s not going to resonate with anyone. It is just going to be a voice that you keep in your own head.
The other thing is that we forget that thinking is doing.
Thinking is action.
What we are thinking about might not make an awesome conversation, but it is really important. All of it can filter into your work, but all of it isn’t your work. You sometimes need to step back and say, I’m okay to be vulnerable right now and just look after me. That’s still important to do. There’s nothing more important in these spaces than how you feel, even though the academy tells us that there is, or you should write an article about that. That’s just not the case
In universities, on campus or in the academy more broadly, Aboriginal people navigate race, racism, bias and microaggressions daily. I’m wondering what mechanisms you have developed to manage that and whether you feel you have made any self-sacrifice that might have altered you in some way.
I think early on in my undergraduate experience, people were saying you should go for this scholarship and that opportunity. While I absolutely needed the assistance, I realised there was always a cost. There was always a cost within a university to fulfil a brand and I think that’s an important aspect to recognize. You are getting paid because you have achieved a good GPA or you’ve done something wonderful, but then you’ve got to pay them, you’ve got to give them some of yourself, including your image and your story. In the past, I was very much suited to a certain image the university was trying to promote. However, I think you have to consider the motivations of why they want to promote you. Are they promoting it because they’re really happy that someone’s changing? Are they promoting that because it reflects that they’re doing the right thing with their Indigenous strategies and meeting all of their Indigenous KPIs? I think you can know and understand all of that and still do it, and I wouldn’t say that I am unhappy that I did some of those things, but I wish I’d done them in different ways and been more awake to it. It took me a while to realise what was happening and I didn’t feel a sense of agency in those spaces. So now my big thing is about making sure you have agency in a space. You can say ‘yes, you can use my story and my image, but I want to know that you’re going to keep showing up with this action’. I don’t care about your strategic plans. I care about the actions. I had a fantastic experience when I moved to Melbourne whilst I was doing a fellowship; I was working in a residential college looking after the Australian students. There was a lovely undergraduate student who had just started and she was struggling financially and the university wanted to use her image because she was a part time model. She said, ‘you want to use my image, but you’re not actually assisting me.’ She was quite forthright and that’s what I love when I see younger students, and I think, ‘wow, I wish I was like that when I was 19 or 20.’ It makes me feel fantastic to see that, because it wasn’t my experience. It makes me feel really positive about the future. I see really strong, empowered young black women coming into these spaces saying, ‘No, you’re not going to do that. We’re going to do it this way instead.’
It’s empowering to see how staunch some of our young people are. I think that they’ve been able to observe what’s happened to people that have come before them and made the decisions that it won’t be their story. I think there’s power in that and huge credit to every one of those people that went before them and had to suffer. I think about the legacy that people have left even when they don’t even realise that they’ve left one.
Sometimes I wonder whether universities exist to support and build free thinking and knowledge or if they exist just to produce the next generation of imperialists and capitalists. I say this because often the first area that is rationalised or downsized is Indigenous studies units
I think it’s an important point. There’s been this question floating around for a long time, whether we could have a fully decolonized university. It’s a big subject because some people don’t even like the term decolonize. I wrote a piece last year about my dislike of the term ‘indigenized’ because it’s a corporate word that feels really white. So, can we have a completely decolonized university space? Does it have only black fullas or people of colour that have gone through a process of decolonization in their lives and their histories? Can a university that’s modelled on a very Eurocentric and western colonial design really provide enough decolonizing practice? There’s a difference between policy and practice and reality. I’m not sure, but I do continue to engage with the university and hope that it will happen, because there’s something that still keeps that fire that stoked. Largely, that’s because I see all of these younger people coming through and I see the amazing power that we have in some of the research and the ways we disseminate knowledge and translate knowledge. It gets me all excited and I can’t completely let go because there’s still some real power that we can continue to contribute, explore and nurture.
Universities have this rhetoric around elevating the work of Aboriginal people, they have their RAPs, but in my experience they are still very keen on policing Aboriginal aspiration and surveilling Aboriginal voices, so it makes me wonder what decolonization would look like in practice within the university space.
Yeah, it’s a huge topic. I think it’s also very individual to our own experiences. There’s this umbrella term of colonization and we know within that there are moments of history and impacts. However, there are also very deep and personal impacts of colonisation, and then the very deep and individual journey of attempting decolonization, unlearning and relearning. All of that stuff is quite nuanced. For example, my mother doesn’t have language and I am on a journey of trying to reclaim it. However, her language, or her tongue for want of a better word, was essentially cut off in so many different ways. It was through compliance and minimization, and the survival strategy of just be quiet and getting along. There’s all these contracts that we as individuals make, and we don’t see what the impact of those are, maybe not until after and then we have to try and rewrite those contracts and that’s really, really hard.
So there are these white institutions that are essentially saying, how do we talk about this and write about this and say we do this without actually using the word?
They’re afraid of the word and it frustrates me. Maybe they do that because they’re trying to navigate through all these sites, because there might not ever be a one size fits all way of being decolonized. However, we still need to do the work and be active in these spaces and engage in this conversation. The other thing I think about a lot is how the language of the academy, with words like ontology, axiology, are about containment. However, our philosophy is not about containment, it’s about how it connects and relates to all these different things and it’s a broader kind of a philosophy, in many ways. I mean we know that we have epistemological ways of being, it’s just not something that we pontificate about, you know, in a theoretical sense.
The last question is: if you had to be locked in isolation with any of the great thinkers of any time, any place in any space, who would it be?
Oh, wow. You know, I’ve been really lucky to have met some people that I’ve just thought were amazing and I could learn so much from them just by being in their presence. Some of these people have since passed so I won’t say their names. There is one person who was one of the participants on my PhD research. One of the things I loved about her is that there was power and anger, but there was also real humility and a calmness in the way in which she delivered forthright knowledge.
I would also love to be able to meet an ancestor. There’s so much that I don’t know. I want Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have these strong lineages and connections to realise how fortunate they are and how wonderful it is that they get to talk about it and share with us when they choose to. It’s something I might never know or will never have because I can only go back so far. So to have that crazy unique opportunity to be sitting alongside one of my ancestors and to learn from them would be amazing. Maybe one day, in another plane, in another world that connection will flow back.