Anniversaries need to be uncomfortable

This piece was originally read at the Lifted Brow Presents: Works in Progress event 22 Sept 2019

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“Anniversaries have to do more than just jog the memory” – Jane Ellison, DCDC 2018 Conference

 Nationally, government organisations, such as schools, museums, councils etc, and media outlets often commemorate the anniversaries of events like 

January 26 or people like Lachlan Macquarie through public celebrations or the building of statues. If you ask why we have these celebrations, many colonisers will say it is to remember our history and to reflect upon it, but I believe this is rarely the case. Anniversaries and national celebrations are more about erasing history than remembering it as they rely heavily on the suppression of the dark parts of australian history, especially in regard to First Nations history

This is a problem because anniversaries do provide an opportunity to better understand the present and better understand the historical context which we live in. Especially, in terms of oppressive structures. Which could be a call to action to make the present better. 

However, this does not happen often because many anniversaries were not created to be conversation starters or to be cautionary tales of White supremacy, many anniversaries, particularly the nationalistic ones, were created and exist to maintain australia’s self-image of innocence by celebrating colonisation and colonisers in spite of the suffering First Nations people have experienced and continue to experience. 

Because of this, the dates and the historical figures celebrated become symbols that represent an idealised version of australian history rather than actual events or people. Consequently, the truth become arbitrary and history becomes whatever justifies the colony’s oppressive structures and makes Non-Indigenous australians feel proud and not guilty.   

This can explain why when Nationals Deputy Leader, Bridget McKenzie in attempting to explain why the country celebrates “australia day” on January 26 said it was because January 26 was the day James Cook stepped ashore on these lands, when the actual date the stepped ashore was April 29 believe because it did not matter to her as she was defending an ideology not a date. History or truth didn’t matter to her. 

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This is also why James Cook is celebrated as a symbol of australia and australia-ness even though “australia” means very little to him as he died 9 years before the First Fleet came to these lands and died 122 years before the inauguration of the Commonwealth of australia.  Similarly, it is why many people will tell you James Cook is important but would not be able to tell you where he came from or how old was he when he came to these lands.  

Yet these symbols and the anniversaries associated with them could be tools to get more people to understand something that many First Nations people know well, which is that we are living in the product of history and that the events of the past are connected to our actions and experiences of today. Thus, anniversaries could be a catalyst to help us understand how australian colonial oppressive structures were formed so we know how they operate currently and how to abolish them. 

Nevertheless, this cannot happen unless challenging history is told, unless First Nations history is told. For this to happen there needs to more and more space for the mainstream narrative to be challenged. 

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If this is not done, then anniversaries will remain as propaganda tools which only glorify and proliferate a misrepresentation of the founding and building of “australia”. As result they will remain tools of oppression and celebrations of ongoing invasion and genocide for First Nations people. 

There’s that old saying “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Nonetheless, there are many Non-Indigenous australians who do not want learn history because they do not want the guilt associated with that knowledge. Additionally, there are those who benefit from history repeating itself and want it to continue so they not only do not learn history they prevent others from learning it too. Both these positions prevent the actions needed to rectify history and historical injustices faced by First Nations people. 

This is important because next year is 2020 which is the 250 anniversary of James Cook coming to the East Coast of these lands and claiming them on behalf of the crown. It is only a miniscule part of the 100,000 + year of human history of these lands, however as a colonial cultural marker, it will be highly commemorated and celebrated throughout the year.  Because of this, 2020 could be a very intense year for the First Nations people of these lands as the injustices we faced and facing are ignored while our 100,000 + years of history is barely acknowledged and the lie of European discovery is continuously repeated.

That being said, I do think 2020 could be an opportunity to get mainstream australia to question what they are actually celebrating and why by presenting different narratives. Which might get more people to be critical of the history they have been taught and that may empower more people to be critical of current misrepresentations of the truth by the media and government organisations.  This will require many Non-Indigenous australians to engage with uncomfortable truths but the change needed may come for this discomfort and action may come from this discomfort. And we need change, we need action and we don’t need national self love.

“good or bad, the past is a fact, and it often holds the keys to who we are in the present, and who we’re likely to become in the future.” -Tim Wise, 2004

Your neutral is not our neutral

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” – Desmond Tutu

My blog post about the myth of neutrality in libraries, archives and museums. This post is from a First Nations perspective

I had a discussion with someone once about if memory institutions, like museums, libraries and archives, should modify past classification and description of First Nations material that use antiquated and potentially offensive terminology, they said we could not because that would be whitewashing history and we need to remain objective and just present the facts. While part of me partially agrees, my retort was memory institutions have predominantly presented a colonial history as fact and have excluded the voices of marginalised people and by doing so have demonstrated an ingrained bias (Jimerson, 2009, 216). This bias manifests itself in how material is collected, described, preserved, and exhibited (Jenson, 2008, 93). I argue that museums, libraries and archives cannot not remain objective or neutral because they never were.

Many have contested the objectivity of memory institutions, noting that their collections are governed by people, people who have their own perspectives and intentions and as such are not impartial agents (Jimerson, 2009, 215; Durrani & Smallwood, 2008, 123). Their perspectives are influenced by their epistemology (Kwaymullina, 2016, 439). This affects their decisions such as what information should be preserved for future generations and these decisions shapes the public’s memory, thus making these political decisions (Jimerson, 2009, 215).

Admittedly, there are systems created to reduce individual choices in regards to memory institution’s collections to uphold objectivity, such as government policies and professional criteria, guidelines and standards. However, these systems are influenced by the dominant culture, which in colonised countries is a Western Eurocentric culture (White, 2017, 369; Jimerson, 2009, 215). There is a reason why the predominant cataloguing code libraries used until just recently was titled the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR2).

Furthermore, because many memory institutions are part of the government and/or are funded by the local, state or federal government, they are not just influenced by the dominant culture, they are also influenced by the government (Luker, 2017, 112); Jimerson, 2009, 216). Different governments have different political positions, which may change the objectivity of the memory institutions.

In regards to First Nations cultural heritage, it has been argued that memory institutions are tools of colonisation in which colonial powers used to proliferate narratives for their own means (Luker, 2017, 112; Sentance, 2017). For example, exhibitions in natural history museums portrayed First Nations people as primitive savages. This helped justify land dispossession, because it framed us as inferior and in need of Western civilisation (Genovese, 2016, 34; Smith, 2012, 39).

In addition to this, Western institutions, including memory institutions, have a long tradition of centring Anglo non-Indigenous people in the telling of First Nations history and culture (Sentance, 2017a; Moreton-Robinson, 2004, 87). Kwaymullina suggests that this reinforces Anglo non-Indigenous people as the default which places First Nations people as the “other” (440). As a result, First Nations people are perceived as objects of history or of anthropology, rather than fellow humans (Kwaymullina, 2016, 43; Smith, 2012, 39).

Consequently, some perceive memory institutions not as neutral sources of information, but as political tools. To accept them as neutral means to accept the existing distribution of power they enforce and contribute to (Jenson, 2008, 94).

This idea of neutrality in institutions is very much informed by the Enlightenment and the concept that Eurocentric Western scholarship produces a universal knowledge that is universally relevant (Kwaymullina, 2016, 439). This notion portrays Western scholars as speaking from a neutral position which means those outside of the Western scholarship are biased. As a result, this notion has delegitimised First Nations knowledge production and denied historical and cultural pluralism (Kwaymullina, 2016, 441).

Why this is a problem

There are issues that can occur if the notion of neutrality in memory institutions does not continually get challenged. For instance, if a memory institution is perceived as being neutral, then actions like adding First Nations stories of oppression to the collection to rectify past imbalances of perspectives can be framed as not an action of balance, but rather a political act. This could lead memory institutions to avoid necessary actions because they are “risky” and they do not want to be political (Jenson, 2008, 94).

Similarly, if memory institutions are neutral, then their inherent Eurocentrism is neutral which continues First Nations people being framed as the “other”. This makes it harder to challenge and change white privilege and institutional racism within memory institutions and society more broadly.

Additionally, if being neutral means shunning involvement in movements that challenge oppressive structures, then some would argue that memory institutions in attempting to be neutral, even though they are not actively oppressing people, have assisted the oppressor (Jenson, 2008, 94). Furthermore, it makes memory institutions less effective in creating social change which therefore makes them less socially relevant (Good, 2008, 145).

In conclusion, memory institutions need to challenge internal and external perceptions that they are neutral and we need to come to terms with what that means.

To be continued….

By Nathan Sentance

Durrani , Shiraz and Elizabeth Smallwood “The Professional is Political : Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries” Questioning Library Neutrality Essays from Progressive Librarian. Edited by Alison Lewis. Library Juice Press, 2008, 119-140

Good, Joesph. “The Hottest Place in Hell: The Crisis of Neutrality in Contemporary Librarianship” Questioning Library Neutrality Essays from Progressive Librarian. Edited by Alison Lewis. Library Juice Press, 2008, 141-147

Jensen, Robert. “The myth of the neutral professional” Questioning Library Neutrality Essays from Progressive Librarian. Edited by Alison Lewis. Library Juice Press, 2008, 89-96.

Jimerson, Randall, C. Archives power : memory, accountability, and social justice‎. Society of American Archivists‎, 2009

Kwaymullina, Ambelin. “Research, ethics and Indigenous peoples: an Australian Indigenous perspective on three threshold considerations for respectful engagement” AlterNative, vol 12, no. 4, 2016 437-449.

Luker, Trish. “Decolonising Archives: Indigenous Challenges to Record Keeping in ‘Reconciling’ Settler Colonial States” Australian Feminist Studies, vol, 32, no. 91-92, 2017, 108-125

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. “whiteness epistemology and Indigenous representation” Whitening Race: Essays in social and cultural criticism. Edited by Aileen Moreton-Robinson. Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004.

Sentance, Nathan. “The Paternalistic Nature of Collecting” Archival Decolonist. 12 Jun. 2017 https://archivaldecolonist.com/2017/06/12/the-paternalistic-nature-of-collecting/

Sentance, Nathan. “Maker unknown and the decentring First Nations People” Archival Decolonist. 21 Jul. 2017 https://archivaldecolonist.com/2017/07/21/maker-unknown-and-the-decentring-first-nations-people/

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. 2nd ed., Zed Books, 2012.

Engaging with the Uncomfortable

My blog post about First Nations programs, events and exhibitions in libraries, archives and museums that discuss subject matter that White settlers may find “confronting” or “difficult”

“I can’t own your uncomfortability” – Aunty Charmaine Papertalk Green

Several months ago I asked fellow museum, library and archives folks on Twitter, how do we engage audiences to enter uncomfortable spaces? Especially, relating to First Nations people and the impact of ongoing invasion.

I asked this because I was recently involved in a museum program for university students where we discussed the Stolen Generations and intergenerational trauma and after the program, one of the students anonymously commented on a feedback form that they felt like they were being reprimanded and made to feel bad for being White. I found this to be an odd response as we were just discussing a reality and an issue that affects many, many First Nations people, but they chose to disengage because it made them uncomfortable. This made me worried that White fragility will always get in the way of settlers engaging with programs that challenge the colonial structures that benefit them. This made me worried that White fragility is more of concern to some people than the truth.

I previously experienced this when I was ask to write something about James Cook and I wrote that he represents the start of invasion to many First Nations people and this was changed to he represents that start of the colonial encounter to many First Nations people. I felt that this language was soft and dishonest, but I can understand why it was chosen and that was out of fear of any potential backlash caused by White fragility. Nevertheless, it is concerning that White feelings are privileged over First Nations oppression. Furthermore, what are the implications for us working in libraries, archives and museums trying to ensure that historically suppressed and marginalised voices are prominent part of the history constructed and conveyed by the collections held in theses institutions?

In regards to First Nations people, how our history, culture and communities has been represented in libraries, archives and museums has been historically governed by settlers particularly white settler men and because of this we have been represented through a colonisers lens which reflects the values and beliefs of mainstream settler society. But thanks to the tireless work of First Nations people in these spaces before me and many allies this has changed and continues to change, however if the First Nations output from libraries, archives and museums is scared of white settler feelings then our representations are still in a way governed by white settlers.

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Be more positive

Of course, tone policing is not new. I have heard people say many times if First Nations people were more inviting and less “confronting” with their stories, then people (white settlers) would engage with them more. Although, this is flawed, because it puts the responsibility on us, First Nations people. Instead of asking ” why are you making me uncomfortable”, settlers should ask “why do I feel uncomfortable” when engaging with First Nations stories and histories.

Additionally, even when manifestations of our cultures and our histories focus on the positive, it can still threaten White fragility. For instance, the opening ceremony of the 2018 Commonwealth Games included culture and performances by several different First Nations cultural practitioners and communities, which even though it was celebratory and by no means critical of colonisation, it still caused a negative reaction among white settlers. Social commentators were offended by the mere inclusion of First Nations culture and the disruption of our invisibility.

Who’s discomfort?

All of this can imply that white settlers are the intended audience for First Nations output from libraries, archives and museums. For instance, I was recently talking with a white settler curator about how it is becoming more common for exhibitions to include relevant First Nations languages and she said she was worried that it can be confusing for the exhibition visitors. Undoubtedly, she was talking about White settlers when she was saying visitors and my initial reaction to this was “not everything is about you”. But exhibitions have been, in many cases, about her as her epistemology, her experiences and her language are considered the default in mainstream settler society and therefore have been reflected in a majority of exhibitions. And because of this, she is more concerned with potential white settler discomfort caused by confusion than suppression of First Nations languages.

In addition to this, discussions about discomfort in libraries, archives and museums rarely touch on First Nations peoples’ discomfort that could stem from keeping our cultural heritage in very colonial buildings, describing or classifying our cultural heritage in ways that are alien to our world-views, the implementation of confusing access guidelines and the celebration in libraries, archives and museums of people many of us deem to be violent, oppressive colonisers.

How do we engage audiences to enter uncomfortable spaces?

I genuinely asked that question several months ago because I know many people have done great work in regards to this and want to hear their thoughts because we need many colonial structures to change and change comes from being uncomfortable which will never happen if White fragility gets in the way and is prioritised. How do we get audiences, especially White settler audiences to understand discomfort is temporary, oppression is not?

Further reading

‘Difficult’ exhibitions and intimate encounters

By Nathan Sentance

Diversity means Disruption

Written for the GLAM Blog Club theme of Change

Why hire First Nations people into your mostly white structure and expect/want/demand everything to remain basically the same?

Many libraries, archives and museums will talk about how they value diversity and many individual institutions and professional organisations will have their own diversity and inclusion policies and initiatives. However, these are often shallow exercises as they are seldom created to challenge and disrupt whiteness within and outside the sector. We cannot change institutional racism without first changing institutions and without disruption, nothing will change .

Why don’t libraries, archives and museums challenge whiteness more? It could be argued it is because these organisations were not designed to, as they, particularly archives and museums, were established by settler states as tools of colonisation to maintain whiteness by proliferating colonial narratives and mythologies that have aided the legitimization of historic land theft, assimilation actions, over-policing and racial violence by the settler state. These narratives and mythologies are still in effect today, continuing the demonization of marginalised groups as means to protect whiteness.

Additionally, through the historical exclusion of non-white voices and bodies, libraries, archives and museums have centred white thought, whiteness created history, white bodies which has solidified them as the default and neutral in mainstream society therefore framing non-white thought and bodies as the “other”. This has helped make whiteness invisible, thus making it harder to challenge.

As result of the invisibility of whiteness, diversity initiatives are often about including diverse bodies into the mainstream without critically examining what that mainstream is. Kyra describes this “When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we necessarily position marginalized groups as naturally needing to assimilate into dominant ones, rather than to undermine said structures of domination” And because theses structures are the default, undermining them is destabilizing aka “rocking the boat” which is disapproved.

It could be suggested that most diversity initiatives are what Poka Laenui called Accommodation/Tokenism which is stage 5 of the process of colonization. In this stage of colonization, whatever remnants of culture have survived the onslaught of the earlier steps are given surface accommodation. They are tolerated as an exhibition of the colonial regimes sense of leniency to the continuing ignorance of the natives. They are given token regard.

As consequence, I have seen a high turnover of staff from marginalized communities, especially First Nations people, as well as general feelings of disenfranchisement. However, I think are some things we can do to improve diversity initiatives.

1.Don’t let white fragility get in the way of change
“If you are lucky enough to be let in, don’t have the bad manners to complain about the way you are treated” – paraphrased, Levine-Rasky, 2013, 159

In my experience, many white people will often see discussions of racism in libraries, archives and museums as personal attacks against them and instead of reflecting on their own actions and complicity, they chose to disengage because what is been said made them uncomfortable or worse they gaslight and tone police the First Nations person bringing the issue up with statements like “you’re always so negative” “you’re making a mountain out of a molehill”, “it’s not that bad”, or “you’re looking for racism”. Even accusations of reverse racism are issued to consciously or unconsciously defend whiteness. Consequently, this can make the person bringing up racism seem like a trouble maker.

There have been many times I’ve been told that I should careful working with different First Nations people because “they are difficult to work with” or a “bullies” only to find out what that they meant is these First Nations people would not put up with racism. Ruby Hamad wrote about this and how the legitimate grievances of brown and black women were instead flipped into narratives of white women getting attacked which helped white people avoid accountability and also makes people of color seem unreasonable and aggressive.

As individuals in libraries, archives and museums we need understand that our discomfort is temporary, oppression is not and as organisations we need to create more accountability. Racism is continuously swept under the carpet instead of confronted which is loud statement to First Nations people, that is, our concerns and by extension, we, are not important to you.

2. Treat lived experience as expertise

Often when discussing issues of colonialism in libraries, archives and museums, your voice can be easily perceived as being arbitrarily antagonistic because in a majority white organisation, you are being contrarian. Your view is seen as the opinion or preference of one person, not a critique based on your lived experience or many conversations you have had with your family and fellow community members about structural issues that affect us. If I am disagreeing, it’s not because I want to (it’s heaps easilier to agree), it’s because it’s necessary I do because I know that the issue at could affect one of my loved ones’ lives.

If you are seeking a First Nations perspective, expect it. If you only want a First Nations perspective to agree with you, that’s disrespectful. Respect our input on topics that affect us because we live it. We know more than what you seen in media or the thesis you read. We bring many skills to the table, this includes our experiences as First Nations people in this country.

3. Support us

“it is frustrating being one of the only voices of colour in a sea of white talk” – paraphrased, Yancy, 2012, 60

Being First Nations person in a majority white organisation means a lot is asked of you that is not in your role description. This needs to be acknowledged. This acknowledgment needs to come with support such as additional First Nations staff which could help alleviate some of the of the issues that come with minority status. Also, the strength in numbers helps cut through “sea of white talk”.

Additionally, support should include providing First Nations only spaces when necessary as well as supporting staff with time and resources to connect with other First Nations staff in other organisations and to connect with different community members as part of our professional development.

4. Remember it ain’t 9-5 for us

We don’t finish being First Nations people when work finishes. Our work in these places has physical and metaphysical consequences for ourselves and our communities as such the work we do has added responsibilities and our work extends outside these walls. Who we are accountable to are not just inside these organisations. While many of us work so all stakeholders are happy, community comes first. This is something libraries, archives and museums must recognise.

5. Advocacy

Libraries, archives and museums should support and advocate (without centreing themselves) First Nations causes and grassroots initiatives. Especially ones that are deemed “political” or “controversial” as they are usually deemed that because they are addressing the most vicious and systemic oppression, such as black deaths in custody. Not doing so or “being neutral” in such contexts means lending support to those oppressive structures. In this complicity you are then also an oppressor.

In conclusion, I believe diversity initiatives from libraries, archives and museum are a concession and acknowledgment that things need to change. Nevertheless we cannot have change or meaningful diversity without disruption.

by Nathan Sentance

Further readings

White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS by April Hathcock

Queering needs to be anti-colonial

KINQ = Knowledge Industries Need Queering

This was written in response to the KINQ Manifesto, particularly responding to point 2 and 4 of the Manifesto.

  1. All museums are sex museums

The KINQ manifesto does something very essential, it discusses heteronormativity in archive, library and museum spaces. As with whiteness, naming, discussing and pointing a finger at heteronormativity is an important part of its disruption and hopefully its eventual abolition. By not being named, by being invisible and by being nowhere and everywhere at the same time heteronormativity and whiteness have long been maintained because if they are not named and discussed, they cannot not be critiqued and challenged. Also, because of their invisibility and the fact that they are  so embedded in our colonial social institutions, like archives and museums, heteronormativity and whiteness, along with the power dynamics and oppression associated with them, appear like the natural order of things (Levine-Rasky, 2013, 12). This is how…

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What are Anniversaries for?

History organisations like libraries, archives and museums often commemorate important dates, days and anniversaries through social media posts, events, book displays, and exhibitions but why? What do we hope to achieve with these commemorations? To me, historical anniversaries have frequently been associated with nationalism and I believe anniversaries are just propaganda if they don’t come with critique. As Jane Ellison said in their keynote address at DCDC “anniversaries have to do more than just jog the memory” This is why I feel the ways in which some of us in libraries, archives and museums utilise important dates is generally shallow.
The way we celebrate the anniversaries of the events and people related to different aspects of invasion and colonization rarely offers a large space for critique, only a small footnote or an afterthought public talk or exhibition addition. An Aboriginal perspective may be asked for this type of exhibition, but this perspective can’t make white settler audiences uncomfortable or feel guilty.
Besides the fact that it is disgusting to celebrate colonization, audiences do not take anything away from these commemorations without critique because, without the truth about the physical, legal and material repercussions of colonization, they lack social relevance. They do not assist in creating contemporary social change which should be the goal for our output in libraries, archives and museums.

Social Justice Anniversaries
Social justice anniversaries particularly in terms of racial justice, are frequently celebrated in a way that conceals many details and creates dishonest narratives. Narratives like “look how far we’ve come”, which ignores contemporary oppression and maintains the myth that racism is in the past. It also neglects many regressive actions that follow events of racial progress. For example, Delgado & Stefancic (p.29-30) note what followed the landmark case of Brown vs the Board of Education was that the benefits won in the case were quietly cut back down by narrow interpretations and administrative obstructions which left minority groups are left a little better, if not worse. Another example is the 1965 Freedom Rides, which has been been highly celebrated by us in libraries, archives and museums, as it should be, however we usually leave out that some of the towns in NSW the Freedom Rides bus visited are still highly segregated.
We must be wary of overemphasizing “look how far we’ve come” in our exhibitions, programs, educational kits and explore how racism of the past influences the racism of today. To coincide this, we need to create space for critical self reflection for our audiences as well as ourselves (libraries, archives and museums are not innocent regarding oppression).
In addition to “look how far we’ve come”, the ways in which some of us in libraries, archives and museums utilise important social justice dates can proliferate the narrative of heroes and villains. The problem with a narrative with villains is that it may portray racism as the disturbed acts of individuals rather than a structure. It can also discount the fact that most villain’s views reflect the mainstream society. Similar to how racial prejudice and police is often conveyed as incidents with bad apples and if you get rid of those bad apple police, everything would be okay, rather than look the whole policing system as the problem.
Additionally, how we tell the stories about people we frame as heroes related to racial justice events and anniversaries often sanitizes them, makes them more palatable to a general, white settler audience. Their demands for liberation become demands for equality and their work discussing their want for peace gets privileged over their work that discusses the evils of capitalism. Furthermore, it can be neglected that people we now see as heroes were hated in the past, are probably still hated by some in the present, and if they would or could speak about issues of racism today, they would get a lot of hate from mainstream white settler society. Their work fighting oppression rarely gets connected to the oppression people are fighting today. This hypocrisy was highlighted by a tweet by Aamer Rahman who wrote in 2016 “White people: You can’t celebrate Muhammad Ali’s life and then 2 months later be mad at @Kaepernick7 [Colin Kaepernick]”
Hero narratives sometimes lean toward a story of Black exceptionalism rather than tell a story of systemic racism. For instance, DiAngelo (p.40) notes the way Jackie Robinson is generally celebrated is as the first African American to break the colour line and play in major league baseball. As DiAngelo suggests maybe it should be framed as Jackie Robinson was the first black man white people allowed to play major league baseball. This framing makes the distinction because no matter how fantastic a player Robinson was, he could not play major league baseball if the white people who controlled the institution did not allow it.
Because of the above, we should be careful how we use historical figures. They are powerful. Their achievements are worth celebrating and libraries archives and museums should publicly do so. When discussing them in our exhibitions, tours, reading groups, we can use their stories to inspire action in our audiences and inform our audiences of their strategies to help them better enact the structural change we need now.

Conclusion
Like all history, I believe we should utilise anniversaries to better understand the present and better understand the historical context which we live in. Especially, in terms of oppressive structures. This understanding should be a call to action to make the present better. Commemorations, like all things libraries, archives and museums do, should have a purpose.

Please comment the best examples you know of libraries, archives and museums effectively commemorating important dates, days and anniversaries

By Nathan “Mudyi” Sentance

Brown Skin Girl – identity & the colonial gaze

Identity is hard enough for most people, however it is harder when imposed on you are stereotypes about who you are, what you should look like and what that entails. Identity can be unimaginably distressing when the ability to define yourself is stolen. It is hard to discover who you are when there are narratives attached to you and your body, false narratives that could be decades if not centuries old, way before you are born. Working in libraries, archives and museums, I know how these institutions along with academia have created and proliferated these harmful narratives about and imposed identities on First Nations people and People of Color, that not only have defined who we are in mainstream settler society, but have dehumanized us which justified our oppression. This continues today, with narratives in the mainstream settler society framing us, First Nations people and People of Color, as criminals or as victims who need saving. Both positions/narratives marginalize us, leave us voiceless and in a space where we are both hyper visible and invisible at the same time. This is part of the colonial gaze, the white gaze.

This gaze is made visible, questioned, mocked and disrupted in the Black Birds production, Brown Skin Girl, a show that melds visual art, spoken word, music and movement, drawing the audience into the lives of three Black and Brown women as they navigate the complexities of life as twenty-somethings in Sydney. They share their personal stories using humour, powerful words and movements. Ayeesha Ash (also director), Emily Havea and Angela Sullen discuss the feeling of transversing white spaces as Black and Brown women where your bodies, skin and hair are magnets for the white colonial gaze. Spaces where saying you are from “Bendigo” in response to the question where are you from is not good enough because of the color of your skin, spaces where no matter how Italian you are in heritage and culture, to white Australians you can’t be because of your melanin, spaces so white, your natural afro hair is political.

As for white spaces, Brown Skin Girl does not feel like one, which I don’t feel is often said about theatre. Even though there has been continuous amazing contributions to Australian theatre by People of Colour, particularly First Nations Womxn and Womxn of Colour, theatre can feel like a white thing. This was solidified for me last year when a friend of mine went to a First Nations dance performance featuring many cast members who were her friends and she has previously performed with. During the performance, as can be standard with some types of First Nations performance, she was whooping and cheering in the crowd. The predominantly white audience turned on her and made her feel not wanted. In her introduction to the Brown Skin Girl, Ayeesha dispels this stifling etiquette and informs the audience to engage, laugh hard, stand up and dance if you feel like it. This eliminated for me the performer/audience hierarchy as well as said, you can be you during the show.

This is marambangbilang (awesome) as much of the show itself is about the performers being themselves, loving themselves and seeing and empowering each other. In her recent article, Black Birds co-founder and Brown Skin Girl producer & assistant director, Emele Ugavule stated how “theatre should be an experience of exchange” in discussing how we need not only diverse performers on our stage but in our audience as well. I could feel this during Brown Skin Girl.

One of the best things about Brown Skin Girl is that it is often hilarious. Ayeesha, Emily and Angela are incredibly funny in their delivery and content. In writing about the film White Chicks, philosophy professor, George Yancy said “humour brings the power of whiteness out of the background into the foreground” (p.112). Brown Skin Girl does this and along with the white gaze. Because of this, I believe Brown Skin Girl works incredibly well for a multi-racial audiences as white audience members can experience aspects of themselves and society that often remain unconscious while audience members of Colour can laugh in unity of familiar experiences.

Throughout Brown Skin Girl, Ayeesha, Emily and Angela remind the audience that for many Womxn of Colour, who they are is tricky in the historical context we live in today. People, society are constantly trying to make them fit into boxes, categories that were created without their consent.

Brown Skin Girl is personal, energetic and insightful. Moving forward, it will influence the way I work in libraries, archives and museums in attempting to provide a counter gaze to dismantle the colonial gaze that these history institutions were built on and have embedded in their operations.

Find out more about upcoming Black Bird events

What is Our Purpose?

Written for the GLAM Blog Club theme of End

Two news events in 2018 made me ask the questions, what is point of archives and museums? What is their role in society?

The first news event was the NSW government passing damaging new legislation which expanded the powers of family and community services to permanently remove children from their families. This legislation will no doubt impact Aboriginal families the most and will have destructive, traumatic effects similar to the effects caused by the policies of the Stolen Generations, policies that were acts of genocide.

Many museums and other history institutions on this landmass have dedications in some form to the Stolen Generations. This is important as victims of this history have previously been ignored, adding to their trauma and the effects of this history have shaped our communities and many aspects of society more broadly. We need to share this part of history to understand the context we live in today.

However, I believe that understanding this history is pointless if it does not lead to action. Museums and archives should not just work to document bad history, but work to prevent bad history from happening. Museums are not making the world better if they just do an exhibition in thirty years focusing on the oppression caused by this new devastating legislation after the damage is already done, damage museums could have helped stop.

The second news event that made me question the role of archives and museums was the potential removal of the sacred Djap Wurrung trees. According to the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy website “These beautiful trees include an 800 year old tree that has seen over 50 generations born inside of a hollow in her trunk”. Their potential discretion continues a history of colonial destruction of First Nations cultures.”

Archives and museums have long been part of this colonial destruction. As history institutions, they have helped in supplanting First Nations history with a newly created colonial memory, working almost as propaganda distributors for the settler state. Many people within archives and museums would disagree with this and say that’s not what we, what we do is collect, preserve, and make accessible knowledge for future generations. If that is the case, then us working in archives and museums should stand up against the possible destruction of sacred Djap Wurrung trees as so much history, knowledge and culture embedded in them could be lost. If we don’t, then I don’t believe we can declare our role is preserving knowledge for future generations. And I don’t mean by moving the sacred trees to a museum, this is also colonial violence.

Archivists will also claim their role is to facilitate public accountability, particularly of the accountability of the government. And around the world, many archives are being used to bring accountability to past oppression created by settler states. However, with these aforementioned news events and many other recent ones, archivists have a responsibility to use the knowledge their organisations hold to inform the public and make the government accountable, this includes current government. As Archivists Against History Repeating Itself express we need to use history “to learn past strategies and get inspiration to enact the structural change we need now” This kind of action towards structural change needs to be supported, advocated and undertaken by memory institutions. (without infringing on work already being done by grassroots groups)

For this to happen there does need to be a shift in archives and museums, namely addressing that we are, and the organisations we work in are not neutral. Inaction by memory institutions is not neutral, it is supporting current oppressive structures. Memory institutions have power they need to share with grassroots organisations working towards repairing the damage done by and preventing future harm caused by white supremacy, colonialism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, ableism, and capitalism.

This means not just addressing past issues stemming from colonisation and invasion (which many archives and museums still have trouble doing), but also addressing oppression happening now. Challenging oppressive structures is what we need to do to assist positive social change, which, I believe should be our purpose.

By Nathan Mudyi Sentance

Further reading

Archivists Against History Repeating Itself

Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy

Grandmothers Against Removals NSW

Australian farmland

-Australian farmland is beautiful but eery

– is it eery because we are not accustomed to silence?

-but it’s not silent

-is it eery because of the violence that took place on it?

-the blood spilt on it?

-like us, Australian farmland is shaped by violence

-violence informs how we both look

-violence influences our interactions with each other

-violence is always present on Australian farmland

-there is rarely screams, but the sound of cicadas

-Australian farmland is a symbol of beauty,but it’s eery. It has a rage within it

-Australian farmland is a kingdom, like all kingdoms, its rulers need it more than it needs the ruled, but rulers obfuscate that fact

-Australian farmland is conquest

-Australian farmland is beautiful and smells great

Diversity means Disruption

Written for the GLAM Blog Club theme of Change

Why hire First Nations people into your mostly white structure and expect/want/demand everything to remain basically the same?

Many libraries, archives and museums will talk about how they value diversity and many individual institutions and professional organisations will have their own diversity and inclusion policies and initiatives. However, these are often shallow exercises as they are seldom created to challenge and disrupt whiteness within and outside the sector. We cannot change institutional racism without first changing institutions and without disruption, nothing will change .

Why don’t libraries, archives and museums challenge whiteness more? It could be argued it is because these organisations were not designed to, as they, particularly archives and museums, were established by settler states as tools of colonisation to maintain whiteness by proliferating colonial narratives and mythologies that have aided the legitimization of historic land theft, assimilation actions, over-policing and racial violence by the settler state. These narratives and mythologies are still in effect today, continuing the demonization of marginalised groups as means to protect whiteness.

Additionally, through the historical exclusion of non-white voices and bodies,  libraries, archives and museums have centred white thought, whiteness created history, white bodies which has solidified them as the default and neutral in mainstream society therefore framing non-white thought and bodies as the “other”. This has helped make whiteness invisible, thus making it harder to challenge.

As result of the invisibility of whiteness, diversity initiatives  are often about including diverse bodies into the mainstream without critically examining what that mainstream is. Kyra describes this “When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we necessarily position marginalized groups as naturally needing to assimilate into dominant ones, rather than to undermine said structures of domination” And because theses structures are the default, undermining them is destabilizing aka “rocking the boat” which is disapproved.

It could be suggested that most diversity initiatives are what Poka Laenui called Accommodation/Tokenism which is stage 5 of the process of colonization. In this stage of colonization, whatever remnants of culture have survived the onslaught of the earlier steps are given surface accommodation. They are tolerated as an exhibition of the colonial regimes sense of leniency to the continuing ignorance of the natives. They are given token regard.

As consequence, I have seen a high turnover of staff from marginalized communities, especially First Nations people, as well as general feelings of disenfranchisement. However, I think are some things we can do to improve diversity initiatives.

1.Don’t let white fragility get in the way of change

“If you are lucky enough to be let in, don’t have the bad manners to complain about the way you are treated” – paraphrased, Levine-Rasky, 2013, 159 

In my experience, many white people will often see discussions of racism in libraries, archives and museums as personal attacks against them and instead of reflecting on their own actions and complicity, they chose to disengage because what is been said made them uncomfortable or worse they gaslight and tone police the First Nations person bringing the issue up with statements like “you’re always so negative” “you’re making a mountain out of a molehill”, “it’s not that bad”, or “you’re looking for racism”. Even accusations of reverse racism are issued to consciously or unconsciously defend whiteness. Consequently, this can make the person bringing up racism seem like a trouble maker.

There have been many times I’ve been told that I should careful working with different First Nations people because “they are difficult to work with” or a “bullies” only to find out what that they meant is these First Nations people would not put up with racism. Ruby Hamad wrote about this and how the legitimate grievances of brown and black women were instead flipped into narratives of white women getting attacked which helped white people avoid accountability and also makes people of color seem unreasonable and aggressive.

As individuals in libraries, archives and museums we need understand that our discomfort is temporary, oppression is not and as organisations we need to create more accountability. Racism is continuously swept under the carpet instead of confronted which  is loud statement to First Nations people, that is, our concerns and by extension, we, are not important to you.

2. Treat lived experience as expertise

Often when discussing issues of colonialism in libraries, archives and museums, your voice can be easily perceived as being arbitrarily antagonistic because in a majority white organisation, you are being contrarian. Your view is seen as the opinion or preference of one person, not a critique based on your lived experience or many conversations you have had with your family and fellow community members about structural issues that affect us. If I am disagreeing, it’s not because I want to (it’s heaps easilier to agree), it’s because it’s necessary I do because I know that the issue at could affect one of my loved ones’ lives.

If you are seeking a First Nations perspective, expect it. If you only want a First Nations perspective to agree with you, that’s disrespectful. Respect our input on topics that affect us because we live it. We know more than what you seen in media or the thesis you read.  We bring many skills to the table, this includes our experiences as First Nations people in this country.

3. Support us

“it is frustrating being one of the only voices of colour in a sea of white talk” – paraphrased, Yancy, 2012, 60

Being First Nations person in a majority white organisation means a lot is asked of you that is not in your role description. This needs to be acknowledged. This acknowledgment needs to come with support such as additional First Nations staff which could help alleviate some of the of the issues that come with minority status. Also, the strength in numbers helps cut through “sea of white talk”.

Additionally, support should include providing First Nations only spaces when necessary as well as supporting staff with time and resources to connect with other First Nations staff in other organisations and to connect with different community members as part of our professional development.

4. Remember it ain’t 9-5 for us

We don’t finish being First Nations people when work finishes. Our work in these places has physical and metaphysical consequences for ourselves and our communities as such the work we do has added responsibilities and our work extends outside these walls. Who we are accountable to are not just inside these organisations. While many of us work so all stakeholders are happy, community comes first. This is something libraries, archives and museums must recognise.

5. Advocacy

Libraries, archives and museums should support and advocate (without centreing themselves) First Nations causes and grassroots initiatives. Especially ones that are deemed “political” or “controversial” as they are usually deemed that because they are addressing the most vicious and systemic oppression, such as black deaths in custody. Not doing so or “being neutral” in such contexts means lending support to those oppressive structures. In this complicity you are then also an oppressor.

In conclusion, I believe diversity initiatives from libraries, archives and museum are a concession and acknowledgment that things need to change. Nevertheless we cannot have change or meaningful diversity without disruption.

by Nathan Sentance

Further readings

White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS by April Hathcock