Too many white experts

“Surely the time has arrived and we have matured sufficiently to have
an Indigenous voice present a history of Indigenous art in this country.
Hetti Perkins’s Art + Soul was a wonderful and popular introduction to the
topic, but the time is ripe for Indigenous people to take control of their own
discourse on their own cultural traditions.” – (Sasha Grishin, 2016, 343)

The above quote encapsulates a frustration I have with cultural institutions and academia, where the discourse around First Nations culture, history and people is led by non-Indigenous people. This was exemplified recently when I saw discussion at a symposium about decolonising cultural institutions where only one of the four speakers on the topic was First Nations. Meaning, three quarters of the discussion around decolonising was filled with the thoughts and opinions of colonisers, essentially colonising the space about decolonising

Yet, a major aspect of decolonisation is strengthening the concept that First Nations people and ideas should be represented by First Nations people themselves (Smith, 1999, 151). In addition to this, decolonisation is also about dismantling the idea of white as the default (Moreton-Robinson, 2004, 75). Something that is hard to do when non-White or First Nations is the token.
Don’t get me wrong, I want non-Indigenous people to be part of the discussion. I want them invested to help make systematic change on all levels. But the key word is “part”

If the decolonising discourses are led by non-Indigenous people, this could only continue the academic thinking that frames white scholars as knowers of First Nations people and culture and frames First Nations people themselves and their culture as the known (Watson, 2002, 13). This type of thinking does not recognise First Nations agency and self determination.

As consequence, white led policies and outreach to address First Nations issues are developed and white saviour-hood and paternalistic thinking are permitted. All of which are done not recognising that First Nations people have our own solutions. However, they can’t be heard because settler colonial voices drown them out.

This is the same type of thinking that allows a non-Indigenous researcher to go to Arnhem Land, interview knowledge holders about the watercrafts , check some documents for verification and context, write a PHD and become an “expert” on Arnhem Land watercrafts. But how does the community benefit? The researcher gets a doctorate, but the knowledge holders don’t even get considered experts.

This is the same type of thinking that supports an archaeologist to get an 125k grant to verify what we, First Nations people already knew. This is the same type of thinking that allows non-Indigenous anthropologists to be the faculty head of an Indigenous studies department at a university.

This is the same type of thinking that permits a non-Indigenous curator confidently deciding what First Nations material goes in an exhibition. Essentially choosing how to represent us and our culture.

This is the same thinking that is epitomised when Keith Windshuttle writes about who the first people on this land were without any evidence (Westaway, 2016), when John Stone (2017) writes about how the break down in Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations is all because of how flawed First Nations people are or when Caleb Bond (2017) can decide what is important for rural First Nations communities.

While this thinking is prevalent, work needs to be done to ensure that First Nations voices are not just part of the conversation around our culture, our history or our people, but are leading it.

By Nathan Sentance.

Bond, Caleb. “Caleb Bond: Moving Triple J Hottest 100 from ‘Invasion Day’ won’t make an iota of difference to the plight of Aboriginal people” The Advertiser , 16 Sep 2017.

Grishin, Sasha. “Rattling Spears: A History of Indigenous Australian Art” Aboriginal History Journal 40 , 2016 341-343.

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

Pearson, Caden (CadenPearson). “Seems a foreign notion to many that Indigenous people have our own solutions #QandA”. 07 Aug 2017, 12:19 UTC. Tweet

Stone, John. “Aboriginal Policy: 50 Years of Failure” The Quadrant, 11 Nov 2017,

Watson, Irene. Looking at you looking at me — : an aboriginal history of the south-east. Volume 1. I. Watson Nairne, 2002

Westaway, Michael and Joe Dortch. “Who we should recognise as First Australians in the constitution” The Conversation, 13 Mar 2015,

1 thought on “Too many white experts”

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. I am keenly aware of not speaking on behalf of anyone and find the idea of studying culture that I am not involved in personally very uncomfortable. I am aware that this is not an academic norm and the goal of ‘objectivity’ in cultural studies is all about making a judgement of ‘others’ from the outside. Yet the ethics of researching from within your community is heavily scrutinised and in the information disciplines, if you do not do quantitative data collecting and present statistics, you are clearly not doing good research. I want to learn how to facilitate and nurture research while still being part of a conversation and provide insight where I think I can. I have had the good fortune to become informally involved in a Noongar research group in WA but am acutely aware of my various privileges, particularly being white. While involved in this I have witnessed people not acknowledge their privilege something I also saw that was noticeably absent from many speakers earlier this week at the conference on Critical Archives. Privilege comes in many forms and I feel that it is not easy to be aware or how to communicate this in various contexts. And so I wonder what can be done to ensure we work within and communicate a clear awareness of structures that support or disempower us in society? In various contexts? And for me, particularly in the academy and as an academic. Thanks Nathan, I really enjoy your writing and it inspires and influences my own thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

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