By DAVID MYTON
As this is a long article it has been divided into two parts as a bookmark if readers wish to pause and continue reading at a later time
Sitting attentively in the sociology lecture, Bronwyn Carlson was puzzled. The man’s name cropped up time and again. It was John Rar this and John Rar that – this John Rar guy was everywhere.
She made a note on her lecture pad: “Find out who the f**k John Rar is.”
Here she was, a student in a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Wollongong and now she was beginning to have serious doubts. She didn’t even know who this John Rar person was.
Afterwards Carlson told her tutor: “I don’t think I can do this, I don’t know what I’m doing.”
The tutor replied: “People like you should come to university because you bring with you a wealth of knowledge. Get a dictionary of sociology and once you understand the terms, you’ll unlock what it’s all about.”
Carlson got the dictionary and discovered that John Rar wasn’t a bloke at all: what she’d been hearing was the word genre.
“Literally, this woman’s kindness saying to me you deserve to be here changed my world,” says Carlson. “I’ll never forget that. And I’ve still got that dictionary.”
Professor Bronwyn Carlson, an Aboriginal woman who was born on and lives on D’harawal Country in NSW, is today head of the Department of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University.
She is a researcher who has carved out an international reputation in the field of Indigenous Studies, establishing the Forum for Indigenous Research Excellence (FIRE) – an international interdisciplinary research network of scholars interested in Indigenous related research.
Carlson has accumulated enormous experience in teaching and curriculum development and has published in scholarly journals, nationally and internationally.
She is a well-known author and public intellectual who founded the Journal of Global Indigeneity.
She is also the winner of two consecutive solo ARC Discovery Indigenous grants focusing on Indigenous identity and community online on social media.
All of that is impressive enough.
Given her family history, it is nothing short of astonishing.
The biggest moonlight flit of all time
Carlson had a “highly dysfunctional” background. She was born in Wollongong but her family traveled frequently and she went to school in many States and Territories including New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and the Northern Territory.
Her father, Noel, she says, was an alcoholic and prone to executing a moonlight flit with some regularity.
“We often moved out of town in the middle of the night,” she recalls.
“I remember mum saying it was because there was less traffic, but we found out later that dad would owe money somewhere, and so we’d be doing the moonlight flit.”
The “biggest moonlight flit of all time” occurred when Noel decided to move the family to New Zealand with Carlson, then aged seven, and her sisters and brother in tow.
“I’m not sure why the decision was made to go to New Zealand, or what was in his head at the time but we thought it might be a new life, a new start.”
They washed up in Mission Bay, Auckland. “We stayed in a hotel there for a week, and I recall thinking, ‘Wow! This is a better life.’ As little kids, we thought this was fantastic.”
Then, apparently, the money ran out “and we ended up moving in with people that dad had met at the pub, living in their backrooms. It was the same, pretty much, as what had happened in Australia with drunken parties and poverty being the norm.”
A couple of years later Noel did a bunk and returned to Australia, leaving his wife and children in New Zealand.
Carlson’s father had 10 children in total to four women. All 10 were born in Australia with seven being left in New Zealand, she says, and the last three remained in Australia.
After he left them in New Zealand, she didn’t have much to do with Noel “other than that he would pop in and out of our lives every so often, usually to introduce us to new brothers and sisters”. Noel died in 2016.
However, Noel’s legacy is that he left Carlson with enduring love of country music.
Country music and stories about life
“In my very young age, some of my only memories with my father were that he would come home late at night and often after drinking and he would want to get us kids out of bed,” she recalls. “I would get up to save my brother and sisters from having to do so, and we’d listen to Slim Dusty and Chad Morgan and the like all night on the old record player. I grew to love the music.
“When I hear country music, I love the storytelling component of it and you find that in Indigenous country music too. They tell just really good stories about life really.”
After her father broke the news he was returning to Australia the family faced many challenges, including being evicted. As Australians they were not able to access support in New Zealand.
“He said he was going back to do some work. But he had no intention – he was leaving with another woman although we didn’t know that at the time.”
Noel and the woman had two children together, and then he moved on again.
“He ran off with her best friend and had another child to her; and then he married a Tongan woman and had three more children.”
All 10 children stay in contact. “We’re all connected on Facebook.”
Carlson always enjoyed learning.
“School was quite difficult for us because we were pretty poor”. However, she loved reading and developed a passion for books.
“I love reading stories. Storytelling has always been a big part of my life.
“Stephen King was one of my favourite authors; I just love the way he would construct stories, and that you really got to know the characters.
“Reading’s an escape from life – life can be better through books. So I would read a lot, all sorts of stories.”
She confesses that she and her younger sister could be naughty – “Life sucked, and it felt good to be naughty.”
School was a lot different in the 70s and she recalls one teacher who would hit the children with his belt.
“He was a cruel, miserable sod really. That was our primary school. High school was the same.
“We were angry kids, we had nothing. Life sucked. We were homeless for part of the time.”
‘And then we were deported to Australia’
Carlson and her sister returned to Australia at the ages of 14 and 15. They were deported.
“Me and my younger sister, we basically didn’t stay at home much,” she says, adding that she and her sister would run away from home, getting into all kinds of scrapes.
“We ended up in a girls’ home in New Zealand, and then we were deported to Australia.”
They were sent to live with Noel, his new wife and their two children in the Northern Territory.
“That didn’t last long, needless to say.”
He sent her down to Wollongong to live with her auntie and Nan. Her Nan died soon after which devastated her.
Carlson scraped up enough to return to New Zealand to be with her siblings, where she eventually found work in several factories.
She met her husband and found a new stability. They had four children and after the birth of their youngest son, Carlson and family headed back to Australia.
“As an Indigenous person, I wanted my children to come back to see this country, my country, all those things. My older sister had been here for some time. We just wanted to come back, so we did.”
‘Have you ever thought of coming to university?’
Carlson had left school at age 15, but she was bright and intelligent, loved reading and found within herself a passion for education. In New Zealand, for example, she had taken a correspondence course in public relations and marketing.
“We didn’t even have computers. I remember handwriting all my assignments and posting them off in the mail.”
Back in Australia, in Wollongong, she decided to research her family tree to find out more about her Nan, and great grandparents who had migrated across to Wollongong from South Australia.
“Me, mum, and my Nan are Aboriginal, and I wanted to find out more about my great grandma, because I knew that she wasn’t from here. We’d all been born in Wollongong, but I had learned she was from South Australia.”
She headed off to Wollongong University’s Aboriginal Education Centre, as it was called at the time. “They held lots of archives, images, photos, and stuff around local area.”
As she conducted her research in the archives she struck up conversation with the student support officer, who surprised her by asking: “Have you ever thought of coming to university?”
“I was like, ‘What?’ This was literally the first time I’d ever been on a university, or even thought about a university. I thought it was highly amusing and I told him I hadn’t even finished school.”
He replied that was a common story and urged her to sit the entrance exam.
“Because I’ve always really loved learning, I was quite excited about the prospect, but really nervous also. I didn’t know anyone who’d ever gone to uni. I didn’t know anyone who had qualifications.
“Most people I know did manual work. There wasn’t anyone around us who’d had those kind of educational opportunities at all.”
‘Why do some people have, and some people don’t?’
Carlson enrolled in Wollongong’s Alternative Admissions Program designed for Indigenous Australians seeking entry into the university’s undergraduate programs.
She passed the required exams, excelling in both the literacy and maths components of the entry test, and was told she was now able to study for a Bachelor of Arts – “and I didn’t know what that was at the time”.
She went through the course handbook and opted to study sociology.
“I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t you want to know how the world works?’ I really wanted to know why people like me were positioned in the world this way, the way we were.
“Why do some people have, and some people don’t? How does power work? How can you disrupt this stuff?
“I enrolled in sociology and Aboriginal studies – I just was always hungry to know more about our own family, and history and how and why are lives were like they were.”
Carlson says that whilst many Indigenous people know about their own experience, they often don’t know about the bigger picture – “like from a national perspective, about the kinds of systematic processes the government put in place to discriminate against people and maintain control over their lives”.
She recalls a university project she conducted with some Elders on the South Coast of NSW.
“They were talking about great times they had on the mission, being together and going down the Op Shop and getting suits to go a dance and doing all this sort of stuff.
“None of them spoke about the idea that they were basically imprisoned on those places, because of government policy. Their memories were of family and being together.
“People accept their circumstances in some ways, particularly if they don’t have opportunity to learn more and form strong analytical skills. People don’t have the opportunity to question it. Largely, they just try and survive.
“They just accept their lives, particularly if they don’t have access to good education, to enable them to look at how to really process what’s happening around them, and to understand how power, oppression and colonialism works.”
She completed her BA but even so was left with a niggling “imposter syndrome”.
“This often happens for women, and for Indigenous people this feeling can be huge,” she says.
“I remember at my graduation ceremony, I’m sitting there and I get the program. And I look down, and I can’t see my name.
“Then I started thinking, ‘Oh my God! I’m not graduating, I’m not supposed to be here.’ I literally nearly had a panic attack, I didn’t know what to do.”
She called over one of the ushers to say she couldn’t see her name in the program.
“The woman said, ‘What’s your name?’ I told her, and she goes – ‘Here it is, you’ve got a BA with distinction. You’re in the honours list’.”
“I just didn’t realise it. I did not know. Nobody in my life had ever been to university. Nobody knew how this works.
“Even today, half the students I teach are first in family, and it’s still happening.
“They have no one to talk to. We don’t go home and go to a family member, ‘What happens when this happens?’ We don’t have those people, so that’s hard.”
‘She might be able to go onto higher education’
After graduation, Carlson went to work for the local Aboriginal Medical Service, managing its community service sector.
“I was probably one of the very first Indigenous managers who had a degree,” she says.
She had a chance meeting with the anthropologist Professor John Bern, who encouraged her to do an honours year and also organised a small scholarship for her.
She passed with First Class Honours. She recalls one of the examiners of her research project noting something like ‘If this candidate tries harder, she might be able to go onto higher education’.
“I think examiners can do better than that and should encourage students and especially Indigenous students”.
She then enrolled part-time for a PhD. She was uncertain about what would be the main theme of her thesis, but her interest in the politics of identity – “who gets to count as Aboriginal” – was growing.
At a summer school in Melbourne for Indigenous HDR students she met its convener Professor Marcia Langton. “That woman is a fine scholar. She is formidable,” she says.
“She inspired me, but she scared the shit out of me too. She is just magnificent. There’s no doubt that she is a great scholar. She inspired me”
She also met another contributor to the school, the “brilliant, just brilliant” Professor Martin Nakata, who inquired about the nature of her PhD work.
“I told him, and he was super excited, and he just got it, he just understood everything I wanted to say.”
This encounter resulted in Carlson moving to UTS to be supervised by Nakata. Later, when Nakata moved to UNSW, she went too and completed the PhD in 2012. Her co-supervisor Dr Colleen McGloin taught her a lot about Cultural Studies and continues to work with her.
The thesis eventually became a book – Politics of Identity: Who Counts as Aboriginal Today?, winner of the 2013 Stanner Award administered by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.
‘Never stay idle. Once you have something, think of what’s next’
Carlson took up a lecturing post at Wollongong University. Some time later she was encouraged by Professor Ian Buchanan to apply for an ARC Discovery Indigenous scheme research grant on a topic that fascinated her, the politics of identity online. Her application was successful and after conducting that research she looked for a new opportunity.
“Ian gave me good advice, saying ‘Never stay idle. Once you have something, think of what’s next.’
“He always told me that the professional life should tell a particular story, so that everything connects – don’t just go off on a tangent, make sure you have a story that can be told.”
She successfully applied for another Discovery grant for a large online project examining help seeking and help giving online – now in its final year.
During her time at Wollongong, Carlson also established the Forum for Indigenous Research Excellence (FIRE), an international interdisciplinary research network of scholars interested in Indigenous related research. FIRE is now located at Macquarie University and facilitated via the Department of Indigenous Studies.
Its focus, she says, is on “facilitating and fostering research with and for Indigenous communities, nationally and around the world with the aim of creating positive change”.
Carlson became Professor and Head of Department of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University in 2017. She worked on revamping the curriculum and recruited new staff.
“The students are starting to really flow in,” she says, and there are “growing numbers of PhD students”.
“We have a number of students who do Indigenous Studies as their sole major, and we also encourage people to do it as a double major with other disciplines such as history, sociology, or psychology.
“Indigenous Studies complements every single degree on campus. There is no degree or no area of study on campus that you could do, that wouldn’t be complemented by Indigenous Studies.”
‘We teach people how they can be part of the solution’
Most of the students, she says, are non-Indigenous but “we are getting growing numbers of Indigenous students, who like me want to know more about our big national story, not just a local one wherever they are.”
Macquarie’s Walanga Muru support centre also runs “fantastic programs” for Indigenous students, she adds.
Carlson says every degree can benefit from including Indigenous Studies.
“We really unpack Australian history to make sure it’s inclusive of plenty of perspectives. We teach people how to be really critical. We teach people how they can be part of the solution for a better future.”
Carlson says students can encounter “some really unproductive emotions” when engaged in Indigenous Studies.
“There’s no point just feeling bad, because that closes you down from understanding the true history in Australia. It immobilises you to think about anything, particularly if you’re a non-Indigenous student if you suddenly find out that you’re related to all these horrific events that happened, that your family might be on the perpetrators’ side.
“People can feel really bad about that, but it’s unproductive in this space. We would rather you understand the full history, but realise that you are a person who in 2019 can make change.
“We are trying to support people to be great allies, to understand the world in that way. They can use those skills as global citizens with other cultural groups as well.”
‘We teach them to be solid and informed citizens in the world’
Carlson says that feeling bad is not productive and neither is feeling mad.
“We get Indigenous students who feel so mad about this stuff, because for the first time they’re finding out the way in which their whole family’s been treated.
“But again, we teach them to be solid and informed citizens in the world, so that they can go forth and take positions that have some authority and maybe in power, make better decisions for the future.”
Feeling sad is also unproductive. “You get very good socially conscious people who feel just sad. But what we want them to be is well informed. They don’t have to take on guilt of the past to be informed.”
Carlson says that Macquarie, which sits on the lands of the Dharug people, is set to run a unit in second session “that is written by, and will be taught by, Dharug people”.
“We are on Dharug land and we say we recognise that, but how do we actually do that? Why isn’t there a unit that introduces students to Dharug thinking, Dharug knowledge?
“So, the university gave me a Learning and Teaching grant and I’ve worked with the Dharug community for over a year or so now, and we’re about to showcase the first offering, which is called ‘Dharug: Country: Presences, Places and People’ in second session 2019.
“There’s a lot of experiential learning where students go out to Dharug sites, to learn not just history, but also the contemporary situation for Dharug people. The project has been led by Dharug woman Dr Jo Rey and has involved working with several members of the Dharug community.”
Carlson says she believes universities need to invest more in Indigenous Studies.
“There is a real shortage of Indigenous scholars and we are expected to provide a lot including teaching, research, support for Indigenous students and for non-Indigenous students and staff who want to engage in Indigenous research and studies.
“I can guarantee that the Dharug unit will be a massive attraction to international and domestic students alike.”
‘Maintains a profile as a public intellectual’
“It’s about making my research and my findings accessible to everyone and including those outside of academia,” she says.
“It’s interesting, because I’ve been contacted by academics around the world who have read my op-eds but haven’t read my scholarly journal articles, so it’s a great way to be able to tell people about your research in a way that’s very readable.”
An op-ed she wrote several years ago debunking the myth that Indigenous people “get a free ride” is probably “one of the most shared articles on social media – I still get nasty emails from non-Indigenous people about it, who want to challenge the truth of the matter. Indigenous people do not get a free ride and it is something some non-Indigenous people struggle to understand.
“Even the other day, I got one saying – ‘You get everything for free. You probably got that job for free,’ all this sort of crap.
“I just always reply telling people to get themselves educated.”
Social media offers a new place of connection
Social media is of continuing and growing importance to Indigenous people, she says.
“Australia is a big place. So, social media has offered this new place of connection – a community place where people can actually reconnect, or remain connected.
“Not everyone stays in the same community they grew up in anymore, but they can stay involved in cultural and social events in their community. We’ve seen people use social media for cultural protocols such as funerals, language learning and family events for example.”
After the 1967 referendum, she says, oppressive rules regarding the containment of Indigenous people began to change and so many were then able to move off missions and reserves and move to the city for opportunity for paid work, or education.
“People moved about, they were trying to find family, finding their way back home, moving for work, moving for education, moving to escape racism.
“But now, people are using social media, using it to share, to keep those connections.
“Those people who were stolen under government policies have formed Facebook pages where they can reconnect with family, or reconnect with others who were in those institutions.”
The platform offers an accessible space where people can find out what’s going on and keep in touch with the community events and activities.
“We also see closed groups for language, where people are re-immersing themselves in their own languages and creating safe spaces.”
Why identity is important
In her book Politics of Identity: Who Counts as Aboriginal Today? Carlson explored the complexities surrounding Aboriginal identity today.
Why did she choose identity as a topic, and why is it so important?
“In this country over the last 200 years or so, there’s been a campaign to exterminate, breed out or ‘encourage’ the denial of Indigenous identities. This was to ensure that there would be no Indigenous people as part of the future of this country,” she says.
“We have had a white Australia policy in place from 1901 to the 1970s, then we had official policies of assimilation, where government agents would focus on those deemed ‘half-caste’ or less and use horrific means to rid the country of Aboriginal people.
“For Aboriginal people to be denied who you are all of your life, claiming an Aboriginal identity is a political statement.”
Identity for Indigenous people “is huge”, she says.
“If you think about all the people who were stolen, and there were other stories, where people couldn’t identify for safety reasons – some people identified as Māori, or Spanish, anything other than Aboriginal, as a survival strategy, to be able to make it out alive.
“We’ve moved into an era of self-determination, which is our right to self-determine who we are, and to claim our identity as Indigenous people.
“So, we get all these arguments like, ‘Was it your great grandparent, was it your this or that?’ No, no. I’m Aboriginal, my mother’s Aboriginal, my grandmother’s Aboriginal, and my great grandmother, and great, great, great whatever is Aboriginal.
“Often what people are referring to is colour. They might say, your great grandmother was black, but you’re not.
“But Aboriginality is not blackness. I’m Black/Blak, and that means is that I have ancestral roots that predate colonisation and have links to this country for 80,000 years or more.”
What is the debt that I owe?
An important question that Carlson frequently considers is – ‘What is the debt that I owe?’
She says she owes a great debt to all those Indigenous people who came before her, “who literally lost their lives to ensure that people like me could go to university”.
“Indigenous education units on campus, the support units, were all established because our ancestors fought to enable us to knock down the door to get in there. It wasn’t that long ago.
“We owe a debt. I repay that hopefully by ensuring that there is a pathway behind me open to everyone who wants to come in.
“My job now as a professor is to make sure that I provide opportunities, the same as others did for me.”
Her youngest son, she says, has enrolled at Macquarie University.
“This makes me very proud. It is exciting to see the start of our next generations going to university.”