28th September 2020

Intersectional Stigmas and the Birth of the Mongrel Researcher

By DrMJLock

The Mongrel Researcher is born from the practices of stigmatisation where psychological battering tactics are used to kick me down like a bloody mongrel dog. In Australia, a mongrel is a dog of mixed breeds (races) and whose behaviour is different to pure breed dogs. Mongrel is a term of endearment or a term of derision. Mongrels are fringe dogs and never accepted to be part of the “normal” pack. The stigmatisation practices associated with my “labels” fit the acronym WARMS: White, Aboriginal, Researcher, and Male.

This personal reflective article is a summation of experiences that I am subjected to in my journey developing a research career in Australian Aboriginal health research. Through this article, and as the Mongrel Researcher, it is my intention to challenge the WARMS that are ascribed to me by those who seek to position themselves as superior through their routine acts of stigmatising.

I wish you were a real black…

The first stigma is whiteness – fair skin, blue eyes, and educated. Having identified as being First Nations I am challenged by non-First Nations people with: How much Aboriginal blood in you? You don’t look very Aboriginal! You’re not obviously Aboriginal, what percentage are you? Oh, you’re not very Aboriginal then. Have you spent some time ‘up north’ with the traditional blacks?

The oppression of white stigma on my soul is worst when exercised by First Nations people. My Nan (Stolen Generations) said to me, when I saw her in the late 1990s, that she wished that I looked like the “real blacks” in the Territory. Thanks Nan, whose mother was raped by the local British pastoralist (my anonymous great grandfather). I have read elsewhere that the offspring of such encounters were seen as shameful to the white pastoralist and unwanted by First Nations people. Therefore, I am the lowest class – yes, a mongrel – of a First Nations man and treated as such.

Real blackfullas are being bred out…

In 2020, in a meeting with four dark skinned First Nations colleagues in an organisation committed to education against forms of violence towards First Nations people, one of the trainers spoke passionately about his despair at the racist treatment by white people towards blackfullas. In his speech he vituperated in an emphatic voice about “protecting real blackfullas” then gestured to me and lamented “we are being bred out”. Stigmatised. Got it. Thanks Uncle for educating me about lateral violence. The discriminatory treatment of mongrels is an Australian social norm.

By First Nations people, I am challenged to ‘explain my mob’ my kinship, connections, and provide my proof of Aboriginality certificate. My fair skin is used against me by First Nations people who proclaim “blackness” of skin colour as the definition of being Aboriginal. This is also a belief referred to by non-First Nations people. For example, numerous times as a student dietitian in Melbourne I was scoffed at by the Deakin Dietitians Sect who had worked with the “real Aborigines in the Territory”. I am not ‘really Aboriginal’ to both First Nations and non-First Nations people.

Scornful contempt at fair skin colour…

At a conference in 2005 I explained by research to a Melbourne university black First Nations professor who looked at me with disdain “I’m so tired of white people researching us blacks!” And left without apologising – head cocked in the air – when I explained my identity. She was from “the Territory” but living in metropolitan Melbourne and the head of a school of Indigenous studies at a university.

At a national meeting of First Nations community health leaders, a renowned black woman (public administrator) did not hide her scornful contempt at my fair skin. As if it was my choice to have my skin. If a book is judged by its cover then I’m judged as white. In writing, non-First Nations people (also non-Indigenous, whites, gubbas, or whitefullas) are positioned as the colonial oppressors of First Nations people. It’s like this: I am blamed for oppressing myself and I am positioned as the colonial oppressor of my First Nations ancestors.

The Aboriginal Stigma

Aboriginal stigma is well acknowledged in what is called “deficit discourse” where First Nations people are positioned as inferior to non-First Nations people. Newspapers, scientific writing, political speeches and Australian social commentary are routinely laced with First Nations people as “a problem” who must be saved by non-First Nations people.

At a Newcastle medical research institute, a male Oxford trained medical professor boasted about his Order of Australia which, he smiled, was partly awarded on his work with pregnant First Nations women. Through that transaction I became aware of a competition where non-First Nations professors strive to “get” a grant for First Nations research as another point towards receiving an Order of Australia.

If only you were a white medical professor

In 2017 I was rejected by the National Health & Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) for my social science research on the social determinants of Aboriginal health. I had spent 10 years developing my line of research, had received and Australian Research Council Discovery Indigenous award, and was published. Not good enough. A non-First Nations medical professor scoffed at the ‘social networks’ then said, “get rid of the social networks and it would be a better grant”. Right, as if health isn’t a social construct and relationships aren’t important for health.

In that same year (2017) an English medical doctor wrote a grant application about the deficits of smoking in First Nations women. A recent immigrant and no history of working with First Nations people. Awarded two NH&MRC grants to conduct research on First Nations people. Received numerous awards and further grants for her innovative research (insert: “saving the blacks”). Also in that year of 2017, 15 of the 17 grants for First Nations research were awarded to non-First Nations professors. Message: I had to be a non-First Nations professor to be awarded First Nations research funding, not necessarily Australian, and preferably an English/Oxford medical doctor.

The Male Stigma

The male stigma is prevalent in the discourse of sexual, family and domestic violence. Men are a problem, are intimidating, are predators, are violent, are abusive, and need prison. It is made very clear to me that I should be ashamed of being a man. I agree at times, harking back to my fair skin First Nations Mum being raped by a black man, recalling my First Nations Uncles leering at women and abusing their nieces and nephews. Awful memories that spur my conscience into being a decent male. I do not have a good relationship with men which means ‘myself’. Male stigma, yep, have that.

In a medical research organisation in Newcastle a formal complaint was made against me for being intimidating. Why? My sports t-shirt, worn when taking a lunch time walk, was judged as too tight by a colleague! A professor counselled me to not look so fit and muscular by wearing different clothes and adjusting my posture to sag my shoulders and stoop my back. Got it, try not to be a fit male.

The Research Stigma

Research is a dirty word for many First Nations People in Australia due to researchers being unethical, immoral, and agents of colonisation. I remember when a Melbourne university non-First Nations researcher sent her research assistant to interview a dying First Nations man: I was advised to be quiet about it to the ethics committee (she was my boss and it was my first research job). A deliberate immoral decision by a non-First Nations researcher, now professor, with a track record of research with First Nations people.

In my research practice in NSW I am challenged by ethics committees about my whiteness (blackfullas have been researched to death, don’t you know), blackness (you can hide in your white skin, but your research has to benefit blackfullas), and education (your work needs to benefit Aboriginal community members on the ground level). Another stigma to add to the mix!

The Birth of the Mongrel Researcher

What to do with my White Aboriginal Research Male stigmas (WARMS)? Call Lifeline? Confer with my colleagues? Seek counselling? No one has answers. They say: grin and bear it, happens to many people, get on with your work and don’t think about yourself, don’t be a whinger, you’ll be right after a good sleep. Yep, I’ll figure it out in my dreaming. My response? This mongrel is biting back with critical philosophy, empirical research, and hard discussions about cultural safety.

I challenge the Aboriginal (blackfulla) and non-Aboriginal (whitefulla) arguments because they are disrespectful to me when I am descended from many nationalities. I know that males do have good values and morals and ethics about family: I model good male behaviour. And as a researcher I make a valuable contribution to the social life of First Nations Australians. This mongrel researcher has a unique view of the world, is able to see things that the normal pack are blind to, and is strong with cultural power.

Mark with the family dogs. Photo by Stephen Houston, 2020.