The proximate advocate: improving indigenous health on the postcolonial frontier
AuthorKOWAL, EMMA ESTHER
AffiliationArts: Centre for the Study of Health and Society
Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences: Public Health
Centre for Health and Society
Document TypePhD thesis
CitationsKowal, E. E. (2006). The proximate advocate: improving indigenous health on the postcolonial frontier. PhD thesis, Department of Public Health, University of Melbourne.
Access StatusOpen Access
Deposited with permission of the author. © 2006 Dr. Emma Esther Kowal
This thesis presents an ethnography of white researchers who work at the Darwin Institute of Indigenous Health Research. This group of ‘proximate advocates’ is made up of predominantly middle-class, educated and antiracist white health professionals. Their decision to move from more populated areas to the north of Australia, where Indigenous disadvantage is most pronounced, is motivated by the hope of enacting postcolonial justice so long denied to the nation’s first peoples. This ethnography thus contributes to the anthropology of postcolonial forms, and specifically benevolent forms. The Darwin Institute of Indigenous Health Research is an example of a postcolonial space where there is an attempt to invert colonial power relations: that is, to acknowledge the effects of colonisation on Indigenous people and remedy them. The thesis begins with an account of suburban life in contemporary Darwin focused on the figure of the ‘longgrasser’ who threatens to create disorder at my local shops. This is an example of the postcolonial frontier, the place where antiracist white people encounter radically-different Indigenous people. Part 1 develops a conceptual model for understanding the process of mutual recognition that creates the subjectivities of Indigenous people and of white antiracists. Drawing on critiques of liberalism and postcolonial theory, in Part 2 I describe the knowledge system dominant in Indigenous health discourse, postcolonial logic. It is postcolonial logic that prescribes how white antiracists should assist Indigenous people by furthering Indigenous self-determination. I argue that postcolonial logic can be understood as the junction of remedialism (a form of liberalism) and orientalism. The melding of these two concepts produces remediable difference: a difference that can be brought into the norm. In Part 3 I describe how white researchers at the Institute experience radical difference, or at least its possibility. These experiences challenge the concept of remediable difference. If Indigenous people are not remediably different, but radically different, the process of mutual recognition breaks down, and the viability of a white antiracist subjectivity is called into question. The ensuing breakdown of postcolonial logic threatens to expose white antiracists as no different from their assimilationist predecessors. Part 4 explores the underlying dilemmas of the postcolony that are revealed when postcolonial logic unravels. The dilemma of historical continuity emerges when the discursive techniques that enact historical discontinuity between postcolonisers and their predecessors break down. The dilemma of social improvement is the possibility that the practices of the self-determination era not only resemble assimilation, but are assimilation. It is the possibility that any attempts to extend the benefits of modernity enjoyed by non-Indigenous Australia to Indigenous people will erode their cultural distinctiveness. The postcolonial condition is the experience of living with these aporias. In the conclusion, I consider the implications of my argument for the current Australian political context, for the project of liberal multiculturalism, and for the broader problem of power and difference. I look to friendship as a deceptively simple, perhaps implausible, and yet powerful trope that can relieve the postcolonial condition and offer hope for peaceful coexistence in the postcolony.
KeywordsIndigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander; postcolonialism whiteness studies; public health research; non-Indigenous people; cultural politics; race relations; anthropology
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