Emma Kowal explores the  anthropology of genomics

Interviewer: Courtney Boag
Images: Emma Kowal 

20 August, 2022

“I think in the discipline of anthropology, we become pretty good at carrying baggage. I consider myself to be someone that's kind of attracted to baggage, I’m not afraid of baggage because we all carry it. I think the idea of ‘checking your privilege’ is really useful shorthand to be aware of that baggage and how it influences behaviour.”

Emma Kowal

Emma Kowal is an Australian cultural and medical anthropologist, physician and Professor of Anthropology in the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University. Emma began her career in Darwin at the Royal Darwin Hospital where she worked in Aboriginal health as a doctor and public health researcher. It was during her time in Darwin that Emma decided to begin her PhD research on understanding how funding for Aboriginal health was being implemented. She became interested in understanding the role that “white anti-racists” (a term Emma coined to describe “well-meaning” white health workers) played in delivering health services to Aboriginal communities. Her book, Trapped in the Gap: Doing Good in Indigenous Australia published in 2015 provides a snap shot into the complexities of “what happens when well-meaning people, supported by the state, attempt to help without harming”. Emma argues that “White anti-racists find themselves trapped by endless ambiguities, contradictions, and double binds — a microcosm of the broader dilemmas of postcolonial societies”. Her book aimed to explain “why doing good is so hard, and how it could be done differently.”

Since then, Emma has been actively involved in conducting research on the ethical use and management of genetics in Indigenous Australian communities. This research has led to the formation of the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics at the Australian National University where Emma is Deputy Director. I caught up with Emma to discuss her earlier work in Darwin; the complexities of living in a post-colonial society, and how anthropology can play an important role in science and medical studies.

Emma, you began your career as a physician before becoming an anthropologist. What inspired you to make the change?

Well, I really did both at once, so I've always had a foot in the sciences and in the humanities and social sciences. So, I finished school when I was 17 and I was good at science, and a girl that is good at science does Medicine, right? That was kind of the way I thought about things, you know, I wanted to do it so I should. But I also really loved literature and when I went and did medicine in first year, I really missed literature. So, I picked up 20th century literature A and B as subjects in second year medicine and I realised that I really wanted to do more Arts subjects. I think from then on it was really clear to me that medicine was about learning how to think a certain way and how to think algorithmically in order to figure out what is wrong with this patient, you know, how can I help them? But with Arts, it was more about creative thought, and I really wanted both of those things. So, I basically made up a combined degree for myself, I did Medicine and Arts. It became quite a mammoth eight-year undergraduate degree with a year of Honors at the end, focusing on what turned out to be a Medical Anthropology thesis.

That's a huge commitment there. Amazing work. I understand that your text Trapped in the Gap; doing good in Indigenous Australia came about from your PhD research while you were working in a remote Aboriginal community. You explain that the book “explores what happens when well-meaning people, supported by the state, attempt to help [Aboriginal people] without harming” them. Rather than focusing your lens on Aboriginal people, as is often done in Australian anthropology, you shift the focus onto these ‘well-meaning’ health workers, and you use the term ‘White anti-racists’ to describe them. Firstly, can you describe why you wanted to focus your research from this perspective and what you mean by ‘White anti-racist’?

It's the term that I came up with. Ideally you would use a self-identified term for describing the group of people you work with – something that they feel comfortable identifying with. If there was a self-identified term for the group that I was working with, it was probably ‘non-indigenous’ or, more recently, ‘settler Australian’. It's a very specific group of white people or non-indigenous people who would actually claim to be non-indigenous, it's still a very classed term I think, it's still so political. So, that's why I came up with this term ‘white anti-racist’ because it was kind of, I suppose, a compromise. It's a term that's used internationally in critical race theory and whiteness studies. So, it spoke to the international literature that I wanted to be talking to. Whiteness studies was something that was important to me at the time when I was developing the project and doing my PhD, which I still think is really important but, you know, I think it was going through its renaissance in the early 2000s. To use the term ‘white’ was important to me as well, and when we speak of white, we are more thinking of it as being the dominant culture and not necessarily the color of one’s skin – so not all of the ‘white anti-racists’ I was speaking to actually had white skin, but they rather identified and were comfortably situated in the dominant culture.

So, I took that perspective because when I was at university, I was an activist. I came into activism initially around East Timor (this was before independence in 1999) and I was involved in a lot of feminist activism as well. I came to Indigenous solidarity activism in the mid to late 90s as I saw it as being something important for me to be putting my energy into as a white Australian. Now I would say ‘settler Australian’ but people weren’t really using that term back then. So, at Melbourne University, I was part of a group that set up the campus Indigenous solidarity group and Gary Foley was one of our mentors, who is still such a legendary activist in Melbourne. I remember he used to say, “don't worry about us Aboriginal people, you just look after your own mob and address issues of white racism”. That really resonated with me, and I really took those words to heart. I had wanted to work with Aboriginal people, particularly in Aboriginal health, so after I finished my medical degree, I moved into my internship at the Royal Darwin Hospital and began working in the Northern Territory.

I was on a trajectory of trying to do the most good. So, I went from working in clinical medicine to working in public health because for me, that was where you prevent illness which is better  than just treating it. Then I came to this point while working in Indigenous public health research and I was really trying to figure out what was next for me in terms of my studies. At the time, I was a part of this social group of white left-wing people who had all travelled up to Darwin with the same intention to help Aboriginal people through the principles of ‘self-determination’ and I remember waking up in the middle of the night thinking, “I'll do my PhD on this group of people”. This just seemed like a very interesting anthropological project.

I wanted to study this group of ‘white anti-racists’ because I felt that this group embodied where the promises of what you might call post-colonial justice, decolonisation or ‘closing the gap’ of inequality are playing out. This was where the rubber hits the road, and I was interested to know more about how funding for Aboriginal health was actually being implemented. And while it is an important goal to have exclusively Indigenous people working in Indigenous communities, the reality then and now is that white anti-racists make an important contribution to the workforce. And, following Gary Foley, this was a group I felt I had both the ability and the responsibility to focus on. I was interested to know why certain areas of Aboriginal health weren’t getting better and I wanted to know why money wasn’t reaching the right places. That's where I thought anthropological knowledge could contribute to understanding this picture a bit more. At that point, I'd worked for a few years in Aboriginal health, and I could see that there was a lot of frustration and burnout that was felt among the workers, in this case the ‘white anti-racists’, that I was working with.

An easy and perhaps a bit of a derogatory diagnosis you might make about those people who were feeling burnt out and frustrated is that they are actually just really racist underneath, and they weren't sufficiently prepared for the work. But I was more interested in how there might be other things going on and maybe the experiences of these people can actually tell us about the deeper tensions of the effort to create a more just society in a settler colony like Australia.

So, you explain that these ‘White anti-racists’ who are working in Aboriginal affairs often “find themselves trapped by endless ambiguities, contradictions, and double binds — a microcosm of the broader dilemmas of postcolonial societies”. What are some of these ambiguities, contradictions, and double binds that your research brought to light?  

Well, a big one is the topic of Indigenous difference and what kind of difference that is. So, in trying to achieve equality we emotionally or politically don't want to be like our predecessors in the past, people we see as assimilationists, racists, and missionaries. We don't want to be making Indigenous people white. We want what makes people ‘Aboriginal’ to be retained in whatever changes they make, so in my work that might be dietary changes for improving health or it could be building up a business and becoming economically independent or going to university or whatever it is. White anti-racists want Indigenous people to have a healthier diet, higher incomes and better education, but not to become any less ‘Indigenous’ while they are doing that. But, at the same time, the differences that contribute to someone’s Indigeneity may mean that some Aboriginal people may not actually want to eat healthy food, or they actually don't particularly care about holding down a job and having a steady income and climbing the class ladder. So, if the differences reflect the fact that some Aboriginal people don't have the same life goals to the average Western individualist person, it becomes a real paradox because it means that society may cast aspersions onto Indigenous people with sentiments like “maybe they just don't want to get better” or “maybe they're actually happy on welfare”. White anti-racists don’t want to be associated with these sorts of aspersions of what I call “radical difference” and “alterity”, because 1) they position Indigenous people as morally lacking and 2) they position white anti-racists as assimilationists who seek to ‘improve’ and ultimately erase those differences.

So, there's this really complex moral calculus and almost a moral puzzle where white anti-racists have to support Indigenous difference in a particular way that preserves the moral integrity of Indigenous people as being different, but not so different that they don't want the same things as we all supposedly want. I call this ‘remediable difference’ in the book. So that's really the central paradox that I found in my research.

The point of identifying this is not to say, “oh I've figured out this paradox, isn’t this interesting” but rather to highlight how white anti-racists - when trying to improve Indigenous health or whatever other aspect of inequality they're trying to address – are actually maintaining this particular idea of Indigenous difference in order to maintain their own moral integrity and the moral integrity of the people they're trying to help. However, this goal of solving or managing this moral puzzle is a different goal than the goal of improving nutrition or whatever it is that they are actually employed to do. So, if you're putting a lot of energy into a goal that's different from the goal that you’re employed to do, then perhaps the project you’re employed to work on may not work.

From your research Emma, did you come to see any ways in which ‘white anti-racists’ could assist in ‘closing the gap’ of inequality while also helping to support Indigenous difference?

At the time I was doing this research, Noel Pearson was involved in a lot of reform in Cape York in northern Australia and his ideas, which were based around this concept of “mutual responsibility”, became quite controversial. This notion of mutual responsibility drew from the quite toxic discourse around “cultures of poverty”. So, on the one hand, we heard discourse like, “Indigenous people can't be just given welfare” and ‘they can’t just live on the dole’ but on the other hand we heard people saying things like, ‘we need to support outstations’ and “we need to support schools in people’s traditional countries rather than in major towns and cities”. We had these competing discourses. I think for a lot of people, maybe particularly in the 2000s, there was this sense that people had to decide which side of the political fence they were on. On one side was people who former Indigenous Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone would call the “cultural museum” types who are trying to be the good guys by supporting Aboriginal difference but who would deny Aboriginal kids a mainstream education. The other side was labelled as being neoliberal subjects who support the displacement of Aboriginal kids from their communities into boarding schools – facilitating a “new stolen generation”. So, I’ve tried to critique the characterisation of both of these positions and to argue instead that this is a tension. It's a tension inherent to any settler colony when we've got a colonising power trying to help an Indigenous minority, but we don't have to choose a side. We just can say that this is a tension that's going to saturate every attempt to help Indigenous people, but I don’t have to choose.

I think for people who are working for Aboriginal organisations (rather than government), it's maybe a bit simpler because they're being told to do the job and they do the best they can. But they've got a choice to do the job or leave the job. I think like, say for those working in government or those wanting to do research, I think just being aware of that tension is an important first step. I think that if you are a non-indigenous person or settler person you carry a lot of baggage. But I think in the discipline of anthropology, we become pretty good at carrying baggage. I consider myself to be someone that's kind of attracted to baggage, I’m not afraid of baggage because we all carry it. I think the idea of “checking your privilege” is really useful shorthand to be aware of that baggage and how it influences behaviour. I'm really glad that this has become a common phrase and something to think about, because I think probably, hopefully all anthropologists, but definitely those working in Aboriginal spheres, have had to do that for a long time.

Emma with research collaborators at Cherbourg community, 2015
Emma with workshop organiser and participants at the Summer Internship for Indigenous Genomics, Adelaide, 2022.

In your research, you challenge people to consider whether there could ever be a bridge between racial dichotomies that would see us create new languages around our identity and while, not ignoring cultural difference, these new languages could see people operating in a postcolonial society in a more harmonious way. What challenges and opportunities do you see for this?

I mean, it’s context dependent right. In some contexts, it's really important to acknowledge that anyone who is not a descendant of an Aboriginal person and who doesn’t identify as being an Aboriginal person is a settler. Whether you're a refugee who just arrived in Australia or whether you are the descendant of a convict or whether you’re like me and you’re a descendant of people who were impacted by World War II, in my case, a descendant of Polish Holocaust survivors. We're all very differently placed as settlers and in some contexts this nuance is really important and, in another contexts, it's meaningless. My colleague at Deakin Laura Rodriguez Castro is working on a project which is exploring the shared difficult history between Latin American migrants and Aboriginal people. We've also seen in recent years these relationships of solidarity between Aboriginal people and Palestinian activists, and this has been really interesting. So there are solidarities that trouble the settler-Indigenous divide.

I don't want to be seen as a post-racial person just saying, “well, we just all have to get over it and just all be human”. I don't think that at all. But I wanted to put the question out there I suppose: can we be honest about the tensions inherent to identifying as a racialised minority and are there any alternatives available to those people and to society? Since I did my PhD and then after I wrote the book Trapped in the Gap, I think it's actually become less and less possible to even imagine this.

However, from another perspective, part of my work recently has been focused on genetics and biological knowledge about Indigenous people, which I came to because it was controversial and problematic - all the things I find really interesting to take on as a challenge. So, a lot of people who have grown up as settler Australians are increasingly discovering that they have Indigenous ancestry in their family, whether that discovery is made through documentation or through genetic tests which have just only recently become available to the public. This has raised a lot of questions. So, part of my work in the last decade has been to look at Aboriginal identity and to look at how genetics and biotechnology present certain challenges to what we understand as being “Aboriginal identity”.

What role do you think science and technology have to play in anthropological studies? Particularly with regards to the social topics we’ve discussed.

Well, I identify equally these days with both anthropology and Science and Technology Studies (STS), and STS really involves a broad cohort of humanities and social science researchers who are studying science and technology as a social phenomenon. My first book Trapped in the Gap was more of an institutional ethnography and while I was starting to engage with STS, I was more involved in critical race theory and postcolonial studies and Indigenous studies. Since then, I've wanted to engage more with STS to understand how scientific knowledge is being deployed and how it intersects with issues of race, cultural difference and indigeneity.

In the last decade my research has kind of come to be grounded or anchored in this concept of “Indigenous DNA” and questioning, you know, what actually is “Indigenous DNA”? But in using this question as the anchor, I've looked at ancient DNA samples collected from people and from non-human remains to try and understand population histories, like for example, how Aboriginal people came into Australia and spread around Australia. So, I’m interested to explore these areas as an anthropologist, not as a scientist, and to try and understand how that knowledge is made.

I've also begun researching “direct-to-consumer genetic testing” so I’ve been looking at the emergence of trends where people can now take their own DNA samples and have those tested in order to understand their own ancestry. I’ve also been involved in projects about epigenetics, which is another emerging field that has actually been widely embraced by Indigenous people because it's seen as a biological explanation of transgenerational trauma. Finally I've also been involved with precision medicine, so helping to bring genomics into medicine and I’ve been involved in efforts to make sure Indigenous people don't miss out on opportunities that may stem from these programs. These sorts of programs involve all sorts of paradoxes and contradictions when you consider the efforts that many progressive movements have made to argue that being Aboriginal is not biological and that there's no “genes for Aboriginality”. And now a group of scientists led by Indigenous researchers are working on an Aboriginal reference genome. So, it's a really interesting time and space to be working in.

You’ve mentioned before that “making knowledge is a morally risky exercise. No matter who you're making knowledge about or what the topic is, knowledge-making matters to people”. So, I wanted to ask you Emma, what do you hope people can take away from your research?

My central point is that making knowledge about other people, especially people from marginalised groups, is a huge responsibility. Whether it’s measuring someone's blood sugar or recording a creation story or talking to people about their experiences of colonial violence. Whatever it is, recording or producing knowledge about someone or about a group of people is a massive responsibility. I think that's something that anthropologists should be aware of, particularly anthropologists working in Indigenous worlds. I think working in Indigenous anthropology or different aspects of Indigenous affairs, it's not for everyone, you’re going to experience a great deal of scrutiny over your motivations and agendas, but I don’t think that is a bad thing.

Interested to learn more about Emma’s research? Follow her work here

Listen to Emma discuss her research via The Familiar Strange and here.

Read a recent interview with Emma where speaks about her process of writing throughout Covid-19 lockdowns here.

Follow Emma via @profemmakowal

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