Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson is one of Australia’s pre-eminent First Nations academics. Last week, she joined the ranks of history’s most prominent leaders when she was made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her membership makes her the first Indigenous scholar to be elected outside the US since the Academy’s founding in 1780.
Quandamooka First Nations Professor Moreton-Robinson, who is currently Indigenous Elder Scholar in Residence at RMIT University in Melbourne, was named among 38 other International Honorary Members on this year’s Newly Elected Members list.
She told Melbourne-based editor and writer Jack Latimore last week that she was “immensely grateful for the recognition membership brings and it is incumbent upon me to acknowledge that the intellectual labour of others contributes to the scholarship produced.”
“As an Australian Aboriginal woman, I am fortunate to follow in the footsteps of my Goenpul ancestors and I am indebted to my family and kin, my colleagues and students for all they have taught me,” Moreton-Robinson said.
Each year a team of judges from the Academy appraise over 1,300 nominations to elect roughly 250 members. Nancy C. Andrews, Chair of the Board of Directors and David W. Oxtoby, President of the Academy, announced the new inductees on April 23.
“These new members are united by a place in history and by an opportunity to shape the future through the Academy’s work to advance the public good,” Oxtoby said.
The Academy has elected more than 13,500 members in its 240-year history, including Margaret Mead, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein across five difference “classes” including the sciences, social sciences, humanities, arts, and business.
Other indigenous figures elected this year include include Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Joy Harjo, Muscogee (Creek) Nation Poet, Suzan Harjo, curator and policy advocate, and Kay Walkingstick – a Native American landscape artist and a member of the Cherokee Nation; making it the largest representation of Indigenous people elected to the society.
Professor Moreton-Robinson studied sociology at the Australian National University and has spent decades researching native title, whiteness, race and feminism.
Her seminal book Talkin’ Up to the White Woman was published in 1999 and was credited largely by author Ruby Hamad as the foundation of her research for her book “White Tears / Brown Scars”.
Her long and distinguished career included the publication of several other important works, including The White Possessive and Sovereign Subjects: Indigenous Sovereignty Matters.
Professor Moreton-Robinson was also the Founding President of the Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association, one of Australia’s leading academics in the area of critical race and whiteness studies.
At last year’s inaugural Broadside Festival in Melbourne, she appeared on a panel on decolonising feminism (she was the highlight of the festival for most people) where she challenged audiences to reassess their personal relationship to Indigenous sovereignty and our colonial history.
“If we really want to decolonise feminism, we need to “centre Mother Earth” and de-centre humans,” Moreton-Robinson said.
She was the most compelling speaker that day, suggesting we invent alternative theories of power, and possessive logics; “We need to get out of that possessiveness. We have to start being less possessive.”
“What would I do if I didn’t have any power?” she asked, looking out into the audience of thousands. “What would that feel like? If I didn’t feel better than you? What does it mean to be a different kind of human? A different kind of woman?”
I covered the event for Women’s Agenda, sitting among a mass of people (mostly women, mostly white) and felt something small explode inside me, and then felt the pieces slowly trickling down my body, like ash falling through sky. I wished I had had this earlier in my life; this education in learning “how to relinquish power,” and reflecting on all the ways I’d hurt others, and been hurt by others in our hunger to gain more power over each other.
It’s coming up to the 20th anniversary of Moreton-Robinson’s book Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, the first published work in Australia to engage in feminism from an Indigenous woman’s perspective.
Last December, Professor Moreton-Robinson spoke to David Rutledge on RN’s The Philosopher’s Zone, where she discussed race, power and colonialism’s impact on Indigenous people and their forms of knowledge.
“We have to fundamentally learn to tolerate your difference,” she said. “We have become quite expert about it. But white Australia doesn’t have to really understand our difference. That’s the way that power operates in this society.”
“Whiteness is an invisibility. Whiteness has blackness as its opposition. Whiteness has never seen itself as radicalised, because those who racialise aren’t in power, it can invisibilize itself.”
Plans are in place for a ceremony in October in Cambridge, Massachusetts to induct the new members of the Academy.