The Whiteness of Studying and Teaching the Asia-Pacific in Australia

In 2016, you really have to admire the confidence, audacity even, of a leading Department of International Relations based in one of Australia’s better universities to organise a conference panel to discuss “The Ethics of Scholarship in a Changing Region: Studying and Teaching the Asia-Pacific” and fill it with all white/European/Western speakers. The seemingly absence of self-reflection in the ethics of the composition of this panel in discussing this particular topic is mind-boggling. Would the organisers have been similarly brazen in filling a panel to discuss “The Ethics of Scholarship in a Changing World: Studying and Teaching the Politics of Gender” with all male speakers…?!

The conference in question is the Oceanic Conference on International Studies (OCIS), a biannual Australian academic conference on international studies/relations which is this year hosted and organised by the School of Political Science and International Studies at The University of Queensland. The panel on “Studying and Teaching the Asia-Pacific” is scheduled to take place on the second day of the conference and will feature the following scholars who teach and conduct research in the discipline of International Relations (a draft copy of the conference programme can be accessed here):

It is probably safe to assume that the convenor of the panel made an attempt to ensure gender balance in the line-up of speakers, but sadly it appears that is as far as they got where diversity is concerned. That they went to the trouble to include an academic based in a university outside of Australia, but one in the UK and not the Asia-Pacific, is puzzling… and disappointing.

In light of current understanding and wide acceptance of the importance and desirability of representation and diversity – argumentative turns that are widely accepted in Australia by champions of gender-equality – one has to ask how the composition of such a panel could have passed muster, especially with such learned gatekeepers. That this panel would have been conceived and convened by an academic of international relations/studies makes this even more astounding. For this to happen so soon after an outcry over a similar situation at the International Studies Association’s 2015 annual convention – the peak annual conference at the international level for all academics working in the area of international relations/studies, which is attended by many of OCIS’ participants and organisers  – suggests a certain deafness, or indifference, on the part of the organisers.

Is there no pool of non-white/European/Western academics teaching International Relations in Australia from which they could have drawn potential speakers? Do departments of International Relations in Australia suffer from such a lack of diversity (a close investigation of the demographics of the faculty staff of these departments, and a comparison of the results with the demographics of their student body and of the society in which they reside, would, I strongly suspect, produce interesting observations)?

Since, the convenor was able to include a speaker from outside of Australia, why is it that the invitation went to another white/European/Western academic based in a European/Western university, rather than an academic based in a university in the Asia-Pacific, which would have been more appropriate given the topic?

If I did not know any better, I would have thought that we were still living in the colonial era, where the only ideas that had any value were those that came from white/European/Western people and that they were the only ones entitled to a platform on which to speak.

IF we truly believe that the world is changing, and that we are living in an “Asian century”, AND if we truly believe that different people bring a different perspective to issues by virtue of their identity, AND if we truly believe in the value and importance of diversity and representation, then we ought to reject such a situation and do something about racial blindness and deafness by expanding our understanding and practice of diversity in academia, in the workplace and in the wider society.


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