Tertiary studies enable “understanding of Aboriginality” for inaugural HASS Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Scholar

Studying the Humanities allows you to carve out the space to not only contemplate the big questions, but to engage with them critically in a diverse group setting.

Darby Jones

Growing up as a gay Indigenous boy in rural Queensland, Darby Jones often felt constrained. While accounts of prejudice and misunderstanding shaped a desire to pursue tertiary studies in the city; intimidated by campus life, a decadelong hairdressing career ensued. Now twenty-eight and pursuing a Bachelor of Arts, the inaugural HASS Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Scholar says he is finally embracing his Aboriginality.

Drive six-hours, 500km due west from Brisbane, and you will find St George – a quiet locality of just over 2,000 residents. Perched along the Balonne River, an abundance of yellow-belly and Murray cod sustain fishing expeditions. Cotton cultivation similarly upkeeps farming.

To its name today, St George boasts historic pubs, Queensland’s most western vineyard and enviable annual events. History, rather, demands words of conflict and dispossession relating to the Mandandanji and Kamilaroi Aboriginal people. It was here that Native Police waged a bloody campaign to suppress Aboriginal resistance to a permanent pastoral occupancy between 1842-52. Where Aboriginal people were forcibly moved to fringe camps, significantly impacting their health and welfare in the years following. Where approximately 40 Aboriginal people lost their lives.

Operating within this backdrop, Darby inhabited a childhood where he was never quite straight enough to fit in with his school peers. On the other hand, he felt too white for his Indigenous roots.

“As a member of so many identity groups, I always felt that the city [Brisbane] would give me the opportunity to find my community,” Darby reflects.

“While I had a very positive high school experience and great friends, there was always an undercurrent of prejudice, particularly relating to my sexuality.”

Recent reports from the Australian Human Rights Commission suggest that brotherboys, sistergirls (also spelt Sista Girls, Brotha Boys) and other LGBT Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are among some of the most discriminated and marginalised individuals within Australia. Facing adverse experiences of racism, homophobia, and transphobia; regional or rural locations, only amplify these issues.

While Darby speaks positively of his upbringing in St George, feeling genuinely supported by the community, he wonders if this was almost a product of subsuming another persona by suppressing his Aboriginal identity.

“For much of my childhood, I experienced this fragmentation of identity and felt particularly disconnected from my Aboriginal culture,” he notes.

“I didn’t feel black enough to engage with or even embrace my culture.”

Yet, Darby’s experiences, struggling to reconcile his identity are, unfortunately, by no means unique. Cases where, for example, Andrew Bolt questioned the claims to Aboriginality of several high-profile light-skinned Aboriginal people, continue to be raised by the settler colonial society. Assuming a superficial view of Australian Aboriginal identity; these perceptions of colour or general appearance threaten to override Indigenous peoples ability to connect with the Aboriginal cultural worldviews underpinning family, kinship, relatedness and connectedness.

Invariably a colonial legacy, of which Darby also recognises; stolen generations consistently face challenges to identity, authenticity and legitimacy. Here, Indigenous author and University of Queensland (UQ) academic, Anita Heiss, put it best in her 2012 book, Am I Black Enough For You?, when she wrote: The Australian media have discovered a new crime, to charge them with: being too “fair skinned” to be Aboriginal.

It was this sentiment that led – and inspired – Darby to pursue studies in Brisbane straight out of high school; fronted as an opportunity to “work out who I am.” Within the farming community of St George, he would meet individuals from all cultural backgrounds, completing seasonal travel. Intrigued by this array of figures, Darby enrolled in a Bachelor of International Studies.

However, upon locating to St Lucia, campus life felt too big, too daunting. The sandstone buildings, while an inspiring setting for many, conjured images of elitism and inadequacy. Darby, struggling to reconcile feelings of hopelessness, took up a hairdressing apprenticeship. After staying in the industry for an entire decade, university was presumed a forgone opportunity.

In Australia, “first in family” or low socioeconomic (SES) students, when compared to those with university-educated parents, are much less likely to aspire to university. Many rule out the idea of higher education from an early age. And even still, if they get to university, like Darby, they can find campus too overwhelming and daunting.

Despite working his way up, eventually responsible for training emerging stylists in colour theory and technique at his salon, Darby still felt something was missing. “I talked myself out of it,” he recalls. Eventually, he confided in a client – now a dear friend – whose mentorship gave him the belief he needed: “It is still something you can do, Darby.”

With this much-need encouragement, in 2020 Darby decided to enrol in his Bachelor of Arts, having always identified as a creative writer throughout his hairdressing career. Now studying a mixture of Anthropology, English Literature and Writing, Darby says he is experiencing greater clarity through his studies.

“Having always identified as a bit of an outsider, anthropology allows everyone to belong. Studying the discipline feels like putting on glasses for the first time.”

Speaking more broadly about the value of his HASS degree, Darby reveals, “Through my studies, I am developing a rich and complex understanding of the world around me and equipping myself with the technical skills to engage with it in a meaningful way.”

“I believe that is what the Humanities and Social Sciences represent – expansion through understanding. HASS allows you to carve out the space to not only contemplate the big questions, but to engage with them critically in a diverse group setting.”

It is this sentiment that led Darby to be recognised as the HASS Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Scholar. Kickstarted by a generous gift from HASS Executive Dean, Professor Heather Zwicker, over 60 donors – a mixture of academics, professional staff and members of the community – followed to pledge their support.

With the highest number of enrolled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students across UQ, the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences hopes this Scholarship will help alleviate systemic barriers to tertiary education. As funds increase, so will the number and size of scholarships on offer, in turn aiming to diversify the voices that make up the Faculty’s discipline areas.

Reflecting on this recent achievement, while acknowledging that the money will enable greater devotion to his studies, Darby notes that the HASS Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Scholarship transcends the financial. It is now a driving force.

“I want to pursue a career in academia,” he explains, “as I am witnessing firsthand the resounding and positive impact that great educators can have on people’s lives.”

“If I could find a way to create my own legacy that positively influences the lives of others – to recreate what I’m currently experiencing at UQ – that would be wonderful.”

Coupled with these ambitions, Darby plans to give back to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Unit, in recognition of the “fantastic tutors who have helped me succeed.”

“I am gaining a deeper understanding and awareness of my identity – enabling me to confidently step into my power.”

“To those who have supported me, and opened the door to this academic world, thank you.”

To ensure future Indigenous students like Darby have the resources needed to pursue their HASS degree, you can support the HASS Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Scholarship. Or, to explore scholarship opportunities, please visit UQ Scholarships.

 

Qualifications

Bachelor of Arts (Anthropology, English Literature, Writing)
2022