First Nations students

Conflict Surrounding Performative Allyship in UMSU Students’ Council

7 July 2020

CONTENT WARNING: racism, white supremacy, police brutality, First Nations deaths in custody and other references to cultural genocide that have in particular impacted First Nations People of Australia. This article includes references to deceased First Nations People.

When Jessie Ferrari, the Indigenous Representative on Students’ Council, alongside councillor Thonya Deverall and the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) People of Colour and Indigenous Departments presented a motion “to both show solidarity with the Bla(c)k and Indigenous communities and to change the current regulations to have the Nothing About Us Without Us policy”, not all participants at the meeting on June 25 understood its importance.

A second motion regarding the Bla(c)k Lives Matter movement was moved by councillor, Emma Dynes.

Ferrari and Deverall, however, turned down suggestions to merge this with their own. They cited numerous events, such as a lack of cultural warnings, the silencing of Indigenous and Bla(c)k voices, as well as failure to reach out to Indigenous Peoples whilst preparing the motion against Dynes and other members of Socialist Alternative (SAlt) that were present during council.

“In their motion they had the name of one of my relatives who died in custody there. I cannot begin to tell you how upsetting and traumatic it was to see her name there and for there to not be a cultural warning there present to alert me to it,” Ferrari said to Farrago.

This comes after a history of tension from SAlt members who frequently participate in UMSU Students’ Council meetings. As Deverall and Ferrari told Farrago, this council was not the first time motions and discussions related to First Nations issues were submitted without consultation or consent from First Nations Peoples. Councillors said a recent Education Collective was also co-opted to discuss the No Fee Hikes Campaign, rather than the Bla(c)k Lives Matter movement, and recount an earlier council where Ferrari questioned the distribution of SAlt flyers during the Invasion Day Rally. 

“In the long term, members of SAlt have repeatedly submitted motions to council that attempt to speak for First Nations people, their lived experience [sic] and the particular oppression which they face both in so called ‘Australia’ and internationally, without any consultation with the Indigenous Office Bearers or Indigenous Rep on Council,” Deverall said.

Deverall, Ferrari and First Nations friends from the University of Melbourne and the UMSU Bla(c)k Collective tried to remind councillors of the importance of cultural warnings and the emotional labour they use reminding people to stop co-opting spaces.

In council, Deverall questioned, “What is the point of your solidarity if you’re hurting the people you’re trying to help?” 

Kaurna person Jay Rimmer added, “The reason that we don’t want people that are not consulting with us about these things is because a lot of the times the things you do are racist.”

In response, SAlt member Briana Symonds-Manne said during council, 

“I think it’s okay for white people to put up motions in support of Indigenous People in Australia and obviously we will listen to feedback and criticisms as well. But I don’t think it’s actually wrong to stand up for injustice in Australia as a white person.” 

Dynes agreed,“I don’t think it’s useful or productive, if you want to fight against racism, that you just attack white people for saying that they want to support a rally, a protest.”

Dynes and Symonds-Manne applauded the ‘multi-racial’ demonstrations organised by the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR). 

“The mass multi-racial element of the protest I think is really key,” said Dynes.

But Bla(c)k Collective members were not convinced by what Dynes and Symonds-Manne said. 

Mohamed Hadi from the collective said,“I’m just wondering, how can they stand in solidarity with us, while drowning out our voices and undermining our discussion on the movement.”

Ferrari and Deverall said to Farrago that they have repeatedly attempted to reach out to members of SAlt on this issue.

“Not once, but thrice have I had to remind members of SAlt that they should have contacted both the Indigenous OB’s and I if they wanted to make a motion that concerns us. In all these occasions I was met with hostility and contempt. I tried to explain that by failing to do this, they rob us of our voice and our sovereignty,” said Ferrari.

Indigenous Department Office Bearers Hope Kuchel and Shanysa McConville noted that whilst non-Indigenous peoples should not be expecting them or other First Nations Peoples to provide research or facts on Indigenous autonomy, they should be included to ensure that spaces remain culturally safe and appropriate.

“Change the way you are approaching First Nations issues and campaigns. Instead of asking ‘how can I help First Nations people’ try asking ‘what do you need that I can help you with.’ If you want to get involved in First Nations campaigns always consult the appropriate people. Ask them if you are handling this in the proper way, if there are any special protocols to observe or engage in. Respecting First Nations people is of utmost important [sic] when trying to support them.”

The People of Colour Department Officers Gurpreet Singh and Nicole Nabbout agreed.

“It’s important – specifically for those who claim to be allies – to reach out to POC and Bla(c)k people when events at hand include them because right now and historically, every decision or policy has been made with the interests of the majority at the forefront- that is the interests of white supremacy [sic].” 

Nabbout and Singh specifically pointed to the early departure of SAlt members from the Zoom meeting, and said SAlt actions warrants an apology to the First Nations and Bla(c)k people who were in attendance.

“Their inconsideration, disrespect and blatant hypocrisy is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. The voices of Bla(c)k and Indigenous students or representatives must be centred and listened to in every further council discussion.”

Wiradjuri woman, Brittney Henderson also responded to SAlt’s disappearance and responses during council, that you can “never say that any space is completely safe”.

After the council meeting, UMSU President Hannah Buchan and General Secretary Jack Buksh have said that they will continue working with the Indigenous and People of Colour Departments to investigate ways to improve council standing orders to prevent situations involving performative activism from occurring again.

“UMSU wholeheartedly believes in respecting First Nations Peoples voices and listening to their perspectives on issues which directly affect them. The motion discussed the importance of ‘nothing about us without us’ and UMSU will always consult BIPOC on these issues.”

“All members of UMSU including these councillors need to acknowledge when their activism is performative and be able to take criticism. As allies we all need to do better and listen when being called out. What happened at council was extremely insensitive and should never happen again.”

Kuchel and McConville also told Farrago that, whilst everyone is welcome to support movements like Bla(c)k Lives Matter and the fight to stop First Nations’ Deaths in custody, allowing time for discussion and listening to comments is essential.

Deverall and Ferrari both hope to see active efforts to consult with First Nations representatives and stress how hostile and intense the last hour of council was.

Deverall said, “That’s what SAlt and a lot of white allies don’t understand, this isn’t theoretical for us it’s the stuff that keeps us up at night. We don’t get to turn that worry off after the motion is passed.”


The Socialist Alternative University of Melbourne Branch and Melbourne Socialist Alternatives could not be reached for a comment prior to the publication deadline.

Disclaimer: Sarah Peters is one of the UMSU Media Office Bearers and is a non-voting member of Students’ Council.

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