Alexander Page, Theresa Petray, ‘Agency and structural constraints: Indigenous peoples and the Australian settler-state in North Queensland’, Settler Colonial Studies, 2015


Abstract: In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have long been subjected to attempts at extermination, exclusion, and assimilation, but continually resist these efforts. This history is woven through the social fabric of Australia. This paper is a single case study which looks at contemporary race relations in Townsville, Queensland, and describes current settler-colonial settings in terms of structure and agency. We focus primarily on agency as a strengths-based approach, but recognise the structural constraints Indigenous people face. Based on in-depth interviews and extensive fieldwork, we explore Indigenous perceptions of agency and constraints. Indigenous people have many ways to exercise agency, and our focus is on those who identify as activists and advocates. Participants expressed their capacity to undertake social action as high and varied in method, articulating agency as activism or advocacy. These agents view the state as both an enabler and a constraint, largely exclusionary of indigeneity. The settler-state only increases the capability for social action when it chooses to do so and has been and continues to be largely exclusionary of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Significant to agents is the local context of Townsville as a racist city distant from political decision-making. Participants describe experiences of continuing covert or implicit racism and ‘active apathy’ held by the wider non-Indigenous community of Townsville. Despite these constraints, Indigenous agents creatively adapt such structures in order to exercise their agency.

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