an Indigenous-health researcher battles racism in Australia

Chelsea Watego and her team called it the bunker — a cramped workspace directly opposite the toilets at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Up to eight members of staff would squeeze into two rooms, rat traps at their feet. A long bench running along the length of the wall provided desk space, and the printer was often jammed. Poorly insulated, the rooms that the university had assigned to them in 2018 were cold in winter and hot in summer.

Watego, an Indigenous-health researcher and Munanjahli and South Sea Islander woman, had just won a prestigious grant for early-career researchers from one of the country’s major research-funding agencies, the Australian Research Council (ARC), and she would soon become an associate professor. With the funds, worth some Aus$400,000 (around US$300,000 at the time), she planned to study the role of race in Indigenous public health.

Then, in 2020, Watego won an even larger ARC grant, worth nearly Aus$1.8 million, to establish a new field — Indigenist health humanities. She and her team moved to an old building that leaked, into an office up three flights of stairs. Her space was still nowhere near the school or the faculty to which she belonged. When a woman of colour in a neighbouring office revealed that she had previously filed a discrimination case against the university, it clarified Watego’s views on the accommodation. The university, she says, was sending her a message: “There’s no space for us in these institutions.”

A legal battle

Watego says that she detailed the poor working conditions in a 2019 race- and sex-discrimination complaint against the University of Queensland, which centred on her recruitment to a leadership position. The university told Nature that it would not comment on individual staff matters. It outlined its initiatives to increase diversity, but acknowledged that it needed to do more to foster “opportunities for and research by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in a supportive environment”. As of 2021, just under 1.2% of academic staff members at Australian universities have an Indigenous background — that’s less than half the proportion of Indigenous people in the wider, working-age population.

Last year, Watego says she dropped the case against the University of Queensland ahead of it going to court. She says that was mostly because of a lack — in her opinion — of legal support from her union. The National Tertiary Education Union did not respond to specific questions about the case, but, in a public statement last year, it said that it disagreed with Watego’s characterization and that it had given her “considered and professional advice” on her claim. Watego says she eventually quit the University of Queensland and joined Queensland University of Technology (QUT), also in Brisbane, where she feels included.

Watego’s scholarship on Indigenous health gives language to the “insidious ways in which racism has an impact on our lives”, says Lisa Whop, an epidemiologist and Torres Strait Islander at the Australian National University in Canberra, who is a collaborator on the 2020 ARC grant, and calls Watego a friend and sister. “She is the thought leader of our generation.”

“Chelsea has, both intellectually and personally through her politics, been an exemplar of the anti-racist researcher,” says David Singh, a long-time collaborator who studies race and racism in public health, also at QUT.

A physical toll

But by tackling racism head on, Watego says her work seems to pose a threat to the institutions that house it. And, she says, her research must address race as an intellectual project. “I have a responsibility to my own people,” Watego says. Singh says that the backlash faced by researchers who “take the fight to their oppressors” can be fierce, exerting a serious toll on their physical and mental health, and can even lead to burnout.

Watego has faced strong resistance, and devising strategies around that is exhausting, she says. She is sometimes seen as a ‘radical’ researcher or a ‘difficult’ and ‘antagonistic’ person, and at the University of Queensland, she says she was excluded from regular staff meetings and Indigenous events, such as sashing ceremonies for graduating students. She describes several instances in which she was invited to write articles for a journal, but after peer review and legal scrutiny, the works were not published, and she had to find new venues for them.

In her writing, Watego often describes how her experience of racism in academia wore her down. “I bought into the idea of academic excellence offering some protection from racial violence in the workplace. And I would come to learn that that was not the case,” she says. “That’s what broke me.”

The stress manifested in many ways — in weight gain, high blood pressure and a tendency to grind her teeth at night, to the point that one fell out. It has also cost her her marriage, and the separation from her husband took a toll on her five children. But, she says, those experiencing racial violence outside academic institutions have it much harder. And now, at QUT, Watego finally feels her work is valued, especially by the Indigenous leadership. She and her colleagues have their own office space, with extra desks to invite new staff members and students. “I don’t feel like I’m a problem to be managed,” she says. Instead, “there’s proactive planning around creating space for growth”.