As an honours student studying philosophy at Melbourne University, having just missed out on a Rhodes Scholarship, Warumungu man Ethan Taylor is interested in the production of knowledge and justice. By Rick Morton.

First Nations students and finding the right pathway

Philosophy student Ethan Taylor.
Philosophy student Ethan Taylor.
Credit: Kiya Taylor

Ethan Taylor was five years old when teachers at his primary school in Geraldton, 4.5 hours north of Perth, came through the classrooms to collect the Indigenous kids.

The teachers were well meaning. Reconciliation programs were being introduced in schools and, in the Western Australian coastal city where Taylor lived, staff had decided it would be useful if the Aboriginal students could help them educate the other students about the oldest living culture on the planet. The students were given forms for an “Indigenous education class”.

“I remember the day,” Taylor says. “I came home and I thought that what they were trying to say was that I was dumb because I was Indigenous and that I needed help.

“Mum was in the kitchen and I walked up and…” He motions a rip, tearing the form in half. “I was saying, ‘They think I’m dumb, I’ll show them, I’m gonna show them.’ ”

Although he says he might have done things differently had he known the teachers were “genuinely trying to help” there is a gossamer thread that separates these external expectations and the desire to use the horrors of Indigenous life in colonial Australia to educate.

“What ends up happening for example, in some cases, is disadvantaged people end up getting used as means to certain ends instead of ends in themselves,” Taylor says. “And a great one I am using right now to demonstrate this is the whole statue debate.”

Taylor says a line can be drawn between the kinds of figures who deserve to be contextualised with new plaques and “people who I’m like, ‘Yeah, no.’ ”

He explains: “Someone like an Alexander Hamilton character, complicated. Maybe a William Buckley character, there is some good and some bad. I’d be up for changing a plaque on their statue if there was an issue.

“Someone who funded apartheid, Cecil Rhodes, or someone who went out at 30 years old and killed 30 Aboriginal people, you know, probably a different bucket, different story. And one of the points I make in all of that is that you get people who say, ‘No we need to be educating people.’

“And it’s like, ‘Okay, who are you educating?’ Because I guarantee you them local mob, they know that story. So, what you’re talking about is using our pain, our suffering, to educate ignorant non-Indigenous people. Believe it or not there are ways to tell young white people not to go out and murder Black people other than changing a plaque on a statue.”

Ethan Taylor is 22 and it is too early to declare that his life has come full circle. In the last week of October, though, the Warumungu man made it to the final round of an intensive selection process for the Oxford University Rhodes Scholarship. That he was not chosen was “disappointing” – but that he made it to that moment is remarkable. The irony of applying for the scholarship named for the imperial racist and mining magnate is not lost on Taylor, but the philosophy major at University of Melbourne has the tools to understand it.

“I am really interested in First Nations justice and this comes in many forms. Like, there’s political justice, but then there is also epistemic justice for First Nations people,” he says. “How does the production of true knowledge in Australia, for example, respect First Nations people? Because the true knowledge that is being produced in these institutions like universities goes so much of the way to influence public policy.”

Taylor is the kind of person who uses multiple exclamation marks in a message and pauses before sending to remove one or two, so as not to seem overbearing. He is unassuming, dressed in a black T-shirt and cream baseball cap that is unable to hide a mess of black hair falling just above his shoulders. His face is expressive and kind.

For those who know what they are looking for, it is the face and manner of a young man who has lived more in 22 years than many people have lived in 40.

While he was born in Mparntwe (Alice Springs), a young Taylor moved with his mother to WA so she could be closer to her own family. This meant growing up away from his tribe and off country. As he entered his high-school years, the loneliness set in.

“This is where things took a dark detour,” he says. “I was always the smart blackfulla, right? And in primary school I was still very naive and didn’t understand to the fullest extent what being Indigenous meant. I was able to dream away the overt racism and escape the passive racism.

“And then I transitioned from primary school to high school and that’s around the time where I started to really feel isolated and just lonely in these classes in which, often, I was the only Indigenous person.”

As these sensations morphed into despair, Taylor followed other people he knew down a path of gang violence and drugs. “I was either in a fight or, you know, being bashed, and I was either taking drugs or participating in drugs in one way or another. I’m not someone who is in favour of criminalising drugs, but I am comfortable saying I genuinely think I was a full-blown alcoholic at the age of 14.”

He tried to take his own life again and again. “It was because of this sense of hopelessness,” Taylor says. “I felt like I spoke too weirdly for the white kids and I also felt like the education I was receiving at school was pulling me far away from the Black kids. I don’t want to put down my own people, but we have been excluded from education for so long, right? I just felt like there was no place in which I was comfortable. I walk in two worlds. It was a long journey and I just didn’t see a base camp up ahead.”

In the middle of high school, Taylor dropped out for about a term. He refused to go to school and refused to be at home. Taylor eventually returned but was out of the extension maths and science classes that had been his true joy. Determined to get back into the top classes, he was taken under the wing of an older teacher at the school.

“She really believed in me,” he said. “I was really into maths and science back then and she recognised that and would stay behind after school to help me catch up multiple times a week. She would just invest every single bit of extra energy she had to taking me to the top maths class at school.”

Within a few exams, he was scoring 100 per cent on his tests again. “I decided I was going to come back, I was going to do this. You know, it was around the time [another] teacher told me, ‘You know, you’re not dumb.’ I was switched back on to this path. Like, who cares how lonely I feel in class? Obviously I do, but I can bite the bullet and I can push past this and I need to because there is literally one other blackfulla in these classes and I have got to do it for my people.

“It’s shit and it shouldn’t have to be this way, but this was the weight that was on my shoulders.”

In year 12, Taylor was elected head boy at the school. Then he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after a series of shattering encounters in which he witnessed violence against women and was unable to help. He never finished high school.

There is a tendency to use stories like Ethan Taylor’s as a way to soothe the minds of others in Australia who desperately need to believe in its egalitarian myth. If he can make it to the final round of a Rhodes Scholarship, doesn’t that mean the system is working?

Often, these stories disguise a cascading series of institutional failures.

“I have succeeded in spite of the hardships and in spite of the systems,” Taylor says. “Luck comes into play with so much of it. All things considered I am incredibly lucky and privileged to be where I am in Melbourne with a roof over my head.”

There are some clues in the language and speech of an autodidact such as Taylor. He occasionally mispronounces a word, an indication of having had to do much reading alone without the opportunity to hear the pronunciation from a teacher, lecturer or acquaintance. Equally, Taylor does not wait for instruction or information to fall from the ether. He asks after it.

“I’m sorry what does ‘uncouth’ mean?” he asks during this interview.

Taylor has a dazzling and penetrating curiosity, perfectly calibrated for the honours in philosophy he is currently completing. Of course, it is hard to pitch philosophy, he concedes, but there is an urgent pragmatism behind it.

It’s not enough to just talk about health outcomes for Indigenous people, for example. We need to be asking what a just society for First Nations people actually looks like, he says, but we are often keen to avoid this fundamental inquiry.

“This is the philosopher talking in me right now, but perhaps it is just a comfort with a basic idea of utilitarianism, right, in terms of like well, if we can see preferences being satisfied or a harm being avoided, some basic level of health or good being provided, then we don’t really need to ask further questions,” Taylor says. “Because then we might bring the whole thing down.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 6, 2021 as "Forms of justice".

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Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.

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