Investigating whiteness and research fatigue in the study of Pacific climate change: A three part series

Post written by Dr Anja Kanngieser

Part 1: Whiteness and research practices

In this three part series I examine the impact of whiteness and research fatigue when considering climate change in the Pacific, and some directions from Pacific Studies on how to address it. Over three posts I will introduce the ways in which I have witnessed and been told about manifestations of whiteness in academic research; how lived experiences and perspectives push against academic inquiry and theorisations of resilience; and some tactics from Pacific Studies and Pacific Research Protocols for building reciprocity and exchange in climate change research.

In this blog post, the first of three, I want to talk about whiteness. I am German, first generation Australian. I am a white person who is in Melanesia and Micronesia to talk with Pasifika climate activists about climate change, self-determination and neocolonialism. The decision to come here was made with slowness and through extensive self-reflection over many years  – I sought advice from BIPOC and white friends and colleagues undertaking anti-racist and anti-colonial research, and I critically delved with other white researchers into methods for undertaking sensitive, humble and careful research in a region exhausted by white researchers. While I was deliberate to orientate and frame my research, and my actions, in ways adherent to Pacific research protocols (Massey University Pacific Research Guidelines and Protocols 2017; University of South Pacific Human Ethics Protocols) throughout my time here doing initial scoping activities I remain necessarily uncomfortable.

This discomfort, rather than being a problem, is vital because it holds me accountable without imposing the labour of my accountability onto the people I am listening to and spending time with. I am writing this blog series to open conversation with my white academic and artistic networks thinking through these issues, and with students, who are considering undertaking research or artistic practice in similar circumstances. With these blog posts I hope to contribute to, as one friend put it “pulling the tentacles of whiteness off people of colour”, by illuminating the persistence of racism in academic and artistic research practices on climate change.

The rate at which interest in climate change in the Pacific has grown over the past decade is noteworthy. Micronesia and Melanesia in particular have received considerable attention from researchers, journalists, artists, international NGOs and civil society organisations intent on shaping and participating in climate discussions. The susceptibility of the region to a number of changes including sea level rise, erosion, intensifying drought, floods, earthquakes, cyclones and tsunamis means it provides insight into how the frontlines experience risk, how they develop mitigation strategies and build ‘resilience’. Along with intersecting challenges such as economic development, health epidemics, and under and unemployment, nations of the Pacific, like other small island developing states, are held up as case studies for vulnerability.

Kaivalagi [Fijian – from the land of the foreigners, predominantly referring to Caucasians but not exclusively] research in the region has a long history, especially amongst social scientists, and the problems of this research legacy have been raised many times. Cognizant of the destructive effects of colonial and neocolonial practices, much of this has been extensively and explicitly addressed by Pasifika and Indigenous feminist Pacific Studies scholars (the topic of my third post), and this has underpinned methods for conducting research and artistic practice attuned to Indigenous and Pacific research and knowledge systems (Helu Thamen 2003, Nabobo Baba 2006, Tuhiwai Smith 1999). However, this work is not always sought out by academics and artists who comprise the contemporary influx of time-scarce ‘experts’. Once the remit of disciplines in which long-term fieldwork was convention, expeditions to frontline regions are increasingly scheduled as short trips, sometimes one-off visits; sometimes multiple trips over extended periods of time. There is a great deal to be critiqued about the neoliberal contexts that exert immense pressures on researchers to conduct themselves in this way (Edufactory 2009), and what I want to examine in this post is the accountability that we must hold ourselves to that goes hand in hand with navigating these pressures.

Before I left for the Pacific, I was advised that I would be confronted with paternalism and racism across the region, upheld by kaivalagi and non-white researchers and development workers. This was both overt and subtle, coming out through casual phrases, attitudes and glances. From the perspective of Critical Race Studies, this can be linked to whiteness, described as ‘a location of structural advantage, of race privilege…a “standpoint,” a place from which white people look at ourselves, at others, and at society…a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed’ (Frankenberg 1993: 1). Whiteness is not simply about skin colour or even race, it’s about overt, and hidden, systemic and institutionalized white supremacy used to justify and reiterate exploitation, racism, colonialism and violence. In Fiji, whiteness is endemic to the systemic neocolonialism reiterated through foreign development and research paradigms. While many island nations of the Pacific including Fiji fought for independence from British, European and Australian rule in the 1960s and 1970s, this did not signal the end of cultural, social, economic and environmental colonisation. Rather it saw the earlier iterations of colonial power reconfigured into new formations wedded to capitalist expansion, extractive industries and the development and tourism sectors (Banivanua Mar 2016).

To interrogate this whiteness it first has to be seen and named. Relationships of power, coercion (inadvertent or deliberate), theft of knowledge and disrespect of cultural and social processes were all practices that I was told of, or witnessed myself, and they illustrated the normalisation of white supremacy in the research terrain I was immersed in. I want to recount three instances I experienced, two located in Fiji and one in Kiribati.

On my arrival in Suva I asked a senior kaivalagi academic about conducting my initial scoping work. He suggested to me that if I wanted to undertake conversations in village environments it would be a good idea to hire a research assistant; this was how he undertook a large majority of his research, and as a non-Fijian, it was useful for him to have an iTaukei [Fijian – Indigenous Fijian] to smooth the way. When I enquired about the kinds of work conditions for research assistants he advised me that because the minimum wage was so low ($2.68/hr FJD) it was a good idea to pay a bit more, however because the iTaukei students were “lazy” and because “Indo-Fijian” students – although better – would still only work to necessity, it was best not to offer too much. Additionally he recommended not to pay upfront because research assistants would simply take the money and not do the work. He also told me that there were particular villages and sites that academics were commonly directed to visit, that frequently hosted researchers and would tell me exactly what I wanted to hear. I recounted this conversation to an iTaukei researcher who told me that she had personally encountered extractive and exploitative research practices rife in her Department, where kaivalagi academics not only placed students and research assistants into compromising research situations but also assimilated student’s research findings into their outputs without attribution.

The suggestion of particular sites and villages conducive to “getting a good story” was echoed on my arrival in Kiribati, when an iTaukei research associate and I were told by an iKiribati university employee that the outer atoll of Abaiang was the favoured site for researchers and organisations looking to document climate change. He suggested that if I wanted to get good photos and audio of inundated villages, he could connect me with the right people there who would help me get climate change footage. In both instances I declined but it was very clear to me that these conversations were not exceptional, indeed everything was said very openly.

This normalisation of both racist discourses about local researchers, and around privileging convenient and well-worn narratives of climate change was emphasized specifically in conversations with iTaukei and Pasifika scholars around the application for research permits or visas. In discussion with a senior Pasifika academic she recounted to me the general lack of knowledge and accountability from foreign researchers around procuring permits. She relayed that in her experience, many academics from the Global North simply circumvented the research permit process without any discussion or consideration that such permits might be a crucial step in protecting local people and groups. This resonated with my encounters, as there had been a significant lack of awareness around permits and in some cases, an open avoidance of the process on the basis that it was difficult and took a long time. Conjunctive to this, I was also told by one Pasifika media spokesperson that there was a deep fatigue with fly-in/fly-out researchers and journalists, who did not follow correct cultural protocols and who did not offer reciprocal gifts but rather only extracted what they needed and were never heard from again.

That these stories are prolific and seemingly mundane is telling. They are also but a few examples of many that crossed my path. In narrating them publically it is not my intention to apportion individual blame or to claim that this represents all researchers and all research practices in the region; it does not. Rather what I hope to demonstrate is how easily, and how, often unconsciously, white supremacy is exerted through research. For myriad reasons, some bound together with the pressures of the academic industrial complex, it is easy to exempt oneself of responsibility without interrogating how deeply embedded racism and neocolonialism is within our own attitudes and methodologies. This is not a responsibility that once addressed can be put aside but is something white researchers need to speak about again and again with each other, with criticality and with a commitment to staying with discomfort. We need to actively work together to uncover and challenge systems of white supremacy and racism within institutional power and our upholding of, and complicity with, them.

Furthermore, it is crucial to ask questions about how these attitudes and behavior affect the research that is being produced about climate change in the region, what kinds of information is being foregrounded and what voices are being ignored – what stories are being sought out and to what ends? This is a fundamental question to ask because such research contributes to the dominant narratives that are heard internationally and can impact on policy and governance.

In my next blog post I want to outline some of ways in which climate change research can cause research fatigue and how white researchers might practice accountability in creating and holding space for anger and grief.

My recent radio collaboration “The Eye of the Storm” outlines some of the connections between environmental change, colonialism and Pasifika voices made in this blog series. To listen go here – In the Eye of the Storm

Dr Anja Kanngieser is a Vice Chancellors Fellow with
Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research (AUSCCER) and The School of Geography and Sustainable Communities. Anja’s last blog can be found here: The everyday lives of climate change: Encounters in Kiribati 


Banivanua Mar, T 2016 Decolonisation and the Pacific: Indigenous Globalisation and the Ends of Empire Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Edufactory Collective 2009 Toward a Global Autonomous University: Cognitive Labor, the Production of Knowledge, and Exodus from the Education Factory. Edufactory New York: Autonomedia (Available online here)

Frankenberg, R 1993 White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Helu Thaman, K 2003 “Decolonizing Pacific Studies: Indigenous perspectives, knowledge, and wisdom in higher education” The Contemporary Pacific (15:1) pp. 1-17

Nabobo Baba, U 2006 Knowing and learning: An indigenous Fijian approach. Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific

Tuhiwai Smith, L 1999 Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous peoples London, New York: Zed Books


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