Apr 8, 2011

Aboriginal identity: ‘I never had a choice’

How do you define someone's identity? It was key issue in the Andrew Bolt racial discrimination case and Crikey asked some Aboriginal Australians to explain identity in their own words.

Amber Jamieson — Freelance journalist in New York

Amber Jamieson

Freelance journalist in New York

How do you define someone's identity? That question is a key issue in the Andrew Bolt racial discrimination case that has raged furiously in court over the last two weeks, as nine light-skinned Aborigines battled Bolt over a series of Herald Sun columns he wrote insinuating that they had 'chosen' to be Aboriginal and deliberately ignored other cultural heritages for the career advantages that being Aboriginal brings. In one column, entitled “It’s so hip to be black”, Bolt wrote:
Meet the white face of a new black race — the political Aborigine. Meet, say, acclaimed St Kilda artist Bindi Cole, who was raised by her English-Jewish mother yet calls herself “Aboriginal but white”. She rarely saw her part-Aboriginal father, and could in truth join any one of several ethnic groups, but chose Aboriginal, insisting on a racial identity you could not guess from her features. She also chose, incidentally, the one identity open to her that has political and career clout.
Central to Bolt's columns is the issue of skin colour, the suggestion that because the Aboriginal Australians he wrote about were light skinned that they had 'chosen' to be Aboriginal. Aboriginal academic Larissa Behrendt -- one of the nine who took Bolt to court -- said in her witness statement for the case:
"I have always identified as Aboriginal, whether or not I am also a law professor or author, or any other role I have had in my life... My parents always told me that I was Aboriginal, even though my mother was not Aboriginal... ... "While Bolt says that I could easily just identify as 'white' and that I "chose to be Aboriginal", he is wrong because I never had a choice. My brother looks Aboriginal. My father was active as a well-known Aboriginal person. Growing up, everyone knew that my family was Aboriginal, even people in the next town. It was never about being Aboriginal when it suits me. I have always been Aboriginal because that's who I have always been. I have identified as Aboriginal even as a child when people teased me or bullied me about it."
Crikey asked some Aboriginal Australians to write about their personal identity: Nicole Watson, solicitor, author (her first crime novel The Boundary was recently published by University of Queensland Press) and research fellow at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Sydney:
"I belong to the Birri Gubba People of central Queensland, even though I live in Sydney. I have blonde hair and blue eyes; characteristics that are irrelevant to my identity as an Aboriginal person. I never chose that identity. Rather, it was a bequest from the people who reared me -- my strong-willed European Australian mother and my fiery Aboriginal father. "My parents met in high school. They could not have picked a worse setting for their budding romance -- Brisbane during the height of the Bjelke-Petersen Government. This was a time when black activists were regularly beaten by police, while their relatives on reserves endured the stifling and all encompassing control of the dreaded superintendent. "My much cherished maternal grandfather was a farmer from Kingaroy and an avowed Bjelke-Petersen supporter. I can only imagine Pop's horror when he realized that his beautiful daughter had fallen in love with a cocky Aboriginal youth, who even had long hair. Over the years however, Pop grew to love his son-in-law. "By the time that I came into the world, Dad was a prominent leader in the flowering Aboriginal rights movement. He was constantly at the front-line, which often took him to the Tent Embassy in Canberra. Even when he was home, Dad was pre-occupied with the fledgling community organisations that would go on to deliver legal aid, housing and health care to our people. "Like my father, many of his contemporaries in the Movement were married to non-Indigenous partners. Invariably, it was the non-Indigenous partner who cared for the children and kept the home fires stoked, while the activists were away, fighting the struggle that had to be fought. The stories of those selfless, loving parents are yet to be told. "From the beginning, my mother was determined that my brother and I would be raised to be proud of our Aboriginal heritage. Perhaps, Mum sacrificed some of her own heritage for us, but her life also became entwined in the rich tapestry of Aboriginal kinship. "Throughout my teens, more than one observer casually raised the apparent clash between my light features and my Aboriginal identity. Such comments always drew a flash of pain on my father’s face. As an adult, I can only imagine how horrible it must have been for Dad to hear the paternity of his child being questioned so audaciously. I still marvel at the incredible privilege that lurked behind those obtuse comments. "When strangers question my identity, they question the adults who grew me. They question the choices that were made for me and perhaps, even the love that my family gave to me, and continue to give. As painful as such interrogations have been, they will never shake my identity. I know who I am. But I do wonder what motivates the likes of Andrew Bolt. What dark insecurities fester in his psyche that he has a desperate need to assault the humanity of strangers? "The greater tragedy however, is the Australian public that seems to have developed a fetish for watching Aboriginal identity under the microscope, while seemingly indifferent to the desperate circumstances of so many Aboriginal communities.
Professor Steve Larkin, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Indigenous Leadership at Charles Darwin University:
"My father was not indigenous but he passed away when I was five. I was brought up my mother who was Aboriginal, in Darwin. And that's how we were raised. "I remember going to the university in the early 80s in Queensland and I had to put up a lot with: "You couldn't be Aboriginal because you're too fair". And my question was "well, how do I explain my dark-skinned cousins and aunts and uncles?". But it's not [an issue] for me now. "We relate to each other differently than non-indigenous people, to the extent that once you're placed within a family community context, people know who you are and where you're from, and that's enough. Those sort of attitudes are just relics, they are artefacts and a consequence of the Western anthropological and sociological efforts years ago, who thought they could capture a culture frozen in time. It denies a whole range of things. "The eugenics argument has been debunked long ago and skin colour is not a signifier of identity. It's how you socialise, it's the world views and values that you've been brought up within, same as any other culture. And cultures are dynamic, they evolve. I just think the consequence of that early social science, anthropologically thinking that could ethnographically capture something in the perfect state and that's how things would be forever. "My mother made lots of effort and we went down every two or three years to visit my father's family. There's still a family there, it doesn't matter what their colour is. "To say that [in regards to Bolt's comment that full-blood Aborigines may wonder how such fair people can claim to be one of them and in some cases take 'black jobs'] means to say that I'm an Aboriginal therefore I'm the same as a Tiwi Islander. Well, I'm not. That person is a Tiwi Islander and I'm Kungarakan. The fact of the matter is, that our grandmothers and grandfathers were removed. But we're not like them, we're not like each other. We share a common history, we might share a common world view but for all other intensive purposes we are different from each other. The same, but different. No one is taking jobs from anyone. The fact, the problem, is that there are jobs but a lot of our people aren't job ready because they are too sick or they haven't had the education. "People are complicit in this systematic injustice. And because we rely on a notion of responsibility that is focused on the individual, if people don't say and do anything untoward, then we have difficulty working with responsibility when it's a collective thing. They won't personally engage with indigenous leadership and they are unprepared to consider a different point of view, or take that on. "Andrew Bolt reports that he doesn't like racism, and he wants to make a contribution, he's got a sharp intellect I'm sure. But he has to have the courage to be vulnerable to be open to different perspectives that might change the way he thinks about life, about society, about himself."
Celeste Liddle, National Indigenous Organiser at the National Tertiary Education Union:
"When I was five-years-old, in my first year of Primary School in Canberra, I bought home my school report. It read something along the lines of "Celeste is an intelligent and curious pupil, whose spelling has improved a lot throughout the year, as well as her maths. Celeste, however, needs to learn how to control her temper". The report is probably still sitting around in one of my mother's scrapbooks, but the part about my "temper" was referring to an incident in that year which I remember all too well. One of the other girls in my class had called me a "black bum" one lunch time, and so I pushed her and she fell over. "I have never been fair enough to be mistaken for white Australian, but I have been mistaken for everything from Maori to Mediterranean to Latino because I definitely do not fit the average Australian's view of what an Aboriginal person is supposed to look like. Mum is a Clifton Hill born Collingwood supporter, and her family can be traced back to the first lot of free settlers and convicts in this country. My father's family, on the other hand, is larger and much more complicated. His grandfather William was the son of a Scottish immigrant, who moved into the Northern Territory and established the Angas Downs cattle station. He and his Arrernte wife Mary had four children including my grandfather Harold Liddle. My grandmother was Emily Perkins, also Arrernte, and the daughter of two 'part Aboriginals' (as they called them then) and was the first cousin of Charles Perkins. She was born at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station and taken to the Bungalow as a child where she was taught domestic skills. At 14 years old, she went to serve a family until she later married my grandfather. "During my formative years when I was trying to make sense of this identity question, I remember asking my father how one of my cousins could be Aboriginal when she had red hair and freckles (my experiences at school had clearly had an effect on me), and he explained to me back then that it all comes back to family. We are Aboriginal because we are family and we all come from the same place.
"But going back to that first incident at school, those sorts of things occurred throughout my growing up, and I remember feeling really ashamed of my background. There are really only so many jokes regarding "wheelie bins" or so many times you can be asked "What's an 'A.B.C'?" before you start to either go completely mad, or you turn it around and own your difference. Two moments in school kind of stand out to me where this happened; the first was when I was asked to give a talk at school about my heritage at a multicultural assembly and I read out No More Boomerang by Oodgeroo Noonuccal. The second was when some bozo on the school grounds decided to yell out to me "Why don't you go back to your own country?" and I just laughed at his idiocy, my friends joining in. "So perhaps, at that point, I did make a choice and I "chose" to be a proud Aboriginal woman, but after a lifetime of it being pointed out to me that I was different and therefore somewhat inferior by virtue of my heritage, what choice did I really have? Being the eldest sibling, I have seen all of my siblings go through this exact same struggle then self-determination as well, and we are all stronger and prouder as a result, although clearly it would have been more ideal to have been made to feel strong and proud by our peers from the very beginning. "I wrote a play at university that involved me talking to a lot of young Indigenous people living in Victoria, some as fair as you get, others very dark, and regardless of what their outwards features were, every single one of them had had their identity questioned at one point or another. My play Not One Nation (which played at La Mama) looked at the complexity of Indigenous identity from the stories that had been shared with me, as well as the historical context of our identity politics, and how, after years and years of assimilation policies, it was completely unfair to judge an Aboriginal person on the way they looked. One of my characters was an Aboriginal, feminist, socialist, Atheist, vegetarian, and lesbian; clearly I wanted to show that we are a diverse mob here! "In my professional working life, I have worked in two 'identified' roles, and one that "encouraged applications from Indigenous Australians". All of these roles had a specific requirement to work and collaborate with the community, and as two of them involved the building of aspirations of Indigenous Australians with the view of them gaining tertiary qualifications, I feel that being an Indigenous Australian was every bit as important an occupational qualification as holding a tertiary degree. Identified roles are every bit as important and necessary as they are a poisoned chalice. They are necessary because they help 'Indigenise' a workplace or institution, not only getting existing organisations to question their structures that lead to the exclusion of Indigenous Australians, but they also make a point of contact for the Indigenous community making it more accessible to them. "The downside of these roles is that whilst an Indigenous Australian may have an impressive resume of qualifications, an impeccable record of achievement in previous roles, and that all important cultural knowledge, they are frequently treated like perennial apprentices in the workplace, as their seniors inadvertently make the patronising assumption that because it is an identified role, the applicant is not bringing the same general skill set to the role that a non-Indigenous person would bring to a similar role. The Indigenisation of workplaces is still very much a work-in-progress.

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35 thoughts on “Aboriginal identity: ‘I never had a choice’

  1. Mort

    At last! Some actual aboriginal people being allowed to speak for themselves.
    The amount of old white guys pontificating on this issue is unbelievable.

  2. Rufus Marsh

    I shall read this with interest when I have time in one of the multiethnic multiracial societies to our north where I am going for a while. In the meantime, now that apparently Crikey’s limited understanding (or maybe it is personpower to deal with) of contempt of court seems to be allowing comment may I note that the plaintiffs’ case was extremely misguided from the point of view of Aboriginal interests because, should they succeed, there will be no lack of satirists and ingenious send-up experts showing their contempt for the judgment by redoubling efforts to suggest that taking advantage of ethnic identity (especially one that involves a large element of choice as clearly it does for someone who continues to identify as Aborigine despite having a white skin and university education) is a bit sus.

    On the implications of the case generally, just consider, ironically given Ron Merkel’s noxious vapouring about Nazis (about whom he was wrong in suggesting that the words came first then the evil deeds – the Nazis had been violent and threatening for 10 years before they were “democratically” elected) what a court might feel constrained to find about Michael Galak’s “Monologue of a Jewish Peacenik” in the June 2010 issue of Quadrant. True, Michael Galak is of Russian origin which may make him a bit more robust than nice inner urban Australian (non-indigenous) natives, but his expression of views commonly held and expressed by Jews about Arabs might find him and a lot of others in trouble.

  3. Rufus Marsh

    Is there some implication that one doesn’t have a choice about identity if one was pushed in one direction by circumstances at an early age? If so, that is clearly BS. Consider that toffy voiced English WW2 army officer Robert Maxwell who was a Jewish refugee from a small village in Czechoslovakia. His latterday attempts to get some Jewish cred out of owning an Israeli newspaper and some charitable works (at the exepense, as almost everything he did in his latter years was, of pension fund members) just emphasise that he made choices. And what of all the people of working class origins who identify as professional or commercial upper middle class while some who have as much money and education choose to identify – often in ways which are derided – as working class.?

  4. PJHyslop

    Although Bolt’s article is written in an offensive manner and not well thought out in general, there is some truth in the statement that we can choose our own identity, or rather have it constructed for us by society/ family. I think we could all agree that Aboriginal (or any other) identity is not purely genetic in these cases since presumably these people mentioned in this article are at least half European or other ancestry, yet they do not identify themselves primarily as such.

    In most of the accounts here there is some mention of people close them telling them they are Aboriginal and to be proud of this (which is fine). There are also often examples of others descriminating against them because they are “Aboriginal”(which is not fine), however both of these are examples of society telling a person they are such and such, there identity is being constructed by society. This is not to deny there are racial or cultural differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, but how a person identifies themselves/ is identified by others in ethnic terms, is a simplification of their complex individual identity. How we identify ourselves, largely depends upon society and ourselves, it is (at least in part) a construct not an objective fact.

  5. Delerious

    I remember picking up “My Space” by Sally Morgan off my mothers bed and starting to read it, out of boredom. I think i was at least 20 pages in before I found out she was Aboriginal. I stole the book much to my mothers disgust.

    As for the people who think you choose how you identify yourself, you just have to reject your family. Well you must be happy chappies.

  6. Sean

    If all nine of the complainants can demonstrate similar substantial connections, then I would suggest that Bolt’s assertions are unresearched and not defensible — not sure what the Act says or the judge will have to say about a suitable and fitting punishment for Bolt.

    You will have to accept the statements given under oath or via stat dec etc of the ‘percentage’ if you like of identification, which could be distorted in a way which is veryhard to check up on and depends upon the sincerity of the witnesses — e.g. not only could your blood be, say, 25%, but your association and identification with traditional patterns of kinship etc could be 10% or 90% depending on how you live your life, which of your relatives you see the most, who you associate with the most — these things are very hard to demonstrate categorically in an evidential setting like a courtroom. However the burden of proof is probably on Bolt to demonstrate that the nine don’t have significant ties, since that is the claim he has made in his public writing.

    The whole thing is still a very open question of who should be advantaged by govt grants, etc, which Bolt has brought to the public’s attention, albeit in the usual Murdoch-style fashion. He may still actually have a point — that the grants are being given to the people who need them the least, in a kind of cultural establishment favouritism of people whom high society are more comfortable around and will not feel challenged by. Hard thing for a judge to decide.

    To compare and contrast, are there similar grants available to people of Italian descent, or Greek or anything else from a multicultural angle (no, there’s not), so clearly the intent of such grants is to bring people up from poverty or a place where they’re not currently recognised. If the ‘wrong’ people are receiving grants, i.e. they are already being recognised with doctorates and high salaries and so on and are doing very well in what amounts to European society, and are already coping well in that society and moving freely, are they really the best people to be receiving the extra gongs? Certainly the nine gong holders have a right to be offended by Bolt’s content and style, but does he have a point buried in there somewhere?

  7. Rufus Marsh


    I don’t think either of the comments suggesting that identity can be a matter of choice, at least in part or for some purposes, deserve you cheap and superficial debating point in

    “As for the people who think you choose how you identify yourself, you just have to reject your family. Well you must be happy chappies.”

    I know a former London investment banker turned Cambridge don who clearly “identifies” and is “identified” most of the time as an upper middle class English professional who doesn’t sound at all like his childhood northern neighbours but I can well imagine him dropping into the pub and using the local lingo (and identifying loyalties) happily on a visit to his childhood home, partly perhaps to annoy his mother who insisted he speak with Received Pronunciation. And an Oxford don of great distinction in the arts world whose parents would be very proud of his achievement and recognition in the world he lives in and quite pleased that that he doesn’t sound like those he went to primary school with. It is really very easy to get the point, despite the complexity of matters to do with identity – conferred, confected or adopted – if one considers the fact that the way English people speak is still very often a marker of how they identify themselves or of an identity conferred by circumstance that they are evidently willing to adhere to. In Australia we don’t have such simple markers but it is pretty clear that one doesn’t have to “reject” or even implicitly denigrate or criticise one’s family if one chooses to take some part in defining one’s own identity. The Delerious (sic) suggestion implies an overwhelming part in one’s identity for family, extraordinary uniformity within families, and, moreover, easy identification of what one’s “family” is which can be difficult. If you want an example which does not involve, say, a while father of a half-Aboriginal child who was usually absent, think of Jewish children saved from the Nazis and not knowing they were Jewish. Some denied knowledge of their Jewishness by their Jewish parents even: like Madeleine Albright.

  8. kennethrobinson2

    I really cant what all the fuss is about, I am seven eights Pom and one eighth Swede, but I call myself AUSTRALIAN.
    I dont classify people by race, but by character, there are good and bad in all people, I have been called a lot of names in my 77 years on the planet, on my return from Vietnam in 1968, CHILD MURDERER, was the favorite, it was upsetting, but one gets over it, I have seen a lot of injustice on both sides, but to quote Ned Kelly “thats life”.
    I live in the Top-end, where we are a pretty mixed mob, sure we have problems, but we solve them out of court, I think the Bolt case will do more harm than good regardless of the verdict.

  9. drmick

    Bolts case is all about intent.
    He stated his case and his intent and now he is trying to defend the indefensible.
    What he said was wrong and his intent was clear and he should apologise for it. He should apologise to the individuals he offended and a suitable punishment would be to do community service at an aboriginal education centre.

  10. bis

    Leaving aside the legal specificities, I share Mr Bolt’s disquiet regarding the division of the country into ‘first australians’ and ‘others’. Now whilst everyone is free to identify and celebrate with any component of their racial background they chose, developments such as the division of sports teams along racial lines are troubling. Together with a separate flag, separate courts and a separate set of government programs and benefits, I feel this is sewing a future of division rather than unity.

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