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.

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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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