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.

Peter Fray

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