Don’t Judge A Black By Their Cover
By Kyle TurnerAugust 9, 2012
Hey, it’s the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People! Let’s celebrate with an Aussie. An epidemiologist. A mad Carlton fan (forgive that one). A son. And a light-skinned Aboriginal man. Let’s not ruin the party by saying, “But you don’t look Aboriginal!”
The dust beneath our toes has a long history. It is forever shifting, compacting and expanding into the terra firma we now identify as Australia. On this, the United Nations' International Day of the World's Indigenous People, it marks an appropriate occasion for all Australians to stop, look about, and take in the landscape. So take this time to ask yourself: "What is my impression of Australia's indigenous population living as they are in 2012?"
If an image of a black man standing on one leg holding a spear popped into your head, then you're more than likely to be wrong. And no disrespect intended to my indigenous brothers still practising traditional hunting ways — quite the opposite, I'd love to be out there, too! — but the truth is that three out of four Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders now live in suburbia.
For better or worse, the landscape has changed.
Nowadays, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples range from dark-skinned and broad-nosed to blonde-haired, blue-eyed folk, and everything in between. And that's bloody fantastic — that more than 500,000 Australians of all description still proudly adhere to their indigenous ancestry is a living symbol of respect to our nation's first peoples.
Of course, however, not all Australians agree with this sentiment.
Humourless debate around one's indigeneity was shot into the spotlight in April 2009, when the identity of then Australian of the Year, Professor Mick Dodson AO — among others — was, without cause, publicly and unlawfully attacked by everyone's favourite neo-conservative, Andrew Bolt.
Through his prevalent weekly Herald Sun column, Mr Bolt denounced a long list of indigenous Australia's foremost men, women and children for the sole reason that he considered them not black enough.
Personally, I've always been told if anyone has an issue with your identity or heritage, then that's their problem. Fortunately, the Federal Court of Australia agreed and later ruled Mr Bolt's rant to contravene sections 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.
Any expectation that a person would no longer identify with their indigeneity because their skin colour is now fair is insulting. It's as if to say: "You no longer have to put up with the burden of being Aboriginal in day-to-day life, so why go there?"
I still recall Professor Dodson delivering the annual Reconciliation Lecture at The Australian National University in June 2009. He shared a story of how, when he was quizzed by a colleague as to why he was so attached to his Yawuru heritage and perhaps less so his Irish pedigree, Mick cheekily replied that "growing up, no one was trying to suppress my Irish heritage".
Destructive policies of governments past are well documented. For over 100 years Aboriginal peoples were threatened with extermination by one method or another. The outcome is a 21st-century culture that is rebuilding and adapting to find its place in Australian society — and so too are its descendants.
It's significant to note here that 'culture' is not static. Nor is the identity of those who identify with it. Consequently, it's not easy to define Aboriginality. Race and ethnicity are social and cultural constructs that are almost impossible to gauge objectively. For what it's worth, your author is a light-skinned Aboriginal man.
"But you don't look Aboriginal?" people sometimes opportunistically ask.
Which is splendid — at present there is not nearly enough dialogue a propos Aboriginal identity. I usually rebut with a leer: "What should an Aboriginal person look like?"
Like most people, I've been raised to embrace and be proud of my (Wiradjuri and British) heritage, so it's an integral part of my make-up.
Yet my Aboriginality does not define me. Nor should it. I'm also an Aussie. An epidemiologist. A mad Carlton fan (forgive that one). A son… I think identifying as an indigenous Australian is often too defining.
By now, you may think: "Everyone should just get over it — there are bigger fish to fry!" However, there are many young brothers and sisters out there who desperately need to talk more openly about their identity.
A mentor to hundreds of young indigenous Australians, Dr Peter Radoll, director of the Australian National University's Tjabal Indigenous Higher Education Centre, and recently dubbed 2012 ACT Scholar of the Year, has steered thousands of aspiring indigenous students through their university adventures. I asked Peter recently to share his views on how he considers the next generation perceives itself.
"Diverse!" Dr Radoll exclaims with a jousting laugh before pausing to take in the intricacy of the question. "I think to be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander in 2012 is very exciting. This year we mark 40 years of the Tent Embassy in Canberra, which is such a powerful symbol of our resilience and determination. We also mark 20 years of the overturning of the doctrine of Terra Nullius. We are now talking of constitutional recognition as well. So I see 2012 as very exciting."
And if your 'white' features are more prominent than your 'black' features?
"I think it is important to remember that indigenous Australia is very diverse; some might say multicultural. Colour doesn't define our identity — our identity is in us and strengthened by family."
It could be put forward that identity is a major underlying issue in many of the challenges facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today — indeed a determinant of health.
The consequences of history still hit home today. Although so resilient, indigenous Australians have in common extraordinary rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, mental health disorders… You see these statistics all the time. If you are weak in character and self, you'll more than likely be of poor self-determination and make poor choices.
Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr Chelsea Bond — an Aboriginal and South Sea Islander woman, descendant of the Munanjahli peoples. Beneath a pile of community side-projects, Chelsea has, for the past decade, worked on critically examining the construction of Aboriginality within public health practice.
"Today we come in all shapes and colours, each with our own narrative of indigeneity," says Dr Bond, research and teaching manager of South-Brisbane's highly successful Inala Indigenous Health Service. "But what unites us, what binds us is our sense of pride and resilience as a people? Over 200 years of colonial processes put in place to deny our existence, our sense of self and our identity. Australian society must come to accept that one's journey may not adhere to the tourist-like images of Aboriginality that it produces."
And Chelsea's advice to any people out there hitting their head against the identity wall? "Strength in one's identity is found by finding strength in one's own story — not adopting what they think is the 'authentic' Aboriginal experience." Good advice.
There remains an enormous need for Australians — indigenous or otherwise — to expand their comprehension of the 21st-century Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander landscape. It can be complex and confronting, but it appears a good place to start the conversation is by simply reaching out with a friendly, tilted palm and enquiring: where's your mob from?
Kyle Turner, 27, a recipient of the 2012 Charlie Perkins Scholarship, is commencing a Doctor of Philosophy in Public Health at Jesus College, Oxford. He describes himself as "a young lad of Wiradjuri and Irish descent from central-NSW. My profession is Public Health, with an acute interest in urban Indigenous child health. And I can tell you that if you are weak in your identity, you're more than likely struggling in health and in life. This issue is most relevant to Aboriginal children growing up in urban Australia – where 75 per cent reside – who are torn between two, conflicting ways of life.”