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<p>AAP Image/Lukas Coch</p>

AAP Image/Lukas Coch

One of three recipients of the 2012 Charlie Perkins Scholarship, Kyle Turner meets Prime Minister Julia Gillard in Canberra on May 30, 2012.

Don’t Judge A Black By Their Cover

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.

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.

<p>Patrick Hamilton</p>

Patrick Hamilton

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.

Any expectation that a person would no longer identify with their indigeneity because their skin colour is now fair is insulting.

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."

<p>Patrick Hamilton</p>

Patrick Hamilton

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.”

14 comments on this story
by Brooke Dickson

Great topic! Closing comments are so true, if you are poor in spirit you are often poor in every other way and identity is so closely connected to spirit

August 9, 2012 @ 9:57am
by April

The concept of identity is such a complex one. Its great to see people speaking out against comments by folk like Bolt.

August 9, 2012 @ 11:16am
by Emma

A beautifully crafted reality check on the depth and diversity of modern day Indigenous Australia! What a bold and inspirational young man!

August 9, 2012 @ 11:30am
by caroline

I believe the same argument (although different context) could apply to migrant populations. Are we expected to behave or conform to stereotypes in order to be accepted within a community or by Others? I love the idea and the reality of the diversity of Indigeneity. Young role models are welcome to stand out!

August 9, 2012 @ 4:04pm
by Marcus Finch

Way to go Kyle, a quality piece in a great online production.

Its provoked some thought however, what am I to do with my Welsh, French, Spanish/Jewish north Asian ancestry?

Keep up the good work.

August 9, 2012 @ 4:31pm
by Dan-Erik Bergström

Being from a different cultural heritage is difficult in Australia, be it Aboriginal or any other country but Britain.

Minorities (or people from different cultural groups) are perceived as an annoyance, and there is a pressure to "integrate". There's an perception that if you can simply be an "aussie" why would you ever want to be anything else (hungarian, italian, or swedish for example?), especially if you are light skinned (as you mentioned in the article)

In the end Australia has only one official culture, and others keep to themselves.

August 9, 2012 @ 5:07pm
by Simon McCormack

Wow! Kyle has written an honest and open account of what it means to be an Aboriginal man - based on his own personal experiences. I found his views to be very powerful and challenging. Kyle is a worthy recipient of the Charles Perkins scholarship and I wish him all the best with his study at Oxford. I also look forward to reading more from him in the future!

August 10, 2012 @ 7:33am
by Greg Lehman

Kyle's comments reassure me in my belief that our failure to do much other than dig ourselves even deeper into the mire of race and racism during the 1980s and '90s will only be resolved by the free and creative thinking of our younger generations. Rich and respectful conversations about Aboriginal heritage and identity is what Australia's future needs and deserves. Kyle is a part of that conversation!

August 10, 2012 @ 3:56pm
by Kate

Well said Kyle! Excellent article - see if you can get something similar in the Tele or Herald, to really get the point out there. So glad to see you're off to Oxford! Congratulations!

August 12, 2012 @ 9:52am
by Crystal

This blog was written by a friend of mine and speaks to the same issue of identity raised by Kyle. He was voted WA youth of the year for 2012.

http://nolinehorizon87.tumblr.com/

August 14, 2012 @ 9:34pm
by Luke

LOL - If Mick Dodson wanted his Irish Heritage supressed he should have moved to Nambour (QLD) and been a good Catholic parishioner in the 60's. Ask Wayne Swann why his brother was kicked out of his family. (Answer: He married a mic)

The truth is we are a culmination of all our descendants both genetically and circumstances. I am five quarters mongrel having been descended from Irish landowners, Welsh pirates, English convicts and Scottish migrants. In my ancestory I have horse thieves, Irish pig farmers which my extended family still own the farm 500 years later and Camel trainers who help build the inland Australian railways. They all form a part of my heritage and I am equally proud of them all. There is nothing wrong with being proud of your Aboriginal Heritage no matter how small or distant. Embrace it I say or it will be forgotten one day and that would be the true tragedy.

The Aboriginals have their Indigenous heritage and I can't claim that myself, but come on, who as a kid doesn't want to be a Welsh pirate on the odd occasion, or an English pick pocket after watching Oliver Twist. If you have Aboriginal Heritage why would you not want to hear the dream time tales, be able to hunt with a boomerang and spear, play the digeridoo or dance at a corroboree. Even as white fella these things called to my imagination when I was a kid, if I knew that these all belonged to an ancestor of mine it would call even more.

December 24, 2012 @ 12:38pm
Show previous 11 comments
by anon

"What should an Aboriginal person look like?"

Generally speaking not European. This is the plain truth as I see it. Aboriginality seems to me to be expressed in two ways: genetically  and culturally. Why am I not an Aboriginal? European genes both sides of the family all the way back, plus no Aboriginal culture.

So far as I know no one is suggesting that someone with my genes could "convert" so culture by itself is not enough. So far as the genetic contribution goes, it comes in degrees. So does culture for that matter.

If I were now to discover a distant non-European relative, apparently for some that would radically change things. Some people would like to think it a license to identify to the exclusion of all their other genetic contributions. Especially if the relative is Aboriginal! If the new found distant relative were Chinese who would take me seriously as (just) Chinese? Even fewer than those who would accept me as (just) Aboriginal.

I think what upsets and confuses people is all-or nothing identification.

Aboriginality and terrible suffering have tragically gone together and still do to this day (and, again, tragically will continue to do so).

What offends me is that there are European looking people who seem to identify as Aboriginal in an all-or-nothing way who also seem to have not suffered for it. How could they have? If no one can spot you as Aboriginal by looking at you then you can hardly be the subject of the type of racism Aboriginal looking people suffer from. It's also a fact that in general the more Aboriginal you look the more likely you are to be suffering and to be in close connection with Aboriginal culture.

If my perceptions are correct then I feel justified in seeing the all-or-nothing Aboriginal identification of European looking people as a cheapening of Aboriginality bought at the price of incredulous looks when asserting, "I'm Aboriginal".

I find this especially egregious when there's a handout to be had (that could be used to help Aboriginal people who are actually in need).

May 1, 2013 @ 1:50am
by Kevin McNulty

Too deadly Kyle, I am a light skinned Aboriginal, Irish Australian and I am very proud of both my culture's as if I deny one then I don't exist......Kevin McNulty.....

June 1, 2013 @ 11:02pm
by Michael Hough

This discussion is another good example of how we can conveniently redefine what is an accepted understanding of a word in order to apply it to new situations. A contemporary example of this is the word "marriage". It has pretty much been universally accepted as a word that applies to men and women who come together in a formal, public relationship. Other relationships would then have their own specific terms of address. The push of a minority wanting something they called "equality" has redefined the standard understanding. Now marriage is something new. A similar process has taken place with aboriginality.

A people is defined by its culture. If someone in Australia can somehow trace their familial lines back to some aboriginal ancestor, but have been long removed from that cultural setting, then how can they claim aboriginality? They may have some distant familial links but that is a long way from being aboriginal, just as my great, great, great grandfather's Irish ancestry does not make me Irish - except by distant fantasies. Culture is not transferred through blood or genes.

This push to acknowledge and celebrate aboriginality among white-skinned people living far from cultural communities, groups who are still celebrating their traditional values and lifestyles, is little more than just one more wave of politically correct redefinitions. I am no great fan of all that Bolt says, but his questioning and the response to it is a good example of just how sensitive people have allowed themselves to become. I can have my Irish heritage questioned and there are no problems but question anything someone might claim in terms of their claimed aboriginality and you are in trouble.

Finally, what is needed if this is going to be taken seriously is a definition of this "aboriginality". It is clear when someone is still living and working with connections to their culture, their land and their traditions. They are aboriginal. That make sense. But living in the suburbs with no commitment to a traditional value system is another situation altogether. All genuine aboriginal peoples are the ones who suffer most when townies seek to claim some sort of link with them. Nowhere is this more noticeable when having aboriniality means being better off financially in some way.

December 10, 2013 @ 7:16pm
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