No, Andrew Bolt Did Not Have A Point
By Ellen FanningAugust 9, 2012
Is the debate over identity in Australia – who gets to call themselves indigenous – just the new face of racism? A throwback to the question “Just how black are you?” so often used to keep uppity blackfellas in their place?
Gordon Weiss's article "So, Did Andrew Bolt Have a Point?" wondered whether it was worth debating some aspects of the right-wing columnist's infamous articles in which he attacked "the trend" of what he called "white" Aborigines who chose to identify as black for political, financial or other gain.
"Meet the white face of a new black race — the political Aborigine," Bolt wrote, and proceeded to wade through the gene pool of a group of high profile indigenous professionals, artists, activists and academics.
Not only did the Federal Court find that he'd breached the Racial Discrimination act, but Judge Mordecai Bromberg concluded that some of Bolt's facts were "grossly incorrect", particularly about the biography of those he smeared.
Weiss's article suggested that "some aspects raised by Bolt's articles remain contentious and unanswered," pointing to what he described as Bolt's "larger point … the incongruity of the idea that a person not particularly affected by discrimination might gain advantage from membership in an ethnic group while the vast majority of their people still struggle".
But for the subjects of Bolt's columns, the very act of being vilified in newspapers around the country is proof of a particularly Australian form of racism — this questioning of their identity or authenticity.
It is unlikely that Bolt is the first person to have confronted these high-profile Aborigines with the sneering challenge, "Just how black are you?" They are not alone. That sort of inquiry is directed to almost any indigenous person who doesn't fit the stereotype of an Aborigine. And it even happens in universities where you think people would know better.
Last year, the indigenous unit of the National Tertiary Education Union surveyed university staff about their experience with discrimination.
"In a meeting with a senior university professor the comment was made that I was not very Aboriginal, and the professor then proceeded to ask me what percentage of Aboriginal blood I had," said one respondent to the survey.
Overall, the survey found 80 per cent of indigenous University staff reported that they have been treated less respectfully in the workplace because of their culture; 71 per cent reported direct racial discrimination. And 60 per cent reported encountering lateral violence — which includes harassment and bullying from other indigenous people.
There are pages and pages of similar examples: "Being told I'm not Aboriginal because I have light skin." "Being told I got a 'hand up' into my position due to my race." "I was bullied by someone because although I am Aboriginal, I have fair skin and I'm not 'black enough'."
Professor Shane Houston, deputy vice chancellor for indigenous strategy and services at Sydney University decodes this idea of a colour test: "In some ways this is just an updated [version of the] the racist argument that was put to me when I was growing up, that being Aboriginal meant you were black, drunk and dirty.
"[It's just] dressing it up in a different set of clothes and running the same argument."
Houston interprets such arguments as essentially saying that Aboriginal people "can't be successful and black".
Perhaps that's because non-Aboriginal Australians who make such arguments require them not to be.
"Yes, yes, yes," says Aileen Moreton-Robinson, professor of indigenous studies at Queensland University of Technology.
"What I find really ironic in all this is that people like Larissa Behrendt [the indigenous woman, barrister and professor of law at the University of Technology Sydney who was one of those vilified in Bolt's articles] are supposedly what the government wants from all of us [indigenous people]," she says.
"They want us to get off welfare. They want us to achieve and to excel. And yet when people do that, it becomes a problem."
"I think it's because Australia can only cope with its own version of the Aboriginal — and that's basically just the 'noble savage'."
Houston agrees. "I have seen in my working life Aboriginal people who are red-headed and freckled and are incredibly proud strong and committed to their identity. If [someone] wants to say 'Look, there's someone over there who looks a bit pale. They can't be a real Aborigine,' well, to me that's just plain ignorance and stupidity."
Moreton-Robinson contends that such a worldview that says you can't be indigenous if you are fair skinned, is a throwback to colonial times, when settlers invented the notion of "the Aborigine" to describe the multicultural, multilingual societies they encountered.
"I'm a Goori. Goori is the term for indigenous people in southeast Queensland. That's how we name ourselves. I'm not an Aborigine," she says. "[Aborigine] is a racialised term which has been constructed to homogenise people who were culturally diverse. Race enters into it and makes skin colour the measure of authenticity. The blacker you are the more Aboriginal you are. When in fact the identity of Gooris and Kooris was specific to their culture and their country not their colour. There is no term for race in our languages."
Moreton-Robinson argues that Australians would be better equipped to have more sophisticated debates about identity and race, if racial studies were put on the curricula at Australian universities.
In his judgment against Bolt, Judge Bromberg wrote "Beyond the hurt and insult involved, I have also found that the conduct was reasonably likely to have an intimidatory effect on some fair-skinned Aboriginal people and in particularly young Aboriginal persons or others with vulnerability in relation to their identity."
That kind of intimidation is precisely what 22-year-old Frank Gafa discovered last year when he spoke to fellow indigenous University students, during his term as the indigenous officer at the National Union of Students.
[Gafa spoke to The Global Mail as part of a forthcoming story on indigenous access to higher education.]
"It's this question of 'How black are you?' to put it bluntly," says Gafa.
"There are a lot of instances of students who are light skinned going to tutorials and having indigenous content talked about in a culturally insensitive way. And when they [say] they are indigenous, people [comment] 'you don't look like an indigenous person. You don't act like an indigenous person.' And that happens a lot and not only in tutorials but [generally]."
It's a question that seems to increase in frequency for some such young people as they become more successful. Perversely, many of these students report that their high school teachers didn't think they were cut out for university because they were indigenous.
"I had a career advisor who would continually try to make me to take labouring jobs," says Gafa, who is now studying Arts and Law at the Australian National University. "There was this stereotype that blackfellas are only good for hard labour or low skilled jobs and are not really suited to university."
So, at high school students can be considered too indigenous to aspire to higher education, but once at university they are suddenly not indigenous enough?
"Yep. Exactly right," says Gafa. "There's this whole culture of indigenous students who are at university not being the same as indigenous people living out in remote communities," he says.
In his video interview with Gordon Weiss, Aboriginal academic Anthony Dillon questioned whether some urban Aborigines ought to access affirmative action policies.
Moreton-Robinson dismisses that argument. "The question is not that some Aborigines are taking the bread and butter out of other Aborigines' mouths," she says. "The question is why isn't there enough bread and butter to go around."
"We can see it in the Northern Territory. [Indigenous] people just don't have services. That's not the fault of other Aborigines," she says.
She also points out that the majority of Aborigines don't live in remote areas but in outer suburbs of metropolitan areas and their socio-economic indicators are "fairly consistent with those of their brothers and sister who live in remote areas and therefore why would you seek to exclude them from any opportunities to improve their life chances."
Professor Shane Houston says he's listened to Dillon's ideas about who should access indigenous welfare programs. "I think his notions are a little flawed in a couple of different ways," Houston says.
"Sometimes my mob can confuse need. People in some very remote communities can say, 'We got a lot of needs' and that's absolutely the case. But there is often need in metropolitan areas that's different."
What bedevils the debate, says Houston, is confusing the issues of identity, heritage and need.
"My mother is a non-Aboriginal woman. My identity as an Aboriginal man is not diminished by the fact that I have a non-Aboriginal mother," says Houston. "I'm quite proud to acknowledge my [white] heritage but in forming my identity I have made stronger and stronger commitments to values and principles I think are important and they are what govern my identity as an Aboriginal man."
By comparison, he quotes a non-Aboriginal friend who jokes that if he looked back hard enough at his own family tree he too could probably find an indigenous ancestor.
"But he said, 'You know, Shane, that wouldn't make me Aboriginal because it's part of my heritage, it's not part of my identity.' And that's where the difference lies.
"What I find really offensive is the views that some of the people like Bolt and others mouth that if you don't meet their idealised or anthropological view of what a 'real' Aboriginal person is you do not have need [for affirmative action programs] nor do you have identity [as an indigenous person]," says Houston, pointing to research which finds that it is the grandchildren of the Stolen Generation who often suffer most from those policies, and who are therefore in need of such programs.
While such grandchildren may be light-skinned and may not necessarily have a strong indigenous identity, their Aboriginal heritage and the damage caused to their families by indigenous policies of the past may make them very needy indeed.
(Meanwhile, you could contrast this bare-knuckle debate about indigenous benefits with the enthusiasm for broader middle-class welfare.)
The fact is, with the percentage of indigenous staff and students at Australian universities stubbornly low, policymakers inside and outside government are pursuing a higher-achievers approach, targeting the best prospects in schools and beyond rather than just focussing on lifting literacy and numeracy standards across the board, which has been the traditional approach of indigenous education policy.
Surely doing whatever it takes to get as many of the best and brightest indigenous Australians through university should be a national priority for all our sakes.
That's part of what the Charlie Perkins Trust is doing. Named for the first indigenous Australian university graduate, it funds a special scholarship for indigenous graduates to further their studies at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. But this kind of intervention is widely misunderstood. Perkins scholars often find that they have to explain to people that they got in on merit and the Perkins Foundation is just paying the bills.
Other programs cluster together groups of bright Year 8 students, giving them intensive academic tuition in the school holidays and throughout the school term.
Gordon Weiss's report noted that land title issues are in their relative infancy in Australia and questioned whether the potential for Native Title claims on mineral rich areas during Australia's historic mining boom might some day spark the sort of tussles over who is and isn't indigenous, as seen in some US Native American communities, where he notes that dubious claimants have struck it rich by uncovering a native ancestor.
To which Professor Shane Houston says, "If people want to suggest that there are thousands of dollars being rolled out to people because they are part of a native title settlement or something like that well that's actually not true.
"In the United States, the Indian country is treated as a nation within a nation and Indian communities own sub-surface rights. They own the oil and gas which is under their ground, in Australia we don't. The crown owns all of those.
"If you look at most of the ... [indigenous] agreements [with mining companies] … most of the benefits accrue through things like jobs, education and training," says Houston. "There isn't this notion that I'm Aboriginal, I turn up at the cash box and say 'Give me my cheque.' That's just nonsense.
"To suggest that Aboriginal people are only interested in their identity because there is some magic pot of gold at the end of some mythical red, black and yellow rainbow is an absolute myth," he says.
"There is serious money involved [in being indigenous] but its generally the cost side," he laughs. "Let's face it if you've got death rates from heart disease that are two and a half times the national average, there's a cost involved in that. Normally being Aboriginal is associated with costs rather than profit."
Moreton-Robinson says indigenous leaders also pay a price, for being outspoken.
"People like Michael Mansell, like Larissa Behrendt are prepared to put Aboriginal issues on the table. It takes a great deal of courage to do that — a great deal of courage. And there's always a cost to doing it.
"To put your head above the trenches means you have to accept whatever comes your way. And there are far more people sitting in Andrew Bolt's side of the trenches than ours. So there's always a price to pay," Moreton-Robinson says.
"And those who suggest that people chose to do those kinds of things because there's some big reward, demonstrate that they don't understand the complexity and violence of race politics in this country."