The following post focuses the construction of Aboriginal identity and the effects that can have
This month’s GLAM Blog Club Theme is identity so I thought I would write about my own identity being a fair skinned Wiradjuri man and the construction of Aboriginal identity by colonisers. This topic was been discussed a lot recently, particularly in these two IndigenousX Guardian articles 1, 2 as well as Dr Bronwyn Carlson’s book the Politics of Identity and Dr Anita Heiss’ book Am I Black Enough for You. There is also this Canadian First Nations perspective article titled Looking white and being Aboriginal
I remember when I was young saying to someone that I wanted to be Matty Bowen because like him, I was short, fast and Aboriginal. The response I got from this person was I can’t be like Matty because I’m not really Aboriginal like him. This was the first time in my life, I realised that people may not see me as Aboriginal and even though I grew up never thinking I was anything but Wiradjuri, that others may question my identity.
Being a fair skinned Wiradjuri man
Since colonisers arrived to this land mass they later titled “Australia” , they have defined who we are and what we do, identifying us as “Aboriginal” or “native” or later “Indigenous” among other terms. These terms were used to define us, not just as different, but to define us as inferior. Later, when colonisers starting pushing the assimilation agenda to fix what they called the “Aborigine problem” they continued to define and categorise us by either tribal or non-tribal, which later informed the blood quantum definitions and categorisation of us. That is when terms like “half-caste” and “quarter-caste” started being applied to people.
This is not in the past, the media continues to proliferate and reinforce White created definitions of who we are and what we do. Now the definition is one of drunk criminals rather than savage natives, however both definitions achieve the same thing, to characterise us as inferior as well as to dehumanise us. There’s also the famous example of andrew bolt in the herald sun explaining who he thought was more Aboriginal based on what they looked like.
GLAMR institutions even play a part is this with their exhibitions that are curated by White people having simplified portrayals of First Nations peoples. Many exhibitions only tell stories of First Nations people as sad victims or as magical beings. This can create or fortify binary ideas on who First Nations people are.
This is why it upsets me when after I identify myself as Wiradjuri, people say “you don’t look Aboriginal”; “you can’t be much Aboriginal” or “what percentage are you?” because it continues to reinforce binary definitions of who First Nations people are. Definitions which have had very little input from First Nations people themselves.
This questioning or denial of my identity as a Wiradjuri man because of my fair skin may derive from the fact much of White society wants to deny and ignore how destructive colonisation has been on First Nations people. As Nayuka Gorrie points out “There are violent reasons many of us have fair skin” Acknowledging this may come with a guilt many people do not want to face.
Occasionally, this denial of First Nations peoples’ identity is done to derail discussions about racism. If you dismiss their identity, you can also discuss dismiss their experiences.
White created definitions of who First Nations people are extend beyond skin colour. Recently, talking with a Gamilaroi artist friend of mine, we were talking about his work, which very influenced by Tolkien and Gaiman and that it does not fit the mould of what is deemed Aboriginal art by mainstream society. As result, he is not considered an Aboriginal artist. However, I argue, that because his art is influenced by his life as a Gamilaroi man, then it is Aboriginal art.
Fair skin privilege
I think it should be acknowledged while I identify As a Wiradjuri man, I do benefit from fair skin or “white-passing” privilege. I do not cop racist slurs from strangers (except that one time someone mistook me for being of Asian descent). I usually get to tell the story of myself rather than other people imposing a story on me based on the way I look. If people never met certain family members of mine, I could tell them that I’m white and they’d would not think otherwise. These benefits gain me access to elements of society that my darker skin brothers and sisters can not.
That being said…
Many fair skinned First Nations people are still affected by ongoing institutional racism and colonisation. Our socio-economic statuses are still affected by dispossession, land theft and imposing of European customs and the dismissal of our own. Many fair skinned First Nations people also experience intergenerational trauma caused by the nation’s previous assimilation policies.
Furthermore, as Bennett notes in her study, while fair skinned First Nations people do not often experience obvious racism, they can experience micro aggressions such as people telling them that they speak well, not like other Aboriginal people or that they receive free houses. These experiences of racism along with a refusal of light skinned First Nations people’s identity can negatively affect their mental health and lead to severe depression and anxiety.
Identity is tricky for most people however it makes matters harder when imposed on you are stereotypes about who you are and what that entails. We should work to allow First Nations and other minorities to be able to define themselves.
I will end this post by adding link to a poem by Steven Oliver. The poem starts around the 50 second mark
By Nathan Sentance