Sunday, August 12, 2012

And so we pause for a moment from this feminist broadcast to bring you an important note about identity...

EDIT: This post was linked to on Fairfax's Daily Life via a published article. My original blogpost for that article can be seen here

I have written on identity politics many times before. Back when I did honours, I wrote a play about it. Last year, during the Bolta case, I contributed to an article on it. This year, of course, there was that Miss NAIDOC article. Aboriginal identity politics has long been a pet topic of mine, which I've discussed at length with mob and non-mob over the years. Over the past week, however, identity politics has been discussed pretty far and wide by a number of mob in light of the SBS Insight episode entitled "Aboriginal or Not", and it has made me realise that of my writing, most has been about reinforcing identity in the face of non-Indigenous questioning. Tackling internal identity politics is another deal altogether and so I have decided to write this post (which has said it will be my first non-feminist-focussed post, but I am, after all, still me...) as frankly I think that the SBS Insight episode was as likely to assist in the understanding of the issues as I am of becoming, as remarked earlier in the week, a Liberal-voting baked potato. 

I have never (to my face) had my identity questioned by a fellow blackfella. True story. One of the things I have always recognised is my privilege in this regard: I come from a known desert family and my last name readily ties me into that family. For those who are not aware of that family (which are few in the community, but this also proves useful for whitefellas as well when placing me), I will then often tell them my Grandmother's "maiden name" (anyone else hate that term? Non-feminist post fail #1...) as her family have members who were in the public eye and are more universally known. In addition to this, my father has been working in the Vic community for 20 years, so when I entered the workforce, I was quite readily placed by Vic mob as his daughter. I have, in my time, met so many who don't know their family/mob/country etc and were putting those pieces together and so I know how lucky I am to have that knowledge. I have also, living in Vic, seen the mob here fight tooth and nail for culture and community rights. I feel really lucky that my political knowledge has been forged not only by family story but also by living in this state, meeting some amazing people, and seeing those battles unfold. 

I do not have a current "Proof of Aboriginality" and I have no need, or desire, to get one at the moment. My proof document was lost when I changed jobs, and I haven't replaced it because I have been lazy but also because, frankly, I have always resented having to have it. The reason why I have resented it is simple: whilst I have never had to produce this document amongst mob to prove myself, I have had to produce it to prove my background to whitefellas and govt departments. I have once had my proof knocked back by a government department because the Statutory Declaration that accompanies it was out of date. This made me resent the process even more because despite the fact that mob still recognise me, the government clearly valued the whitefella legal part of the document more and I kind of felt that this defeated the community-driven purpose of the "three-tiered definition". I have also refused to get it as I have been asked more than once for these same documents that I have previously supplied to a couple of bodies, and frankly, I think that once one has "proven themselves" in a whitefella system, that should be it and asking those that have proven themselves to do so again is really quite annoying particularly if their status within the community has not changed. But I have digressed, and in the interests of keeping this about proving oneself within mob, let's return to Insight.

I think those that were watching Insight and had no real understanding of the inner-workings of Indigenous community and our organisations could be forgiven for thinking that the system is well and truly stuffed and rarely works when it needs to. Insight constructed their programme to reflect that in my opinion, and in reality, whilst I have witnessed times where it has not worked, on the whole I think it works for most of the people, a majority of the time. I also support a three-tiered community-auspiced definition over anything that the government has cooked up over the years. I mean, let's face it: their previous blood-quanta definitions and being a part of the country's native fauna weren't exactly designed to keep families strong, proud and together... SBS, in all their wisdom, decided to pursue the show from the angle of those that had been refused community confirmation and what the consequences were. They also, quite deliberately, focussed the issue on appearance by setting it up so that we had dark-skinned and fair-skinned people battling it out over who had the most right to proof of Aboriginal documentation. Apart from a couple of brief moments when audience members got the opportunity to say something in a set that was, to put it mildly, getting out of hand, the process itself was not discussed in any huge way.

On watching it back, and following conversations with others who watched it, I think folks could be forgiven for thinking that Aboriginality comes down to how dark someone is, what their financial need is, and whether or not they can hail a cab to get home. Yes, I was on the set myself and despite the fact that what I said barely went to air (I promise I didn't swear), the camera felt the need to focus in on me about 10 times probably because I was all "in between" coloured, and looked like an outer-suburban Melbourne hipster with OTT hair. I am sure that I provided a nice "contrast" to a couple of others on the set, because if Insight weren't interested in what an Arrernte/Collingwood feminist trade-unionist protopunk aficionado had to say on the topic of identity, then they really had no other motives for the numerous extreme close-ups. I did bring up the topic of social Darwinism and past use of those ideas by governments to divide our mobs after listening to a couple of people on set adhering to those exact same principles and that comment kind of made it to air, but it was not really pursued and we remained stuck on skin colour and money. Isn't Aboriginality so much more than this folks?

I think Dallas and Tarran, who were on the stage, both showed so eloquently when the system fails the people. I am not a supporter of Dallas' blog for a number of reasons, but what really shone through when he was sitting up there telling his story was a man who was fighting so damn hard to keep his young family together in extraordinary circumstances but who was also sick to death of seeing so many of our mob not looked after. If we are a "community" then the likes of Dallas need to not be failed by our processes. Additionally, Tarran who had her identity incredibly publicly questioned on stage which I found totally unacceptable, had also been failed by our community system not once, but twice. So why was the focus of the show then essentially whether one was more entitled to identity documents than others based on skin colour and not that two people who had identified as black their entire life and had a right to do so had been failed by a system that perhaps needed to improve? More to the point, why were mob on the set so quick to buy in to this discussion? Have we forgotten years of bad government policy, and the right for people to identify with their families? Is it not occurring to people that this pot of poorly-divvied up money we're squabbling over is the spare change of an imposed government that refuses to acknowledge black sovereignty and enter into some proper negotiation of how first peoples may be properly compensated for lost land, people, culture, and language? Is there another way this discussion could have possibly been framed so that we are discussing, as First Peoples, these things and exploring alternatives rather than turning in on each other and reducing our identities and experiences down to the exact same things that have been used against us? I do resent SBS for setting the show up like that.

Here's my take: I learnt pretty young that skin colour is nothing compared to family. Within my own family we have a huge diversity in appearance in my generation, and some of us are not more Aboriginal than others because we range from dark to fair through some random assortment of genetics. We're family and we're Aboriginal, end of. Additionally, we have never denied mixed heritage. Our last name came from somewhere after all, and a lot of us have one non-Indigenous parent. Our grandmother was taken to Jay Creek and then the Bungalow in Alice where language and culture were most certainly not encouraged. So do I think that someone has more right to claim identity than someone else because they are darker, have been through ceremony and they know songs, language and land? No, and particularly not if those making the assertion are directly profiteering from the displacement of other mob and their ability to practice culture by living on lands that are not their own and that have been made available to them to purchase via past government policy. People have a right to identify with their families and they damn well have a right to have their history acknowledged. By the same token, those that have these things deserve admiration, dignity and respect and it should not be the case that they often seem to be the most socially and financially disadvantaged amongst us. Do I think that monies are inadequate? Bloody oath I do. It's a disgrace that so many of our mob don't even have the bare essentials and this has been going on for so damn long. I just question whether mob, rather than government, are where the anger needs to be directed. Do I think that there are some folk that rort the system? I'd say there would be but I doubt that this is infinitely more than any other system out there (tax evasion, dole cheats, anyone?) and in my years of student support, I certainly didn't experience an avalanche of those looking to profiteer falsely identifying so they could do so. Moreover, I question whether the provision of scholarships (for example) needs to come at the cost of proper funding in destitute communities. Why is this an either/or scenario? Shouldn't our community be catered for and encouraged in as many ways as possible? I certainly don't accept the idea that our mob become less Aboriginal when they go to University, and considering how my uni-educated blackfellas were in that studio of all colours and claims, I can't actually believe that this was even part of the discussion. Hell, a members' survey conducted last year by the NTEU may prove illuminating on that front, particularly if people take the time to read the individual responses at the end.

So my final word on it is this: through buying into these arguments and perpetuating them on screen, we are simply buying into "divide and conquer" tactics. We are being assimilated into the processes that have been used against us for so long, and frankly I think we need to remember to look elsewhere as well. I know one thing: I sure as hell will be thinking damn hard about any future TV appearances. Taking breath and posting now...


  1. Bravo.

    I was really disturbed by some of the opinions expressed on the SBS show and have been heartened to read some blog posts, including this one, about it since it aired.

  2. Aye, well said. I've been stewing on this for days now, and am still trying to make my peace with it.

  3. I realise this is addressed to the mob, so I'm not really the target audience- but I found this post so incredibly intelligent and interesting, particularly in light of some similar but different discussions about identity politics that have been going on in my own Samoan community (which I wrote about in, that I had to comment. I also really enjoyed the article in relation to the Bolt case in Crikey. If only your play was being staged in Sydney!

  4. P.S Though I'm not one of the mob I completely agree about the pie not being big enough, and although I am a first generation Australian (ie. neither of my parents are Australian) I strongly believe we all benefit from what was and continues to be taken and there should be a genuine attempt at compensation.

  5. Hi Folks, sorry for the delay. I have been afflicted with RSI for the past two weeks and wrote my rant in between episodes. Anyway...

    Thanks so much for the feedback on here. I have gotten a lot of opinion on this piece (although most of it has been elsewhere so my comment thread looks little!) and it seems that most found the same: the show was disheartening, at times offensive and generally did very little good when it came to the concept of black identity. The media coverage on this has been rather big, including Bolta of course writing a column about how he is not allowed to write a column on it... :(. Have strength: you know who you are!

    And Teine Samoa, I always enjoy your perspective! It is always heartening that this is not just an Aboriginal experience and there are shared things here. A problem shared, hey?!

  6. Sorry Celeste. This made me so sick - this whole thing, that I couldn't even read stuff like this, which is good. In fact that members' survey was something I had to read from a work perspective, coincidentally just after all of this, and it was sort of hell to read/great to read/hell to read. I feel a bit like I felt some years ago, the need to be head down, bum up and get on with my life, not challenge anything and just persevere. And that's them winning. And it's not good. It's actually a struggle that we don't need... this one.

  7. Just a followup. Don't think about not appearing. If it's only Dillon (or latterly Langton) who will put out their voice, it'll still be these half-arsed stories out there and nobody to bear witness to it.

  8. Having to provide "Proof of Aboriginality" is not necessarily a bad thing. It also stops low life white scum bags who would do anything to claim a buck from being able to lie and tap into benefits that do not apply to them.

  9. I ended up here through a link provided in your article on fake tanning on smh recently ( I assume that was yours). This was such a thought provoking and interesting read and although I did not see the original Insight episode, this post was very insightful. I look forward to reading more of your work!


  10. I came here via The Age website. I'm an immigrant from India and this was such a new territory for me. I enjoyed reading your piece. I can never find out enough about Indigenious culture. I always read the questions: Are you Aboriginal in so many application forms. I never realised what exactly it entailed for those who were, in fact, Aboriginal (or Torres Strait Islander). Thanks for your insightful and thoughtful post.