Saturday, March 22, 2014

Fair-skin privilege? I'm sorry, but things are much more complicated than that

Following on from my article about why I prefer the term "black", I encountered what I can only describe as an unexpected and actually quite upsetting response via Twitter. It was unexpected because it came from members of the migrant community; a community which, on the most part, I have experienced as strong allies. It was upsetting because no amount of explanation from an Indigenous perspective seemed to satisfy. There was a barrow to be pushed and it needed to be pushed at all costs. I write this piece not to cause division, but rather to use this opportunity to educate in the hope that the knowledge of people is expanded. 

It started as an initial long Tweet that I was sent, but from there it developed into a long twitter exchange. At no point throughout this exchange did I get the sense that any of the points I had raised from an Indigenous perspective were taken on board. This long tweet, minus identification and lead-in paragraph is below: 

You've made some comments that indicate that you regard it as ‘old fashioned’ or ‘wrong’ to use skin colour as a marker of race. However, if you deny skin colour as a marker of race, then you deny an important aspect of Blackness.

Being darker doesn't make you more Black, but it does make you, all other things being equal, more discriminated against. To deny that is to deny your privilege: not privilege of class, education or profession, but privilege of skin colour.

There are countless different ways to be Black and not all of them are visible. But denying visibility in Blackness reminds me of whites who claim to be colour-blind. In doing so, they deny other people’s experience.

I think the reason why this means so much to me is that I have no shared culture, no shared history, no shared community or any of what you consider to be contemporary or valid Blackness. Just skin colour. 

Now before I go further, it should be highlighted that my article, which was completely about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity, and which used many of our descriptive terms, our language and our experience to highlight this fact was interpreted, as was made clear in the residual tweets, to have impact for non-Indigenous communities of colour. I never set out to represent these viewpoints in my piece. I do not have the required background to represent these views from a first-hand experience. Considering that our media is dominated by white males writing about everyone else, I would much rather read those perspectives first-hand rather than silence the voices by hazarding guesses at what their views might be. Likewise, I expect that people would recognise that I am coming from the perspective of an educated Arrernte woman of the hard-left persuasion who lives in the city, recognise how rare those voices are in the media, and not contribute to the silencing. It was unfortunate that this didn't happen.

To start with the point regarding how skin colour is a racial marker and there is a privilege associated with lighter skin, I didn't deny this in my responses although I tried to highlight from an Indigenous perspective why the situation was more complicated. I just got walls. This was why I ended up putting a stop to the conversation. To put it simply, I don't disagree with Dallas Scott when he highlights how skin colour seems to be associated with greater financial disadvantage, lower educational attainment and social ostracism, although I would argue that factors such as remoteness and mainstream ignorance also come into play. I'm 100% certain that skin colour was the reason why Jack Charles and Gurrumul Yunupingu were denied taxis. Their visibility is undeniable. 

However, fair skin privilege from an Indigenous perspective is incredibly limited. The view expressed by the long tweet completely ignores the many assimilation practices that fairer skinned Aboriginal people have been exposed to in this country, such as the "Stolen Generations". Children of fairer skin being ripped away from their darker parents in order to be trained up in domestic chores and farmhand duties so they could then be given to settler communities as free labour. 

Fair skinned children being blackened up with charcoal by the parents in the hope that the government officers would not notice their colouring. Children being belted for speaking their language and forced to abandon language, culture and family in order to avoid punishment. Living conditions so abhorrent that a dog would turn it's nose up at them. Don't believe me? Here is my grandmother, who was a member of the Stolen Generations, talking about the experience in her own words.  It didn't end with my grandmother either. My father was a welfare kid who ended up with some siblings in The Convent School in Alice Springs where they were also punished severely for expressing language and culture. Recently my brother, at my father's birthday, delivered a speech where he gave the first paragraph in Arrernte. I cannot not tell you how that felt. For two generations children in my family were denied the right to speak language because they were wards of the state and here's my brother, at nearly 30 years old, reclaiming this language so that his siblings and his son are not also denied it. It's for these reasons that you see so many fairer skinned Aboriginal people fighting so damn hard to reclaim language, family and culture. By virtue of skin colour many were denied these things. This is not an experience within the borders of this country that translates readily to a migrant experience.

Additionally, whilst I never denied skin colour as a marker, and whilst I also don't deny the existence of some fair skin privilege in the some ways, what about visiting the concept of "migrant privilege"? The White Australia Policy existed until the early 1980s yet from the 1940s onwards, following the impacts of wars, it was chipped away at bit by bit. Non-white immigrants were eventually accepted into the country in various "waves" to the point of Malcolm Fraser openly supporting multiculturalism and opening up the refugee programmes to many Asian nations. This country has gone so far backward since this time with elections being won on the basis of "stopping the boats" that I am disgusted to live in it. Yet, here's the thing: my father, despite being born in this country and having ancestors that had been born in this country for roughly 4000 generations, was not counted in the census as a citizen of this country until he was 17 years old. This is why I have problems with the term "First Australians". Each successive wave of immigrants became Australians before the First Peoples, regardless of skin colour, were recognised as human beings. Therefore, migrant communities, whilst actively discriminated against by other Australians and enduring vast poverty, racism, ostracism and countless other things, also had more rights in this country than the First Peoples. 

I state this not to be inflammatory. Rather it is a simple historical fact and one I believe that the majority of people living in this country are unaware of. They are not aware that one of the wealthiest countries in this world has third world conditions tucked away far from the visible eye. They are not aware that trachoma and other third world diseases are still an issue here. They are not aware and I am not surprised. Why? Because this country continually fails to acknowledge its own history and even goes to the extent of suppressing it by referring to the negatives as "black armband history"; therefore there is no value for national pride to revisit this stuff. Everyone who lives here benefits from stolen lands for which treaties are yet to be negotiated, massacres, frontier wars, assimilation policies and the displacement of original peoples. Including Indigenous peoples that live on lands other than homelands (yep, this would be me). Yet the broader knowledge of this is so severely lacking. Sometimes a simple acknowledgement is all that it takes to make the day of an Indigenous person struggling for recognition. 

One final point, throughout the course of the tweeting, the dissenting voices referred to themselves as "Black Australians" and I feel the need to claim sovereignty here. To me this was no different than seeing Andrew Bolt referring to himself as an "indigenous Australian". It diminishes our importance as First Peoples of this country. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are the "Black Australians". Migrants of colour are black people who have made Australia their home and have become "Australians" therefore accepting this country as it stands: a place which was wrongfully declared Terra Nullius and was taken without the consent of the First Peoples. There is a difference. We use "black" as a way of highlighting our experiences as a result of, or in contrast to "White Australia". The lack of general population knowledge due to national denial when it comes to our unique struggles is why I feel that this distinction is sometimes unknown and needs to be explained. 

I wish to apologise to the many comrades and allies I have within the migrant communities for the existence of this blogpost. Know how much I value you, your support and your commitment to fighting side-by-side for recognition in this country. This is not a blogpost that is written for you. Rather it is written for others who, sometimes through no fault of their own, do not possess this knowledge. Who would make comments such as encountered above without realising just how limited and uneducated on the plight of First Peoples these comments are. Who accept this country as their home with a dominant power to struggle against for recognition yet fail to delve into intricacies of the experiences of First Peoples. I hope this post assists in their acquisition of knowledge.

Finally, I look very much forward to reading more about the experiences of migrant communities in this country. I want to read a hell of a lot more about the unique experiences of racism, the ostracism and the intricacies from these voices. I WANT to read about skin colour and how this manifests as a site of repression from a migrant perspective. If I had my way, the dominant white, middle-class, right-wing male voices would be sidelined in the media in favour for diversity and the sharing of true knowledges. I will never, however, be representing these voices myself in my writings. As First Peoples whose experience is almost always denied, we've got our own stories to tell and I am not the right person to be telling the stories of others. With respect.     

Update 11/4/14 - Earlier this week, a response was written by the original poster of the long tweet that started all this. On reading this post, beyond linking it so people do know a response was prepared, I have decided no further response from me is warranted. The piece speaks for itself and I would be clearly wasting my time furthering this exchange, and a couple of parallel exchanges with others. Among many other "interesting" points made, it's news to me that I want anyone to accept this country as it is, what with me being a sovereignty supporter and all... Anyway, make of it what you will.

Update 14/4/14 (what I hope will be the final one) - Eugenia Flynn has written a response to this whole situation, and I encourage all to read it. It's incredibly important and not only reflects her own proximity to this issue but came about because, despite all efforts, things didn't appear to be letting up any time soon and myths were continuing to be perpetuated by those with a barrow to push to achieve their own notoriety (my words, not hers). It is an extraordinary piece and I want to thank her publicly for taking the time to articulate her views. I hope that those with unanswered questions will find them within her articulate text. I have previously stated that no further response from me is warranted, and whilst there was a further response given on me stating this (available via the link in the first edit if you click on the main site), it is unproductive to engage with that response post or any subsequent as I have no doubt they will continue. Fiction is fast becoming "fact" and I'm not willing to be a part of that.  


  1. I'm a first time commenter and I want you to know I stand in solidarity with your words. I have nothing more to add than that. Peace.

  2. Thanks I got a lot out of this.

  3. Great article on a really important topic. It is definitely not a rant. You are much more composed than I could be on this topic. I studied Australia's history of assimilation at Melbourne uni (with Prof Marcia Langton and Gary Foley etc) and can't read anything Bolt writes without it causing blood pressure problems. 2 things -
    1) I'd love to see Australian migrants learn much more about indigenous Australia. It is not a competition to see who is more discriminated against, much better if everyone can work together to address the broader systemic problems of privilege and discrimination. I am loving what Suey Parker is doing in the US with Not Your Asian Side Kick etc and would love to see Australians do something similar. As Demon Lily says, it's about solidarity.
    2) As much as I love that you are able to reclaim the title rant I really don't think that this is. You write with much more composure on this issue than I could, despite it being something which affects you and your family so directly in very painful ways. I love this article by Dawn Foster about Women in Journalism She quotes Reni Eddo-Lodge who says "I worry that my perspective is received as not 'objective' because unlike straight, cis, middle class white men, I don't pretend that it is”. Bolt = rant. You = journalism.

  4. Thanks Celeste, great piece. I agree with Lyndal that your work, always profound, insightful, thoughtful and wise, is never a rant. For some reason (and I can't work out why, this piece has brought me to tears.

  5. These words need to be read by everybody! Powerful and true, and I feel like giving a standing ovation.

  6. I think you've highlighted well the need for specificity when discussing power relationships. I frequently fail to understand the necessity some people have to arrange disadvantage and tyranny into some sort of pyramid, when each relationship with the oppressive power is defined by specific and unique conditions. Bolt's dulux colour card approach to what constitutes indigenous identity is an obvious example of way skin tone can be used a nullifying tool. (Even saying those words makes me feel gross...but I don't know how else to phrase it. Ugly ideas need ugly words, I guess).

  7. "But you don't look Aboriginal"

    This is a great article, but I'd like to add that there are other huge issues that come with so-called 'fair skin privilege'. Upon meeting new people and telling them you are Black, they are often incredulous at the least and rude at the other extreme. Questions of blood quantum and lineage, unsolicited comments about height, weight, hair and facial structure, and commenting that you 'mustn't have very much Aboriginal blood in you' as if it were a) measurable or b) relevant - all the norm, and never respectful.

    Having your heritage questioned by disbelieving busybodies isn't the worst thing though.

    It's when people assume you are white and try to ingratiate themselves with you by making racist jokes or comments to you under the assumption that you will agree and appreciate their disgusting thought processes.

    I've had teachers, students, coworkers, employers, bands on stage, bank tellers, doctors, strangers, lovers, friends and even other family do it, all with no idea that what they are saying would be better off said to an actual white person, not an apparent one.

    Remember: Indigeneity is like tea. It doesn't matter how much white milk you add, it will always be a cup of tea. In my case, the additive is Lebanese milk.

  8. Celeste, I have only just caught up with this discussion, been busy trying to write my methodology chapter of my thesis, and trying to stay off the radar while I write this hence why I don't have a Facebook, Twitter, or linkedin account anymore. In case you were wondering where I had gotten to. Anyway reading your article [as well as subsequent replies including written response by Eugenia Flynn] I am reminded of a time in 1988 when a friend from Darwin remarked to me "we always thought that you were an Indian trying to be an Aboriginal". The occasion was the Pacific Arts Festival in Townsville of that year. I had just introduced this friend to some of my Australian South Sea Islander family who are in large numbers along the east coast of AustraIia. Most of whom have inherited both Aboriginal and South Sea Islander ancestry. However, at the time then I was in company with other Aboriginal people visiting from 'Top End' communities attending the festival. But getting back to my friend who was part of "we" which in this case were a social clique of "coloured mob" [their reference, not mine] from within the Indigenous community in Darwin. I was stunned by the remark which had a catalytic effect drawing together fragments of memories I recalled of behaviours over time by this clique hence some answers to my observations of why I was treated as an outsider during my teenage life stage by this mob, the remark made even harsher by knowledge that many themselves also inherited particular Asian ancestry. Then I remembered of course though there were many many other Indigenous people [of other mixed ancestry] in Darwin who accepted me as an Indigenous person so the original remark and my memories of this clique ended up being dismissed in my thinking in much the same way as I have zero tolerance for lateral violence.