Wednesday 21 May 2014

Who's your mob?

If you’ve read any ‘Aboriginal’ media interviews, or watched NITV for longer than an hour, you’ve probably come across the question ‘Who’s Your Mob?’, and for those who never heard it, let me explain it to you, and for those who have – I want to tell you why I despise the term.

For those not in the know, or new to the term, ‘Who’s Your Mob?’, it is a term crafted and used originally by the Aboriginal Industry,  but now is creeping into the mainstream media,  to place a special label on a person and confirm their heritage.  Apparently, all Aboriginal people identify by their tribal groupings nowadays, and use this greeting to identify who they are to other Aboriginal people.  At least, that is the idea they’ve been promoting.  You can hear and see the term used often when someone wants to draw attention to the fact the person they are interviewing is ‘Indigenous’.  When asked the question ‘Who’s Your Mob?’, the answer is supposed to be a tribal name.  This allows you to then be referred to as a ‘(insert tribal name) man/woman’ thereafter.

Being ‘culturally aware’ is difficult.  Not just hard because the term is misleading, but difficult because a certain level of mental disconnect is required to achieve what stands for cultural awareness in this country.  ‘Who’s Your Mob?’ is a perfect example of this.  What may have been a common use greeting in one area, or one state, or amongst several family groups does not constitute an appropriate ideal for all.  But it has become almost standard use among several media outlets already. Despite the fact that we are striving for better educated Aboriginal adults and children, we are encouraging the use of little more than slang as a benchmark for our communications with one another. We should be aiming much, much higher than that.

Can anyone please explain to me how it is racist to say “All Aboriginal people are (insert derogatory stereotype of your choice)”, but not racist to think all Aboriginal people use poor grammar and are capable of speaking or understanding in only the most basic of English, or have only one way to ask one another where they are from, or who their family are.  I’m told only the first one is racist, the other, simply ‘cultural awareness’.  

If that is what passes as ‘cultural awareness’, you can take it and shove the whole idea.  I speak, read and understand English at a level you would hardly call remedial.  This is not a skill unheard of for an Aboriginal person to possess, in any location.

Because of the way I look, I am often approached by people for no other reason than the thought that we may share some relatives somewhere, or may have a common friend locally.  This exchange is usually instigated by a nod of the head and nothing more.  If I see someone I don’t know, but who looks obviously Aboriginal to me, one of us will inevitably nod in the direction of the other and a conversation will start.  Never once, in my many encounters, have I been asked ‘Who’s Your Mob?’.  Not once. When I talk about my family to others, I identify my links through missions, not tribal names or groups.  People will ask what my surname is, or ask for the location where I live or where extended family live, but never,  ever, do I get the NITV style ‘Who’s Your Mob?’
I am not a product of traditional people who stayed on their ancestral lands, but a child born from generations of native people to this land who were rounded up and placed on missions almost two centuries ago.  My brother, sister and I are the first generation of my family to not be born and raised on a mission, but who were born to two parents who lived that life, and whose grandparents were, and their great-grandparents before them…and on it goes.  My story is not unique, but neither is it a story that fits all Aboriginal people in this country.  In the seemingly endless obsession to classify and understand Aboriginal people as a race, whether through the misguided notion that by doing so, less racism will occur, or whether for some other less noble intent, we’ve made a messy and uncomfortable bed for ourselves.  To label ourselves brings the expectation we can be categorised and understood based on that label alone.  Nothing could be further from the truth.    

The culprits aren’t just evil whitey anymore.  Aboriginal people have to wake up and point the finger at ourselves here as well, because now that we’re a special race, with special rules, and unelected representatives who speak for us and decide the issues on our behalf, it’s all on us.  By saying we’re so different, and do things in a ‘special’ way, so unlike everyone else and so unique and, again, special, we’re forced to conform to an imperfect ideal that is supposed to speak for us all.  We lose the right to be unique individuals when we allow ourselves to believe that we can be defined so easily, and by something that matters so little when it comes to who and what we are as a human being.


  1. An interesting read. I naively assume that such terms if used on NITV must be common and acceptable to everyone who identifies as Aboriginal.

    I do wonder if the practice puts pressure on people to nominate a "Mob" which they don't necessarily feel any affinity to, particularly if they have been raise off the country, perhaps for two or more generations?

    And how do those who come from mixed Aboriginal heritage deal with that question? Is it traditional to take the Maternal or Paternal line?

  2. Welcome back. You were missed

  3. Firstly, welcome back Dallas, you have been sorely missed.
    On the issue of "who's your mob" well I must have been in hibernation the past 40 years or more because in all that time, surrounded by remote aboriginal people, I've never heard the term.
    Up here in the North, if meeting a very traditional, remote aboriginal person, with poor literacy skills, the more common greeting is "where your country"?
    Amongst town dwelling, educated people the terms used are descent, and heritage. Ie when the local paper prints an article about one of the local people who have been successful on a national level they use the term " of ¥¥¥¥¥¥¥descent". Frequently there are two tribal names used, representing both maternal and paternal descent.

  4. I need to add more as this site is playing up.
    To continue, people up here, when first meeting a stranger are most likely to ask, where are you from or who are your family. Most origins are known based upon family names, although this is becoming harder as many of today's young people have parents from several different tribal groups.
    I can only presume, that like wearing clothes or accessories in aboriginal colours, this term is designed to allow self justification for identification as aboriginal despite having no colour, no indigenous culture and living an entirely European life style.

  5. Dallas, Andrew Bolt has mentioned your blog this morning (Sat 24 May) well done!

    And you have up another bloody good article!

  6. I had heard this term before when I was in Mount Isa about 7 years ago. A lot of Aborigines in NQ west would also identify themselves with a "skin name".
    I'm not 100% sure exactly how it worked, but the "skin name" had more to do with the family they grew up with and identified with rather than their actual birth name.
    It was a real problem at census time and identifying people for drivers licenses etc.

  7. I've just read through a number of your articles and they are all rational and measured. Very enjoyable thank you

  8. I've worked with aboriginal colleagues for over six years and never heard anyone say "Who's your mob?". The questions are about the family name, where from? Mother's family name, where from?
    One lady was particularly adept at interrogating new people about family links - question after question but they didn't seem to mind at all.
    Some referred to "my mob" (family) and "our mob" (general) but that's the only reference to "mob" I ever heard.

  9. Welcome back Dallas. I enjoy your blog.

    You were mentioned yesterday by Poor Old Rafe at

  10. G'day Dallas just wanted to say that I appreciate your openess, honesty and integrity in the posts that I have read. Very refreshing.

  11. So glad you are back Dallas. You have been sorely missed.

    This identification process occurs with other nationalities as well. My heritage is Lebanese on my mother's side. when meeting other Lebanese we ask from which town do you come. Since most of the communities came from a particular town and everyone was related to everyone else, it was a good way of knowing whether you were related to them. Over the years I've found many cousins, many times removed.

    Hope you stay around for a long time,Dallas. Aboriginal people need another voice that isn't bogged down in victimhood.

  12. Hi Dallas, you've just been bookmarked. I was referred here from AB's blog this morning and I've just finished reading and very much enjoying your site.
    What a refreshingly honest and level headed aproach to to things. I wish that your attitude to life could be distilled, bottled and distributed. If the writing represents the man then I like you very much and your beautiful children are in great hands. I will continue to drop in, please continue to blog.

  13. Hi Dallas,

    You are an interesting person, largely because what you say is so universal. In even culture around the world there is a conflict between those who try to homogenize their own culture and demand conformity within it, and the more individualistic members who search more for what it means to be human. For reasons that can be debated, the media often gives a platform to the individuals with a bias towards cultural homogeneity when that individual is not from a western culture. Occasionally; however, you do get those diverse voices. I enjoyed your perspectives on Insight and think it would be great if we heard more of your ideas.

    The Danger of the Single Story by Chimamanda Adichie gives an insight into what has happened in Australia because that single story of Aboriginality has been proliferated. Hopefully, your voice will change that.

  14. I don't really hear "Who's your mob?" I do find the use of the word "mob" a bit simplistic and awkward, and sounds more like a leftover from colonial days and people like Norman Tindale with their "hordes".
    More likely to hear "Where are you from? Where's your country?"

    Lots of people identify themselves in multiple ways, e.g. I hear people answer that question with "Born and raised in Brisbane, on my Mum's side I'm XYZ, dad's side XYZ", just as a person could for example identify themselves simultaneously as a member of XYZ family, a Scot, a Westie, a truckie, a New South Welshman, and an Australian without it being divisive or diminishing from their identity as a human. And they can, whether consciously or subconsciously, adopt aspects of all of those cultures and identities concurrently, without making their identification with any of the others more or less authentic.

  15. I thought it was just some thing young aboriginal people were saying, teenage slang like any other teenage slang (with `being a teenager' almost being a culture in itself) only with a racial unifier rather than a music genre/sport/fashion/what school they go to based one.

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