Thursday 4 April 2013

Who is more Aboriginal?

Recently, a contributor to this blog (Brotha_B) posed a question to me:-

In a previous post you wrote that neither of your children are disadvantaged “simply because they have an Aboriginal father” and that they do not fit the ‘stereotypes’ associated with Aboriginal kids in central Australia. However, would you agree this does not make them any less Aboriginal? They are still entitled to be proud of their heritage.

And in this blog post, I'd like to begin to attempt to answer that question, but I'm afraid I'll pose many more in the process.

You can't say you haven't been warned.  It's going to be a long one...

First, I think we need to be allowed to discuss what Aboriginality is?  How can we even answer who is less or more Aboriginal, if we don't have an opinion first of what it is to be 'Aboriginal'.  The thing is, Aboriginality (or being Aboriginal) means different things to different people, and a majority of those opinions I've been lucky enough to have shared with me in no way fit with the current three part definition that makes up our current law.

For some, to be Aboriginal means that you speak your traditional language, live on your traditional land (and understand how it was and is passed to you to care for), follow lore, perform ceremonies and know the stories of your creation.  To these people, my children would both not be considered 'truly Aboriginal' and neither would I.  Just of descent from those who once were.

For others, to be Aboriginal is an identity you have been given, whether chosen or not.  By virtue of appearance alone, an inescapable identity that singles you out from others - whether positive or negative. 

For yet others, being Aboriginal means that you have discovered a relative in your family tree who was identified as being 'Aboriginal' at some point, and therefore accept a previously unknown identity and adopt that in part or in full - due to pride, or a wish to 'belong' or a genuine interest in family history and Aboriginal culture, right up to the more sinister motivations like financial advantage or power seeking.

For a few, Aboriginality is about race.  The recognition that prior to the arrival of the various waves of people to these shores, there were a race of people scattered upon this country who shared genetic traits, practiced various rituals that often differed from tribe to tribe - collectively known as 'Aborigines', and that the bloodlines and traditional practices stemming from these people have either been diluted or maintained.  How Aboriginal you are depends on your mathematical blood quotient and their cut-off marks with what constitutes cultural practices.

I don't speak language (hasn't been the practice in my family since my Great-Grandparents), live in the suburbs and would completely agree with traditional Aboriginal people when they say they don't see me as truly Aboriginal.  By their standards, I'm not, and I understand and accept that.  My children wouldn't be either.  Although I've never been mistaken for anything other than Aboriginal, and despite my genetic lineage, Aboriginality is as much a system of lore and living and traditions to those who know what they are talking about when they say the word 'culture', as it is about genetic lines.  It is not skin colour or who you happened to be born to or from that gives you authority.  It is far, far more complex than that.  In their world, I have no respect or standing, and rightly so.  Our worlds are completely different and to ignore that is nothing short of being disrespectful.  I'm far more 'whitefella' than 'blackfella' in their eyes.

The thing is, if you asked 100 people who identify as Aboriginal and another 100 who don't, from all walks of life, to answer the question 'who is Aboriginal?' honestly, and without fear of reprisal or judgement (and they're not allowed to use the 'safe answer' of the three part definition), you will probably get a wide range of answers - everything from fitting into the categories above, halfway between one and another, to those that could make other categories completely.  When I've posed this question over the course of my life to all kinds of people, I've gotten a huge variation in responses.  All I've learnt is there is no one definition that is agreed upon amongst all people who consider themselves Aboriginal. 

If you ask me what being Aboriginal means to me, I would say it means that I am always identified by others as Aboriginal - that is the first thing that a question like that prompts.  Second, I would say that it means my parents were of only Aboriginal heritage, as were my Grandparents, Great-Grandparents etc, therefore I  am the sum total of my ancestry in that respect.   

I am secure in myself enough to be well aware that I am more than my appearance, but it is often the first thing others notice about me, and frequently employed in any description of me to others.  I'm judged more often than not in new social situations by the previous interactions with others of my racial group.  I often come without a clean slate, and have to overcome long held fears or beliefs before I can begin to build a relationship of any substance with a great number of people.  They are often not racists, but rather, like me, their experiences or what they have heard or been taught have helped shape their view in a way not always approved of.   They are cautious of me because I'm from the same racial group they just watched on television, where some reporter filmed an Aboriginal man and woman drunk and fighting in the main street of town with the voiceover telling them this is nothing new or exceptional.  They're frightened because I look the same as the people who John Howard came on television to explain were neglecting and abusing their children in record numbers.  They seem wary of me because they know that Aboriginal people are over-represented in our jails, and jails house people who have committed crimes.  Possible criminal by default - proceed with caution.  On the flipside, you get people who want to use you to demonstrate just how much their first year Indigenous Studies Professor has taught them about "my struggles".  They tell me "you're a true Australian" or loudly exclaim that they "support the First People like me in their just plight against the white man" or simply must tell me about some rally they attended to "make a difference".  

Want to know the difference between the first group and the second group?

With the first group, those often branded as 'racists', I often find that once I open my mouth and start talking, and they hear that I speak no differently to them, and am obviously educated - most times we find a common ground on which to start a friendly conversation and like magic, they stop seeing the black skin and treat me like an individual.  The latter group, however, more often than not, never seem to stop being able to view me as a victim or as anything other than an Aborigine.  They speak to me like I'm an idiot, that because of the colour of my skin, I was discriminated against in education and therefore lacking against their University educated prowess so they must make concessions for me and expect a lower standard of me at every opportunity.  They seem to believe that I am unaware of how the modern world works, or worse, believe I need some of their do-gooderness to overcome a disadvantage that I clearly don't have.  I'm a cause, not a person to them.  

But back to the original question...

Based on my own opinion of Aboriginality, my children have part Aboriginal heritage.  They live with me in the suburbs (they visit but don't live on the land their Aboriginal ancestors did), speak only English, and therefore, to me, they are 'less' Aboriginal than those children who live a traditional life, or have heritage that is solely Aboriginal.  I want them to have pride in the ancestors, but not selective pride.  My kids have a white history and family that is just as large as their black family and black history.  To pretend they don't, that they are only a singular racial background or identity, is not appreciating all of what contributes to making them who they are, and in turn, insults good people who have always loved them unashamedly (as do my children them) - whose only 'sin' worthy of such treatment is apparently being white. 
That my children are 'less' Aboriginal than some others in my eyes is not really the important argument in the entire debate.  It is not about whether they are part-Aboriginal, or part-white, or seen as one or the other, but whether having Aboriginal ancestors in itself makes them disadvantaged to the degree that other Aboriginal people in certain communities are.  I can't in good conscience say that they have it anywhere near as hard as many people I know who just happen to share their racial background.  Disadvantage is about circumstances, not genetics or racial identity, even if one racial group has statistically poorer outcomes than another.  It is not 100% of the group suffering, yet we continue with race based funding rather than needs based funding in an effort to alleviate this suffering and disadvantage.  All the while we're happy to pretend that there is no harm done by acting in this way, and ignore the fact that to provide benefit to one race exclusively, based only on the fact they belong to or identify as belonging to that race, is in itself 'racism'.  That kind of racism, we're apparently happy to suffer.  Other types, not so much. 

Racial politics are difficult.  Even for me, its often a fine line to walk.  If I do not mention my heritage, I am accused of somehow being ashamed of my race, when the reality is, I'm proud to have the heritage I do.  I'm proud because I'm descended from some great people who did great things.  The thing is, that heritage makes up only a small part of who I am as an individual and a person.  I'm many things that I'm very proud of - an Aussie, a father and husband, a carer, a lover of Rugby League and old Kingswoods - as well as being of Aboriginal heritage.  I'm no poster child for the Aboriginal disadvantage and suffering we are sold as being necessary to ask no questions about where race-based funding is spent, or how it is divided up.  If anything, people like me are the reason we should ask hard questions and not shy away from debate on this topic.