I’ve read that you have been confused and outraged that the number of people laying claim to Aboriginal ancestry is increasing. If you bear with me, I think I can explain.
I’m a middle-aged white woman who was raised in a very white-seeming rural community. As far as I knew, I had minimal contact with anyone who was of Aboriginal descent. Looking back, I can remember families who were darker than the Spanish, curlier haired than the black-haired Welsh and Irish… and I now know many of these people had Aboriginal ancestors because, while they didn’t ever speak of it back then, they’ve spoken about it now, or written about it in their family trees.
But when I was growing up, if someone’s Nanna was one of the tens of thousands of brown skinned young women who’d been taken from their Aboriginal homes, raised on a mission, and sent to serve as domestic help in the homes and farms of our country, most avoided talking about it. If they were fair enough to pass as white, they never mentioned their Aboriginal family origins because they saw and heard the nasty treatment that their darker-skinned relatives got. They saw that they were less likely to be treated decently. Less likely to get a job, more likely to be bullied, bashed, arrested, or even killed. They were very quiet about their family tree, or they invented a family mythology that explained the darker features of their complexion.
It was discrimination that they wanted to avoid, and fear that fascism could return and see whole sections of society being marked out as inferior, even marked for genocide. It wouldn’t be the first time. Nobody wants that kind of horror visited on their children, or their grandchildren. They watch the news, and see the surges of fascism, racism, neo-Nazis wearing swastikas in public and throwing salutes at rallies. I don’t think their fear was unreasonable.
Sadly, they thought it best to let the heritage be lost – so much of it was destroyed already; what was the point of putting a target on your family’s back in an effort to preserve or re-claim a cultural heritage that was mere scraps of what it had once been, when the risks were so clear, and so harsh? Loving parents quietly allowing their children and grandchildren to become completely assimilated into white society is a safe, if tragic, option.
Whole generations have arisen while the elders of these nominally white families are still holding to their resolution to bring their descendants into the safety of the mainstream.
There are many in these families who know the truth. It’s a bit of an open secret, and as time passes and the old people pass away, the secret becomes a dilemma; should the children know? We’re in a safer society now. Most of the younger kids pass as white without question, and the darker skinned members of the family look well-tanned and maybe… nobody really cares about their skin colour anymore. Or nobody who matters. Only a handful of white supremacist dickheads think anything of it if their nurse, vet, retail assistant, or magistrate isn’t obviously pasty-white. Aboriginal heritage doesn’t carry the risk of bringing an automatic social downgrade anymore, especially for people who pass as white enough not to get brutally discriminated against by police, bouncers, nurses, security guards, employers, prospective in-laws etc.
This brings another dilemma for the younger generations: if they “come out” as being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, they will also “out” their family members. What if their cousins don’t want to be identified as anything but generic white people? Is it fair to claim your own cultural heritage and ancestry if doing so will expose your cousin or siblings to nasty racist discrimination?
So, Pauline, I think that the increasing number of people who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a great reason. It’s because racist fearmongering is having a diminishing impact. Despite the best efforts of racists everywhere, Australia is smarter and more knowledgeable about race now. Not as many people are as deeply racist. Not as many people fear the resurgence of genocidal fascism in this country. Not as many people feel it’s necessary to hide their heritage.
More Australians now accept that “white looking” Aboriginal people have every right to ‘tick the box’. It’s becoming normalised that regardless of whether a person with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage has been raised on country in their ancestor’s ancient traditions, or whether they grew up in bland suburbia, the people who are claiming or re-claiming their cultural heritage should do so freely. Sure, they may get a job or a scholarship that’s been designated for Aboriginal people – but guess what? Aboriginal people now come in all shades. Some of the palest people I know (and I mean kids so white they have no visible eyebrows, and you get snow-blind just looking at them in sunlight) are first cousins to some who are quite noticeably brown and of obvious Aboriginal descent.
And for the Aboriginal people who are quite obviously of Aboriginal heritage, there’s no point in not marking the ‘of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent’ box. It’s not like the discrimination against your dark skin goes away if you deny your genetic heritage.
So then there’s the people who are in-between. Most of the time, nobody cares about their skin colour. They might or might not be marked as Aboriginal for the purposes of discrimination. They may or may not have been raised in households of intergenerational trauma and poverty caused by the destruction of their originating culture. Should they tick the box or not? I’d say it’s up to them.
It’s certainly not up to you or me, Pauline.
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