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No, Pauline, we do not need a debate on Aboriginal identity

In yet another display of pandering to sensationalism, Pauline Hanson wants a debate on Aboriginal identity, lamenting to an enthusiastically agreeable Andrew Bolt that there exists no “set definition to determine whether a person is Aboriginal”.

In essence Hanson wants a debate because she doesn’t know what set of biological or cultural characteristics define a person’s Aboriginality. And I would assume that she wouldn’t be happy with the outcome of the debate unless it packaged and labelled Aborigines into something that fits perfectly into her world view. That would explain why a debate is required over, say, a simple internet search for the answer.

Since 1788 there have been literally hundreds of politicians, anthropologists or other social scientists who have endeavored to piece together the very same question posed by Hanson (without, of course, the need for a political debate manufactured to endorse a shallow world view). Through the work of those ‘others’ – and with of course the benefit of consultation and engagement with Aborigines – we have a very clear picture of what determines whether a person is Aboriginal.

It is far more complex than Pauline Hanson would ever envisage. I am assuming that she seeks a simple answer (and of course, some googling would provide one with some simple answers) but the complexity of the issue is like one large cultural jigsaw puzzle.

I mentioned the year 1788. Let’s start with that piece of the puzzle.

If we cast ourselves back to 1788 we would embrace an environment where Aboriginality did not exist, but was to soon be invented by the colonising power. The European invaders constructed Aborigines as an ethnic category based on their own notions of culture and saddled Aboriginality on the Indigenous Australians, and European ideology continued to shape European ethnic perceptions. Prominent among the perceptions it was believed that culture was carried in the blood.

Over the next hundred years European ideology continued to shape the whites’ perception of Aborigines. Among these perceptions it was believed that culture was more than simply carried in the blood, but that culture was the external indicator of biological ancestry and culture, and that cultural characteristics, either heredity or unchanging, separated human groups from one another.

Ethnographic evidence indicates that before the arrival of Europeans, numerous distinct groups had occupied the Australian continent. Although these groups shared physical and cultural features and had ties of affinity, trade, and religious cooperation, these societies were distinguished by geography, language, and culture. With the benefit of hindsight, the ethnographic evidence failed to recognise that in determining identity, Aborigines traditionally attributed greater importance to culture and genealogical ties to heredity. Groups were differentiated on the basis of presence or absence of certain beliefs and behaviours, and of spiritual ties between people and land.

Basing their construction of Aboriginality on inadequate theories of culture, early anthropologists defined Aboriginality as constituting a pristine and timeless and cultural condition. Some still saw them as savages, remaining noble, despite constraining nature and unbending adherence to rules; the Aborigines typified a fossilised and primitive stage of social evolution. Ethnocentrism further led to the attribution or projection of negative characteristics. Even to this day many people have a stereotype of Aboriginal people as being very black, standing on one leg with a spear and living in the desert.

Up until recently, the social and cultural practices in Australia rendered Aboriginal people invisible. As a consequence, while Anglo-Australians have continued to ‘know’ about Aborigines they have known them only by report. Even in the rural Australia, local Aboriginal people have been ignored in favour of ‘real Aborigines’, supposedly living in a tribal life in the bush. The public has been largely dependent on representations of Aborigines to be found in the statements of various ‘authorities’, the work of painters and photographers, the printed and recently the electronic media, or even artifacts aimed at the popular and tourist markets.

“Such representations of Aboriginality called into doubt the special status of those who called themselves Aboriginal, but lived in urban settings, practised no traditional arts or ceremonies, and generally failed to ‘look the part’. Such people had constructed their Aboriginality in other modes, primarily by reference to proximate ancestors and living kin. Some have identified it as a major component of what is called ‘the Aboriginal commonality’, implying as it does a continuous network embracing all Aboriginal people throughout the continent” (Jeremy Beckett).

Regardless, under the doctrine of Social Darwinism it was always expected that the Aborigines would not survive alongside the presumed European superiority. However, only Europeans had selected Aborigines for extinction. Nature had not. While Australia was told that Aborigines were not going to die out, it was also given to understand that Aboriginality was doomed. Timeless and unchanging, Aboriginal culture was incapable of coexistence with the modern world: the old Aboriginal cultures were collapsing everywhere under the impact of while settlement, mining exploration, pastoral expansion and the effects of State assimilation policies.

“Managing Aboriginal people under one guise or another, the State has been in a position to influence their public constructions. Not only has it determined who should have access to them, but it has played a major role in the assembling of information about them, has commissioned much of the research conducted by experts on them, and has acted as patron for artistic representations of them” (Myrna Tonkinson).

Consider, for example, the Western Australian interpretation of what constituted an Aboriginal person. Every person who is:

  • an Aboriginal inhabitant of Australia, or
  • a half-caste who lives with an Aboriginal as husband or wife, or
  • a half-caste who, otherwise than as wife or husband habitually lives or associates with Aborigines, or
  • a half-caste child whose age does not apparently exceed sixteen years, shall be deemed an Aboriginal within the meaning of this Act . . . ” (Western Australia Aborigines Act of 1905, Section 3).

Aborigines though are no longer silent objects of study, but increasingly challenge the very terms in which they are written about. However, it is not easy to re-examine the intellectual heritage; a heritage that is a body of knowledge understood by those sharing the same discourse and built into our contemporary consciousness in many intricate and hidden ways. Aborigines are exploring their own Aboriginality and are finding that the white Australia cannot accept their own view of themselves. You can’t define Aboriginality in terms of the colour of their skin or in terms of what genes and chromosomes were inherited. Aboriginal people have a very strong spiritual heritage: above anything else it is the essence of being an Aboriginal.

Consider how different an Aboriginal interpretation of Aboriginality compares with the political or social construction. The emphasis on spiritual and cultural unity is absolute. They identify the following characteristics as common to all Australian Aborigines:

  • descent from the original inhabitants of Australia; a shared historical and cultural experience, particularly that arising from relations with non-Aborigines;
  • the Dreaming, or Aboriginal worldview; intimate familial relationship with the land and the natural world, and knowing the pervading moulding character of these in all matters Aboriginal’;
  • social interaction based predominantly on the mutual obligations of kinship; observance and social importance of mortuary rituals; and
  • bi or multilingualism.

Whilst these elements constitute Aboriginality, Aboriginal values such as reciprocity and individuality could also be included, although these are not unique to Aborigines. However the list provided could be considered typical of cultural inventories: they constitute a coherent set of characteristics that are present and enduring in all Aboriginal people. However, significantly, the operative definition of Aboriginality has shifted from biological to the cultural. The Aboriginal emphasis on kinship and behaviour in determining identity is apparent. Another notable characteristic of Aboriginal social life is the self-conscious identification with notions of sociability and behaviour ascribed to Aboriginality, a world view with definable social values, attitudes and cognitive orientations.

In denying people the right to relate to themselves through their bodies and where notions of kinship are organised around cultural notions of the body is denying Aboriginal a major aspect of their Aboriginality. The dominant theoretical prescription of ideal Aboriginality would act to prevent Aborigines from creating their identities out of the body and out of biology, and would also in effect prevent them talking descent and moreover reinventing their notions of descent.

‘The assertion of Aboriginality is part of a political process’, wrote Tonkinson, further noting that:

Although the legal and social status of Aborigines has changed significantly, they are by no means equal participants in Australian society. They still suffer severe social disadvantage and defacto discrimination; in the eyes of many whites, being Aboriginal is still a social stigma. Against this background, many Aborigines are consciously and actively working to establish positive images of themselves and their cultures. This involves the rejection or reversal of dominant European definitions; the promotion of colour as a desirable feature rather than a taint; and the revival, invention, or adoption of distinctively Aboriginal cultural behaviours and symbols . . . the construction of a new identity in which all Aboriginal people can share.

So no, Pauline, we don’t need another debate on Aboriginal identity. We simply need to respect that they exist. Debate over.

About the author: Michael Taylor recently retired from the Australian Public Service, which included a decade in Aboriginal affairs, three years of which were spent visiting remote Aboriginal communities in the Flinders Ranges and the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Lands. He holds an Arts degree in Aboriginal Affairs Administration and an Honours degree in Aboriginal Studies.


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  1. Denis Bright in Brisbane

    Thanks for raising this issue. I support your viewpoint. No set definition of aboriginal identity should ever exist. To want one is a racist notion which has no place in a multicultural Australia. Let people be judged on the strength of their character and their commitment to the common good.

  2. kerri

    Michael Taylor, Shouldn’t that read “No aboriginal identities, we do not need Pauline”?
    But seriously the historic view towards the “noble savage” as something that can be scientifically quantified and observed and described like any other species, is so arcane in our world but holds true to the inabilty of people like Pauline to accept identity as a personal choice or connection deep within. This also applies to sexuality, an issue foreign to simplistic media whores like Hanson and Bolt.

  3. markus

    Denis – yet the aboriginal people would like to be recognised in the Australian constitution as someone separate from other Australians. Is that not a racist proposition. If i have a great grand mother that was Aboriginal but all my other relatives are from different countries (english , scottish etc ) can i claim to be Aboriginal. If so – can i also claim the other nationalities whenever i feel like it .

  4. keerti

    Can we please move toward a definition of qualification to hold public office. The airtime given to this idiotic senator is a waste of space, as is she!

  5. Carol Taylor

    Firstly we have the conservatives demanding a referendum on whether or not gay people should be “allowed” to marry. Now Hanson wants a debate on who should have the right to call themselves Aboriginal. It seems that this particular conservative section of our community want to make a whole heap of decisions on behalf of others. The right to marry, the right to be an Aboriginal or the right to worship the faith of one’s own choice – I thought that the conservatives were all about freedom? It seems but only if it’s they who are making the decisions.

    By which criteria might Hanson and Bolt consider an adequate test of Aboriginality? Perhaps the brown paper bag test. *

    *For those who haven’t heard of it, the paper bag test was used in a number of places including the southern states of America to test “people of colour”. Those performers (mostly women) whose skin was darker than a paper bag need not apply. A paper bag was literally held against a woman’s skin so that she could be given the nod or otherwise.

  6. John Lord

    Most informative Michael. You should write more often.

  7. helvityni

    Michael, why don’t you send your post to Pauline; she might learn something, I did… 🙂

  8. wam

    When I began teaching(SA system) we had to secretly label Aboriginal students in the rollbook. If there was doubt were advised to look at the palms of their hands and fingernails to decide.

    One of my perennial ‘LTTEs’ is the use, by the police and media ‘of Aboriginal appearance’ which is meaningless but serves to put the Aborigines into the ‘frame of a criminal stereotype’ .
    I have been unable to find it but, years ago, I remember a page with pictures of Aborigines from which we had to find the ‘Aboriginal appearance’.
    The tragedy of Australians is it racism towards Aborigines and the depth of ‘hate’ as demonstrated by the shame of the denial of racism by those involved in the booing of Adam Goodes.
    The denial of racism prevents action to combat racism. In the workforce the casual observation of black is African, Indian, South and North American, Pacific Islanders are all employable before Aborigines. The ‘golf club’ mentality shows the depth of anti-Aboriginal racism over and above the ‘black’ racism. The rubbish stories repeated with vehemence abound.
    Only last week, an engineer I have known for nearly 50 years and played sport with and against Aborigines with social interaction after the game, invited me to his farewell party as he is off to Queensland. One of his reasons was the fear of Aborigines?
    (The effect of fear in racism is highlighted by Obama’s story of white women clutching their handbags when he enters a lift.)
    She is so dangerous in Politics .
    ps At last little billy’s beaming smile was on the morning show having a go at trunbull and the dixxxbransim loonies. Good job just keep pumping the slogans and the who will replace him and remind us how the loonies voted with the rabbott to sink the price on carbon????

  9. townsvilleblog

    Michael, I agree wholeheartedly with your view.

  10. Zathras

    Nobody can “claim” to be aboriginal – you have to be formally accepted as one by proving your bloodline heritage to certain representatives and by naming your relatives.

    It’s also a one-way process. Once you can officially tick that “Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander” box, you can never go back and it does not come with some mystical pot-of-gold set of entitlements.

    Some who are entitled to make that claim try to avoid that lifetime label for various reasons.

    According to her ex-husband, who had a government contract to provide plumbing services to aboriginal communities, Hanson has always had a personal dislike for who she called “those black bastards”.

    Like her own mother, who specifically mentioned The Yellow Peril during a TV interview, she carries a lot of racist baggage around with her.

  11. 2353

    What is it with the conservative need to ‘define’ everything? Is it so only ‘genuine’ cases get support or so the ‘correct’ people get given the ‘correct’ treatment?

    Interesting post Michael, and Hanson clearly has a problem with everyone that doesn’t match her world view. It would be really interesting to see the result if someone went back into her family history (did a ‘Who do you think you are’ on her) and found people from Asia and the middle east. I wonder how quickly the meme would shift from immigrants to how long you had been in Australia?

    Racism in any form is abhorrent. No Pauline – we don’t need definitions, we need for you and the rest of the country to accept people for who they are and work with them for a better future – just like you would do for your family.

  12. Robyn Dunphy

    Pauline will do and say anything to a) earn herself money and b) keep herself on camera. The woman is poison.

    Thank you for a comprehensive article, Michael.

  13. jimhaz

    One of the biggest drivers for conservatives is the hatred of people being on the public welfare teat, when they do not need to be. It is a factors stemming from their inherent personality based selfishness. I think they imagine lefties involved in aboriginal communities calling themselves aboriginal to build up the numbers so as to give aboriginals more power.

    I don’t have the same issue with people here relating to definition, however I would agree the benefits of doing so would not surpass the negatives. It is just not a big enough cost issue.

    Without a definition could the QUT students have referred to themselves as aboriginal to gain access to the computer rooms.

    I’ve a feeling that remote aboriginals communities will cease to exist due to global warming, as I expect inland temperatures to be a few degrees above the average warming.

    I also think that aboriginals would become better off far more rapidly if they did not focus as much on their aboriginality – specifically in relation to the ownership issue. I think negatively of aboriginals every time I hear that Acknowledgement of Traditional Owners script that schools and government are required to do far too frequently. Teaching kids about aboriginal history, myths and stories and attending ceremonies and stuff like that is all good stuff, we all like to know our ancestral past and need a sense of identity, and non-aboriginal kids should find it interesting – but using the ownership thing or focusing too often on the negative and sometimes genocidal past or blaming whites for say alcohol, I find pitiful (outside of Mabo type situations, where it is of course mostly legit).

  14. Markus

    2353 – why is there a box on any government form to identify people as aboriginal ? Is that not racist in itself ? That isnt a conservative thing as it has been on all forms through both governments. Why the need to recognise aboriginals in the Constitution when to do so would be racist. Something that Labor and the greens are eager to do. Certainly not a conservative point of view.

  15. Ken Wolff

    Thank you Michael for this piece. Good to see you writing again.

    I used to explain to some of the rednecks I met while in Aboriginal affairs, that for Aboriginal people the land is akin to the bible in western society. It was no coincidence that the great age of European colonisation took place after the invention of printing. That meant the European people of the time could carry the underpinning values of their society with them in a small book. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do not have that ‘luxury’. The underpinning values of their society lie in the land, not something you can carry with you but, at least, if they are on country or can return to it, they can maintain their identity and their values.

    And in times of crisis peoople do return to those underpinning values.

  16. king1394

    Hanson, Bolt and others like them really want to define certain people of Anglo heritage, born in Australia of Anglo parentage as the ‘real’ Australians. They perceive Aboriginality in any form as irrelevant. All that matters is the amount of Anglo background. In denying the primacy of original peoples they think they can then deny them any special status that might accrue to them such as Land Rights, aspects of Customary Law, or a separate Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs (whether or not these things actually bring either advantage or even a levelling of the playing field). They continue the long tradition of colonial attitudes to First Peoples everywhere, which is that they, and their cultures, religions, knowledge of country, history etc. are of no virtue or value. They perceive that any assistance or consideration of First Peoples somehow takes away from what they consider their hard won wealth and citizens rights as later Australians.

    In other words, they want a definition of Aboriginality so they can remove rights from many people.

    It is quite funny that they hold almost identical views about ‘New’ Australians, recent migrants, refugees and asylum seekers

  17. Carol Taylor

    The only reason Hanson brought up the topic was because it was the very issue on which Bolt lost his case. Bolt claimed that certain people were not Aborigines but were claiming they were for financial advantage e.g. scholarships reserved to encourage Aobiginal advancement. Larissa Behrendt, Bolt claimed was really “a German”. Pity Bolt didn’t bother to check, hence the reason why Bolt lost, but has been screaming “freedom of speech” ever since.

    Therefore smug nods between Hanson and Bolt about people pretending Aboriginality.

    Why on earth would anyone want to pretend Aboriginality when even today you could be accused of drunkenness, child neglect, domestic violence, lack of work ethic and a myriad of other stereotypes attributed to people of Aboriginal descent. Where is this supposed massive benefit?

  18. Michael Taylor

    Thanks, Ken. I hardly have the time to write but I do have a couple more in the pipeline.

  19. Steve Laing -

    Great piece. The more I am exposed to Aboriginal culture, the more I recognise it has a depth which it is almost impossible for non-aboriginals to get there heads around, much of which has evolved due to the harsh conditions that the Australian environment provides. Our temporal frame of reference is also ridiculously short in comparison I suspect in part due to their oral tradition being in the thousands of years, whilst our written one allows us to so quickly forget the harsh lessons of history. Whilst “we” can’t understand why they won’t “let go” of events of 100 years ago, such events for them seem brutally raw and recent. Fundamentally, “we” just don’t get it, and having people like Hanson parading her narrow minded and blinkered cultural lens adds nothing to the discussion, indeed simply pushing more wedges between our communities. I wish she would go back to where she came from – she simply doesn’t have the capability to be even the Australian she purports to want to be. Shameless ignorance appears now to be a virtue, and she is the self-appointed queen.

  20. silkworm

    The trouble with Hanson is that she drank too much of the deep fried vegetable oil during her fish and chip shop days. It has battered her brain and made her hair turn orange.

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