Friday, November 4, 2011

Part-white or part-Aboriginal?

"Ignorant men raise questions that wise men answered a thousand years ago."

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

There are some calling for a national debate on Aboriginal identity... or in more accurate terms they are calling for a general free for all to slam Aboriginal people who don't 'look Aboriginal'.

Rather than a national 'debate', I am calling for a series of national lessons...

Today's lesson is about what happens when you combine two racist stereotypes:

1. The idea that Aboriginality is something that is 'bred-out' of people over time. That once a person's physical appearance and/or 'blood-quotient' reaches a certain point, then that person can be considered to be not Aboriginal and; 

2. The idea that Aboriginal people are a 'privileged group' in this country. 

The result? 
"the part-whites who are making a racket out of being so-called Aborigines at enormous cost to the taxpayers".

That is the heart of some recent and on-going tension in the media, but that isn't a recent quote. 

It was said in 1988, by Bruce Ruxton... but it sounds like something that could have been said much more recently.

This recent debate is actually quite old, and it is reliant on the fact that people don't know it is an old debate. Aboriginal identity has long been problematised by beauracracy, and by the assumption that all Aboriginal programs are available to Aboriginal people, which obvious to anyone who investigates that claim, is nonsense. ABSTUDY is means tested. Scholarships are competitive, as are 'identified positions' (which are often filled by non-Indigenous people despite being 'identified positions').

Any serious journalist with even a passing interest in Aboriginal identity, and an interest in serious reporting, would quickly find something like this research note, available from the Parliamentary Library, titled "Definition of Aboriginality". 

 It used to come up when you do a google search for 'Definition of Aboriginality'... 

 It mentioned:  

 "In his analysis of over 700 pieces of legislation, the legal historian John McCorquodale found no less than 67 different definitions of Aboriginal people

Though colonial legislation initially grouped Aboriginal people by reference to their place of habitation (e.g. aboriginal natives of New South Wales and New Holland), 'blood' quantum classifications entered the legislation of New South Wales in 1839, South Australia in 1844, Victoria in 1864, Queensland in 1865, Western Australia in 1874 and Tasmania in 1912. Thereafter till the late 1950s States regularly legislated all forms of inclusion and exclusion (to and from benefits, rights, places etc.) by reference to degrees of Aboriginal blood. Such legislation produced capricious and inconsistent results based, in practice, on nothing more than an observation of skin colour." 

Sounding familiar yet? "based, in practice, on nothing more than an observation of skin colour"!

What a long way we have come...

but wait, there's more:

"When policy entered a more progressive period in the late 1960s and 1970s the blood-quantum definitions, which had never been accepted as meaningful by Aboriginal communities themselves, were relatively easy to abandon." 
"In the 1980s a new definition was proposed in the Constitutional Section of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs' Report on a review of the administration of the working definition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Canberra, 1981). The section offered the following definition:

An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he (she) lives.

This three-part definition (descent, self-identification and community recognition) was soon adopted by Federal Government departments as their 'working definition' for determining eligibility to some services and benefits." 

"The advantages of this three part definition were not, however, apparent to all. In 1988 the Victorian State president of the RSL, Mr Bruce Ruxton, called on the Federal Government: 

to amend the definition of Aborigine to eliminate the part-whites who are making a racket out of being so-called Aborigines at enormous cost to the taxpayers'.
" the three part definition has generally been found to help protect individuals from the tendency among 'mainstream Australians' to consider 'real' indigenous people as people living somewhere else and others as manipulating the system."

 "It also sits well with the definition used by the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1986:

Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies ..., consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories ... They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems."

And here endeth the lesson...

... and to answer the question that is the title of this article:

I am not 'part' anything. I am entirely who I am.


  1. Excellent article; Thanks for this,

  2. One of the reasons I resent the Bolts and Ruxtons is that their behaviour makes it HARDER to have a good-faith discussion about Aboriginal identity.

    A few years back, I worked on a major project relating to Indigenous people. In that project, we had to take account of the fact that a LOT of people who identify as Indigenous on the Census don't identify the same way when asked the same question in a different context. That variability has immense impact on the success or failure of the project, and on how the results are interpreted.

    As an example, you can make Indigenous outcomes look better by getting healthy, wealthy people to identify as Indigenous... but does this really mean Indigenous outcomes are improving?

    This is NOT about any kind of dishonesty. Identity CAN be complicated, and it's well known that context affects how people answer questions. I can easily believe that somebody with Aboriginal ancestry might feel enough of a connection to tick the box on Census, but "not Aboriginal enough" to answer yes for a project that focuses on Indigenous people. It would be useful to have a better understanding of that ambiguity.

    But thanks to Bolt and co., who assume that anybody with ambiguous identity is a fraud, I feel uncomfortable even MENTIONING the issue - I don't want to be mistaken for a racist asshole.

  3. Great piece and thought provoking! Have shared :)