I overheard a conversation today about people claiming to be Aboriginal ‘when they’re really not’. The core of the discussion was about a woman who, as an adult, discovered she was of Aboriginal heritage, and – according to the speaker – thereafter shamelessly pursued her Aboriginality in order to get benefits such as fast-tracked access to university & subsidized employment. This led to a more general discussion about preferential treatment of Aboriginal people and where taxpayers should draw the line – which was, apparently, at ‘true Aboriginality’. The group had the grace to acknowledge that they didn’t know what ‘true Aboriginality’ was (although black skin was part of it), but they were certain it wasn’t embodied by the (light-haired, blue-eyed, undeserving) woman under discussion.
The conversation reflected, I thought, a fairly typical approach to matters Aboriginal by conservative Australians, with all its attendant prejudices and assumptions. I recall, to my chagrin, thinking along similar lines back at university, bitter as I was about the lack of scholarships available to bright young able-bodied middle-class white women. But what got me thinking was the question: what makes a person Aboriginal? I know the usual 3-pronged definition (descent, identity, community acceptance), which had always seemed to me to be eminently reasonable – until it occurred to me, about five minutes into my eavesdropping session, that this is a definition imposed by white authority, and that Aboriginal people might feel differently about it.
And of course they do. Ten minutes of googling tells me that. Ten minutes of googling also tells me that I am woefully ignorant of the issues and complexities tied to Aboriginal identity in modern Australia. I’m third generation Australian myself. I’ve never had to prove my ancestry to a government department in the land of my forebears. I know many people from backgrounds across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, India and Asia, but no one who identifies as Aboriginal.
Privilege check. Time to listen and learn.
Note: if you’re interested in exploring further, Creative Spirits has a concise, easily digestible explanation of what it means to be ‘Aboriginal’.
Also, check out Janet Nakamarra’s work – it’s amazing. Through her paintings she shares with us the stories, cultural identity and spirit of the Warlpiri people. Quite a few art galleries carry her paintings – try Karlangu or Kate Owen Gallery.
[24 November 2015]