Colour, culture and freedom of identity

This opinion piece first appeared in Eureka Street on 5 October 2011.

When we judge people according to their appearances, or – in the Andrew Bolt case – their lack of particular appearances, we enter into a dangerous and potentially very damaging world.  It is full of painful memories and historical violence. It holds attitudes that can cut to the heart and soul of others in ways those of us who do not see ourselves as ‘coloured’ can struggle to imagine.

A few years ago, a senior member of an international service organisation approached me. Their Australian-based groups were doing very well financially and they wished to extend their education scholarships to more Aboriginal people.

I suggested a few ways they could think of supporting some local people who were studying at the University.  One person that I had in mind was studying medicine.  A few days later, he emailed me: ‘On reflection and a discussion with a fellow member … I feel we need to get involved with ‘full blood’ indigenous … our two current holders do not ‘look like’ aborigines’. 

My initial response was one of surprise and righteous indignation, until I reminded myself how I had grown up in Australia and been influenced by attitudes that shaped my understanding of race and culture.  I had never met an Aboriginal person until I was in my twenties, but my attitudes towards them, and other races, had been formed well before then.

The person I had recommended for support came from a family that had experienced family separation.  She had not grown up knowing her Aboriginal family until later in life.  Like many Aboriginal families, decisions that non-Aboriginal people made about them were often shaped by deeply ingrained, often negative and unreflective attitudes about race.

Race was understood as something genetic and with particular physical characteristics.  It came with attitudes around western culture and notions of ‘civilisation’.  In more recent years, many Australians have come to understand that their culture arises out of a rich mixture of particular genetic and social influences.  We are less inclined to see ourselves as simply the products of our genes and our ancient genealogies.  We have choice in relation to what we claim from the past.

Each country has its own particular history in relation to race and how it treated the Indigenous peoples of the land.  Australia’s history – shaped by early colonial relations, the absence of any treaties with Aboriginal people, the lack of a formal recognition in the Constitution and the institution of a White Australia policy – led to Government policies where Aboriginal children were continually being removed, and over several decades, simply on the basis of their appearance.

The film Rabbit Proof Fence told one such story.  What made the film even more powerful was the presence of those who had shared this experience being presented at the end of the film.  This was no story from an ancient past but a particular and recent Australian story.  As such, the experience of family separation based on race lies very close to the surface of many Aboriginal memories and experiences.  It has provided a trauma that will take years to heal.

As for my Aboriginal friend, she is now a doctor.  I have not had the heart to tell her that once she was judged for not being dark enough, whatever the other obstacles she had to overcome to complete university studies.  I am deeply proud of her efforts and achievements.

I also know people who have not taken up their Aboriginal ancestry and that I respect their decisions.  However, her story reminds me that there is still much unfinished business in relation to race in my own country.  Andrew Bolt might argue that his comments are about freedom of speech.  I argue that they are more about freedom of identity.

Dr Brian F. McCoy, SJ, is NHMRC Post Doctoral Fellow for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health at La Trobe University.