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March 06th 2017 print

Anthony Dillon

Which Part of Me is Aboriginal?

The ranks of those identifying as Indigenous are growing, and there is nothing wrong with that. But when deciding how best to lift the most disadvantaged, it is circumstances and situations which should be the guiding factor. 'You’re either Aboriginal or you’re not' is not helpful

anthony dillonThis article is not about what it means to be an Aboriginal person. That topic is a minefield, and one I have written before. With claims of being Aboriginal guided more these days by vague but impressive sounding notions of “it’s what I believe in my heart and my connection with culture” and less so about actual Aboriginal ancestry, it is difficult to have a rational discussion without someone quickly taking offence. If you want to claim you are an Aborigine because one of your 16 great-great-grandparents was Aboriginal, that’s fine, go right ahead. I have something else to discuss here.

This article is for those who don’t know what it means to be part-Aboriginal or misunderstand what it means. A part-Aboriginal person is someone who, in addition to Aboriginal ancestry, has others as well. It hardly seems necessary to explain such a common term, but from time to time, I hear the assertion “You’re either Aboriginal or you’re not!” Such a claim is usually spoken in such an authoritarian, absolutist way that listeners dare not challenge it. It is put forth as an indisputable fact. But the claim is false: Aboriginal identity is not a matter of simple dichotomy. I am proud to identify as part-Aboriginal; what better way to acknowledge both my parents? I am just as much my father’s son as I am my mother’s. Their respective families have each contributed to a harmonious blending of cultures that has shaped the person I am today. That’s me n the little thumbnail atop this page, if you’re interested.

Identifying as ‘part-Aboriginal’ means I acknowledge all my ancestries, which are predominantly Aboriginal and English. For the politically correct Indigenous victim brigade, the ones forever chanting “always was Aboriginal land, always will be”, I suppose I am both landlord and tenant.

It is good to see others also talking about their mixed ancestries. For example, I don’t know if TV newscaster Stan Grant would use the term ‘part-Aboriginal’ to describe himself, but he certainly embraces all his ancestries: “We are also a people who are predominantly part-white, predominantly we are of mixed heritage,” he has written, “I just think it is ludicrous for me or for you or any other Indigenous person … clearly of mixed ancestry to deny that part of their ancestry. That doesn’t challenge my conception of myself as an Indigenous person, it enhances it.” Stan is comfortable with who and what he  is.

Consider that in some countries, people of mixed descent are proud of their mixed ancestry. For example, Canada’s Métis (from the French word for ‘mixed’) have an identity and distinct way of life that incorporates aspects of both French-Canadian and Native-American cultures. Here in Australia at one time, those with mixed ancestry were very keen to distance themselves from their full-blood cousins. Colin McLeod in his excellent 2003 book Patrol in the Dreamtime, puts it like this:

In the mid 1950s, in my experience, people of full Aboriginal descent rarely considered themselves as one with those of part Aboriginal background, and the reverse was also the case … Today the wheel has turned. Some people with the smallest claim to Aboriginal ancestry seem keen to abandon and deny all their non-Aboriginal forebears in order to be classified as Aboriginal, and rejoice in the community of ‘our people’. It may be for the best of reasons but it is certainly no time-honoured tradition.

Thirty years ago it was common to hear people say “I’m part-Aboriginal” or “I’ve got some Aboriginal in me.” It was no different to what we hear today when someone says “I’m part-Chinese” or “I’ve got some German in me.” But the supposed new rule for Aborigines is, remember, “you’re either Aboriginal or you’re not”. Interestingly, when someone describes themselves as “part-Russian” or “part-French” or “part-whatever”, you never hear anyone ask, “Well what part of you is ….?”However, when I tell people that I am part-Aboriginal, it is not unusual to be asked sarcastically, “Well which part of you is Aboriginal?” as if I have to justify my right to identify how I choose. Different treatment on the basis that I have Aboriginal ancestry? Is that not racism? Maybe I should sue the next time I am asked that question. Gillian or Tim, please contact me: I could make some money and you could feel important and grab some headlines and attention.

I find it bizarre being told that gender is no longer a binary term, yet when it comes to Aboriginality the dictate is that either you are or you are not. Is that not even more discrimination? Gillian and Tim, what do you think? I’m not suggesting that people should not be allowed to choose the gender label they believe best suits them, but I’m only pointing out that when it comes to Aboriginality, there can be 50 shades of Aboriginality.

It has often been said that what a person criticises in others may well reflect what they don’t like in themselves.What has that got to do with being part-Aboriginal and the obsession with racism that characterises so much of the discusion about  Aboriginal affairs. Could it be that the proponents of the “anti-racism movement” struggle a little with their own hidden and denied racism? Consider this scenario: You enter a room populated with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, but pay attention only to the Aborigines while ignoring the non-Aborigines. By most definitions, this behaviour would be considered racist. Now consider a person with mixed ancestry who totally denies the contribution of all their non-Aboriginal ancestries. Is that not also a form of racism?

Definitions of racism are not straightforward and an in-depth discussion is beyond the scope of this article. However, a simple definition is that it is a manifestation of dislike towards others of a different race on the basis of the belief that one’s own race is superior. As was shown following the latest Australia Day protests (Survival Day, if you prefer), the level of dislike — actually, full-blown and venomous hatred — to which Jacinta Price, myself and others were exposed came from Aboriginal people, more so than has ever been showered on us by whitefellas. This hate is coming from those who are proud to publicly state how much they oppose racism. Perhaps they should look first in their own back yards.

Some claim that use of the terms ‘half-caste’, ‘part-Aboriginal’ and similar are offensive on the grounds that those terms are the legacy of the coloniser and by virtue of that provenance can only be regarded as deeply offensive and grossly demeaning. Because of this history, these terms are widely deemed ‘racist’, thereby deterring people from using them. The genetic fallacy (where ‘genetic’ refers to origin, not genes) rears its ugly head again. Am I racist against myself for identifying as part-Aboriginal? The fact that these terms were connected with the improper treatment of Aboriginal people does not automatically mean that they remain offensive to this day. It would be like saying that guns and ships are offensive to Aboriginal people because those on the First Fleet arived on the former and came armed with the latter. Similarly, consider IQ testing, which has been cited to support eugenics. Does mean such tests must be abandoned today.

Apparently I am not allowed to call myself ‘part-Aboriginal’ because it’s considered offensive by the Indigenous victim brigade, yet those same people think it is OK to call me ‘coconut’ and ‘house nigger.’

There are some full-blood Aboriginal people (a term considered offensive by the politically correct race hounds) who are very proud of that fact. They don’t see themselves as superior to those of mixed race; they are simply aware of their own uniqueness in having no non-Aboriginal ancestry. My friend Dave Price tells me that the Warlpiri people use the word yapukaji to mean part-Aboriginal and yapanyayirni to mean ‘really Aboriginal’ but the terms relate to language and culture as much as to biology. Interestingly, Dave is married to Bess, a full-blood Aboriginal woman, and they are blessed to have a daughter and grandchildren of whom it can be rightly said they are part-Aboriginal, also being infused with Dave’s DNA!

In 2014, of those births registered as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, only 29% saw both parents identify as such. The other 71% had at least one parent who did not identify as Indigenous. This trend for children to be identified as Indigenous where only one parent is Indigenous is likely to continue, thus can we can expect to see an increase in the numbers of those identifying as Indigenous. This is fine, but it might mean that being ‘Indigenous’ loses some of the specialness, for want of a better word, that it currently enjoys.

The proportion of the population identifying as Indigenous is growing, and there is nothing wrong with that. But when deciding how best to help those Indigenous people who are most disadvantaged, perhaps it is their circumstances and situations in life that should be the guiding factor. “You’re either Aboriginal or you’re not” is not helpful.

Anthony Dillon identifies as a part-Aboriginal Australian who is proud of both his Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestries. Originally from Queensland, he now lives in Sydney and is a researcher at the Australian Catholic University. For more, visit www.anthonydillon.com.au

Comments [15]

  1. IainC says:

    There is so much common sense going on here that there is absolutely no chance that it will be acceptable where it is most needed. The comment “Could it be that the proponents of the “anti-racism movement” struggle a little with their own hidden and denied racism?” and follow up discussion is a good one. It amazes me that many activist campaigns, slogans, attitudes and proposed programs could be transferred unchanged apart from the title into a white power organization to be subsequently denounced as racist. What disadvantaged Aboriginal men, women and children want is less race-based group-oriented sound and fury and more needs-based individual directed help, as would and should happen with any other individual in Australia.
    Thanks Anthony, it’s always good to get an article from you. Keep it up, you never know when one day the constant dripping wears away the stone.

  2. Jody says:

    It’s all about money; always was, always will be.

  3. rosross says:

    Wisdom and common sense writ large.

    If truth be known, the term indigenous, as in a label for those who can find some Aboriginal ancestry, no matter how small, is in itself racist and incorrect, because it is known that a variety of peoples mixed with Aborigines, including Indian, Malaysian, New Guinean, Pacific Islander and no doubt more, before the English even arrived.

    So, Aborigines, even in 1788 were of mixed race, like the rest of us. No doubt there were some who were not, possibly, but many were of mixed race. The inherent racism at work in the Aboriginal industry and with definitions of indigenous, is that Anglo/European, possibly Asian ancestry is somehow inferior, in ways Malaysian, Indian etc., are not. Is that because these earlier groups were darker of skin and the racism is directed at those pale of skin?

    Whatever the truth, the fact is every human being is of mixed race to some degree, that being the way and process of evolution.

    And in essence, no-one can be part-Aboriginal, or part-Chinese, or part anything because we are all Australians with part Aboriginal, or part something else, ancestry. Our ancestry is mixed but we are one, for that too is the path and process of evolution.

    My great-grandfather was Greek, but I would never claim to be part Greek and sadly, have never even been to Greece although I would like to go. Neither am I part-etc., of any other than my ancestry although I value all of it and believe that it has contributed to the mix that I and my family are. But it is an Australian mix which is different to the same mix in any other country, simply because there is a quintessential Australian culture. That culture is changing and evolving all the time, but it remains different to other cultures, as anyone who lives in other Western countries knows.

    Australian culture is the end result of every Australian who has ever lived, including of course Aboriginal in all of its myriad and diverse forms, and every culture, religion, nationality which has come to this land since 1788 and no doubt before.

    If we set a particular group, whether religious, cultural, tribal, racial, above others, for whatever reason and deem it to be more important than the rest, then we create a racist society. Even if it is done with the best of intentions, it remains a racist society.

    Of course some, probably most, Aborigines suffered in some ways because of English colonisation, but they also benefited. And their suffering was no greater than that endured by the ancestors of just about every human being on this planet. That being the way of evolution and humankind.

    It is only in the modern age that we have invented a term called indigenous, and sought to give those who fit the criteria, greater rights and privileges. And it has been this separating out, this creating of the other, which has doomed many of those deemed to be indigenous, to live like moths pinned to a metaphorical board, supposedly representing something which died long ago, and, given the nature of evolution, in the main, needed to die.

    Every human being is the end result of processes of death and rebirth and labels like indigenous deny many, that right.

    None of us are part anything – we are just Australians, embracing all of our ancestry and each other.

    • padraic says:

      Bravo Rosros. I could not have said it better. We are all citizens of this great country with equal rights before the law and sharing our common humanity. Anything else is apartheid. I understand some of my ancestors in the mid 1800s had a rough time in Europe ( = UK as well) with the social,economic and political conditions of the time and that’s why they brought their families to Australia for a better life. I acknowledge that historic reality but don’t wallow in it or can even identify with their varied struggles at the time because I live in the present with several generations of native-born Australians behind me and make the most of the opportunities available to me. It never impacted on my life as an Australian. This is my country as much as other Australians. I was once discussing this subject with a farmer friend who has Aboriginal ancestry and he said “When you and I and X (a well known Aboriginal separatist)were born here in Australia we all belonged to this country and this country belonged to us.”

  4. Bill Martin says:

    Another excellent article from Anthony Dillon, fearlessly proclaiming the true facts of the matter, disregarding the avalanche of nasty abuse directed at him and others of similar convictions by the hypocritical “genuine Aborigines” for having their follies laid bare.

    Forgive me the audacity to suggest that a very important aspect of aboriginality is missing from this piece. Regardless of the authenticity of claiming indigenous heritage of whatever degree, the question arises: what does it mean to be an Australian Aborigine and does it bestow special,exclusive entitlements and privileges on the claimant, and if so, why?

    As for the fact that Aborigines were on this continent millennia before the white man, that is nothing but a demographical and anthropological happenstance of no genuine significance. Imagine the turmoil of, say, Europe, if the myriad of groups of people of varying ethnicity began disputing who was where first, who displaced whom and demanded recognition of their version of the facts and compensation for the wrongs suffered. To the extent that it does happen occasionally, (think Kosovo) it results in conflict and tears open old wounds. Sober common sense dictates that solutions to problems are to be sought in the present without the confusing distractions of emotions stirred up by obsessing over past events.

    • Matt says:

      Yes, all power to Anthony and the likes. Give them a bigger megaphone.

      And yes also, there are no solutions to present hardships in confecting and amplifying the real or imagined grievances or sins of those long past.

      The race hounds need to be stopped in the interests of national harmony. Cutting of their supply of tax payer funding would be a good start.

      Personally I feel like a victim of racism every time a form asks me whether or not I identify as Aboriginal or Torres Straight Islander. Many organisations proudly proclaim that they will give preferential treatment to anyone who can tick the box. Yes there is plenty of racism in this country. It is legal, and it is offical government and corporate policy. And it is breeding real resentment where previously there was none.

  5. [email protected] says:

    South of Port Augusta here in SA, pretty much all Aboriginal people would have non-Aboriginal ancestry and not give it two seconds’ thought. My kids would have Aboriginal, Chinese, Italian, the full range of Anglo-Celtic, and perhaps a bit of west Indian/West African thrown in. The only ancestors they know, apart from me, would be through their Aboriginal mother, grandmother, etc. So when it comes down to sides, of course they would say they’re on the Aboriginal team. And being so mixed, of course they are more intelligent and good-looking than the average Australian.

    My late wife used to say you could pick Johnny-come-latelies easily: they knew very few Aboriginal people and didn’t try all that hard except to get to know ‘elites’ (often fellow-Johnny-come-latelies; they do seem to stick together; takes one to know one, I suppose), they often adopted an Aboriginal-sounding name, or wore a black hat, or the colours, but usually had no genealogy, no awareness that somewhere ‘back there’, there must be ancestors, about whom they showed no interest. Of course, by definition, there ARE genealogies, that’s how we come into being. But no, like Ray Martin, they show no particular interest, i.e. who are their relations, cousins, second cousins, uncles, aunties; no interest. Genuine Aboriginal people take for granted some connection, and casually explore those possible relationships. Try asking those J-c-ls and they will equivocate, but ask any genuine person and in a few seconds, you will know where they are from, who they are related to, etc. etc. Give me genuine people any time.

    Thanks, Anthony: this is a breath of fresh air.

    • rosross says:

      I wonder Joe, if recognising connection and exploring possible relationships is Aboriginal? I think it is human nature. I have done a lot of ancestry research in recent years and have come across quite a few distant relatives, all of whom are very interested in connecting and exploring relationship and all of whom, as I do, value the connection and the relationship.

      I don’t think I and my family are exceptional on that count, and have found others have the same sort of responses. It is our human nature and instinct to connect, and that perhaps is why ancestry research is now so popular.

      • [email protected] says:

        Hi Ros, Yes, I certainly agree. Most people strive to make connections. But the JCLs , including the whitefellas trying to get in on the Industry (and often succeeding), usually equivocate. I recall one student-applicant who ducked out of it by saying his mother was ‘Stolen Generation’, she didn’t know her family name. It turned out she was a Calabresa, nice lady. My wife, also working in student support, asked one student who she was related to, etc., and was told, “If you ask me that again, I’ll take you to court.” Another woman claimed to be fro as it happened, my wife’s community, but that was news to my wife, and there was nothing in the published genealogies either.

        On the other hand, of course, many people are enthusiastic about coming together with other Indigenous people, share stories, find connections, and become like a part of a big family, even if they are from opposite ends of the continent. One time, I was thinking of doing a sociogram, or familigram, linking students distantly to each other on z chart: there would have been a few clusters.

  6. bullockornis says:

    It is my opinion that what most disadvantages the ‘most disadvantaged’ is the very calling of them as ‘disadvantaged’ in the first place.

    In the second place, following hard on the heels of the first, is the disadvantage brought by all the current methods of ‘correcting’ the supposed disadvantage.

    Between the two of them they create and cultivate, perpetuate a dog in the manger attitude, a ‘poor bugger me’ attitude.

    Which is an insult and an injury to them.

    The third thing I like to point to is the total lack of identification of the valuable things that existed in the aboriginal culture.

    Do bark dot painting, play Aussie Rules, eat bush tucker are faint attempts at describing the strengths of a culture.

    This whole setup, those three things together, is an iron clad prescription for marginalising, confusing, bewildering and disadvantaging all aboriginal youth.

    The fourth thing is included in that word ‘aboriginal’ as the essay points out. Nobody knows exactly what it is, who it is, what it means, etc…

    The way out is to stop calling them disadvantaged.
    To stop special racial programmes to ‘cure’ their supposed disadvantages: any problems identified can be dealt with according the processes and laws available to all groups within our society.
    And to identify and extoll the virtues of aboriginal society, its culture.
    And to see and admit that those virtues are sorely needed within our own culture.

    I’m no expert. Make it up for yourself. Think about it. Research it. What was there ever in native cultures that we might call of merit to the human being, to human society, going all the way back to the stone age and beyond… going back to the first humans?

    My guess is: humanity.

    There is/was essential humanity.

    And today we are essentially drones, serfs, worker ants, machines, clones… whatever.

    I would start there.

    And I perceive they had a culture of consensus. Decisions were made by consensus. Everyone had to agree.

    We make them by powerful minority. All that is important to us is the pressure groups, the rich and/or powerful, the people, the whole, the community are by definition ignored.

    I see the scientist claims hunter gatherers, contrary to what most believe, expended less work in feeding themselves than farmers to. Agricultural societies.

    We abandoned that leisurely life style thousands of years ago in favour of agricultural slavery. And we abandoned it and its festivals and holidays so exemplified in Middle Ages England to go into the factories and toil 48 weeks out of 52 with no joy whatever.

    Children, in common with all ‘primitive’ societies, went to ‘work’ with their adults. Learned and shared and mixed in. There was constant ubiquitous community. We lock the children in schools, even pre-kindergarden schools, and lock adults away in workplaces closed to anyone from the outside, much less children.

    How beneficial to natural humanity to have those things? I would claim very beneficial. I would claim ‘human’.

    One could go on. I leave it to you.

    We need their culture.

    They’ve well and truly lost it. And we help them lose it by serving up this surrogate nonsense whilst subtly and not so subtly trying to steer them into our machine slave straight jackets….

    They are our last hope.

    The last connection with the reality of the human.

    It is getting very late in the day indeed.

    Get this truth out and then it’d be a different story.

    That’s how I see it.

  7. Lo says:

    If you are part something you are also part something else. What determines whether you identify as part Aboriginal or as part Danish?

  8. Jody says:

    “Which part of me is Aboriginal?” The part that goes into the bush.