This 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