From either a primary school teacher or from my Mum, I heard at an early age that part-European indigenous people—then known inelegantly as “half-castes”—were caught between two worlds, and that could make life difficult for them. Their dilemma has been around for a long time but has never really been part of the public discussion, or even much awareness. “The Aboriginal problem” seems to remain firmly with the remote tribal people, where it has always been.
This is part of the value of Stan Grant’s memoir, reviewed by Jeremy Sammut in the June 2016 edition of Quadrant, his story of being one of the Westernised “light-skinned” part-Europeans who today make up the majority of those who identify as Aborigines. Sammut’s review concentrated on the part of the book dealing with recent indigenous public policy. This piece adds the more personal mixed-race aspect.
“The old definitions of Aboriginality strain to serve the constellation of groups and individuals that lay claim to that identity,” Stan Grant writes. In some ways, it doesn’t seem to have made things all that difficult for Grant, manual worker’s son from the Riverina who became a successful television journalist and is now an indigenous celebrity. But he says it was an extra load to carry, perhaps in small rather than big ways.
His autobiography, Talking to My Country, is important as a brightly written, lucid account of mixed-race life—if we can use that useful but unloved term. As the title suggests, it aspires to be talking to this country about Aboriginality, but is a word-play also on his home country in the Riverina district of New South Wales where his boyhood had little in common with the “full descent” communities of the remote outback that get all the publicity.
“Aboriginal” or “indigenous” still implies to most Australians the Northern Territory, Cape York or the Kimberley, the dark-skinned people only lately and lightly integrated to modern ways and often troubled by them. The figures put it otherwise. Most who identify as Aborigines these days live in the south, much as other Australians do, but their circumstances or predicaments, when there are predicaments, get little media, political, academic and thus public attention. It has ever been thus. Colonial governments believed they had an obligation to shield “full-bloods” from the conspicuously damaging effects of newly established white society, but they expected mixed-race people to just become like everybody else. To a large extent they did, but not without problems, often emotional as much as anything.
The total Australian population now identifying officially as of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent is close to 700,000. About 175,000 live in New South Wales, almost all of them thought to be of mixed descent and more or less Westernised, like the majority nationally. Corroboree-type ceremony in New South Wales is believed to have died out around 1900.
Until recent decades some lived at least part of the time on government-supported reserves—often colloquially known as “missions”—though these were originally only intended for the full-descent people, who were thought, as early death and small families rapidly depleted their numbers, to be dying out. Instead, mixed-race people took to living partly on reserves and partly in the general community. They took quickly to speaking English, though often in their own way, to taking British, Irish or even German names, to wearing European clothes and often accepting European religion, discarding most of the old “culture” when it was unworkable and mixing a bit of old-style hunting and gathering for food along with handouts from whites, mission tucker and a lot of hard rural work for wages.
But they kept a strong sense of Aboriginality. And they had lots of kids and kept increasing in number and passing on their Aboriginal identity. Most seemed to see themselves as the inheritors of the old rather than the new people.
Stan Grant’s family has had two centuries of race-mixing in inland New South Wales. It began with John Grant, an Irish convict who arrived in 1810 and in time became a well-to-do grazier near Canowindra. Many a white man or woman has been added to the extended family since but it remained part of a mixed-race sub-culture, related to many similar clans. Stan Grant’s wife is white, as was his grandmother. Grant does not acknowledge it, but there has also been much mixed-race partnering into mainstream society over many generations, though they were typically treated as discreetly as was convict background.
Stan Grant’s father was an itinerant bush worker, saw-mill hand and fruit-picker, who moved his family from town to town for the work. Young Stan hated impoverished, itinerant life in poor accommodation on the margins and felt ashamed of being Aboriginal. Things improved when they moved into a Housing Commission house and settled in Griffith, and then again moved into a better house in Canberra. From working on local radio news there Stan rose through Channel 10 to near the top of the world media scene as a CNN representative in Beijing and the Middle East.
One of my difficulties in reading his book was trying to pin down exactly how his pre-television life differed from that of any other working-class boy from the bush who makes it in the big smoke. He refers to his lack of confidence when young and the low aim of many indigenous people, but these are common characteristics also of white country kids from down the socio-economic pecking order. Even his appearance is not especially Aboriginal; I wouldn’t have thought of it when seeing him on television as a current affairs reporter.
Yet he does convey a sense of something distinctive, uneasy, touchy, frustrating, aggrieved and often unhappy in the mixed-race soul and it is a pity he does not give more precision to distinguishing what makes an indigenous boy’s life so different from that of an Anglo boy (or an Italian one, the other main distinctive ethnic group in Griffith). Part of it is poverty, with the Aborigines concentrated down near the bottom of socio-economic scale. A good analysis of mixed-race poverty from such a well-placed, articulate observer would have been welcome—and pioneering, since the subject gets so little attention.
He mentions all the usual background things: dispossession, massacres, children taken away, white diseases, harsh police, excessive imprisonment, deaths in custody, uneasy tribal mixing and so on, but these do not seem to have impinged much directly on his own fairly solid family. It has the ring of ideology and much of it is open to challenge. I got the impression of a youthful conversion experience in the Canberra of the 1970s, when the racial aspect of the radicalism of the time, not least American black consciousness, seemed to speak to him. He mentions briefly the behaviour whites see as anti-social and destructive, which is a main cause of race prejudice in country areas, but he does not develop the subject.
Grant has no problem with most individual whites, who include his wife, grandmother and many good friends. Nor, unlike many people, does he blame governments. It’s “the system”, he says.
He cites as “pervasive racism” frequent discouragement and condescension from insensitive whites, including teachers, schoolyard bullying, slow or refused service in shops and restaurants, whites hesitating to take an empty bus seat next to a dark face, “the choking fear that can easily arise in my people when we see that blue light … This space between us (and whites) we don’t talk about.” Both black and white too often probe light-skinned identity.
Grant’s book is a good start, but only a start to a better discussion of indigenous life as, he says, a “constellation of groups”, not as he also says, dominated by Eric Jolliffe’s Witchetty cartoons.
Robert Murray is the author of The Making of Australia: A Concise History and 150 Years of Spring Street: Victorian Government 1850s to 2005.