Shrink-Wrapped Racial Identity

cat lionOn QandA the other night it was alleged that one of the women referred to by Andrew Bolt in his 2008 article was driven out of public life because of the psychological trauma of having her identity as an Indigenous woman questioned. I have no knowledge of the specifics of this matter, but it does raise the complex issue of psychological trauma intersecting with personal vulnerability,  cultural context and politics.

In a nutshell, the nub of this issue is our right to question ‘personal meaning’. It is about the legitimacy and legality of scrutinizing racial identification (in the Bolt case) or, more broadly, the issue of personal psychological salience. That is, how much should your sense of personal meaning impact on my right to question its authenticity and interrogate its psychological and factual truthfulness? Sometimes fact and meaning intersect in all sorts of ways that are more important than a lesson in post-modernism at the local polytechnic.  Section 18C of the Anti Discrimination Act is the muddled product of the inadequate scrutiny of these issues.

Here are some examples, more or less in descending order of stupidity: 

1)     If I claim to have a particular affinity with Thailand on the basis that I have visited 10 times in the last 5 years, have married a Lady-boy I fell in love with in a Bangkok brothel and now claim to identify as Thai for the purposes of the new government’s NRAS (National Rental Assistance Scheme) for rich foreign students who want to live close to a university of their choice, should I be:

a)  Given rent assistance because as long as I identify as Thai and that’s good enough for the tax-payers of Australia

b)     Given rent assistance on the basis that I have had the courage to show the boys at the local RSL a picture of her muscular tanned legs

c)     Given rent assistance because I and am paying for my GLTG partner’s sex change operation and I now support  a whole village from the proceeds of my third divorce.

d)      Told to go-away because my claim to an authentic Thai identity is just the pathetic delusion of a vulgar, fat, ugly, late-middle aged Australian totally oblivious to my narcissism and my inability to see that I am an addled, infatuated daddy cum meal-ticket.

e)     Told to go away because I am an opportunistic liar and would-be thief from the tax payer’s purse.


2)     I have two grandparents who were born in Scotland, and I come over all maudlin when I hear Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre. I now want everyone to recognize me as Scottish. I think I’ll apply for cheap housing next to the University of Tasmania to further my studies into Scottish convicts on the first fleet.  Perhaps you, dear reader, wouldn’t know that they were treated particularly badly, nor that I bear the stain of their oppression to this very day. 

I should:

a)     be given rental assistance because my sense of belonging and my James Bond impersonation makes me more of a Scott than Sean Connery.

b)     be told to go away because my claim is inauthentic based on the principle of common-sense

c)      be told (very respectfully, of course) that my claim will need to be adjudicated by a panel of Scottish elders. Further, I will have to dance the highland fling as proof of my ethnicity.


3.) I claim to be an Indigenous Australian. I have no Aboriginal ancestry and went to a private boys’ school in Sydney. I played rugby for NSW. In my adult life I have worked extensively in Aboriginal missions in remote Australia as a pastor and commercial pilot. I have an unhealthily deep tan for a Caucasian. I have been accepted by an Aboriginal tribe as a member. I am an expert bushman and have an extensive knowledge of traditional customs and laws. I claim Indigenous status to gain preferred entry to a university program to study the intersection of Indigenous and Colonial law.

I should:

a)     Be welcomed to my course of study based on my profound connection with the traditional culture and my robust identity as an Indigenous Australian.

b)     Refused entry because I have no biological indigenous heritage whatsoever.


4.) I went to an exclusive private girl’s school in Melbourne. I claim to have an Aboriginal grandmother, though that claim is hard to prove. Besides, I shouldn’t have to prove a darn thing.  I’ve never been camping. I am as white as the driven snow, have red hair and freckles. I became interested in women’s issues at university and I feel a very close connection with the land and Aboriginal people. I discovered this on a trip to Uluru when I was 19. I go to a lot of Indigenous student meetings on campus and have the signatures of 30 Indigenous people who will vouch for my Indigenous heritage.  My old school friends say, “Carol, yes, I remember — she was very good at debating and Lacrosse” I want an Indigenous scholarship to study at a prestigious American University. 

I should:

a)     Be considered in good faith because I swear my identity is deeply felt and authentic

b)     Be taken aside and told that these scholarships are for “real” aboriginal students

c)      Having been subjected to outcome b) immediately launch tax-payer funded legal action against the university because I tape-recorded the conversations where I felt ridiculed and humiliated by the Grants Committee.

As a psychiatrist I see this sort of thing. Part of my job is to encourage people to see things not as they want them to be but as they really are. This is very difficult. Whose ‘really-are’ are we talking about? Sure, psychological and emotional truthfulness and authenticity are highly subjective, but not endlessly so. Facts are important. Personal histories are important. People whose grasp on both are tenuous are usually very defensive  – as, of course, they must be if they are defending themselves from reality and common-sense.

So what happens to a self-proclaimed young urban Indigenous woman if, for example, she finds documentary evidence that a great-grandmother was just off the boat from Erin’s Land, not Arnhem Land. If her Indigeneity was predicated on her understanding of Aboriginal DNA and a spooky, earthy-religious, New Age-sense of herself, then the whole thing is a fraud and a sad one. Adolescents are particularly attracted to this sort of stuff. Adults less so, you would think. Now that’s not to say that her connection to Indigenous issues isn’t valuable or worthy or important, but she might need to rethink the magical stuff and accept her empathy as no more than an attachment to a particular group of people. Her original attachment was an error born of a desire to feel special, regardless of what it has become over time.

Attachments are vital, but they should not be immune to personal and social scrutiny. They are not the same as “identity”. We can’t just claim an identity simply because we want it . Some identities are sick, some fraudulent, self-serving, and inauthentic. After all, a violent alcoholic father may claim to “love” his children but the reality is that he does not. He may be strongly attached to them, but to use the signifier “love” in this situation is profane. He is not entitled to an identity as a ‘loving’ father, no matter how loudly he protests.

What about a wealthy, university-educated dandy who parades himself as a champion of the working class, yet he is also someone who has never had a spot of grease under his well-manicured fingernails and who uses working-class idioms so clumsily that they go ‘clunk’ and fall as flat as a lizard drinking (or is that flat-out as lizard drinking?). Such a person may not be trying to misrepresent himself, but it should not be illegal to question the authenticity of such  a claim to this particular ‘identity’.  It may be hypocrisy, or gross self-deception. Common sense gives us a clue.

Psychiatrists often see people who claim to have been bullied at work and have developed psychological injuries –- anxiety and depression, usually.  Sometimes the facts and circumstances are straightforward, just as they claim. But sometimes bullied individual is an extraordinarily vulnerable person, one who has felt bullied many times before. Sometimes they are traumatized people who cannot stand the cut and thrust of normal human workplace interactions. Unless they are malingering — and that is not common — they really are psychologically sick. But oftentimes they are not the victims of workplace bullying. Their understanding of psychological causality is distorted. They may need help (and lots of it), and understanding and patience and compassion, but they are not entitled to prosecute a charge of bullying against an innocent employer. It is not wrong to question their identification as a ‘victim of bullying’. It is not something any of us with good manners would do at a BBQ, but if the complaiant is seeking public money or a civil prosecution then it is vital their claims are properly interrogated.

It is ridiculous that it is potentially illegal to question something as intangible as racial identity (or religious identity or the mantle of victimhood, for that matter) just because someone might get offended.  Surely the aggrieved should not entitled to legal protection from scrutiny just because they feel something to an intense degree.

Actually, that intensity might be a clue: Sometimes we hide the truth even from ourselves.

Dr Murray Walters is a Brisbane psychiatrist

3 thoughts on “Shrink-Wrapped Racial Identity

  • jonreinertsen@bigpond.com says:

    I grew up being told my Father had fought in Crete, Syria and North Africa during the war. His army record show he spent three months in north Africa, mainly in hospital in Cairo, or the stockade. I was also told I had native american blood through my Grandmother, who it turns out was born in South Australia. I’m very sad and hurt about the first lie, but the second could have been worth money! Bugger!

  • Geoffrey Luck says:

    Before the modern world gave money to shut them up, these people were simply told to “get over it.”

  • mountmartin@westnet.com.au says:

    Or, as they would be advised in the old RAN – “get your hand off it”.

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