August 2023


Staying white

By Melissa Lucashenko
Melissa Lucashenko

Melissa Lucashenko. © LaVonne Bobongie

Why do some people with Aboriginal ancestry choose not to identify as Indigenous, even when First Nations communities are welcoming?

Jan Morris, a Welsh travel writer who knew a thing or two about identity transition, predicted in her 1992 book Sydney that mainstream Australia was about to embrace its Aboriginal heritage. Just as the convict stain had lost its stigma, the “taint” of native blood would, she anticipated, soon become cause for celebration rather than shame. Perhaps she had been influenced by the huge success of My Place, Sally Morgan’s 1987 memoir of Palyku identity, which had Australians searching their family trees in droves.

As the child of a mixed-race mother who hid from authority both literally and figuratively, I recognised myself in Morgan’s narrative. But I was fortunate, four decades ago, to receive an invitation into the Goorie community from senior Elders. Without their care and instruction, my Aboriginality would have remained latent: ancestry without insight. An Australian with an Aboriginal bloodline. Today, there is a growing pool of such people in the general Australian population, thousands of individuals with Aboriginal ancestry who have grown up culturally white. What to do about this growing sub-population now poses a real dilemma for First Nations.

The essence of colonisation is to arrive without invitation and to then take without permission, oblivious to the damage you do. Leaving aside the original British land-grabbers, the outsiders who descend on Blak communities have traditionally been labelled the three Ms: missionaries, Marxists and madmen. Marxists have dropped off, but another M has replaced them – mercenaries. Historically most of the three Ms were white. Now they are from all backgrounds, arriving to proselytise or to poach resources. Given this context of wave upon wave of continual invasion, people of distant Aboriginal descent who come looking for their “mob” in 2023 occupy very uneasy ground. Not least because a bewildering array of responses awaits them.

First Nations attitudes to New Aborigines – aka JCLs or Johnny Come Latelies aka tick-a-box mob or DNA Aboriginals – vary enormously. Some hardliners advocate blanket rejection. New arrivals are mostly viewed by this faction as frauds or opportunists, or both. (Where were you when we were being wiped out/bashed in street demos/called coons at school et cetera et cetera?)

This stance is especially common in lutruwita, where the Tasmanian state government now recognises Aboriginal people on the basis of community acceptance and self-identification alone, without any proven biological component. Logically, a huge increase in New Aborigines has followed. In correspondence with me, Bundjalung leader Aunty Rhoda Roberts points out the irony:

[S]elf-identifying is now affecting the very instrument the 1967 Referendum fought so hard for … our families filled out those forms for the first time in 1971, and they did it so that data across housing and population would influence budgets …
so we did not fall into the assimilation agenda of the day … but now with these thousands upon thousands of new identifiers there is almost no “Gap” in Tasmania anymore, hey presto, problem solved!

In other words, grassroots Blak poverty is being masked in the census by New Aborigines ticking the box, very often people with white-collar jobs and home ownership to report.

But rejection of New Aborigines is far from universal. Many First Nations, especially outside lutruwita, mostly accept newcomers of definite Aboriginal heritage. They are our people, many say, and should be welcomed home. In the 1970s, the late Oodgeroo Noonuccal told one such descendant to come and visit her at home on Stradbroke Island. “My island doesn’t need you,” she told him, “but you need it.” Bo Spearim, a Goomeroi leader from Brisbane activist group Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance, agrees. He is a fierce defender of the Aboriginal right to return: “It’s intergenerational trauma that leads mob to reject people coming back. It’s not our traditional culture.”

Murri Elder Aunty Debra Bennet goes further still. “Somewhere on this big, big, continent,” she told a 2016 gathering in Brisbane, which included some displaced descendants, “you will find an Aboriginal nation who claim you. And if you can’t – if you look and look and you still can’t find your Aboriginal family – then I will claim you, until you do find them.” This generous stance is less extraordinary when you realise it is underpinned by ancient cultural protocols. Aunty Debra is a senior woman, raised by Murri people of High Degree. She embodies longstanding traditions of inclusion, knowing what they mean, within (and for) Aboriginal civilisation.

Probably most grassroots mob fall somewhere between these two extremes, somewhat suspicious of the motives of those returning to community, but open to persuasion. There isn’t an Aboriginal person in Australia who doesn’t know about forced assimilation, nor a family that hasn’t been touched by it. Child removal continues apace today, after all. As Aunty Rhoda Roberts has it:

I always think, do we push this person away … or do we bring them in and educate them? It’s not their fault that they don’t know. Be sceptical of motives, yes, but never of skin colour. I really think we need cultural apprenticeships, to take these people and guide them. Put them through a program so they learn how to behave as an Aboriginal person, and then, slowly, take them back to Country and introduce them. Then they won’t be rushing in and taking jobs and offending people by saying and doing the wrong things. But really there needs to be two categories of Aboriginal person: the born and raised, and then second, those people with a bloodline.

Native title has made things more complicated still. There are certainly opportunists, scammers and outright frauds around. And infuriatingly, ignorant New Aborigines are prone to apply for limited First Nations jobs and funding programs, not knowing the serious damage they do by taking resources while lacking the competence to do the jobs or to continue the culture. The inevitable result is enraged Aboriginal locals who have missed out, along with a sub-population of wounded, defensive New Aborigines who get attacked personally for being part of a systemic failure. Roberts’ suggestion of a “two-tier” system would go some way to solving this dilemma. Without it, a lot of New Aborigines are currently left stranded, lacking a clear understanding of how to behave or where to go.

“We need to draw a line somewhere,” a Yugambeh man tells me. “If families with a bloodline didn’t identify as Aboriginal before Mabo, then they’ve missed the cut-off date.” Uncle Victor Hart, an Elder from Cape York, disagrees, asserting “Aboriginality doesn’t expire like a lottery ticket”. These conversations raise the tricky question, given cultural imperatives to care for everything on Country: must DNA Aboriginals always stay white? And what does that mean for other blackfullas? For culture? For Australia? These are not questions with simple answers. Across the continent, First Nations are grappling with them in policy, in art and in everyday life.

With growing community debate about the conundrum of New Aborigines, my mind began turning in the other direction. I began thinking about Australians of distant Aboriginal ancestry who don’t rush to identify. Is it racism that stops them? Disquiet about having a “dash of tar”? Do they self-exclude on class grounds, believing Aboriginality is nothing more than a synonym for poverty? Or have they come to intuit that remaining white can be a sensible, circumspect course of behaviour for those without lived experience of Culture?

Predictably, my call-out for bloodline interviewees who don’t identify leads to an avalanche of people who say they would identify in a heartbeat if they had enough information or chutzpah, or both. I did, however, find a tiny handful of thoughtful individuals not hell-bent on becoming Aboriginal. Interestingly, the closer these people have been to Aboriginal communities, the more circumspect they are. This is what they told me about their experiences. Names have been changed for privacy.

Simone. Simone is a slim 60-something health professional from Victoria, now living in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales. She has fair skin, but Aboriginal women gravitate to her in meetings anyway, calling her sis, and asking where she’s from. “I normally just say Victoria, and they go ‘oh’, and then that’s it.” Well respected in her field, Simone is accepted by many Goories as belonging, and even explicitly claimed by one Yaegl family. Yet she still hesitates to call herself Aboriginal. “I usually say no, if I’m asked, or sometimes I might say I don’t know. I’ve had the DNA kit sitting on my shelf for a year.”

I ask her whether she would ever investigate her Victorian family tree. “I would really love to go back and find connection to mob, to Country – it would be amazing. It would make you whole, I guess. But I just think it’s buried too far.”

Queer Aboriginal Elders have encouraged Simone, a lesbian, to embrace Aboriginality too. She has sat at the feet of one such Jagera Elder, Aunty Dawn Daylight, and been shown how community connections operate. But something in her remains loath to identify.

I think, what right do I have? I haven’t had to endure the prejudices that lots of other people have, so I don’t know that I’m entitled to the privileges … even if the DNA shows I’m Koori, how does that help me find my family? I think I’m one of many, many, many people in Australia affected by government policies … parents would have done anything they could to keep their children, you know. I’m just the tip of the iceberg.

When Simone reveals the surname of her uncle who lived with her as a child, we all laugh. It’s a prominent Victorian Koori name. There’s little doubt in my mind that she’s biologically Aboriginal. But only she can decide to take the leap into identifying. I understand her hesitation and tell her so. Becoming Aboriginal isn’t easy. Nor is genuine Aboriginal life. And there’s little Simone is excluded from as a white person. She can attend our community events, she can continue to do the same mainstream job she’s currently doing with her Aboriginal patients, and critically, she can enjoy the friendship and culture of Aboriginal mob, all without needing to cross the line and become one of us. We finish our interview agreeing that, for Simone, continuing to identify as white is one perfectly valid option among several.

Peta. When I meet Peta outside a Sydney cafe I instantly see in her a strong resemblance to a Bundjalung friend. Perhaps 30, Peta has straight dark hair and medium brown skin; she sits very still, with a notably calm, quiet demeanour. Her voice is soft. While she’s happy to answer my questions, I get the feeling she would be just as happy not talking about herself at all.

Peta played in Koori sports teams as a kid in Western Sydney, but doesn’t identify. Estranged from her entire biological family, she knows little about her mother’s Aboriginal people north of Sydney. Until 12, Peta was raised in alcoholic chaos by a “coloured” South African father. In his world of grog, drugs and drama, she found herself shunted around between her Sydney home and various white households. She eventually found safety and belonging among Vietnamese friends, sometimes living with them. She spent some limited time with her mother as a teen but pretty quickly hit the road after her grandmother’s death. There is mention during our conversation of an orphanage, but I end up unclear if it was she or her mother who was institutionalised at one stage.

I stopped identifying because I didn’t really grow up in that part of my family. I never bring it up. I don’t deny it if I’m asked – and I do get asked a lot – but once the subject of Aboriginality arises there are always questions about where I’m from, and I can’t really answer those questions. So, it’s easier to just not identify.

We talk about the mixed responses that some returnees receive. There can be warm acceptance, but there can be cruelty and bullying too, at times. Peta says that to some extent this has informed her decision not to identify, but she reveals no great angst over it. As a visible woman of colour, a survivor of a turbulent and traumatic childhood, and a trans one at that, I get the feeling Peta already has plenty on her plate to deal with. Moved, I tell her that while choosing not to identify is entirely understandable, and in many cases commendable, Country is nevertheless very patient; hers will doubtless be waiting for her if she’s ever ready. I also show her a picture of my Bundjalung friend.

Kylie. Kylie, a light-skinned single mum in her late 40s, is very much a part of the Brisbane First Nations activist community, but she no longer calls herself Aboriginal. Raised in dire poverty, Kylie believed all her life she was Murri. As a tiny child she overheard her grandmother and mum arguing: “My grandmother called us all a bunch of dirty fucking boongs, and Mum called her a dirty nigger-lover in retaliation.”

In Year 2, a priest did what Kylie considers was the “favour” of telling her that her dad died “because of us kids”. From that point on she never believed anything the Establishment told her. She was on the streets by age 12.

I went into DOCS [Department of Child Services] at 13. My family might not carry the melanin, but we certainly carry the trauma. My sister, she’d say, “Just don’t talk about it!” Then after my first kid was born, she went, “Why would you want people to know? What are you going to get out of it? Why would you tell him that?” I feel sorry for her, actually … she looks more like a Murri than me, but she doesn’t want it.

Mum died when I was 21. I don’t know any of her family. DOCS refused to let me meet up with any of my mum’s family, even her white great aunts. They said, “Oh, you don’t want to know them.”

Kylie lived as a Murri woman for decades and raised her kids as such. She was first educated in Culture by North Queensland mob and later accepted by many in Brisbane when she moved back south. Then a genealogical investigation in 2018 by Link-Up, an organisation dedicated to reconnecting Aboriginal families, made a shock finding that she wasn’t Aboriginal, despite one Brisbane Elder remembering her Blak grandfather. An earlier DNA test had indicated Kylie was of Melanesian descent – a common mislabelling in the early days of testing. Kylie was distraught to be told in middle age that she wasn’t Murri, and completely bewildered about how to live as white. Some local leaders, including the late Uncle Sam Watson, told her that she still belonged to the Brisbane mob, regardless. But Kylie took a large backwards step.

I don’t identify publicly anymore. I keep it to myself. I get it [the backlash against new identifiers]. I see it all the time with the ones where there’s no question this is an Aboriginal person, but they haven’t been raised with mob, haven’t been to Country, haven’t done Ceremony. Separated parents have raised another generation of separated kids, and then those next generation of people are coming in and doing cultural things … that’s not okay, either. I just keep my head down and do what I’ve always done, on the sidelines. You know, I’m never the one holding the mic, I’m the one plugging the mic in.

Socialised for decades in Aboriginal lifeways, Kylie behaves like every other grassroots person I know. During our interview an older Murri visitor arrives at her home; Kylie calls this woman “Mum” in the Murri way. We exchange family photos until Mum understands who her kinship daughter is talking to. Then I turn the conversation back to Kylie’s identity. She’s philosophical.

… if people wanna run me down and be sour about who they think I am or who they think I’m not, they can be. It doesn’t affect me much anymore. Cos we both know that that same person’s gonna be ringing me up for help the next time there’s Sorry Business or an event to organise. And I’ll step up and give her that help, too. Cos it’s not about them, either, same as it’s not about me.

By continuing her unpaid community work while putting her identity dilemma to one side, Kylie embodies fundamental First Nations values. Personal identity is trivial; what matters is how we treat each other and the earth.

Rosie. My final interview is with a woman I’ll call Rosie. She’s a show-woman, and spent her childhood on the showgrounds, travelling from town to town. She knew Jim Sharman, of the famous boxing troupe, as Uncle Jim. Rosie’s family lore spoke of Spanish ancestry.

I grew up around the fire, going to the missions. I related so hard to Sally Morgan’s book. Like, at the Moree show the local lads would be going to my dad, “You’re our brother, you’re our brother,” but Dad was always told by his white mum, “Don’t listen to them.” It was the showground culture. Ya know, nobody’s gay, or Blak or alcoholic in the show scene. You just have to be white and Australian. The only Aboriginals I knew and loved were in the boxing troupe.

Dad never went to school, and neither did his mother. Dad was driving semis at 13. He lost all his birth certificates and stuff at one point and when someone got him one it had his grandmother down as Native Australian. And he went, “Well, what’s that?” And somebody said it meant Aboriginal. But his mother wouldn’t have a bar of it; the family story was the Spanish princess ancestor. He’d joke about it to hide the pain. “You don’t get a nose like this by being Spanish.” So he knew and didn’t know: Schrodinger’s blackfulla. Nobody was ever allowed to speak of it.

I ask her about identifying, given her strong connections.

Would I ever identify? I feel I don’t have the privilege or honour to, that it’s not proper for me … whenever I hear people saying, “Well, I’m this or that tribe,” I’d feel fake. I think it’s insulting to Aboriginal people.

I do get really upset over it. Did you ever see Secrets & Lies? I always thought my life was like that movie.

I don’t talk about [identity] except privately, like, with close friends. I have such a respect for the culture, I don’t want to be half-arsed about it. I’ve never ticked the box … as for Dad … well, he’s too old. He’s angry. He kind of doesn’t want to go there because he was told so many lies.

What can be gleaned from a sample size of four? Not much, perhaps, except that none of the women I spoke to are mercenaries – far from it.

Kylie, who as a child heard herself described as a “dirty boong” and Simone, welcomed as family by Yaegl mob, nevertheless live as non-Aboriginal members of Blak communities. Peta and Rosie are ordinary Australians with Aboriginal bloodlines. Importantly, none of the four have taken First Nations jobs or resources. Rather, they are known for who they are and by what they contribute: skills, energy, friendship or simply the common sense to not overstep the mark.

In Nathan Maynard’s 2022 play At What Cost?, a New Aborigine in lutruwita cries in dismay, “But what about us? Don’t we get to have something special too?” Maynard’s answer in the play is yes – but not by being Aboriginal. Definitely not by unilaterally declaring your identity, by claiming ground so hard won by others. Invitations into Aboriginal mobs are certainly issued. I got one in my late teens and am forever grateful. But without such explicit invitations and mentoring, New Aborigines are entering a risky, volatile space. For many, the anger over breaking unwritten cultural rules, and the agonising identity crises that often follow, would be better off avoided, simply by staying white.

Ironically, not identifying as Blak is an easier and more certain path to acceptance. As the experience of hundreds of initiated outsiders demonstrates, it’s through Ceremony and socialisation that true acceptance is cemented. Before Captain Cook, First Nations put inclusion at the centre of our lives, employing totems, skin names and Ceremony to bind people together. These strategies operate to protect Country: an all-encompassing term that includes everything that has lived or will live in a place. Country is an extraordinary mind-map – connection upon connection upon connection – and in traditional Blak cosmology, everything in existence has somewhere to belong and a way to be. This was true for all First Nations before colonisation. Many Elders hope it can be true one day for all Australians, regardless of their DNA, under conditions of post-Treaty Aboriginal leadership.

Until that time, Australians with distant Blak ancestry have several paths open to them. One is to seek the long and complex transformation into indigeneity, subject to the authority of suitable senior people. But another option is to simply remain white. While caring for the Country you live on, yes. While spending time with local mobs and joining in our struggle for a just Australia, but without the need to put yourself in the centre of the picture, or to take Aboriginal jobs or assume cultural authority you don’t deserve and can’t possibly fulfil. White outsiders who come in humble with good hearts will find room made in the Aboriginal world for them. And as for the charlatans? The many frauds out there who knowingly thieve from some of the most marginalised people on earth? That rotten mob are the one element of this entire complex question that everybody in Aboriginal Australia can agree on: Take ’em out the back and flog ’em.

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