Too White to be Black

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Words || Gabrielle Green

I think I was about 14 when someone said these exact words to me – “You’re way too white to be anything close to Aboriginal.” I was enthusiastic because my sister was planning on entering Macquarie Uni through the Warawara Indigenous Unit, and I went around school telling all my friends about how exciting it was to be officially recognised (though I had no idea what that really meant). Every single friend knew my sister – she was blonde, paler skin than me, nothing to the naked eye that could identify us as Aboriginal, and yet that’s what we were.

As I was proudly telling a friend about what was happening, that’s when she spoke those words to me, and I stopped talking. I just remember sitting there and asking, “What does that mean?”

“Your sister is paler than you, and your mum is white, I’ve never met your dad.”

“My dad has darker skin.”

“But how do you know?”

I pulled out my iPad and showed her a photo of my grandmother, darker skinned, with curly hair and features that were unmistakably Indigenous. This friend, she wasn’t trying to be malicious to my knowledge, but it speaks to a larger problem – one that Australia needs to confront. 

I’m only 21, and while I am proudly Indigenous, I am careful with who I reveal this to – among friends around my age group, I am very open about my identity, but as we begin to get to middle-aged generations and older, I am more reserved unless it is already known to them. As the world is currently following the Black Lives Matter movement, it has put into question my reservations of my own Indigenous identity and how little I have previously fought for Indigenous rights, my own rights. It called into question how little I have been educated in my history and how little Australia discusses some of its darkest points.

250 years ago, Captain James Cook landed on the shores of Australia and later declared it terra nullius, “land belonging to no one,” despite the fact that he encountered Indigenous inhabitants. Despite Australia’s best attempts to not call this what it is, Indigenous Australians experienced a systematic genocide at the hands of the European settlers and the White Australia Policy. Generations of kids were stolen from their families by the government, including my great-grandmother, who was born in Warren, 114km outside of Dubbo, to a white couple from Manly who had suffered many miscarriages. From family reports, she was told not to question her darker skin, and much of her community said that she looked like she came from the Islands, due to her frizzy hair and dark skin – because who would have an Indigenous child? This was part of the process of assimilation, to be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander was not allowed in Australia, and the intention of assimilation was to Westernise and convert Aboriginal children to Christianity and pass it down through generations.

These generations of stolen children were either adopted into white families very young (such as my great-grandmother) or kept on missions if they were older, where they were taught to give up Aboriginal Spirituality. These generations received an apology by the Australian Government in 2008, something they had asked John Howard’s government to do but he had flatly refused. After Kevin Rudd’s apology in 2008, Howard stated that he “[did] not believe, as a matter of principle, that one generation can accept responsibility for the acts of an earlier generation,” and disagreed with the 1997 Bringing Them Home Report, which stated that the forcible removal of children after 1946 amounted to genocide under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While his current generation may not be at fault, it was the actions of the Federal Government, State Governments, police services and churches that led to the legal forced removal of Indigenous Children for over 60 years, and it had to be acknowledged.

After the National Sorry Day in 2008, it appeared the government patted itself on the back, implemented plans to “Close the Gap” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and had managed to compensate for the lasting effects of the Stolen Generations. Yet, in 2008, Indigenous children were still 6 times more likely to be removed for child welfare reasons, and 21 times more likely to be in juvenile detention centres. A 2018 report, based on statistics from 2016-17, stated that 58.7 per 1000 Indigenous children were still being removed from their homes compared to 5.8 per 1000 non-Indigenous children.

It’s a reminder of how privileged I am to be fair skinned – how I can, and should, fight for other Indigenous Australians because it’s disgusting how much we have let happen to Indigenous communities. How they live isn’t a “lifestyle choice,” no matter what Tony Abbott believes, it is a poverty our government has kept them in, especially in rural communities. Australia has a dark and bloody history that we are uncomfortable facing; the actions of our ancestors, whether from the First Fleet or after, are still affecting our society now. It is two very bloody centuries of genocide and assimilation, of building a system that ultimately benefits those of European heritage (or to put it simply, those with fair skin), that has led to Indigenous communities living in poverty and in prison, and Australia has let that happen.

I still remember someone asking why Indigenous Australians are complaining so much about their situations when the government has already apologised – and it’s this that has led us to the present Black Lives Matter movement. They may have apologised for their actions, but they sure have not done as much to change the situation – Indigenous people are 3% of the Australian population, and yet they are 28% of the prison population (according to 2018 statistics); an estimated 31.4% of Indigenous Australians live in poverty, especially in rural communities who do not get as much support; and the Indigenous life expectancy is significantly lower than those of non-Indigenous backgrounds by a minimum of 10 years. Despite what some Australians believe, the gap has not been closed, we do not get everything for free, and yes, we are dying at higher rates in custody than you think.

As of June 5th, 2020, 437 Indigenous people have died in some form of police custody since 1991. That is 15 deaths per year. And yet we still have to fight to be heard and seen as humans. This may seem like a long time ago in the time of 2020, but only last year, NSW One Nation Leader Mark Latham proposed that Indigenous people take a DNA test to prove that they were (in his words) at least 25% Indigenous. On June 11th, 2020, Scott Morrison did say that the colony in NSW was founded to be without slavery, and that slavery in Australia did not exist. However, despite what both these men said, I can exist as an Indigenous Australian and be fair-skinned, Mr. Latham, and slavery did exist in Australia, Mr. Morrison, as Indigenous men were chained up and forced into labour to work on sugar cane farms and become stockmen.

Why does being Indigenous seem to mean that I am somehow less human? Why do I have to fight some people just to be recognised as I am? Why should other Indigenous Australians have to fight just to live? To be heard and seen? Not all of us are black, but we still get their experience, their pain is our pain. It shouldn’t have taken America burning for Australia to wake up – and we cannot keep denying that what has happened in America does not happen here.

Senator Pat Dodson, a commissioner on the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, recently said in the Senate, “For too long – nice words, good intentions – but the lack of action and commitment has not seen a reduction to the custodies or the deaths in custody.” Don’t let this issue go to the back of your mind again. We must commit to fully ending this for our future generations, as Australians.

Indigenous lives matter, now and always.

And don’t forget, the land you stand on always has been and always will be Aboriginal land.