Re-Thinking Indigenous Identity

Thursday, 2 April, 2015

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: I am not here to tell anyone how they should identify, or that how they previously saw themselves is wrong. I am not looking to provide a solution to the puzzle that is personal identity. That’s an endeavour that spreads itself across the fields of psychology, history, philosophy and anthropology. Instead, I want to discuss the habitual frame of mind that people of all shapes and sizes take when addressing identity and race. I have seen this frame of mind adopted by a member of just about every demographic you could imagine, my own Aboriginal family included. Simply put, I’m referring to our obsession over fractions and percentages.

When we use phrases such as ‘half-caste’ or discuss whatever fraction we are of whatever race and ethnicity we might be, what we are really talking about is racial purity. That’s right, the same thing villains have been obsessing over for millennia (here’s looking at you Voldemort). Voldemort felt that Mudbloods, magical folk born to non-magical parents, were compromising the purity of the wizarding world. In a similar vein, depending on who you ask, Indigenous Australians were once seen as either a threat to Australian culture, as needing to be civilised, or simply as inferior, and steps were taken over two centuries to oppress them, one way or another. This included forced labour camps, the introduction of diseases and germ warfare, massacres, mass rape, kidnapping and the destruction of an entire culture. And in many cases the extent to which Indigenous Australian were (and are) treated poorly would depend upon the shade of their skin, seen as an indicator as to how much ‘Indigenous blood’ they have.

These acts were at least in some part based on the ‘science’ of eugenics, a field of social philosophy which achieved considerable notoriety and traction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Eugenics blends components of biology and sociology with the intent to ‘improve society’ through population control. In Germany, Australia, and across North America, among other places, these efforts were largely concerned with the attempted achievement of complete racial purity.

Given the deep connections between these historical practices of genocide and the conception of racial purity held by their perpetrators, shouldn’t it horrify us that we still use this language and mindset to frame our identities? I would think so, and encourage others to abandon the idea that anyone is more or less Indigenous because of the ‘purity’ of their blood.

If you really want to talk about what Indigenous identity might mean, then take a number. It’s a complicated subject that everyone from Andrew Bolt (in his own special way) to Yothu Yindu has made an attempt at, with wildly different responses. I can tell you with absolute certainty though that it’s not just about the fraction of your ‘blood’ or the darkness of the colour of your skin. It’s not the way you talk or walk, and it’s definitely not the fact that you are the deadliest dancer this side of Dubbo. The reality is that being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander or Noongar or Koori or Murray could mean any great number of things. For some it means getting to live on your people’s land and hunt goanna, or it means that Coranderrk is both a place of pride and pain. Some will herald from an unbroken line of elders going back for millennia, but for others to whom their people are a mystery, the journey is only just beginning. For me, it means that I live by the words “protect and provide”.

We might call ourselves blackfellas but our family often have red hair and freckles. What you look like and whether you fit prescriptive stereotypes is not what makes you Indigenous. The important takeaway is this: ethnicity and racial identity aren’t about being one way or another, or having more or less. Being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander isn’t about the fractions of your blood, but rather your connection to the stories and the lives of others.