When you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, you are denying that I am Aboriginal. To deny that I am Aboriginal denies that my family are Aboriginal, or otherwise denies my belonging to them; either way, to divest us of our Aboriginality is to divorce us from our history of hardships and triumphs. To divorce us from our history is to deny that my grandmother was taken by welfare because she was Aboriginal, by the dictates of past government policies. To deny that she was taken because she was Aboriginal is to deny that past government policies attempted genocide of Aboriginal people. To deny that the government’s objective was genocide is to dismiss their responsibility for the widespread decimation of Aboriginal languages, traditions, land rights and intact families today. To deny that there are no widespread crises of identity within Aboriginal individuals, families, communities – and indeed our entire country – is to deny our lived reality. And when you deny our reality, you deny us our humanity. And so when you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, it goes much further than just skin-deep.
When you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, it says much to me about your misunderstanding through your adherence to the tenets of the obsolete pseudo-science that is biological race theory. Your individual ignorance is, however, symptomatic of a widespread pandemic, where these beliefs are not systematically dismantled in the education system from a young age, thereby perpetuating the dominant white supremacist values that are normalised and exude from the hidden curriculum. And so when you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, you’re not entirely to blame; the weight of such culpability is much too much for an individual to bear.
When you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, you are nevertheless guilty of perpetuating violence control through your embodiment of racist values. You are acting as a vehicle for oppression, an agent of history and part of the framework that continues the work of past assimilation policies. Does this come as a shock to you? Are you in denial? This is where the examination of your ideas must come into play on your part. You must locate your beliefs in the historical and spacial continuum of oppression, and only then can you see how you are an agent of whitewashing, acting out this legacy. You will then be responsible to be an agent of change. With knowledge comes responsibility, because education without action does nothing. So when you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, you’re not getting off that easily with a seemingly innocuous comment; ignorance does not equal innocence, and I’m going to take this as an opportunity to do my responsibility.
When you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, you are implicitly perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Prevalent misperceptions and misconceptions of Aboriginal people render us lazy, drunk, dole-bludging, violent, sneaky and stupid; I can only offer one good stereotype that I’ve encountered in my whole life – that we are good at sports. When you compliment me for not embodying any of these tired tropes, upholding me as the paragon of black virtue because of my perceived whiteness, you are reinforcing these stereotypes of what ‘real’, ‘authentic’ Aboriginal people are like. By telling me I’m the exception to the rule you are reinforcing the rules. You are promulgating a colonial hangover of media-created deficiencies. You are telling me that I’m inauthentic and you are telling yourself everything that centuries of racist politicians, scientists, missionaries, educators, and journalists have told you is the truth. So when you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, you are deluding yourself with the tools they created to oppress us.
When you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, and you grill me about the where, when, how, and why I have the right to identify the way I do, you are being invasive and rude. Or when your eyes light up, exciting yourself over the prospect of trauma porn, of collecting tales of woe and anguish, I recoil. By believing you are entitled to know the minutiae of my family tree, the ins and outs of my family’s journey, you presume that your sense of entitlement takes precedence over my personal boundaries. But this ain’t so. When you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, and you drill me with your intrusive eyes and prod me with your blunt questions, you are telling me that you do not respect me.
When you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, and add that I mustn’t have much in me, when you enquire about my caste and blood percentage, admixtures and purity, you are attempting to reduce over sixty thousand years of deep and vibrant culture to a quantifiable measure; over two hundred years of survival and resilience against colonialism, attempted genocide and ongoing assimilation to a drop of blood; my own nearly thirty years of culture lived in family and community to a miniscule section of mammoth lengths of DNA. You want to reduce who I am in flux and flow to an immutable, graspable number for ease of understanding, to further reduce and divide the entirety of me and mine. By continuing to ask how much I have in me, after not getting the hint to drop this line of eugenic economic interrogation – what part? what caste? – you continue to ignore the fact that it just doesn’t work that way. Despite centuries of imposed definitions that sought to segregate and assimilate us, to provide a solution as though we were a problem to be solved, that tried to cut us down enough so that we would fit into their constricting frameworks, you do not hear the truth that I just am. Not half of me, nor a quarter, or one seventy-eighth; not my head or my heart or arm or toe; not my eyes or hair, not tooth or nail. I just am. All of me, all the time, always was, and always will be. So when you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, you are attempting to reduce the entirety of my identity and relationships and activism to one single moment, now, where you want the answer that I will never give you the satisfaction of giving you. You will never cut me down to size.
When you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, and add that I am too pretty, my features too fine, my body too elegant to really be Aboriginal – by trading in these back-handed compliments to isolate me, using surface-level hooks to ingratiate yourself – you’re telling me that you think Aboriginal people are ugly, as a rule. You’re saying that my beautiful Mum and grandmother, handsome brothers, gorgeous aunties, striking uncles, lovely cousins, stunning friends, and cute little nieces and nephews are all ugly – not just different by the narrow standards of the parochial mainstream beauty industry, but not pleasing on the eyes at all, not nice to look at, just plain unattractive, full stop, done. We, Aboriginal people, obviously disagree – not that we value such superficial appraisal – but how then could you explain all of our non-Indigenous mothers and fathers? Lovers? One-night stands? And our phenomenal, exponential population growth? I acknowledge that rape has been a reality for us the last couple of centuries, but this does not explain the many healthy mixed-race relationships, or even the unhealthy fetishisation of black women and men. You’re ignoring the reality that Aboriginal people are, and always have been, desirable to non-Indigenous people. So when you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, you’re saying that Aboriginal people are either desirable or authentic, but never both. And you’re wilfully ignoring the fact of our beauty within the eyes of countless beholders, spelled out clearly by the birds and the bees throughout millennia.
When you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, that I look more Lebanese, or Italian, or Croatian, or whatever, you are reducing what it means to be Aboriginal in all its gorgeous complexity to an essentialist list of clinical physical features, to a cold and simple checklist for cookie-cutter authenticity. Not only is this sheerly stupid because the evidence is that Aboriginal people today come in all shapes and sizes, with an astonishing diversity of facial features and skin colours, to discount certain items off the checklist in favour of other items is to racialise our bodies, to racialise our very beings. By subscribing to the Dulux colour-chart myth of Aboriginality, you are continuing the past work of welfare body snatchers who held colour swatches up to the skin of Aboriginal babies before they ripped them from their mothers’ arms. They grouped these babies according to tone, often separating siblings by this completely arbitrary division that could change seasonally with the strength of the sun. This conceptual delineation became concrete in many cases, where sister and brother were physically separated not only from their mother, but also from each other. This was the case with my grandmother, who was taken from her Aboriginal mother at the age of four, along with her seven-month-old brother, never for any of them to see each other ever again. Yes, they took their heartbreak to their graves. So for me and mine, colour-coding isn’t just an objective judgement of a visual hue, it has a crushing historical weight that has crippled all of my family members, each in their own way. So when you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, this shameful historical legacy reaches to me from the past to haunt me to this very day.
When you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, my deep-running empathy and over-active imagination come out to play. I imagine and feel what this would have meant to me if I’d been born one hundred, eighty, sixty, or even forty years ago. I consider myself lucky that I was born in the year of Orwell’s hell; still, my Mum did instil in us her very deep fear of the welfare, so that we knew how to perform for society and never draw attention to ourselves. Because growing up as we did, with a single Aboriginal mother, if we had not performed well and hidden ourselves, if we had been born ten years earlier, there is a statistical probability that we would have been taken too. Do not misunderstand me: we were very much loved and always supported. We weren’t abused or neglected, we were never in danger, and even though traumatic events moved us far away from our extended family – my Mum’s only support network – we integrated into a completely new community, who thankfully very soon took us in. But we never had any money, and poverty is criminal in the eyes of the welfare. So when you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, you are telling me how lucky I am to have been born when I was.
When you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, I imagine that you are the welfare, with the authority of government policies behind your words, and that you have the power to take me from my mother and my brothers. And in a way, you have, because I step back in time to the known story of my grandmother’s life. My grandmother, who never knew me, lives on around me in the only form I’ve ever known her – in the smiles and mannerisms of my family. We all look very much like her, but it’s not just her beautiful features that have left their mark on us. She’s present in the stories that are told and the stories that aren’t; the elephants in our rooms, the skeletons in our closets. Her entire life-story haunts mine, and I continue to make sense of myself in the context of her struggles. She walks inside me every day and I have an ongoing relationship with her. I have an obligation to ensure that what she suffered through is known, and also that it stops. So when you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, you have taken me away from my family and into her life.
When you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, I feel, viscerally, my grandmother’s pain; I panic in the knowledge that I will never see my mother again. And for every letter I write to her I’ll not receive an answer, because instead of the girl’s home guardians telling me the truth that they’re not passing her replies on to me, they tell me that she has forgotten about me. That she doesn’t love me. I am gutted by the knowledge that my mother will not be there when I am sick, when I need her to love me. I will never hear her voice again, or smell her skin, or have her kiss me goodnight. Ever, ever again, forever, never. Never. She will never pass on her culture to me – our strength, our stories – and the adults that I look to as parent figures are in turn abusive, cold, and transient; all unloving. These early role models imprint on me and my first escape from them is straight into the arms and wedlock of a man with an uncanny resemblance to my early caregivers. My mother will not be there when I get married, when I am in labour, when I am sick, and when I die too young. She will not be there for my children, when I need her to love them. So when you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, you have taken my mother from me. You have taken my world from me.
When you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, my breath catches; if not for the grace of being born when I was, I would never see my brothers again. We five – joined to each other through our Mum, and inseparable through our close upbringing – some of us have different Dads, creating a beautiful diversity within our obvious similarities. But because we have different skin colours, body types, nose shapes and eye colours, we would not be deemed similar enough in the eyes of the law to remain together as would support our basic human dignity. The fairer-skinned of us would be adopted into white families to become their chattel, and the rest of us would grow up in cold hard institutions, befitting our darker skin, and trained for domestic or menial labour, depending on our gender; all places neglecting to nourish our connection to our true culture, denying us our rightful inheritance, severing who we are from who they want us to be, and therefore butchering us at our very being. Placed far apart, names changed and changed and changed again, we would never even know where to start looking for each other, and so we’d all live out the rest of our lives as only, lonely children. So when you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, you are tearing me from my big and little, all of my strong brothers. You are dictating that we have different worth and different levels of usefulness according to your cold and convenient colour-coordinated doctrine.
When you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, you are alerting me to the fact that if left unchecked and uncorrected, you’ll repeat this comment to others, maybe others who are less resilient or strong in their identity than I am. Perhaps our young people, maybe one day my own children. Probably, you will impress upon your children that this comment is okay, and maybe they will continue this legacy. Whoever you are, do you have the power to invoke feelings of shyness, shame and inadequacy in our young black kids? Or even our older mob? When you comment, I wonder who you are and what power you wield in the world, what influence you have on Aboriginal people, and how your attitudes govern your actions. Are you a social worker, a teacher, a doctor, a cop? A football coach, a journalist? A shop assistant, an employer? A real estate agent, a model scout? An anthropologist, an art dealer, a miner, a farmer? A magistrate, a screw? Or are you just the average busybody, keeping the hard-to-kill-but-not-yet-obsolete White Australia policy alive and well? I do hope you might leave that in the past where it belongs, and I hope you might get with the times. So, when you tell me you don’t look Aboriginal, you make me wonder whether you can reflect on my words, dismantle your position, change your course, and continue on as an embodiment of alliance, acceptance, validation, respect and healing that our people have so sorely missed from you.
I highlight this because I’ve heard it said that recognition and identity is only a “small issue” compared with the health, housing, education, employment, and criminal justice statistics that describe our situation today. I first point this out to demonstrate how imposed definitions blatantly attempted our genocide in the past, and I further point this out because this attempted genocide is absolutely, unequivocally responsible for our fourth-world socio-economic status that we live through today. Finally, I point this out because our current low life expectancy, high infant mortality rate, incarceration and deaths in custody ratio, and child removal rates – that far surpass Stolen Generations rates – tell the tale. These facts and figures speak to a government who still do not care. Although they have changed the terminology and phrasing of their policies, the effects of their actions and interference is ongoing, yet with even worse outcomes than at the times the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths and Custody, and the Bringing Them Home report, were published.
I wrote this for our mob who still come up against this, in the hopes that they can more deeply understand why it’s not appropriate, and maybe get some new angles on their reactions. I especially wrote this for the parents of black kids: the Indigenous parents who may also know what it’s like, and the non-Indigenous parents who don’t quite understand on a personal level. I wrote it for all the parents who want to defend our young black people, so that they know what to say, but more importantly, so that they can instil the pride in their kids that my Mum instilled in me – pride so that they can be resilient and not buy into out-dated myths.
However, I addressed this to non-Indigenous people who do this, who might be setting a bad example for their own kids to follow in their footsteps. I addressed this to those people who might be making our kids feel angry and hurt and defensive, for all those who have made me and mine feel this way, and for those who still attempt to. So whether you intend to belittle us or not, you can recognise where you are located in the continuum of assimilationist rhetoric, and hopefully make the decision that racism stops with you, to become our allies instead of remaining as obstacles in allowing our people, to feel as valued and strong as we should. As we must.
Mykaela Saunders is a Koori and Lebanese writer with Dharug ancestry, who belongs to the Minjungbal-Nganduwal community in Tweed Heads. She’s currently undertaking a Doctor of Arts degree in the creative writing program at the University of Sydney, where she also lectures in Indigenous Studies. Her doctoral project is called Goori-Futurism: Envisioning the sovereignty of Minjungbal-Nganduwal country, community, and culture through speculative fiction.
Author image: courtesy of the author.
Header image: taken from the Bringing Them Home The ‘Stolen Children’ Report 1997