Blacker Than Thou


The rejection of Aboriginal identity by other Aboriginal people can be devastating.

According to Kungarakan elder and long-time social justice advocate Tom Calma, Aboriginal people in urban areas "have a stronger sense of need to assert their identity" than do their "traditional" counterparts, whose identity is less often challenged. There is particular risk, as South Australian policy officer Alwyn McKenzie points out, that this lack of recognition will mean that Aboriginal people in urban areas will not have their needs met. McKenzie says, "We know there’s great need there", but the overwhelming policy and service focus on remote communities can sometimes obscure this fact.

This dichotomy was reinforced under the Howard government’s policy of "practical reconciliation", which redirected resources away from urban-dwelling Aboriginal people and towards those living in rural and remote areas.

It is one thing to have your Aboriginality challenged by non-Aboriginal people, but it is quite another to have to fight for acceptance from other Aboriginal people. Aboriginal academic and writer Larissa Behrendt has experienced this antagonism first hand, telling me in our interview:

"I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in meetings with people who aren’t from the southeast who like to imply that because I’m from here, I’m not as culturally legitimate as they are because I haven’t lived on an outstation and I don’t speak my language fluently. And it’s very hard not to resent the way that your Aboriginality, which I feel inherently no matter where I am, is somehow being dismissed."

This has not deterred Marcia Langton, herself an urban-based academic, from drawing a political distinction between remote and urban Aboriginal people, which she says also reflects divisions about concerns to do with the "practical" versus the "symbolic" in debates about the Northern Territory intervention. Langton draws a distinction between "those who have lived through the many tragedies and their aftermath in remote Australia, committed to preventing the destruction of their societies in a haze of alcohol and drug abuse; and those with cosmopolitan urban experience who have allowed libertarian leanings, and deep political disappointment, to confuse their logic."

Langton here is relating urbanisation to the class differences that have emerged as a relatively new cleavage among Aboriginal people as many have taken up opportunities for education and training available in cities and towns. While status differences have long been a feature of many rural towns, with differences in lifestyle and values evident between "town dwellers" and "fringe dwellers", these categories have been somewhat porous and poorly defined. Recent years, however, have seen the emergence of what Behrendt referred to in our interview as "a middle-class black Australia". Behrendt sees this new class structure as something that will be a "huge challenge to Indigenous politics and identity" for several reasons.

First of all, the emerging middle class completely breaks the stereotype that is dominant within the Aboriginal community, of people who are socio-economically disadvantaged. There’s a real challenge in seeing people who are middle class, who have successful careers in professions that are quite influential in mainstream society, and then having to figure out: What does self-determination mean for an Indigenous person who has that profile?

It is apparent that the emerging black middle class is, in part, fuelling jealousy among the less well-off majority. However, even successful people like Noel Pearson — himself an educated lawyer — have attacked the newly emerging middle class for manufacturing "black urban glamour" through, for example, the launch of a new Indigenous television network.

Such criticism seems to fly in the face of the knowledge that elites are an important resource in political culture. Chief executive of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, Geoff Scott, agrees, pointing out that, "A substantial portion of the Aboriginal population has yet to realise the potential benefit [a middle class]can have." Aboriginal activist Warren Mundine also acknowledges the importance of the emerging middle class, claiming it is hard to "name a revolution that was started without the middle class." Deep suspicion about the new black middle class remains, however, with fellow activist and academic Gary Foley declaring in a radio interview, "They’re screwing us."

One further layer of complexity in the area of Aboriginal identity concerns the relationship between black and white — in families and within individuals. Several of my interviewees had at least one white relative, whether a parent, a spouse or partner, or a more distant relationship. Aboriginal activist Sam Watson is one who finds considerable joy in his relationships with non-Aboriginal Australians, most notably his wife Catherine, who has been his partner since they were both 15. Watson feels that his relationship with Catherine, with whom he lives in "the broader white community", helps him to keep some "distance from the Murri community", which in turn makes him "an effective community operator".

Colleen Hayward, a Noongar woman and associate professor at Curtin University, understands both the complex history and the contemporary reality of these relationships, saying, "Were too many of our women raped? Yeah, they were. So lots of the initial instances of babies who became children who became adults who became parents of mixed cultural heritage was violent and not by choice." Yet Hayward has a simple response when she is asked by colleagues whether any of her experiences with non-Aboriginal Australians have been positive. Hayward says simply, "My mother is white. Absolutely every experience I have with her is positive."

Despite the growing confidence with which many Aboriginal people negotiate multi-layered identities, there is still a degree of what several people described as "internalised racism", which manifests itself in the charge that someone is "not black enough". Former ATSIC commissioner Kim Hill sees the question being asked "in most communities" about "who’s a real blackfella?" In the Tiwi Islands, where Hill grew up, the lease signed with the Howard government raised new questions about "who’s real Tiwi?" Since colonisation, Hill says, "people have married the wrong way, and married people who are from the mainland" creating a situation where "white people judge us" but, more crucially, "our own mob judge us."

Indigenous lawyer Eddie Cubillo strongly rejects this sort of internalised racism, pointing to his own cultural mix of Filipino and Chinese, along with his Aboriginal family background. Cubillo finds it really upsetting to hear "one mob say they are more black than another", a view he says is "just ignorance". Cubillo’s response is to say: "Look, we’re all the same. We’re just lucky [in the north]that Captain Cook didn’t rock up on our gate first."

Still, Cubillo is optimistic, believing that many Aboriginal people are "getting over that hurdle". If Cubillo is right, it seems an important step for Aboriginal people to insist that more than a "traditional" Aboriginal identity is recognised.

This is an edited extract from Black Politics — Inside the complexity of Aboriginal political culture, 2009, by Sarah Maddison, published by Allen and Unwin

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.