Racism Is So Versatile


"White is the new black", according to the title of one of the columns that landed Andrew Bolt in court for racial discrimination. It’s a misleading headline, although that is not the point of the court case. Bolt actually seems to be arguing that black is the new white — at least for those "fair skinned Aborigines" who choose to identify as black to conform with "the whole new fashion in academia, the arts, and professional activism".

Regardless of whether white is the new black or black is the new white, it seems as though racism is a versatile fashion for all seasons — even if you do need to keep the label carefully tucked away where no-one can see it. Once upon a time, mixed-race people who did not present themselves as black were said to have a "touch of the tar-brush". Now, Bolt accuses them of taking up the tar-brush in order to adorn themselves with false black-face.

Seeking contrition from the author of a book called Still Not Sorry seems like a particularly futile exercise, which is presumably why the nine so-called "professional Aborigines" who have taken Bolt to court for racial vilification are now seeking an apology from the Herald and Weekly Times as the publisher of the offending article, rather than from Bolt himself. An article that bandies around terms such as "full-blood", "part-Aboriginal" and "Caucasian" arguably calls for an exorcism rather than an apology, but an apology would be a good start.

Bolt asks why prominent "fair-skinned Aborigines such as Anita Heiss, Larissa Behrendt and Bindi Cole don’t describe themselves in terms of their white ancestry — after all, they could pass as white if they so desired".

Their choice to identify as Indigenous while still acknowledging their non-Indigenous relatives — well, that’s all to do with political trendiness and nothing to do with their relationships with their Indigenous family members. And of course, nothing to do with the need to take a stance against racism, since Bolt believes that we’ve moved past all that. He is content to ignore blithely ignore both ongoing racism and a very recent history during which mixed-race children were defined as either black or white under the most brutal possible circumstances. For members of the Stolen Generation, being fair-skinned enough to pass as white earned you the privilege of being snatched from the arms of your dark-skinned mother so that you might grow up free from the taint of her love — and your Indigenous identity.

Bolt’s representation of "fair-skinned Aborigines" draws upon long-standing representations of hybrids (half-castes, half-breeds, mongrels) as inherently untrustworthy chameleons — shape-shifters who change form at whim. I am a shape-shifter myself, although my "touch of the tar" comes from Pakistani rather than Indigenous genes. But I am familiar with the distrust of hybridity. Hybrids are placed in a lose-lose situation, accused of trying to pass themselves off as the more useful category, ordered to shuffle the multiple layers of their identity according to the appropriate hierarchy. The ability to hold more than one identity at the same time — well, that’s too complicated a concept for Bolt to comprehend.

We are all of us hybrids, to a greater or lesser degree of visibility. According to a fairly meaningless DNA test undertaken for a story in the Sunday Mail, even Pauline Hanson has some Middle Eastern genes. This doesn’t count so far as Pauline is concerned because it must have been the result of "rape and pillage" during the course of some ancient war, since none of her good Anglo-Irish ancestors would ever have had consensual sex with a youngster of Middle Eastern appearance. Not a single Hanson forebear ever actually enjoyed a tumble with anyone who had ever enjoyed a tumble with a handsome dark stranger. Ever. Unto the nth degree of separation.

Bolt would presumably approve of Hanson’s choice to dismiss the significance of a fragment of her DNA. He probably has a few tinted fragments in his genetic inheritance too — most of us do. This is not about our racial identity as defined by our biological composition. This is about our present, living relationships and identity, about our right to define ourselves and our right to resist the identities that are imposed on us.

Bolt, of course, denies any racist intent behind his words — indeed, his article proclaims itself as being above race, let alone racism:
"Let’s get past all this race nonsense and just treat each other as fellow human beings. Beyond black and white. Let’s be proud only of being human beings set on
this land together, determined to find what unites us and not to invent
such racist and trivial excuses to divide. Deal?"

This kind of thing is generally code for "I’ll accept you on equal terms until the various ways in which we are different start to make me uncomfortable."

And so it proves in Bolt’s case. His article stated that he did not suspect the "white Aborigines" of manipulating their racial identity for opportunistic reasons — but how else to interpret his talk about "professional Aborigines" taking jobs and winning awards and acclaim, if not as opportunism? These cunning half-breeds — always with an eye for the main chance! The real blackfellas — well, at least you know where you stand with them. The fair-skinned, white-looking ones — they’re out to deceive both sides.

Still not sorry, Andrew? Well, neither am I. I refuse to apologise for not tailoring my hotch-potch of genes in such a way as to keep you in your comfort zone. In fact, as a proud hybrid, I hope to make you as uncomfortable as possible. Deal?


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