The release of Obama’s birth certificate by the White House on Thursday has drawn a variety of responses — from conspiracists’ disbelief in its veracity to analysts’ disbelief in its necessity. Some say it arrives too late to dispel doubts about his origins, and others that Obama has cleverly sprung a right-wing trap by drawing conspiracists out.
At the same time, the case of nine Aboriginal people seeking an apology from Andrew Bolt for two columns in which he questioned their right to claim Aboriginal heritage has been fuelling public discussion, the best thing about which has been its domination by the voices of Indigenous women. The argument that Aboriginal people should be the ones who choose who gets to be Aboriginal has been made well elsewhere. But the fact that these discussions are happening with such vitriol and in the public sphere is worth noting, as it says more about the culture at large than about any of the individuals involved.
Where does this yawning discomfort and anxiety around biracial or multicultural identities come from? Are we seeing a return to blood quantums or to centralised, institutional definitions of race? Why does it matter if you’re black AND white?
The birthers, as they are called in the US, have been humbugging Obama to release his long-form birth certificate since he became a candidate for the presidency in 2008. Unlike Australia, where our present PM would be discounted under a similar restriction, there is a constitutional requirement for the President to be born in the US. Despite already passing this requirement, Obama’s apparently vague identity has always troubled commentators — both those 62 per cent of Americans who doubt he was born in the USA, and those Democrats who feared he wasn’t black enough to appeal to African-American voters.
In a light-hearted though slightly forced address last week, Obama dissed Donald Trump’s requests as time-wasting, saying "I have been puzzled at the degree to which this thing just kept on going… Normally I would not comment on something like this… [but]we’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers."
Despite being called out as a racist, Trump continues to argue there is still something shady about Obama’s past. Now he is asking for Obama’s school records. "I’d like to know how does he get into Harvard, how does he get into Columbia if he isn’t a very good student," Trump said.
The point is not that Obama has finally told the truth, because he already told it to be eligible for the job. The point is that the facts of his lineage have become public property in a manner that is unprecedented. Obama’s confusing status to a racist mainstream lies not in his Kenyan heritage or his place of birth, but in his lack of clear performance of acceptable racial stereotypes.
The release of the birth certificate may achieve little, because it doesn’t address the real question of the birthers, to whom Obama will continue to exhibit a certain uncomfortable quality which the easily frightened are apt to label "foreignness." There is indeed "something shady" about Obama — his colour. There is a vagueness about him which threatens those who seek to categorise and divide. That vague quality is a multicultural identity.
With similarly fine logic, Bolt wrote "I think it sad if we keep harping on about differences and rights based on trivial inflections of race" then did exactly that, enthusiastically combing through his litigants’ genealogies for German, Irish, and English heritage. Tony Abbott in Alice Springs on Friday declared again that everyone should obey the same law, be they "black white or brindle," but supported suspending the Racial Discrimination Act to make special laws for the Intervention and now wants to do so again.
Race is a fiction, an invention. It doesn’t show on a family tree, it can’t be proven with birth certificates or in a court of law. A legal definition of Indigenousness would be dangerously divisive, just as it is in the United States where Certificates of Degree of Indigenous Blood are still controversially issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Blood quantum laws in the US date back to the early 18th century and were used as a colonial tool to keep track of Indigenous populations. Now most sovereign tribes make their own definitions of Indigenous heritage and tribal membership. In Australia, the legal definition is similarly loose, autonomous and consensus based.
After Federation, "persons of the half blood" were not counted as "Aboriginal natives" for the purposes of the constitution, but counted in the main population; only those full-blooded Aboriginal people living close to whites were counted in the Census. After 1967, the question of race was soon replaced by the question of origin, which reflects a growing self-identification among people of Indigenous heritage.
Bolt is not really arguing with the right of people with Indigenous heritage to claim that heritage. He is attempting to destabilise his opponents’ right to speak. But Bolt and his ilk are also uncomfortable with these particular Indigenous professionals because they are not acting black enough. They even "take black jobs". He is worried that Indigenous people might be publicly claiming their culture without apparently suffering its more authentic qualities, such as crushing poverty and an early death. Some people succeed despite the racist culture they live in. That these few use their positions to fight passionately for Indigenous self-determination and not its opposite must be a dreadful disappointment to the right-wingers who seemed so keen on their getting jobs in the first place.
This game is nothing new. The same questions were asked about Sally Morgan, Archie Weller, Roberta Sykes, and many more, always as an attempt to destabilise Indigenous voices. In the current context of articulate Aboriginal people arguing through their own differences in public, Bolt’s contributions should be laughable.
"Sign a treaty with yourself, Mick," Bolt wrote in one of the columns currently being discussed in court. The thing is, Dodson probably has in some sense done just that. Growing up of mixed background in Australia means navigating a world of contradictions and making peace with your own lineage, just as it does for those of Jewish-German heritage, or Irish-English.
Bolt argues he is defending "real draw-in-the-dirt Aboriginal artists" from these half-caste impostors. In his logic, Aboriginal people who sit in the dirt are more authentic because they more neatly satisfy the needs of whites. Oppressed people who stay oppressed are more acceptable to the fiction of white superiority and separateness which underpins his world view. If you want to be Aboriginal in this society, you must suffer the consequences.
Bolt and Trump might easily be dismissed as carnival barkers if they were not tapping into a deeper social anxiety about race and authenticity, and if people were not so willing to capitulate to their demands. When individuals accept the need to present their family background and place of origin in the media, they are acknowledging a social norm which is still troubled by multicultural identities.
At heart, multicultural identities are problematic because they defy the racist logic which underpins white culture. The logic of whiteness requires that you tick one box or the other. Whiteness is a fortress which will open its gate to enclose an enslaved or marginalised people, even "give" them equality, but it will not dissolve its borders.
Against such enclosure, vagueness can be a powerful weapon. The ultimate, however, is laughter. On Saturday a far more relaxed and upbeat Obama addressed the White House Correspondents dinner with a hilarious response to the birth certificate dramas, even releasing the "birth video". I can’t wait until the publishing embargo is lifted on those who are challenging Bolt in court.
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