In her Boyer Lectures, Marcia Langton points out that many white Australians haven’t really got to grips with the reality that Aboriginal people can be middle class. Instead they cling to a particular stereotype of Australia’s Indigenous population: very dark skinned, very poor and in need of help, either living isolated from modern society in remote areas, or begging on urban streets.
It’s a convenient stereotype, because it enables non-Aboriginal Australians to continue acting in racist and paternalistic ways towards Indigenous people, including denying them the right to self-determination and identity.
Anita Heiss has felt the pointy end of these attitudes. In 2009 right wing journalist Andrew Bolt accused Heiss and several other light skinned Aboriginal people of choosing to identify as Aboriginal because it would help their careers. Several of them, Heiss included, took Bolt to Court for being in breach of Clause 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
18C states that it is illegal to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ on the grounds of a person’s race. Heiss and co were indeed offended, that a white journalist should take it upon himself to make such public judgements about their identity and cast doubt on whether or not their claims to be Aboriginal were genuine.
They won their case. Bolt has been complaining about the decision ever since, to the extent that members of our current conservative government have been trying to overturn that pesky clause.
Anita Heiss’s biography, Am I Black Enough for You? was published after the court case concluded. I hesitate to say it was ‘in response’ to, or ‘inspired by’ the case, because I haven’t seen her say that anywhere herself, but the book certainly deals with issues of identity and what it means to be Aboriginal, as well as going into some detail about the experience of going through the court case.
What Heiss does say, is that she wants people who read her book to ‘come to appreciate without criticism or concern, the diversity and complexity of Aboriginal identity in the twenty-first century’.
I think she succeeds in that aim. Her account of her own life clearly shows how being Aboriginal is not simply about skin colour, or having ‘pure’ Aboriginal DNA. It’s about connection to family, country, culture and community.
I think it’s shameful that in 21st Australia, people like Anita Heiss are still being put in the position of have to defend and explain their identity to ignorant people, but I am grateful for her generosity in sharing quite personal stories about her life and family history.
One of the reasons Bolt questioned Heiss’s identity is because only her mother is Aboriginal. She’s a Wiradjuri woman, from Central West New South Wales. Heiss’s father is white, from Austria. Bolt twisted Heiss’s own whimsical description of herself as ‘Austrian Aboriginal’ to support his case that she chose Aboriginality as a career path. He also judged that her mother was not ‘fully’ Aboriginal because of being light-skinned.
One of the things Bolt fails to understand, however, is that even light skinned people who have a Black heritage can be targeted with racism on account of their appearance. Another thing he doesn’t get, is that he has no right to make a call on anyone’s identity, except his own.
Well. Perhaps he does. Journalists, after all, are meant to investigate people’s claims and call it out when they find deceit. The recent case of cancer scammer Belle Gibson is a case in point.
I don’t dispute we all need to be critical thinkers and question what we are told about the world around us. This, of course, includes questioning the motivations of people from a dominant social group, who cast doubt on the integrity of people from a minority social group.
With that in mind, I find Bolt’s ‘career Aborigines’ campaign more than a bit suspicious. It not only nourishes the resentment of those who think that Aboriginal people get special treatment, it takes a swipe at some of the tall poppies of the Aboriginal community; people who promote and support Aboriginal heritage, culture, and social and economic progress. People like Heiss, who has done a lot of work to support Aboriginal literacy and literature.
Of course it’s possible that some people exploit a tenuous or even mythical Aboriginal ancestry for their own gain. Where there’s a perceived niche, people who lack integrity will occupy it. Although does beg the question, why on earth would you knowingly expose yourself to the kind of racism that Aboriginal people have to deal with every day? If such people do exist, my guess is that they are very few in number and don’t get away with it for long.
Then there are people for whom Aboriginal heritage is a new discovery: the dark-skinned great-grandma no-one talked about is finally explained (or admitted), and her descendents want to explore this new found heritage, which may explain things about their family life that were previously puzzling. I see nothing wrong with this.
There are also people who may have Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ancestry but don’t think of themselves as Aboriginal, and never get involved in Aboriginal culture and community because they were raised in a non-Aboriginal culture and for them, the connection is too distant to be meaningful.
Anita Heiss doesn’t fit any of these categories. As she describes in her book, she grew up with strong, deep connections to her Aboriginal family, including spending time with them on Wiradjuri country, and learning their histories and the stories associated with their culture. These are not experiences she chose, they are not distant history, these are life experiences that make her who she is.
Heiss’s experience with Bolt echoes that of other ‘mixed’ people all over the world, of being continually told what they are and how they should identify, often by people who have very little knowledge of their lives.
In the case of right wing commentators this is not an idle exercise in speculation. There’s quite a bit to be gained from making such pronouncements. They get publicity, gain readers for their publications and bolster political support for conservative parties and policies.
Since the court case other conservatives have nit-picked over the details of Heiss’s family history in order to throw further doubt on her integrity by identifying inconsistencies. She’s clearly a thorn in their side.
In the interests of journalistic integrity, should I, too, be searching for all their articles and going back to the source documents to assemble my own view of who and what Anita Heiss is? After all, I’m also politically motivated. I consider myself left wing, I support Indigenous self-determination, it would suit me to ignore those I disagree with, so I should be familiarising myself with all the facts.
Thing is, I’m not a professional academic, journalist or historian. I’m an occasional blogger. I don’t have time for that. I’ve already spent many hours reading for, thinking about and revising this post. But I don’t have to read many opposing voices, to see that picking through mistakes that Anita Heiss may have made about the dates and movements in her family history, helps the argument of people who disagree with the well-documented removal of Aboriginal children from their homes (the stolen generation).
I can also see that discrepancies between the entries in government registers, and the information provided by family members’ accounts of events, don’t necessarily add up to deliberate deceit. Family stories (and oral histories) focus on experiences, feelings, relationships, and the outcomes of events, rather than dates and documentation.
It’s true that these stories can be vague, misremembered, or embellished for effect, but it’s also true that histories which prioritise documented data can obscure and deny the authenticity of the lived experience. (Besides which, ‘facts’ can be wrong — my own grandmother’s birth year on her birth certificate is different to the year she claimed her entire life. Which was correct, her belief or the document?). The interpretation of history is messy and complicated, just like life; be suspicious of those who try to pretend it is not.
In any case, I don’t think that these alleged discrepancies detract from what I felt was Heiss’s core point, which is that identity is complex, personal, and political.
‘… just like other Australians we [mixed/light skinned Aboriginal people] can have many heritages and one identity,’ she writes, in explanation of how the different strands of her family histories and life experience come together to make her who she is.
And who is she? She’s Aboriginal, Wiradjuri. Her recent ancestors lived on the Cowra mission, one of the many institutions of a colonised Australia. Her grandmother was part of the stolen generation. She’s part Austrian, the ‘proud daughter of a whitefella who only ever let me be me’. She’s the author of several ‘choc-lit’ novels, which portray the lives of cosmopolitan, middle class, 21st century Aboriginal women like her , and also give a plug to contemporary Aboriginal artists. She’s done story-telling collaborations with Aboriginal children at local schools and champions Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island authors. She hates camping.
Anita Heiss is one of the many faces of Aboriginal Australia today. It seems to me that it’s a face that the Andrew Bolts of the world don’t want you to see.
I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about how people of mixed heritage may be seen by others as ‘evidence of sexual and social transgression’. I think light skinned Aboriginal people remind white people of some really big transgressions: the dispossession of the original custodians of this land, the colonisation of a continent declared to be ’empty’, the rape of Aboriginal women, and many subsequent racist and genocidal policies, such as those which resulted in the stolen generation. (And yes, I know not all mixed race sexual relationships in colonial Australia involved rape. Like I said, history is complex, but right here, right now, I’m mentioning the things people don’t want to face).
I’m guessing it’s much easier for people who feel defensive about (or disagree with) these historical facts to dismiss people like Anita Heiss as ‘not really Aboriginal’, than it is for them to acknowledge the realities and make an effort to understand the resulting diversity and complexity of our population and our race relations. But I feel they are missing the point that facing up to the past is actually an opportunity to grow, as individuals and as a nation.
Acknowledging these past wrongs doesn’t make me, as a white Australian, personally guilty of them. It doesn’t mean that all white people in the past were evil or without good intentions. But as a white Australian, I know I have benefited from the dispossession of Aboriginal people. I wouldn’t even exist, if the British hadn’t decided to use this continent as a dumping ground for their unwanted criminals, 230 years ago. Whatever wealth my family has, comes from this land.
That’s why I believe that, at the very least, I have a responsibility to try and make sure that the inequity and injustice comes to an end. Listening to and learning from Aboriginal people is part of taking on that responsibility. That’s one of the reasons I set the Indigenous Reading Challenge for myself and anyone who’d like to join me. I know my education is still far from complete.
Am I Black enough for you? has been a great start to the challenge. It’s given me a lot to reflect upon and has shown me both gaps in my knowledge and more doors to open in my quest to improve my understanding of Australia’s first peoples and teh issues that concern them. I’m pretty sure the book hasn’t changed Andrew Bolt’s views, but I hope it will be widely read by people who want to keep their hearts and minds open.
Have you read it? I’d love to know what you think.