Shannan Dodson: Too white, too black, or not black enough? This is not a question for others to decide
June 13, 2017
‘I am me. A proud Yawuru woman with German and Irish ancestry. And it is not society who decides this for me.’
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Shannan Dodson is a Yawuru woman and a digital and communications specialist.
Growing up with a last name associated with Aboriginal activism, my identity is often decided for me. In some ways it becomes a validation of my Aboriginality. As I do not fit the stereotypical “mould” of what an Aboriginal person is “meant to look like”, having my last name has at times saved me from the uncomfortable guess work that goes with my identity.
However, with that comes an expectation. I remember going to a job interview, where the interviewer – aware of my family ties – greeted me in a disappointed tone, “I thought you would be a lot darker.” As if the shade of your skin colour was an indicator of your “credibility” as an Aboriginal person.
As an Aboriginal person with fair skin you often get that look where people are not quite sure “what your background is” or “how much Aboriginal” you are.
Many young First Nations people feel confused about their identity and where they belong. At times it feels like you’re too white or too black for non-Indigenous people. And for our mob you’re often just not black enough – a critique that goes beyond skin colour.
It’s hard to feel accepted or secure when you’re constantly being questioned about who you are. At times it is easier to shrug off non-Indigenous people questioning and critiquing your identity because you can pass it off as ignorance. But when you get it from your own mob, it digs deep and painfully reinforces the identity issues that have been forced upon you since birth.
Another festering sore of colonisation that continues to tear our communities apart is lateral violence.
In this context violence doesn’t just refer to physical violence, but also social, emotional, psychological, verbal and institutional.
Lateral violence is often described as “internalised colonialism” and according to Gunditjmara man and author Richard Frankland includes:
“The organised, harmful behaviours that we do to each other collectively as part of an oppressed group: within our families; within our organisations and; within our communities. When we are consistently oppressed we live with great fear and great anger and we often turn on those who are closest to us.”
In other words, as Stó:lō Nation (Canada) woman Lee Maracle says, “lateral violence among Native people is about our anti-colonial rage working itself out in an expression of hate for one another.”
This anger and frustration about the injustice of feeling powerless manifests itself in violence – not “vertically” towards the colonisers responsible for the oppression but “laterally” towards their own community.
The oppressed become the oppressors.
Ask any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person and they will tell you stories about the lateral violence they have experienced or have seen within their communities.
Some examples of my experience with lateral violence include a time when I was giving a presentation in a community I was invited to speak at, when a woman exclaimed, “I don’t have to listen to you coconuts.”
“Coconut” is a derogatory term to imply you are “betraying your race” by “acting white” (with a coconut being brown on the outside, white on the inside).
I’ve heard them all – Uncle Tom, Jackey Jackey or sell out. All intended to attack your “legitimacy” and “authenticity” as a First Nations person and imply that you have assimilated. Something seen by some as worse than colonisation itself.
There was the time a friend was invited to speak on a panel at a university which allowed another panellist to unleash a tirade calling him “a house nigger”. This is used to demean First Nations people who are seen to be working “with and inside the system” rather than dismantling it.
It’s not just verbal abuse. I’ve heard of instances where Aboriginal colleagues will exclude Indigenous teammates because they weren’t actively against non-Indigenous management.
I’ve seen a Stolen Generations member berated by someone of his own nation for not speaking the language. These actions are detrimentally painful for the victim, but we must understand they are coming from a place of longstanding hurt for the perpetrator.
The roots of lateral violence lie in “colonisation, oppression, intergenerational trauma, powerlessness and ongoing experiences of racism and discrimination,” factors we often don’t take into account when talking about bullying.
To address this insidious issue we must call it out in our workplaces, communities and homes. But we must also deal with the underlining issues that trigger this behaviour.
As former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda reminds us, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities face so many challenges and sadly some of the divisive and damaging harms come from within our own communities. When we already have so many of the odds stacked against us, it is tragic to see us inflict such destruction on ourselves.”
Having your identity attacked and questioned consistently has had a profound impact on many young First Nations people. We have to change this.
Unfortunately, I have not had the privilege of living on my country, learning my language or practicing cultural traditions. Does this mean I am not Aboriginal? That I do not have a right to identify?
The answer is simple. This is not a question for others to decide. I am me. A proud Yawuru woman with German and Irish ancestry. And it is not society who decides this for me. My identity is not left in the hands of those around me.
Our stereotypical definition of Aboriginality is an unhelpful one. We must have open and honest conversations about identity struggles, as so many people, young and old, have to suffer in silence.
This article was first published on 9 June in Guardian Australia as part of their collaboration with IndigenousX