The politics of identity and who gets to decide who is – and isn’t – Indigenous

Originally posted on The Guardian on Thursday 17 March 2016 16.40 AEDT.

The issue of Indigenous identity is a complex one fraught by the continuing brutality of colonial policy and domination, writes Bronwyn Carlson for @IndigenousX

My name is Bronwyn Carlson and I am an Aboriginal woman who was born on and lives on Dharawal Country on the South Coast of NSW. I am an associate professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Wollongong

I have been talking about the politics of identity on IndigenousX and it has been an amazing experience having such a significant audience to talk with about my research on identity.

The majority of IndigenousX followers have been interested and have wanted more information. However, there were a few that made some pretty interesting comments – I highly doubt whether they are dedicated followers of IndigenousX. One person suggested my name was not Aboriginal enough and another suggested I leave writing books to “real” Aboriginal people.

These are interesting comments given the topic we have been discussing. They reveal a deeper level of racism and ignorance about Australian history and Indigenous peoples. They also demonstrate that colonial violence, in its many forms, is still being perpetrated against Indigenous people.

It seems that there are always comments made that reference the lightness of some Aboriginal people’s skin colour. I refer to this as wedge politics and it is primarily about emphasising the differences between remote and urban Aboriginal people.

The suggestion is always that “the real Aboriginal people” are the ones still on the land and urban “white” Aboriginal people are somehow fraudulently passing as “Aboriginal” to receive benefits denied to other Australians. Sadly a lot of mainstream media love this kind of headline, but for me it only reveals their attempts to sensationalise issues without having any real knowledge of the history in relation to Indigenous identity or the impact it can have.

We have had a bit of a laugh on IndigenousX thinking about all those “benefits” that Indigenous people get. As ludicrous as they sound, people hold on to these ideas as facts. They do so, as it justifies to themselves, their deeply held racist ideas about Indigenous Australians. Apparently, according to such ridiculous commentators, Indigenous people get a “free dog” and “free wedding dresses” and even “free home loans”. It is a commonly held belief that we all get to go to university for free and with that logic we don’t have to actually do any work as our degree is a given. I need to pause for a moment to stop laughing!

All week I have been posting historical quotes about Indigenous people and specifically those related to our identity. Many have never had access to such content and have been shocked by the depth of information that has been written about Indigenous people. Here are a few examples:

  • AIATSIS-2The problem is not one of finding ways in which two … societies can live side by side … but of finding the way in which the remnants of the Aboriginal race can best become members of a single Australian society … The more it crumbles, the more readily may its fragments be mingled with the rest of the people living in Australia. (Federal Minister of External Affairs, Paul Hasluck cited Aborigines and Activism, by J Clark, 2008)
  • Assimilation means that the Aborigines must lose their identity, cease to be themselves, become as we are. Let us leave aside the question that they may not want to, and the possibility – I would myself put it far higher than a possibility – that very determined forces of opposition will appear. Suppose they do not know how to cease being themselves? (Whiteman Got No Dreaming: Essays 1938-73, by WEH Stanner, 1979)
  • These ‘true’ Aborigines are not going to become ‘white’ in the foreseeable future, though they can and will become worthy Australian citizens (The Australian Aborigine: How to Understand them, by AP Elkin, 1964)
  • The ‘solution’ of the Aboriginal problem would come when he disappeared altogether into a ‘white’ community without ‘coloured’ enclaves. (Outcasts in White Australia, by CD Rowley 1971)


Many followers were amazed at how many definitions of Indigenous identity have existed here in Australia. For the first time, many had to think about the fact that Indigenous identity is not a straightforward affair. A lot of people believe if you are Indigenous then that is the end of the matter but sadly no, it is not, and has never been the case in our relationship with the nation state. John McCorquodale provided a legislative history of defining Aboriginal people in Australia and identified 67 definitions that classified Aboriginal people in 700 pieces of legislation!

Historically, all states defined Aboriginal status through blood quantum, starting with the introduction of “half-caste” in New South Wales legislation in 1839 and extending across all Colonies, States and Territories. More finely graded categories of blood mixtures were introduced over time and jurisdictions “to include, exclude or distinguish between the classifications provided”.

Common denominations used were full-blood and half-caste, with quarter (quadroon), eighth (octoroon) and even three, five and seven eighths emerging in some places over time. As McCorquodale’s analysis reveals, “[a] new species of legal creature was created and sustained as a separate class, subject to separate laws and separately administered”.

Some Aboriginal people use the term “half-caste” and although I do not think that is an appropriate term I do not dictate what others prefer to name themselves. They should however, stop and ask themselves why they would want to use such derogatory colonial terms to describe themselves. The argument is usually that they wish to acknowledge their non-Aboriginal ancestry as well. That is easy – say you are Aboriginal and Irish for example. We don’t need to think about Indigenous identity in deficit terms.

The issue of Indigenous identity is a complex one fraught by the continuing brutality of colonial policy and domination. While writing my book, The Politics of Identity: Who Counts as Aboriginal Today? my appreciation of both the meaning of the diversity of Indigenous experiences and my knowledge of the history of Indigenous experiences grew immeasurably.

Questions of Indigenous identity are serious ones in the wake of the colonial era and challenging ones in the global era where arguably more opportunities exist for global Indigenous solidarity in the face of shared issues such as identity politics and decolonial goals.

The point of writing the book was not to solve the “problem” but to understand the basis of our current thinking and how it shapes the practices around Indigenous identity confirmation. I think it is important for all Australians to have a deeper understanding of the ways in which the colonial era has impacted on contemporary ideas of Indigenous identity.

I also believe that if this were the case, we would be less subjected to media hype surrounding who “is” and “isn’t” Indigenous because there would be some understanding of the role colonial governments have played – and continue to play – in the orchestrating and prescribing of Indigenous identity.

As an Aboriginal person, I have also had to learn just how deeply these historical contingencies are implicated in the current struggle over questions of “who is” and “what counts” as Indigenous.

“Our stories, our way” – each week, a new guest hosts the @IndigenousX Twitter account to discuss topics of interest to them as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people. Produced with assistance of Guardian Australia staff.

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