We don’t get to gatekeep conversations, we have a responsibility to encourage them

13 Aug 2020

And even though colourism is not a new conversation, and neither is cultural appropriation, or community accountability, I feel both a freedom with which younger ones are willing to talk about them, and an attempt to shut them down by some of my contemporaries which I do not want to engage in.

A while back at IndigenousX, we had an internal conversation about not publishing anymore ‘too black to be white, too white to be black’ type articles from light-skinned, white-passing or white-coded mob.

Not because it’s not an important conversation, but because it’s a conversation that has already been had countless times in countless forms over the past few decades, and beyond. That is not to say it’s impossible for someone to bring something new to the topic, just that we hadn’t seen anything new in a long time so we decided that until we do, we simply wouldn’t accept those sort of pitches anymore.

That’s not to say that we wanted to avoid conversations about, or interrogations of, colour and colourism. That is a crucially important conversation and one that has been, for the most part, pretty poorly framed over the past few decades.

For many white-coded East Coast mob of my generation, there was not a lot of room for discourse around colourism when we were coming up. Instead, there was often a strong rejection of the notion of anything resembling ‘part-Aboriginal’ (“What part? Your left-leg?” was the common dad joke that always seemed to accompany any conversation close to the topic). And in it’s fervour to reject the notions of blood-quotients that had so impacted the generations before us, I suspect it may have gone too far in that it didn’t allow for any real robust discussions of colourism, or other issues surrounding identity.

“You’re Aboriginal or you’re not Aboriginal!” we were told, which is true, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t real differences for those who are visibly Aboriginal from those of us who look white. Similarly, there are differences for those Aboriginal people who don’t look white or Aboriginal. Indeed, this conversation when I was younger was so centred around whiteness that ‘part-Aboriginal’ naturally inferred the other part was white, and it took me years to consciously realise that you could identify yourself as the sum of your parts so long as the other part was anything other than white. And rightly so, since it was white people, and nobody else, who created and enforced such devastatingly brutal laws and practices built around blood quotients.

These are not raised to validate assumed hierarchies of authenticity, as many a white politician or commentator has tried in the past, but instead are simple realities that we should be able to discuss. Unfortunately, because of those white commentators, there is always a fear that any such discourse had in the public eye will reinforce and embolden the Andrew Bolts of the world but, at the same time, it is important to remember – fuck Andrew Bolt and all those like him who want “to amend the definition of Aborigine to eliminate the part-whites who are making a racket out of being so-called Aborigines at enormous cost to the taxpayers”.

That quote wasn’t actually from Andrew Bolt though, it was from Bruce Ruxton in 1988 – 13 years after the Racial Discrimination Act was passed and 23 years before Andrew Bolt would be taken to court from breaching that same Act for wilfully vilifying Aboriginal people in an effort to make a very similar argument.

So while there are some people, including a few prominent Aboriginal people, who draw a colour line of authenticity around Indigeneity, that fact alone cannot prevent us from acknowledging a few simple truths.

White-coded Indigenous people access varying degrees of white privilege.

Whether it is the fact that if I get pulled over I know it isn’t because I am Aboriginal, or the impacts of having a white parent as well as an Aboriginal parent, I have a proximity to whiteness, a comfortability around whiteness, and an acceptability within white spaces that is different from other Aboriginal people who have black skin, or who have two Indigenous parents, or one Aboriginal parent and one non-white parent, and these impact on me and my life in countless ways.

And even though I am, and make efforts to be, aware of the white privilege that I access, there are countless ways in which it has shaped my life, my worldview, and the opportunities I have had access to (regardless of whether I took them or not), that I am likely unaware of, as well as situations where I will never be able to know for sure how much of a part it played.

This, for me at least, has been further enhanced by male, straight, class, and able-bodied privilege. That is not to say I have not also had a proximity to trauma, or my own traumas which have compounded it (I rarely discuss these in public because I don’t like the notion of validating my identity through trauma), but it is to say that these intergenerational traumas have not been further compounded by the discrimination that comes with having black skin. There is of course an awkwardness of being white-coded and Aboriginal – an awareness that my very existence can create confusion, bemusement, rejection, or animosity; but that is still very different, and ultimately not on the same scale, as my very existence being a threat to my very existence – being visibly Black can still get you killed in ways that being white-coded cannot.

And that is not said to invalidate my own experiences or the experiences of others as entirely valid lived experiences, it’s just an obvious commonsense statement. Similarly, the reason why I do not want to publish any more articles that focus solely on why you can be white-coded and Aboriginal is not because it isn’t true, or isn’t important, but simply because it’s already been done, relentlessly in fact, again and again – and until someone has a new take on the subject, a new insight or argument built around that premise, I’m just not that interested in publishing something that in 2020 is probably better served as a diary entry or a Facebook post. You can look back over the past 100 years or so and find countless insights into this topic, from ‘half-caste’ stories of the early 1900s through to today. Over that time though, particularly in the last 30+ years with the rise of Indigenous involvement in Indigenous affairs, identified positions, and conservative attacks on white-coded Indigenous people, you can see a clear skewing of this towards white-coded narratives. You can also see how that space, still largely being controlled by whiteness, preferences and privileges white-coded mob.

I say all of this as a prelude to what I have been seeing for several years now, from a distance of gender, generation and platform (I am 40 in a couple of months, and I don’t really do Facebook or Instagram – hell, I barely even do Twitter anymore). I’m seeing Indigenous people, mostly young women, challenging these notions in a way that myself and others of my generation, out of respect for the trauma of our parent’s generation and fear of conservative backlash, too often failed to do. Namely, having public discourses around identity, attempting to define themselves for themselves, hold each other to account, and in doing so, elevate us all.

That is not to say that such discourse is always perfect, or that there are no casualties along the way, but that doesn’t make it any less important. I often think that many of my generation, and probably the one above mine too, spent much of what should have been ‘our time’ waiting in the shadows of Indigenous bureaucrats who effectively co-opted cultural concepts of protocol to hold power long past their used-by-date; those who had been selected by white people to be ‘Indigenous leaders’ and who acted as gatekeepers to which Indigenous people would be allowed to join them in the hallowed halls of whiteness – namely public service, academia, and corporate Australia.

The rise of social media brought with it an opportunity to escape those gatekeepers, but now that it is also a generation or two old and has firmly cemented itself as a place where talent can be ‘discovered’ by the same gatekeepers we were trying to move away from, we again see the rise of Indigenous talent who are elevated by white audiences more so than by their Indigenous peers – and again, in some ways I am sure that is true of IndigenousX too, but luckily for us our success is innately tied to being accepted and supported by mob as if we weren’t then we wouldn’t be able to get hosts and would soon after disappear.

The point of all of that though is that I do not want to see myself in the same light as those who long ago wore out their welcome but fought to retain their power anyway; those who forced the following generations into their shadow instead of lifting us onto their shoulders; those who tried to limit the conversations of those who followed them instead of expand them.

And as I find myself now as something of a gatekeeper too, I want to make sure I support the next generation to lead their own causes, to facilitate their own discussions, and to have access to platforms, including the one I have built and am communicating with you from right now.

I think about how much of the discourse of my generation was shaped by the trauma of the generation before me, especially through a desire to reject the eugenics based policies and practices they had been subjected to. I do not want to limit the discourse of those who come after me in any such way, as well-intentioned and understandable as it may seem.

And even though colourism is not a new conversation, and neither is cultural appropriation, or community accountability, I feel both a freedom with which younger ones are willing to talk about them, and an attempt to shut them down by some of my contemporaries which I do not want to engage in.

I dunno where I’m going with this, and I’ve always sucked at writing conclusions at the best of times, but I guess I’d just say to anyone in their 20s reading this to not pay too much attention to anyone my age or older who isn’t your Elder, friend or teacher, myself included, and don’t fall for the lies that too many of my generation did and are now paying for dearly – don’t ‘wait your turn’ to speak your mind on the matters that directly affect you; don’t confuse white-appointed power for cultural authority; don’t allow those who failed to create positive change for the past 30 years to play their final hand with your future; don’t think that ‘change can only be made from the inside’ and most importantly, keep being awesome and elevating the discourse.

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