Why heritage does not ascribe cultural authenticity or authority

26 Mar 2021

Senator McMahon has spoken at a Senate media inquiry where she criticised a media outlet for using the decades old slogan, Always was, always will be, citing herself as an authority and saying that it is offensive to non-Indigenous Australians. Identity politics a convenient tool of conservatives who often centre their own victimhood when racism is pointed out.

While we as a community mourn five Aboriginal deaths in custody over the last two months, while we fight with the families who continue to fight for justice for their loved ones who also died in custody, as we see violence visited upon our people with no consequence and while we see corporate interests prevail over our rights as a people and while the Liberal party is in the midst of a series of some of the biggest political scandals within living memory – Liberal Senators used their powerful platform to come for a decades old slogan that we use as a people.

Yes, once again, hurt feelings prevails over actual lives.

Ordinarily, I ignore fragility for what it is, inconsequential. In this instance, however, it does warrant discussion because of the implications of what Northern Territory Senator Sam McMahon said in her efforts to express her grievance at a slogan.

McMahon has spoken at a Senate media inquiry where she criticised a media outlet for using the decades old slogan, Always was, always will be, citing herself as an authority and saying that it is offensive to non-Indigenous Australians.

Her authority? “I do have Indigenous heritage.”

Had McMahon simply said she sees the use of Always was, always will be as offensive, as did Senator Rennick, it would be one thing (ignorance to origins of language and movements is not something new to us). However, she used the comment “I have Indigenous heritage” as an inoculation. She did it, believing that the use of this term – at least in her circles – would grant her some additional ‘right’ to speak on this and align herself with the offended. She attempted to employ something that conservatives are meant to loathe – ‘identity politics’, but like many of the things that conservatives claim to loathe, she doesn’t even understand what it means.

To vindicate herself at the expense of mob, at the expense of people she views in the abstract because while she may claim to have ‘heritage’ – she is not one of us. 

In the words of my people, that is just ngurragah.

McMahon has, using her powerful platform as a Senator, thrown mob under the bus without any knowledge of the origins of the phrase, without any understanding of the power of the phrase and without any cultural authority to speak on this matter notwithstanding her purported heritage.

Having heritage and being Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander are two very different things. Having heritage does not qualify you to identify, there is much more to it. Having ‘heritage’ as she puts it, does not qualify her to speak on it.

This nuance is something McMahon does not understand, her behaviour demonstrates that.

I am usually fairly mild around this issue as I know I come from a position of privilege as far as my identity is concerned. I grew up on country, knowing my people and culture and stories. This is not the case for all mob and so I try to approach these discussions with this in mind, but even with this in mind, it is hard not to be affronted when we see people like McMahon speaking on things they have no knowledge of, no right to and certainly no cultural authority.

I know plenty of mob received her statement in the same way I have.

The issue of identity is something that communities are already addressing where individuals identify and communities go through a process of verification where the person identifying is not known by the community.

In McMahon’s case, however, the issue is at a higher level than an individual community. She is not claiming a community in her Senatorial statements, she is claiming ‘heritage’ in the context of validating offence at a phrase so tied to our movement for land rights, justice and sovereignty. She is doing this at our expense, so a broader conversation can and should be had about heritage and how this correlates with identity.

We need to unpack this because it is actually a live issue in communities and conversations about this are rarely delved into very deeply, as a concept beyond the individual community, because we do have the complication of so many mob still coming to terms with their identity and those that are on their journey to understanding their identity once it is known.

We know we have the long history of governmental policies that have undermined familial structures and continuity. We know that while the overt policies that are spoken about as ‘history’ continue in covert ways that speak to the systemic nature of our oppression, a multitude of different institutions that contribute to the continuation of child removal, the disenfranchisement of our youth, the demonisation of our parenting, the vilification of our people and the destruction of land and place.

We know this continues to happen, we know that families are forcefully fractured and we know that identity in some families is a source of continued shame and disconnect. We know that there are mob who understand their identity and go forth to do the work to connect to country, culture, families and stories while others in their families choose not to. We know that there are friction points with people who identify later in life and those who identify without having done the work to connect with their mob and culture, or those who – through lack of records or family knowledge – cannot pinpoint their clan group.

Regardless of whether you have had the privilege of knowing who you are and growing up on country with culture or whether you have learnt later and gone on your journey of learning and connecting, there is an inherent connection required.

This is something that is clearly missing from McMahon’s knowledge. Heritage does not mean you ARE, heritage does not give you authority to speak on matters for us as though your opinion holds weight of authority, and heritage does not mean you have identity in the ways required to identify. BEING Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander speaks to a lived experience, relational connectivity, cultural learnings and knowledge and all of these culminate in an understanding of the responsibility that this culture holds. The gravity of this responsibility can only be known through connection and self-interested behaviour is counter to culture.

This is why identity is something so important and raises so much friction in our communities, there is a misconception perpetuated by certain institutions and media outlets that having heritage automatically qualifies you to identify. This is often politicised where people who hold conservative views that are often destructive to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are presented as unproblematic because the people speaking these views present themselves as able to speak on the issue. Similarly, when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people raise issues of importance to us or highlight issues such as racism, these same people are rolled out to undermine us.

Identity politics is seemingly acceptable to conservatives where it is damaging to us and this is why identity is such a live issue, and it is also a factor in why it is important to ensure those that identify are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent and are accepted by community.

There is a reason that the definition of Aboriginality is a three part definition and this is the reason that you will hear so many mob giving advice to people finding their way home to do their work, learning and connecting, because without doing this work – you won’t be able to meet the third requirement to meet the definition. There is no shortage of mob that are generously helping in this process and also helping connect the dots for those trying to find connections and family and community. 

I should finish by saying that even if McMahon is actually Indigenous, this does not grant her immunity on holding this view or cultural authority but the fact that she plays identity politics in this way makes a lot of sense when her political leanings are factored in. We know that the Liberal party trots out polarising Aboriginal people in an attempt to exploit the identity politics they so decry and seek to legitimise their racist policies, but this not only sends a clear message to mob that they cannot be trusted, and also that the Aboriginal people willing to represent this lot lose credibility among mob because they speak without cultural authority. 

It comes as little surprise that there are Liberal senators willing to reinforce the farce of white victimhood by carrying out ideological attacks against Indigenous organisations as though they have any pretense of a moral high ground (or moral fibre) left.

To McMahon and those offended by the slogans that reinforce our movement, maybe check yourselves and acquaint yourselves with that land you are on and who belongs to it.


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