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Going backwards after Abbott's 'urban Aboriginal' gaffe


'Aboriginality' by Chris JohnstonIt is a sobering irony to hear Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda claim that 'if you have a drop of Aboriginal blood, you're Aboriginal'. As a person of African ancestry and a descendant of the slave population in the 'new world', I found this comment a little troubling.

This and other comments on Aboriginality last week hark back to an earlier and ugly period of classification based on ideas about race, culture and identity. Gooda's remarks are part of a new battle of words about Aboriginality, with a number of prominent persons voicing notions of what constitutes 'authenticity'.

Tony Abbott started this latest debate by making some ill-conceived remarks about Ken Wyatt, a member of the Liberal Party, the only Aboriginal person currently serving in the Australian Parliament, and the first to be elected to the House of Representatives.

Abbott described Wyatt as 'not a man of culture' and compounded his error by describing NT government minister Alison Anderson as 'an authentic representative of the ancient cultures of central Australia' and 'a highly traditional Australian Aboriginal, who is nevertheless charismatic and inspirational in modern Australia'.

He welcomed the prospect of Anderson running for Federal Parliament and appeared to contrast her with Wyatt, 'an urban Aboriginal' (there has been no comment on the rather patronising tone in his praise of Anderson).

It is fair to assume that Abbott would not wish to offend one of his own MPs, who won a seat formerly held by Labor, but his words demonstrate lingering prejudice and ignorance about identity.

An implication of these remarks is that Aboriginality can be authentic only when certain criteria, readily discerned by observers like Abbott, are met. This suggests the invocation of stereotypes like remote, dark-skinned, non-EFL, 'traditional' etc. While Mr Abbott's remarks are retrograde, they are not all that surprising as he seems to have a penchant for clumsy mis-speaking. Some responses to his remarks, however, are also discomfiting.

Gooda is reported to have said 'Aboriginality is not defined by the colour of your skin, or whether you live in a remote or urban community', which is an incontrovertible observation and where he should probably have left it. Reference to blood, however, conjures up the absurd measurements that were used to classify and separate Aboriginal people in the past, including providing justification for removing children from their parents.

The 'one drop of blood' notion was often invoked in the USA where, regardless of colour, any known 'Negro' ancestry could be used to exclude people from full citizenship and ruin a person's life if it were disclosed when the person had been 'passing' as 'white'. There were parallels in Australia, but less consistency. White 'blood' often seen as having redemptive qualities and as a justification for separation from 'full bloods'.

Colour classification as a shorthand way of identifying cultural difference is inevitably flawed and inaccurate. So is the lumping of people under labels that are presumed to convey reliable information about them. These tendencies seem contradictory but both are used for a variety of political ends.

In dignified and measured words, Wyatt rejected Abbott's characterisation, stating that 'It is unfortunate that we have got this whole debate going around authentic Aboriginals because all Aboriginal people, no matter where they live, are authentic ... All of us are proud of our heritage.'

Demonstrating the diversity and complexity within the category 'Aboriginal', Wyatt's nephew, Ben Wyatt, a Labor politician in the Western Australian legislature, made a more robust response in defence of his uncle, and offered demographic and cultural instruction:

Tony Abbott ... seems to have absolutely no understanding about Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal history. To suggest that Ken is not a sufficient Aboriginal for Tony Abbott because he's not a man of culture, I think not only Ken will find offensive but every Western Australian should find offensive ... Particularly those Aboriginal people, the vast majority of Aboriginal people, who do live in our nation's cities and towns.

In her forthcoming Boyer lectures, Professor Marcia Langton will address 'the emergence of an Aboriginal middle class in Australia in the last two to three decades' that has 'gone largely unnoticed'. This development is not new and will doubtless strengthen. Class, and other differences, including multiple ethnic affiliations, will continue and multiply and have a variety of consequences.

I recall debates in the 1970s and '80s about whether black Americans' inequality was more about class or race; there were similar discussions about gender vs class, and indeed about the intersection of gender, race and class. People's sense of identity is multi-faceted.

Identity and interests will differ among Aboriginal people as they do in other groups, and there will be increasing awareness among the wider Australian population that there is no homogenous, monolithic Aboriginal community, nor is there a single measure, biological or cultural, of Aboriginality. 

Myrna Tonkinson headshotDr Myrna Tonkinson is a retired anthropologist  who has done research among Aboriginal people in the Western Desert of WA since 1974. 

Topic tags: Myrna Tonkinson, Tony Abbott, Ken Wyatt, Aboriginality



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Existing comments

Tony Abbott, shown by his own actions to be a sexist, exposed by the PM who regards him as a misogynst, and now a self-declared racist but probably in tune with most in the LNP, so he's in good company.

janice wallace | 19 November 2012  

The race, and one drop of blood brings to mind the Nazi attitude to Jews.

David Player | 19 November 2012  

Australians have struggled to come to terms with the fact its Aborignal people who define whats Aboriginal and whats not, as in Australian culture is different to an Australian race, Aborignal culture is different to Aboriginal racial makeup

SS | 19 November 2012  

Oh Eureka! Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. In your remarks you try to put down poor Tony Abott and put your foot into the quagmire of "what is race". Who is "pure" English, German, aboriginal or whatever?

Theo Verbeek | 19 November 2012  

Yet in order for anyone to qualify for a vast array of government programs reserved for indigenous people, they must produce a government-approved "certificate of aboriginality". How racist can we get?

John R. Sabine | 19 November 2012  

We are all Australians. Whether we live in urban sprawl or rural communities, outback communities, we are one. The sooner this is perpetuated by writers and commentators the better. That one man refers to an 'urban aboriginal,' is not a slur. It is a fact. We have many in the town near where I lilve - and they are wonderful. They contribute to our community and are honest and hardworking. They do not live in the outback. Can we not refer to them as town dwellers? The political correctness has gone so far it is a sad reflection on all matters of tolerance, justice and understanding. Funny that no one mentions that Tony Abbott has spent many hours in outback communities and is very aware of issues. When he does 'good,' no one speaks. When he says something that others perceive one way or anyother everyone has to hear about it. Let's have a bit of balance. We are all Australian - including the left and right of politics.

Jane | 19 November 2012  

I was born in Australia of an Irish father and a Victorian mother of English/French/Scottish descent. Who am I?

John Morris | 19 November 2012  

The issue of whether someone is a 'real' Aboriginee or not is usually concerned with that person receiving special benefits from the government. Perhaps I'm racist, but I think that if a person has suffered from our colonisation of their country either by being taken away from their mother because they were part white and then records of their family connections destroyed or lost, or because they are living in communities which lack basic services like health care, roads, rubbish collection, education etc and if they suffer discrimination because of their colour, or if their wages have been 'put away carefully' for them and spent on white people's needs, or if they suffer from alcoholism and glue-sniffing because their culture has been discounted and dispised, whatever benefits they can get they have earned. People who envy Aboriginees getting benefits and try to separate them by colour and living conditions are the same ones who fought against our apology. I'm forever proud of Kevin Rudd because he apologised for us.

Bernadette | 19 November 2012  

Are we not all Africans, leaving the Rift Valley some few hundred thousands of years ago?

kcabotkcab | 19 November 2012  

Contrary to THEO VERBEEK's an others criticism of the article, Myrna is arguing that our obsession with defining racial purity from a clear-cut black/white point of view is exactly the problem! It's not a RACIAL issue at all - it's cultural! So John Morris - you're exactly what you defined yourself as!

AURELIUS | 19 November 2012  

one is reminded about pre-war days when Natives were classified as "Quartanoons" or "Octanooons" in government records

john ozanne | 19 November 2012  

The Australian Bureau of Statistics defines an Aborigine as a person of Aboriginal descent who identifies as Aboriginal and is accepted as such by the community in which s/he lives. So what is a person who is 100% Aboriginal by descent but does not qualify as Aboriginal because of not meeting one of the other two criteria?

Gavan | 19 November 2012  

There has been the multicultural discussion and from where I sit Aboriginals were excluded from the discussion and I'm not sure, but I think they were excluded by those accepted as not being Aboriginal. I have heard the definition that 1/8 part Aboriginal blood means a person is Aboriginal. Another definition that I have heard is that if a person is accepted by an Aboriginal group (s)he is Aboriginal regardless of blood or birth. To me an Australian is an Australian regardless of ancestry. An Aboriginal is no more Australian than a 1st, 2nd, 3rd or nth generation Australian and vise versa. A naturalized Australian is every bit an Australian as any the previous mentioned groups. Everyone's ancestry is still important and to be respected but not to the point that it divides Australians as a whole.

Fred Dunn | 19 November 2012  

Let's not be too precious about the characterization of people as urban or traditional. As an urban dwelling, bush born and raised Anglo-saxon I understand perfectly what Abbott was saying. Just as bush dwelling Aussies have a different suite of attitudes and priorities to inner urban Greens (for example), Aboriginees from the bush have a different perspective from those raised in suburbia with no experience of bush living and its trials. All Abbott was saying was that the best interests of all Aboriginees will be enhanced by representation by people from a range of backgrounds and life experiences. What is discomfiting about that?

peter matters | 23 November 2012  

Mick Gooda seems to be telling other people what ethnicity they should claim regardless of their own wishes. One might just as well say anyone with one drop of white European blood is "white". People have the right to choose any label they like or none if they prefer it. However I am concerned that many "Aborigines" seem to discount any other heritage even if this is clear from their appearance.I imagine this is because many whites from the time of the Invasion treated Aborigines badly so modern Aborigines wish to discount their connection. I suggest it is psychologically unhealthy to deny part of one's heritage.Why not say "I am Aboriginal/English" or whatever if asked ? I have three adult children, two Eurasian by birth and one Vietnamese/African American by adoption. I would be saddened if any of them denied any part of their racial heritage.We are blessed as a family to descend from people from different parts of the world....real world citizens. Why deny any part of this? However this does not mean we need to label ourselves even if others do.We are all human beings linked to all others by our common humanity.

Mary Samara-Wickrama | 23 November 2012  

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