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Going backwards after Abbott's 'urban Aboriginal' gaffe

  • 19 November 2012

It 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