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Racism in families belies simple reconciliation



Content warning: Contains discriptions of racism and a racist slur.


‘He only got that free kick because he’s an Abo.’

This comment still rings in my ears like it was said yesterday, yet seven years must have passed since I heard it. The comment is still important to me because it marks an end of a relationship — it was a day where I came to the conclusion that things were never going to change and I walked out a door. In a room where I was the only Aboriginal person surrounded by people who heard the comment yet said nothing to the person who said it, nor did they acknowledge me so I felt supported, I finally realised that there was no place for me there. It was heartbreaking.

Main image: Aboriginal girl upset (Marianne Purdie/Getty Images)

This may sound like a reasonably normal day in the life of an Aboriginal person in Australia yet there’s a key fact I’m yet to divulge: I wasn’t at the pub where I was surrounded by acquaintances and unknowns. This happened at a family gathering and while I was not related to the person who made the comment, I was related to a number of people who did nothing.

For years, I have been fed rubbish about how those of us who are Aboriginal people of mixed descent apparently have an easy go of things. Our proximity to whiteness is often what people say we need to be accepted and get ahead in this world. As long as we live in a good white suburb, have good white family members, get a decent white education and follow that up with a nice mainstream job, we’ll just blend in. As former Collingwood President Alan McAllister said, ‘As long as they conduct themselves like human beings…’

Well, I had that white suburban schooling. I had non-Indigenous extended family members. I had the white Australian suburban experience. The suburb I grew up in couldn’t have been more monocultural if it tried. Yet I cannot, for the life of me, remember a time when I was thought of as being ‘just like them’. I was always the Aboriginal kid in that environment. And yes, I experienced a lot of racism due to this, but this piece isn’t about that. It’s about what happens when you experience racism in your own family.

The scenario I describe wasn’t isolated. It had followed years of microaggressions. Perhaps social media played a part. It gave the opportunity for secret long-held attitudes to be brought to the surface. Whilst non-Indigenous family members were having to deal with the fact that I wasn’t just their relation — I was also proudly Aboriginal — so too did their pushback amplify. First there was the unfriending that happened when I wrote something ‘too hardcore’ about Invasion Day. Then there was the blowback my siblings received — the constant whisperings behind our backs that we didn’t celebrate our ‘white side’ when we had grown up surrounded by it.


'With intra-family racism a reality for so many Aboriginal people it makes a lie of the idea of reconciliation — that we need simply to reach our hands across the racial divide and things will get better.'


The attacks intensified. There were targeted photos of them celebrating Australia Day while I was out on the streets marching. There was the unsubtle reminder by an in-law that we ‘speak English in Australia’, stated as he stared straight at me. Finally, there was the realisation that though these people were related to me, some had chosen to support fascist politicians and had embraced far-right movements. For one of them, the final straw was when I chose to sign an open letter to the Collingwood Football Club calling on them to take action in the wake of the Do Better report and for Eddie McGuire to step down.

It was following the Eddie McGuire stuff that I put the call out to other Aboriginal people to find out if they had had similar experiences with their non-Indigenous relations. I wasn’t expecting to get as many stories as I did but I soon learnt that my experiences were far from unique. From white grandparents who gave presents to their non-Indigenous descendants but not their Indigenous descendants, to white relations suddenly caring about the Black Lives Matter movement in the US while ignoring the Indigenous rights movements here. From siblings ignoring the other’s identity, to non-Indigenous parents denying their kid’s experiences of racism because they are a ‘mix’. Racist uncles having a dig when seeing their nieces and nephews engaged in culture of course made an appearance. Some people even told me of acts of violence they had experienced within extended families which had been racialised.

It was sobering to read all this, yet it really rammed a point home to me: that I was not alone in my experiences. Due to the impacts of colonisation which have led to everything from loving intermarriage to acts of sexual violence, most Aboriginal people have non-Indigenous relations. Most of these people have, at some time or another, experienced racism within their extended family. We expect those who we share blood ties with, and who we have grown up alongside, to know better. This doesn’t always happen. Indeed, these people can be everything from complacent to downright aggressive when confronted with their racist transgressions. Certainly in my case, it felt like people became more aggressive the more I stood up for myself. At the end of the day though, I felt pride and strength in my heritage and culture knowing that even in the face of these attacks, they were unshakeable.

I have argued many times that the declaration of terra nullius on this landmass formed a racist social bedrock that exists to this day. The white Australian mentality reigns supreme. With intra-family racism a reality for so many Aboriginal people it makes a lie of the idea of reconciliation — that we need simply to reach our hands across the racial divide and things will get better. Indeed, given my experiences, I know it’s going to take a lot more work, and a lot more truth-telling, than that.



Celeste LiddleCeleste Liddle is a trade unionist, a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. She blogs at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist.

Main image: (Marianne Purdie/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Celeste Liddle, racism, family, intra-family racism, Aboriginal rights, Invasion Day



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Existing comments

Thank you for this article. It comes at a perfect time for me. I am currently pruning the family tree, getting rid of the deformed and diseased (mentally and morally diseased) branches.

Lorraine | 22 April 2021  

Family relationships are a really valuable thing ... but can need working on, and patience. People who are gay, for example, may have had a similar experience of family rejection, mocking and painful remarks. Old attitudes can be confronted, but 'demanding' change won't get anywhere with some people. If you stay in the relationship you can be the person who, over time, does change attitudes. These are out-of-date concepts: patience & forgiveness, but they can get results, and anyway, feel better to practice than anger.

Russell | 22 April 2021  

Thank you Celeste! I encourage you to keep talking! You raise a number of issues in being part of an Indigenous/Non- Indigenous family, all of them complex. I empathise with your situation. As a 5th generation Anglo- Australian I believe racism is embedded here. I'm both grateful & ashamed for history, ( as I turn 60) being revealed around the result of European settlement to our First Peoples; massacres, displacement, stolen generations, loss of languages, land management....I was denied truth in my schooling years. However, your voice, and that of others such as Bruce Pascoe, Radio 3KND, Emma Donovan, Archie Roach, Marcia Langton,Patrick Dodson.. for example, are beacons of hope for our country.

Ruth McCall | 22 April 2021  

Thank you again Celeste.

Michele Madigan | 22 April 2021  

A good dose of Christian (and not just cultural Christian) salts should shake up this family. As for the hang-up about terra nullius, give it up. If the (and, reluctantly as a Catholic admitting it) Protestant British had terra-nulliused (or even just conquered) their way into Mexico, Central and South America instead of the (Catholic) Spanish and Portuguese, we’d have a band of happy, functional Australia- (or Canada- or New Zealand-) -like nations sweeping down the American continents from the Arctic end to the Antarctic end, instead of the (what V.S. Naipaul would call) half-made countries sitting there today. Catholics may have better doctrines but Protestants make better administrators. Well, at least we’re ahead of the Orthodox who seem to have been stuck with running the lagging end of Europe.

roy chen yee | 23 April 2021  

Almost cried at reading this. We clearly have a long way to go. The Church HAS to be a leader in changing attitudes.

John Hine | 24 April 2021  

Thankyou Celeste for sharing your experiences. Racism is a travesty in our country and we (all of us) need to fix it. Supporting Uluru Statement from the Heart is vital to this process. I am part of a group interrogating our own racism by working though Layla Saad's book "Me and white supremacy". It is hard but also liberating work. Wishing you all the best, Kaye

Kaye Mehta | 29 April 2021  

It is interesting that many of the examples you mention of racism, and there are far more than you did, refer to AFL, Celeste. Being a 'footy personality' like Sam Newman (remember the appalling 'blackface incident' on TV?) seems to give you licence to behave atrociously. The appalling verbal abuse levelled at Aboriginal players such as Adam Goodes makes me ashamed. There is such a thing as common human decency which the perpetrators so patently lack. Calling out this behaviour is not 'woke' but sane. There is a difference between free speech and vile abuse The Yobbo Corps do not realise.

Edward Fido | 03 May 2021  

While I do not have Indigenous family members, I have a family of mixed genetic inheritance ( by marriage. birth and adoption) and so am saddened to learn that in some such families, racism exists.

As a migrant of mainly English descent who arrived here in 1970 with a Sri Lankan born husband (now deceased) and Eurasian children ( later joined by an adopted son of Cambodian descent) I have come to understand the issues existing since the invasion by the English of the land now called Australia. The often violent history of Indigenous and non -Indigenous inhabitants seems to have marred relations until this present day. It is sad that this has adversely affected family relationships. Most probably the racists on both sides are older people influenced by their parents and grandparents when they were children.

However, in the fifty years I have been living in Australia, I have seen a marked improvement in the perception of Indigenous people and their culture by people of European descent . Schools now teach about Australian history as seen by both sides, Indigenous culture is studied and greatly valued ,and many eminent people in public life are of Indigenous descent. So, in the future , we may hope that, as the racists die out , a just society where all are valued will be established. In the mean time, it is the responsibility of family members and friends to support victims of racist remarks, make objection to racist comments and make it clear that this behaviour will not be tolerated in their family. Further, racist statements in public are condemned by a majority of people and the Press.

Celeste Liddle who has very powerfully illustrated the problem, does not believe in reconciliation so it would seem a treaty between the Australian Government, on behalf of all Australians ,with Indigenous leaders freely chosen from their ranks might be acceptable.

What else can we do?

Mary Samara-Wickrama | 13 August 2021  

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