Identity

 One of the biggest myths about Aboriginality is that if you have fair skin you can’t be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. You’ve got to be black to be ‘a real’ Aboriginal – or that Aboriginality is attributed to the degree of ancestry, such as ‘she is 1/8th Aboriginal’. 

 

These perceptions are highly offensive to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and must be understood as products of colonial thinking. Ideas of genetics and culture are often mistakenly collapsed together so that if someone’s skin is lighter, they are thought to have lost that equivalent of Aboriginal culture. 

Who is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander?

You might meet a person who says they’re Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander but you’re doubtful because they don’t look the way you think Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should look.

Perhaps their skin is not as dark as Aboriginal or Torres Islander people you see on television, perhaps they’re dressed differently to how you imagine they should be, perhaps they live in the city and you thought ‘real’ Aboriginal people live in the desert.

In Australia today, there are three legal ‘tests’ that determine whether a person is Indigenous. They must:

 ·  Be of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent.

·  Identify as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person.

·  Be recognised as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander by other  

   Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people.

 

Skin colour has nothing to do with defining whether a person is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Terms like ‘half-caste’, ‘part Aboriginal’ or ‘mixed blood’ are meaningless and can be deeply offensive. Such terms have been used to control and divide Indigenous Australians. They are words that belong to the past because they are words that are divisive, damaging and meaningless. There are many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today who have pale skin and live in cities. The reasons for this are varied. For a long time, governments deliberately tried to ‘breed out’ Aboriginality by dictating who we could and could not marry. Many also began relationships with non-Indigenous people by choice. All Indigenous people take pride in their ancestry that goes back tens of thousands of years. Indigenous cultures have evolved over time, just like all cultures, such as through contact with other people, new technologies and new ideas. Whilst Indigenous Australians move between two cultures they are still incorporating traditional practices and beliefs in their everyday life. Pride in Australia’s Indigenous history and culture has not always been the case. At Federation in 1901, the rights of citizenship were not extended to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power

to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to: The people of any race,  other    than the aboriginal race in any State,  for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.”

  (black part removed in 1967 amendments)   

- The Australian Constitution,

section 51 clause 26

Early Australian law classified Aboriginal people by the place in which they lived and gave local authorities the power to dictate every aspect of our lives. In the 1840s, the classification system became based on the extent of a person’s Aboriginal ancestry, essentially a person’s skin colour.

 “In reckoning the numbers of  people of the Commonwealth,  or of  a State or other part of  the Commonwealth, aboriginal  natives shall not be counted.” 

  (removed in 1967 amendments)   

- The Australian Constitution,

section 51 clause 26