Judging aboriginal people by their skin colour — whether light or dark — is wrong, asserted an indigenous Australian broadcast journalist in a public talk last week at the University of British Columbia.
“Australia has this obsession with colour and still does. It started quite early in colonization days,” said Michelle Aleksandrovics Lovegrove.
Lovegrove, who is from the Ngarrindjeri Nation, produces a national indigenous radio program called Living Black. (Aboriginal people in Australia call themselves black.)
In her talk, entitled But You Don’t Look Aboriginal, Lovegrove gave multiple examples of how aboriginal people with light skin are faced with discrimination in Australia.
“Over the last few years, there have been a number of cases that have played out quite publicly in Australian media about who or who is not an aboriginal person.”
Most controversial were two commentaries by journalist Andrew Bolt published in 2009.
In the articles, Bolt picked apart the credentials and motivations of 16 prominent Australian aboriginal professionals — a group which included academics, writers, and lawyers — suggesting they’d chosen to emphasize their aboriginal racial identities to further their careers.
“He claimed all of these people were only saying they were aboriginal to get benefits and were using some minuscule element of aboriginality to do so,” said Lovegrove.
“The one thing they had in common is they were all light-skinned.”
‘Being aboriginal is based on family, lineage, connection, and recognition by family and community’- Michelle Lovegrove, Australian broadcast journalist
Nine of the 16 people named in the articles took Bolt to court, arguing he had contravened Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act. They won.
“Being aboriginal is based on family, lineage, connection, and recognition by family and community,” said Lovegrove.
“Governments and other bodies should have no role in determining who is — or who is not — aboriginal.”
However, Aleksandrovics Lovegrove maintained prejudice remains deeply ingrained in Australian culture.
“The myth in Australia is what became famously known as the noble savage,” she said.
“Dark skin, tribal markings, holding a spear. That noble savage still seems to permeate a lot of Australia as an undercurrent. If you are not like that man, you’re not aboriginal.”
‘Authentic’ First Nations
Alden Habacon, director of Intercultural Understanding at UBC, thinks that many Canadians often make similar mistakes.
‘You can’t tell people’s indigeneity from their appearance. If you go about it that way, you’re bound to make a mistake.’- Alden Habacon, director of Intercultural Understanding at UBC
“You can’t tell people’s indigeneity from their appearance,” said Habacon.
“If you go about it that way, you’re bound to make a mistake. It is much more nuanced than that; the history’s so layered, and there’s so much diversity in indigeneity.”
Sheryl Lightfoot, an Anishinaabe and Canada Research Chair of Global Indigenous Rights & Politics at UBC, says racism in Canada is tied more to socioeconomic class than skin colour.
“Many First Nations here still feel [racism] on a daily basis,” said Lightfoot.
“In Canada, there’s this assumption that if you’re “authentic” First Nations, you live on reserve, you aren’t well educated, and you’re of lower social status. But, that’s not the case at all.”
Lovegrove maintains these prejudices in Australia date back to early days of colonization, when the pattern of attempted assimilation was similar to Canada.
‘The lighter you were, the more likely it was that you would be taken. If you had a European mix, you were redeemable for assimilation.’- Michelle Lovegrove
“In Canada, you had residential schools. In Australia, we call them stolen generations: the children taken from their families and communities and put into orphanages,” she continued.
Up to 100,000 aboriginal children in Australia were taken from their families and placed in homes run by European families and “orphanages,” where abuse was common. Newborns were often selected for assimilation based on the colour of their skin.
Aleksandrovics Lovegrove said nurses would carry around a swatch of colours with different skin tones.
“The lighter you were, the more likely it was that you would be taken,” she said. “If you had a European mix, you were redeemable for assimilation.”
Lovegrove believes the Australian experience can help Canadians grapple with contemporary indigenous identities.
In her office, she points to an article addressing myths and facts about First Nations in Canada. In the myth section are phrases such as, “All aboriginals don’t pay taxes,” and “All aboriginals get a free university education.”
“It’s quite astounding,” she said. “All I need to do is change some words and it would apply to Australia.”
GP Mendoza is a journalist from Vancouver, British Columbia. He has reported on mental illness in West Africa; Vancouver arts and culture; and child welfare in aboriginal communities. He is finishing his Master’s degree at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism in 2015.