Not quite blak enough: ‘The people who think I am too white to be Aboriginal are all white’

Why do I identify with my Aboriginal family and not my Irish and English ancestry? There are many reasons, and they are all compelling

Every now and then a troll calls me white. It’s a violent colonial tactic: call me white if I identify as blak, call me blak if I wanted to identify as white. My self-identity is not important to them, nor is that of any other Indigenous person, or any person of colour. Wadjelas demand the right to define others, just defining themselves is not enough. They demand to define whiteness and blakness.

It was the wadjelas that created the ‘one drop’ rule, that defined anybody with a single bla(c)k ancestor as black. They did that to separate people, to create a caste system, to protect the notion of whiteness, to protect whiteness from the merest ‘impurity’, from the merest influx of colour. Rather than accept that bla(c)k and white people are more alike than different, rather than accept that ‘half-castes’ are just people, one drop was enough, one drop was too much.

It was the racist, settler colonialism that created whiteness, that created blackness, half-caste, quarter-caste, octoroon, that saw mixed-race people as a third race.

Now those same wadjelas, who defined us as black, now want to call us white if we are not black enough for their liking.

I am not quite white, not quite blak enough. I wish I was blakker on the outside; as blak on the outside as I feel on the inside.

I’m a Vegemite sandwich on brown bread.

If I was blakker I would suffer hate for the colour of my skin; that alone, blakkness, darkness would be enough, I would suffer discrimination for being dark, even the word darkness has, in English, a negative connotation. The colour of my father’s skin, my grandmother’s, my great-grandmother’s is a metaphor, a code for evil. We are the darkness.

And then.

I suffer discrimination because some people think I am too white to be seen as blak; that I should not identify as Aboriginal, that I should not have the right. Some people would try to remove my access to Aboriginal culture, would try to say I am too white, too mixed-race, to be allowed access to my Country and culture, family and land. Those same people think I should not access Aboriginal resources, affirmative action, land rights.

The people who want to restrict my access to culture are not my family, not other Aboriginal people, not the land councils or the elders. The people who think I am too white to be Aboriginal are all white. It’s the wadjelas who think I am not blak enough; the same people who discriminated against my dad by calling him black.

We see it all the time in the media, oft repeated despite the fact that it’s racial vilification, and against the law. Aboriginal people aren’t Aboriginal, we are told, if we are mixed race, if we live in the city, if we are educated, if we do too well, if we are not ‘from the bush’. And ‘from the bush’ is coded language for stone-age, removed from modern society, unemployable and ‘traditional’.

‘Traditional’ is such loaded language, enshrining a belief that we are stuck in the past rather than being one of the most adaptable cultures in history, that some of us are using ‘classical’ instead when referring to any part of Aboriginal culture that appears similar to what it is imagined we produced before wadjela came.

The right-wing media, and even some of the more centrist media, draws an artificial line between the bush and the city, the urban blaks and the people from the bush. The division is often coded to skin colour, urban is shorthand for ‘not black enough’ and bush is shorthand for ‘real Aboriginal’.

And to the racists in the colony, who cannot still grasp the concept that races can mix, who are obsessed with 18th- century notions of race, mixed-race Aboriginal people are no longer Aboriginal.

Modern people do not understand very well that in the 18th century it was a common belief that races cannot mix, that mixed-race children of any two ‘races’ would become a third race; neither white or black. If an Aboriginal woman had a child with a white father that child would not be white or black, they would be a third race and them having children with any other culture would dilute the race of both parents. This belief was one of the drivers of the ‘protection’ laws that led to the settler government’s theft of children. AO Neville, the Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia until the 1930s, railed against the risk of the creation of a ‘third race’ of half-castes. Protectors took the mixed-race children, ‘half-castes’, ‘quarter-castes’, ‘octoroons’, from their parents, from their culture, raised the light-skinned ones white, at an orphanage, and trained the darker-skinned ones to be domestic servants for the colonisers.

It was believed that skin colour also coded for children’s ability to assimilate. I would have been perfect for assimilation. There was no way the protectors would have left me with my family.

They knew, the protectors and the other colonisers, where those mixed-race babies were coming from. There were records from Neville from the many times he asked for local protectors to remove girls before they came of age and to the attention of the white man (the attention they were referring to was sexual, obviously). He did not want a ‘third race’ to be created or continued.

Colonisers also believed that one drop of non-white blood was enough to be considered not white.

Not all mixed-race Aboriginal people were the product of rape. My grandmother was married to my grandfather. My great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother were married to white men. However, rape was common and many mixed-race children were the product of rape, and thus of colonisation. Maybe all mixed-race children were, blak mothers marrying white men to gain their protection, blak men marrying white women in the hope their children would be lighter-skinned and less prone to racism.

No matter what happens to Aboriginal children of mixed race, no matter whose ‘fault’ it is that their skin is lighter than they would like, it’s not their fault. Nobody gets to choose their race. I am mixed-race because my family is and I did not choose my family.

Nor would I choose to be anything other than who I am.

Once mixed-race children were born they were taken from their parents. Under the protection acts in Western Australia, mixed-race Aboriginal children were routinely taken from their parents; the parents, in fact, had no rights to their own children. The Department of the Protector controlled every aspect of the mixed-race child’s life, including if, when and to whom they could marry. This policy was to ensure that mixed-race Aboriginal people could only marry white people to breed the next generation whiter.

There can be no doubt that all mixed-race Aboriginal people are a product of colonisation; and the attempt to define us as not Aboriginal enough is also part of colonisation. It was policy to commit genocide by breeding, by eugenics, to breed out the black to ‘fuck us white’.

I am a mixed-race person not quite blak enough, and will never be white, I will never be white at all. It doesn’t really matter. I know who I am, so does my family, so does Noongar Boodjar, my country.

Colonisers often ask me why I don’t identify with my Irish and English ancestry, why I prefer to identify with my Aboriginal family. There are many reasons – all of them, to my mind, compelling. The first is the simplest: if you could identify with the bully or the victim, with the murderers or the family of the murdered, with the genocidal colonisers or the colonised, who would you choose?

Secondly, if you were part of the culture that belongs somewhere, the first people, the people with a unique connection to the place, wouldn’t you live in that pride?

Finally, the colonisers were attempting genocide, they wanted us all dead. If I identified with my wadjela ancestry at the expense of my Aboriginality, the colonisers win.

Lies, Damned Lies Cover

I am under no illusions about my mixed-race status; I know I am mixed-race, but with the Aboriginal population being only 3 per cent, with my family being survivors of genocide, I have made my decision.

There’s a saying among blak mob, ‘It doesn’t matter how much milk you put in tea, it’s still tea.’ I am a descendant of genocide survivors, a child of the oldest living culture on Earth. Nothing, no amount of milk, can change that.

This is an edited extract from Lies, Damned Lies – A personal exploration of the impact of colonisation, by Claire G Coleman (Ultimo Press), out now.


Claire Coleman

The GuardianTramp

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