There’s a story in today’s Sydney Morning Herald called Indigenous applicant not black enough for the job. Just to set out the terms of, er, terms at the start of this, in Australia, black may be used to refer to our Indigenous peoples, who are comprised of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. A person may wish to be referred to using any of those terms, or perhaps a regional term, or to have their specific nation referred to. For example, the woman in the story, Tarran Betterridge, is of the Wiradjuri nation – though the article does not make it clear how she might like to be called. As such, I’m reasonably certain I’m going to be using language Ms Betterridge herself wouldn’t like in this piece, which I’m very sorry for. All clear? Okay!
Ms Betterridge, who has light colouring, applied through a company called Epic Promotions, who had themselves been hired by Let’s Launch, for a job promoting an Aboriginal employment initiative called GenerationOne. The Epic Promotions interviewer, Emanuela D’Annibale, turned her down on the grounds that Let’s Launch had specified people who look Indigenous for the job. Leaving aside the irony of turning down this apparently perfectly suited applicant for a job promoting Aboriginal employment, I want to unpack how the idea of looking Indigenous enough or not functions here.
Well, let’s try some logic: Ms Betterridge is a Wiradjuri person. Ergo, how she looks is what an Indigenous person looks like. That would seem pretty clear, but apparently there are some people in this world who like to decide for other people whether their genes have manifested appropriately. And that’s the crux of it: who gets to be the arbiter of whether someone is manifesting an identity “properly”? Something that comes through pretty strongly in this narrative is that if someone does not look like they are of a particular background, according to the observer’s perceptions, their claim to that background is not as legitimate as that of one who does fit the observer’s criteria. Now, for a start, that’s a very, very culturally specific narrative. I am not Indigenous myself, but my understanding is that the determinants of such identities are that a) one has some ancestry in a particular nation, b) one is identified with that nation’s culture and such and c) one is recognised as belonging to that nation by its people. Indigenous Australians, as determined by Indigenous Australians themselves, look all sorts of ways. To deny those identities based on skin colour or hair type or other physical features is an act of cultural imperialism.
But there’s a silent referent going on there. If Ms Betterridge does not “look Indigenous,” what does she look like? Implicitly, she looks white. Firstly, how one person reads another person’s race is not going to be how another observer reads it. As such, establishing any kind of criteria for whether someone fits the particular features of an ethnic/racial group is impossible. That is, in addition to being really, really racist, of course – seriously, do the people who pull this stuff not realise that the whole system of racialisation emerged from attempts to determine superior and inferior features that all people of a particular background supposedly shared?
But, secondly, back to that invisible white referent. There are some pretty choice quotes from Ms D’Annibale in the Herald article. This one is my favourite: ‘I wouldn’t have picked her for Aboriginal at all … to me she looked like an Aussie girl.’ The idea of the ‘Aussie girl,’ is a heavily racialised one: it calls up images of a tanned, fun-loving, young Australian woman who is always, always white. What’s going on here is that a person whose ancestors have been on this continent for tens of thousands of years is being referred to as only genuinely Australian because she resembles those people who started to hurt her people and take away their land two hundred years ago. This is so appallingly racist that I feel like I’m going to choke.
You know why a lot of Indigenous Australians have light colouring? Because colonisers raped their ancestors and tried to breed their indigeneity out of them. And in a country with a history, a really recent history, like that of the Stolen Generations, using the literal colour of someone’s skin to decide whether they are really a person of their identity is unconscionable.
Having light colouring does not make Ms Betterridge any less a person of the Wiradjuri nation. It does not. She could have red hair, be covered in freckles, have translucently pale skin and the bluest eyes you’ve ever encountered, and that would not make her any less a Wiradjuri woman. Not fitting some people’s ideas of what an Aboriginal person should look like does not count for more than Ms Betterridge’s ancestry, nor her identification, nor her experiences. It doesn’t count for a thing. If someone cannot get it in their head that having light colouring does not make Ms Betterridge some kind of substitute or fake Wiradjuri person, this should help: she’s experiencing discrimination based on that identity.
You want to know what makes someone a real Indigenous Australian? You want to know what an Indigenous person looks like? I have one for you. She’s a university student in Canberra, she’s twenty-four years old, and her name is Tarran Betterridge.
Thank you to @KristianStupid on Twitter, who posted a link to the Herald story this morning.