Racial Identity Cannot be Determined by Casual Bystanders

[Mostly cross-posted at Zero at the Bone]

Well, readers, I was going to take a break from blogging here until my exams were over. But you know when you hear a story that so brings the rage you cannot think about anything else? This one does.

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.


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About Chally

Chally is a student by day, a freelance writer by night, a scary, scary feminist all the time, and a voracious reader whenever she has a spare moment. She also blogs at Zero at the Bone. Full bio here.
This entry was posted in Race & Ethnicity, Racism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to Racial Identity Cannot be Determined by Casual Bystanders

  1. Chally says:

    There are a number of other angles I could have taken in this piece because there is so much to unpack in the SMH article. Like this: ‘if you’re promoting Italian pasta, and you put Asians there, how’s that going to look? Wouldn’t you pick an Italian to promote the Italian pasta?’ Firstly, what? Also, using Australians of Anglo-Saxon descent to promote Italian pasta on the other hand? Just fine, because they get to go unmarked. Or how about this: ‘the reason we needed at least one person who looked indigenous [was] so that it would be friendlier to indigenous people’.

  2. scrumby says:

    This reminds me of a story awhile back where a few over-eager border patrol persons in the good ol’ USA attempted to arrest and deport a Apache man for not being American. There argument was that his lilting accent sounded Irish which definitely wasn’t American and he therefore must be a Mexican trying to cross the boarder illegally. If you’re going to be racist at least be consistent.

  3. white.indigenous.and.proud says:

    This problem seems to be becoming more widespread. This was a National News Feature here in NZ not too long ago

    http://nz.news.yahoo.com/a/-/top-stories/8210839/employee-bullied-for-not-looking-maori-enough/

    I am a Male Bi-Racial New Zealander. Maori (indigenous) Mother. European Father. Now i’m the first one to admit that i am whiter than most European folk, but this does not define my cultural identity but apparently because of my fair skin, green eyes and auburn hair, i am supposed to ignore one entire half of my cultural history and identity. There have been times where I have faced racism from both Maori and Europeans…”too white to be a real Maori”..”too Maori to be a real white person”. I was raised to be proud of my Bi-racial Identity, and proudly label myself as a Maori New Zealander. In this day and age where bi-racial and mixed relationships are becoming more and more common it is saddening to see that such negative attitudes still exist towards people such as myself. I cannot choose the colour of my skin, but I can how I identify myself. that is my choice.

  4. Stephanie says:

    Indigenous Australia suffers deeply, constantly, from this kind of stereotyping and kind of racism. It’s perpetuated in mainstream consciousness by hard-right commentators and commercial media, whose polemic regularly exploits racial tensions and insecurity about difference, which is in turn fed by widespread ignorance about Indigenous history, culture, and philosophy, not to mention the ignorance about manifestations of contemporary Indigenous culture.

    The relationship between Indigenous Australia and non-Indigenous Australia is, in a word, woeful. And this kind of casual racism is just the superficial stuff.

  5. Nancy Green says:

    I’ve done surveys with people that included asking them how they define their race. Sometimes it’s not what I assumed it was. A lesson for me.

  6. groggette says:

    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.

    And I bet the people responsible for turning Ms Betterridge away would just stare at you blankly if you said this to them. It reminds me of what I heard one (Mexican American) woman say when she was talking about people harassing her to “go home”:
    “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”

  7. April says:

    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.

    This is a really infuriating statement. It reminds me of the “All-American Girl/Boy” label in the US. “All-American” always means white, blonde, and wealthy, completely erasing not only Native Americans, but every other person of a different ethnic background, skin color, and heritage from being “American” enough. The ignorance, which seems really, really deliberate, is astounding.

  8. Jadey says:

    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.

    This is the part that gets me the most. It’s the same case in Canada and the US too (and probably New Zealand at least and no doubt elsewhere). I mean, there are other factors that contribute as well (consensual relationships, natural diversity of genetics), but there is always this spectre as well that makes this kind of white person racial quarterbacking extra gross.

    But, fuck, “indigenous-looking”? Might as well have hired white actors and put blackface on them – I’m sure that’s what they were actually aiming for.

  9. Bagelsan says:

    This reminds me of a story awhile back where a few over-eager border patrol persons in the good ol’ USA attempted to arrest and deport a Apache man for not being American.

    Ew. That reminds me of an (old? semi-apocryphal?) story set during the 19th century during all that anti-Chinese sentiment in the US… when a white dude in Seattle yelled “Go back where you came from!” at a man in Chief Sealth’s tribe. Uh yeah. White people are clearly super competent at race!

  10. Kristen J. says:

    Bagelsan: Ew. That reminds me of an (old? semi-apocryphal?) story set during the 19th century during all that anti-Chinese sentiment in the US… when a white dude in Seattle yelled “Go back where you came from!” at a man in Chief Sealth’s tribe. Uh yeah. White people are clearly super competent at race! Bagelsan

    Alas, I don’t have to go back into history for examples…my SO is japanese, but on the mainland people read him as (1) latino, (2) native american, (3) middle eastern, (4) thai, (5) vietnamese…I could go on…but you get the idea.

    Of course white people don’t have sole access to assumptions since a lot of people of color read him as something else as well.

    Of course we’ve been stopped by customs and searched by TSA more times than I can count. During a rally in support of migrant labor reform some white dude got in M’s face and told him to go back to Mexico (which was fun…). During a routine traffic stop (DUI checkpoint) a black police officer asked him how he was able to “steal” a US passport (which I took to carrying for him when an enterprise car agent refused to accept his drivers license as ID). Again…I could go on…but really what’s the point.

  11. bhuesca says:

    This reminds me of the controversy over the (I think) Miss India & New Zealand beauty pageant, where one of the finalists was criticized for looking “too white” to represent India, even though it was her genetic & cultural heritage and had lived nowhere else.

  12. bhuesca says:

    Here are some links to the pageant I referenced. The comments at Racialicious are what reminded me of the post and its immense similarities to what the OP is referencing – the “she doesn’t look like us so she isn’t one of us/can’t represent us.”

    http://www.racialicious.com/2010/10/13/links-for-2010-10-13/

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1320117/Indian-beauty-queen-Jacinta-Lal-accused-looking-Indian.html

  13. Pingback: links for 2010-11-04 « Embololalia

  14. sophia b says:

    How is that not illegal? Is there not some equivalent of the human rights commission in NZ that she could complain to?

  15. C says:

    ‘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.”

    I love how an Aussie girl is descended from people who colonised the country, and not the original peoples. Great article, thanks for it.

  16. Sophie says:

    For me, this goes the other way. I am a dirty-blond, white-looking girl. However, on my Father’s side, I have lots of relatives who married into the family who were/are African American and Native American. I am approximately 1/8 not-white (sorry, weird term, didn’t exactly know how else to phrase it). I’m still a student, so whenever I have to take standardized tests like the TAKS, I never know what to put, especially since my two options are “White” or “Other”. I generally mark myself as White but I feel as if that’s not exactly who I am.

  17. libdevil says:

    So, correct me if I’m wrong on this (American here), but Australia is a pretty big place. Wouldn’t the term ‘indigenous’ already cover a pretty wide range of people, even before Europeans showed up and “raped their ancestors and tried to breed their indigeneity out of them?” What would it even mean that somebody looked sufficiently indigenous? Picking a member of a single indigenous people to promote an initiative aimed at all indigenous groups, and doing so in the name of ethnic sensitivity just seems… not so smart.

  18. Ruchama says:

    April:
    This is a really infuriating statement.It reminds me of the “All-American Girl/Boy” label in the US.“All-American” always means white, blonde, and wealthy, completely erasing not only Native Americans, but every other person of a different ethnic background, skin color, and heritage from being “American” enough.The ignorance, which seems really, really deliberate, is astounding.  

    I vaguely recall a commercial from about 1990 or so that took this on, sort of. I have no idea what it was a commercial for — maybe Nike? The commercial featured a young man or teenager, mixed race (I assume), who said to the camera something like, “I saw the casting ad looking for an All-American Boy — red hair, green eyes, freckles. So I figured, why not me?” As he listed each attribute, the camera zoomed in to show that he did have red hair, green eyes, and freckles. (Google is giving me no help in figuring out what this commercial was advertising. It was definitely early nineties, and I think it was something sports-related.)

  19. Belinda says:

    There’s legal proceedings taking place at the moment in the state of Victoria (Australia) over a newspaper columnist’s similar statements. Tabloid journalist Andrew Bolt wrote articles under the titles: “It’s so hip to be black” and “White is the new black”, and “Whitefellas in the black.” Some choice words:

    ‘‘I’m not saying any of those I’ve named chose to be Aboriginal for anything but the most heartfelt and honest of reasons,’’ he wrote in the piece published in April 2009. ‘‘I certainly don’t accuse them of opportunism, even if full-blood Aborigines may wonder how such fair people can claim to be one of them and, in some cases, take black jobs. I’m saying only that this self-identification as Aboriginal strikes me as self-obsessed, and driven more by politics than by any racial reality.’’

    He is being sued under the Racial Vilification Act by a group of Aborigines led by 73-year-old activist Pat Eatock over the columns.

    Also, gotta love how “Aussie” and Aboriginal are always mutually exclusive labels. Forget about all the people who identify as both.

  20. Paraxeni says:

    @C – I love how an Aussie girl is descended from people who colonised the country, and not the original peoples.

    Beat me to it. She’s surely the ultimate ‘Aussie Girl’, no?

    Chally – thanks for taking time out to write this. I hope some good can come out of this for Tarran.

    I hope your exams go well.

  21. Scarlett says:

    sophia b: How is that not illegal? Is there not some equivalent of the human rights commission in NZ that she could complain to?  

    Australia =/= NZ, just for the record.

  22. Ouyang Dan says:

    This infuriates me So Much. Because I know that this is about an instance that is probably fairly common in Australia, but it is something that happens to me All The Time, just because I have happen to have light skin, both because I happen to be of a Northern U.S. border nation tribe, and because I am mixed ethnicity, but am non-white. I am told that I don’t look “Native Enough” fairly often, both by other PoC/non-white people, and by white people. I am willing to bet it happens to Ms Betterridge as well.

    People don’t care about how you identify because they can place you in a box just by glancing at you on the way by or by talking to you superficially. No other info needed. Certainly not yours.

    Thanks, Chally.

  23. Mechelle says:

    This is one reason why I don’t really identify with my Hispanic Heritage. I am half African American/half White Puerto Rican. I look very much like my African American mother but have green eyes like my father. Therefore, being raised in the south where Latinos were a minimum I was always told I didn’t look Puerto Rican enough or I didn’t look Hispanic. Some people would go out of their way to tell my mother I wasn’t Puerto Rican at all. (Don’t get me started on how some people would say I wasn’t enough of it to be considered part of the group because I was half…and these people were never Latinos) For the longest time, I never knew there were Latinos darker than I (of different racial categories) and I now know it was ignorance on the part of the naysayers. For this reason, I HATE when someone tries to assume someone else’s racial or ethnic category. I remember when I went to give blood and I had to fill out a form. The nurse was asking questions and when it got to race she automatically put in African American and I had to tell her it was Hispanic. (I went through a period where I flip flopped when it came to racial categories on forms. I always found it fun. Sometimes I did it just to blow people off. I now put biracial or multi-race but I still feel seemingly disconnected from the term since most people have always treated me as only African American or have denied my mixed race status because I look racially African and apparently not mixed…because we all must be “medium” skinned or something, never dark or light.) Nevertheless, I use my experience as a means to educate people on backgrounds, mixed folk, and the history of Latin America and Spain (where many racial groups can be found…)

  24. Shannyn says:

    April:
    This is a really infuriating statement.It reminds me of the “All-American Girl/Boy” label in the US.“All-American” always means white, blonde, and wealthy, completely erasing not only Native Americans, but every other person of a different ethnic background, skin color, and heritage from being “American” enough.The ignorance, which seems really, really deliberate, is astounding.  

    I also agree with this. Nobody is All-anything…. I don’t know why people feel the need to distinguish themselves as ALL-this or ALL-that. We are all just humans… These people need to get overthemselves already.

    I am half Native American, but I have really white skin and light brown eyes. But because I’m supposed to look like a Native American, I’m supposed to have red skin and almost black eyes? Has everyone took a look around lately? Hardly anyone looks like “what they are supposed” to look like. The world needs to be stop being so stereotypical!

  25. book_gal says:

    Scarlett: sophia b

    I think sophia b was responding to bhuesca’s comment about Jacinta Lal winning the Miss India/NZ crown and not commenting on the main article.

  26. Ellen says:

    I’m a white (anglo-irish-prussian mix) Australian and I’ve worked with Indigenous organisations in NSW for a while. This article reminded me of an exchange I witnessed when representatives from a couple of Indigenous groups we were consulting with in rural NSW met – things were a bit tense due to local politics etc. One of the ladies was quite fair-skinned, and another woman (darker-skinned) snapped at her “you Koori?” – but backed down very quickly when the first woman snapped right back “Yes!”. I’m from the NT, which has a very high Aboriginal population, and grew up knowing that skin colour was a small part of Aboriginality – it was surprising to see that at least one Aboriginal woman in NSW had a different view.

  27. Ellen says:

    Hm, just reread that. “surprising” was not the best choice of word.
    Rather – “interesting to see that….”, perhaps?
    Sorry, not very with it right now.

  28. Eghead says:

    I agree with everything that was said here, but, ultimately, I do think it’s unfair not to acknowledge the privileges that come with being able to ‘pass’ as white- including not facing knee-jerk racial discrimination at job interviews. Ms. Betterridge will not have that problem at other interviews the way a dark-skinned person very well might.

  29. Chally says:

    I don’t think anyone was disputing that Ms Betterridge has privileges associated with having light colouring. She is clearly facing knee-jerk racial discrimination with this job.

  30. Julia says:

    That’s definitely something that I’ve had to grapple with. I’m a huge mix of a lot of ethnicities (indigenous Brazilian, Italian, black and Arab are the bulk of it, I believe). I have been told that I “look Latin American” or “look not-white,” but I have also been told that I am “ambiguous looking” or have had people assume that I am white. At work, someone accused me of being “racist towards Mexicans” and said that I was just “another white girl trying to prove she has power.”

    I think that I’ve definitely benefited from white privilege, but being perceived as “white” has had its very negative consequences, as this post exemplifies. It’s frustrating when people think your opinions on race and racism are somehow less valid because they believe you are white and over-privileged enough or because they think you’ve submitted to “white culture” (my parents are middle class and I go to a liberal arts school, therefore I’ve submitted to “white culture”? What does that even mean?).

    That being said, I actually had a professor tell me to my face that being a woman of color but looking white and having strong verbal communication skills (in a “you’re very articulate considering you’re of color!” sort or way) would help me get a job in such a bad economy.

  31. Spilt Milk says:

    Thanks for this great post Chally. I had heard about this story but hadn’t come across good analysis of the issues until this piece.

    “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.”

    Exactly. I happen to know at least one Koori person who fits that exact physical description.

  32. Nanette says:

    Well. I was hesitant to jump in here, but I think there are so many things not being said that should be. I could be wrong, mind you, as I know little of Australia and racial politics there – though I do know about the Stolen Generation and such. But anyway…

    First, let me agree that what happened to Ms. Betterridge was wrong. The woman doing the hiring was monumentally stupid and offensive, and I hope she has lost her job for her actions, and for her words, which were most certainly racist.

    However, I do see where she is coming from on the optics, which have little to do with cultural identity, just perception of it. From what I understand, this GenerationOne thing is to encourage Australian businesses to hire more indigenous people? The hiring woman says, in the article, “but the reason we needed at least one person who looked indigenous [was] so that it would be friendlier to indigenous people“, which sort of gives the impression that most of the other people already hired resembled Ms. Betterridge in appearance (this is an assumption, of course, because she doesn’t say it right out.)

    If that was indeed the case, and the purpose of the event/program/ whatever was to convince businesses to hire more indigenous people, then I agree with the fact that at least one should “look indigenous” to the point where there is no mistaking it and no confusion. Otherwise, what the program is saying, through optics, is “Look! You can hire white looking people and still be hiring indigenous ones! Win/win!”

    That’s happened often enough (and continues to happen) on this side of the world that it was my first thought when reading this piece. Not to deny her or anyone else who doesn’t fit an image their heritage, anymore than I would seek to deny U.S. Black people of pale or white skin (of which my mother is one) theirs. There simply is no judging people’s heritage on skin color. But sometimes optics matter. For people with obvious darker skin *everything* relates to skin color – whether you are hired for a job, rented an apartment, are able to walk down the street without being harrassed and so on. For that reason alone it is imperative to have at least some people (or at least one) with visually dark skin in an effort such as GenerationOne seems to be making.

    So, to avoid sending the wrong sort of message, if I was doing the hiring and Ms. Betterridge was the last applicant for a place to be filled (and all the other places were filled with other white-appearing Indigenous people) I would not have hired her, either. I would have been a lot more tactful in turning her down – but I would have turned her down and sought out someone else who had darker skin.

  33. Li says:

    Nanette, here’s how I see it operating. As Chally has pointed out, Tarran Betterridge is a Wiradjuri woman. She looks like a Wiradjuri woman. She is not “white looking”. This is a really important point.

    What Tarran Betterridge is is a Wiradjuri woman who has been misread as white. The misreading is not a feature of her appearance, but of the people doing the misreading, and it’s important to note that in the Australian context, the people who misread her as white will overwhelmingly be non-Indigenous. Other Wiradjuri people, or indeed Indigenous people of any of the myriad nations with a sizable number of paler-skinned members (and it’s important to note that Australia had a whole bunch of distinct indigenous nations pre-settlement, many of which had fairly distinct physical appearances), won’t tend to misread other Indigenous people in this way (though some obvs can. NOT A MONOLITH and all that).

    So while optics are important, the optics at work here aren’t about making things “friendlier to indigenous people”, they’re about making the enterprise more coherent to white people. And I’m just really suspicious about white people choosing to reiterate a whole bunch of really fucking racist imaginaries about Indigenous people in order to not “send the wrong kind of message”.

  34. Natalia says:

    When I read about the case of Tarran Betterridge, I was reminded of this time I was passing a family album around back in Charlotte, NC, and one person holding it went – “THAT’S your aunt? But she doesn’t look Russian at all… She looks Asian! Did your grandmother have an affair, or something?”

    Hardy har har!

    There are extremely damaging stereotypes about the way that certain groups “should” look. One of my aunts has “Central Asian” (which in itself can be a huge oversimplification) features – so suddenly, she doesn’t belong in my family album anymore? People are allowed to make milkman jokes about her and my elderly grandmother?

    It’s distressing when someone tells you – “hey, you know what? Your identity? Something that probably means something to you? You don’t know shit about it, my friend. *I* get to decide who and what you ought to identify with.”

    It’s especially distressing when that person already has direct power over you (as in this case – wherein an individual was applying for a job).

  35. Nanette says:

    Hi Li, thank you for answering, and for correcting my terminology. I was sure I’d get something wrong.

    I understand that Tarran Betterridge is being misread as white by non-indigenous people, that she is non-white but light-skinned, as are many Wiradjuri people. I would not presume to say that she was not a good representative of the Wiradjuri, or indigenous people in general, or anything like that.

    Also, I know that U.S. racial politics do not apply well to other countries (and that non-U.S. people get highly annoyed when we try to do that, lol), BUT –

    I also know that skin-color politics in white dominated countries – particularly where the white Europeans forcibly replaced darker skinned peoples – basically follow along the same pattern. The darker the skin of the people, the more their culture is thought to be pathological, the more the people are viewed as unattractive, unintelligent, unreliable, not good employees, not good neighbors, so on. I would be surprised (but elated) to learn that this pattern has been broken in Australia. From my observations – from very far away, of course – I don’t think it has been.

    It’s for this reason that I think that optics, visuals are very important in an effort like what OneGeneration seems to be. You say here:

    So while optics are important, the optics at work here aren’t about making things “friendlier to indigenous people”, they’re about making the enterprise more coherent to white people.

    Well, but isn’t it sort of doing both? I mean, my issue in my earlier comment was the idea that perhaps *all* the other applicants were read as white by non-indigenous people. If that was the case would darker skinned indigenous people feel satisfied and secure of their representation if no one on whatever this was for looked like them? Even if they were read, by indigenous people, as being indigenous? I guess I mean, is it the cultural identification that matters the most in that situation?

    And “making the enterprise more coherent to white people” – that again was one of my issues. In Australia, as in most (or all) white dominated countries, are the majority of the business owners white? And are the majority of those they hire also white, or misread as white? If that is the case, and the OneGeneration effort is an attempt to get them to hire more indigenous people, then I think it is imperative that a full spectrum of people of indigenous descent – from the very dark to the very pale – be presented as the public face, and not just only those who could be misread as white.

    “And I’m just really suspicious about white people choosing to reiterate a whole bunch of really fucking racist imaginaries about Indigenous people in order to not “send the wrong kind of message”.

    Well sure, that is understandable. Although, due to my Australian cultural ignorance, I am not sure which are the “racist imaginaries”, exactly (that indigenous people must look a certain way, maybe?), but I do persist in thinking that a group of *only* indigenous people who are misread as white, in this sort of effort, does in fact send the wrong message.

    Which is why, again, if I were in charge of staffing whatever it is they were staffing, and Tarran Betterridge walked into my office, if she was part of the full-spectrum (image wise) of the diversity of indigenous people, I would snap her up. If, however, she was applying for the last spot to be filled on a roster that already had all people who were misread as white, I would gently and tactfully turn her away.

  36. Chally says:

    As I said to Eghead, Nanette, yeah, prejudice based on skin colour is very much in place. It really doesn’t operate in the same way as it does in the United States, at all, but it’s a huge component of racial politics here. I agree that it’s important for movements/organisations that claim to support Indigenous Australians do that for all Indigenous Australians, across the appearance spectrum, for sure.

    But what we’re talking about here is that Ms Betterridge is being held to not be Aboriginal enough on the basis of ideas about racialisation that hurt Indigenous Australians as individuals and in general, a denial of everyone’s cultures, and slot into some pretty horrific racial narratives. I really don’t think we can reliably assume that there was just one more slot Ms D’Annibale had to fill. The “guidelines” clearly aren’t about promoting the interests of Indigenous people or going for that noble aim of representing a range of people: they’re about playing into those imaginaries and that coherency Li is talking about. And we’re talking about a part of the country, and a group, where and for whom light colouring is not exactly unusual, if that helps contexualise it a little bit.

    I really hope some people with dark colouring were hired, I think that’s really important, I would be pretty appalled if they were not. It’s more often than not Indigenous people with darker colouring who are going to be kept out of the job market. But it’s also important to tackle those ideas about what an Indigenous person can look like, which was what I was tackling in the post, and that people like Ms Betterridge don’t get thrown under the bus by racial stereotypes in the name of the kind of “promotion” Ms D’Annibale or her organisation were pulling. You’re right, it’s important to represent a spectrum, and that includes those who get denied being a part of that spectrum at all.

    I’m sorry, everyone, but I’ve got the end of exams and a conference and a birthday this week so I may be slow to reply to further discussion, and I’m sure this comment leaves a lot out. Perhaps I’ll try get something together about different notions of racialisation across cultures when I’ve got some time, that might be interesting?

  37. It seems to me that the point where they went wrong came long before they even interviewed Betteridge. From what’s been reported, these people were looking for a token.

    Some folks tend to think that they are doing those who are marginalized on the basis of race a favor by making sure that they include one of us in their projects. It seems we’re supposed to see their efforts as somehow benevolent or magnanimous. In that view, I guess we should just be grateful that they were willing to hire any of us.

    However, as I see it, the main problem with their behavior isn’t that they didn’t choose Betteridge because of her looks–it would have been just as problematic if they did. The problem is that they were attempting to use indigenous people as a means to an end. Having someone who looks more like the stereotypical Aborigine provides them with cover. It assuages the nagging feelings of guilt or responsibility that some non-indigenous people may harbor when they know that they are participating in systemic racism.

    If we consider this story from that angle, it makes perfect sense why they would do what they did. After all, what good is such a token if they don’t actually seem all that much different from you? How can you make those pesky marginalized people believe that you’re “one of the good ones”, if you can’t get at least one of them to vouch for you? This company was looking for the corporate equivalent of a “best friend who’s black”.

    Your “black friend” is only useful if they make it so that you don’t have to do any real work to prove that you care about the lives, concerns, and interests of those other(ed) folks. Your “black friend” gives, or at least lends, you street cred. So, if you say or do something that makes marginalized people question your motives, then your token can help put things in the “proper” perspective…while you hide out in the corner, until things feel safe again.

    Evidently, Betteridge didn’t have enough indigenous street cred to satisfy this company’s need of a “black friend”. However, in their mind, she’s the one who’s to blame, because she didn’t figure out that they weren’t looking for someone to pass out flyers. They were looking for an actor, someone to play a role. When you’re looking for an actor, it’s perfectly acceptable to use looks as a criteria.

  38. lauredhel says:

    ” The darker the skin of the people, the more their culture is thought to be pathological, the more the people are viewed as unattractive, unintelligent, unreliable, not good employees, not good neighbors, so on. I would be surprised (but elated) to learn that this pattern has been broken in Australia.”

    [Lots of offensive language ahead, because I’m quoting racist conversations]

    There are a multitude of patterns, none of them good. As a white Australian, I’m regularly privy to remarks by other white Australians about the “good Aboriginals” (dark-skinned and read as “full-blood” (whatever that means), living in rural and remote communities in what is read as a “traditional” lifestyle or as low-end farming or mining employees), which of course are contrasted with the “bad Aboriginals”: paler-skinned, urban, perceived as criminal and whingers and spongers.

    There are very strong white sentiments, overt not covert and not remotely stigmatised (these happily get given mainstream newspaper space) against “fake Aborigines” working in government-funded “Aboriginal industry”, perceived as usurping the role of the “good Aboriginals”, who are “a lovely, gentle people” (“self-made”, not uppity, not speaking up about oppression, not working for a better deal or to close the gaps). There is a huge amount of white resentment about imaginary “fake Aboriginal welfare spongers”, who supposedly pretend to have Aboriginal heritage in order to claim large amounts of (non-existent) earmarked Aboriginal welfare money and make pretend land-rights claims and trumped-up Stolen Generation claims and crank out child after child and buy flat-screen TV after flat-screen TV at the “public’s” expense.

    None of this is remotely elation-worthy.

  39. Nanette says:

    Hi Chally,

    Thanks for explaining a bit more. I did try and inform myself a bit through online searches but I am finding out that leaves so much to be desired – like nuance and personal experience and such, not to mention general information, period.

    Personally, I’d love if, when you have time, you’d write up something on how racialization works across borders. It would be fascinating to hear different aspects of people’s cultures, of course, and share as well. I know U.S. discussion (and interpretation) of racialization often dominates – and even there, the black/white dichotomy tend to overshadow discussions on racialization among and between other cultures within the U.S., and I’m sure a good many of us could benefit from having our horizons expanded a bit, beyond what Google can offer. Or, at least, what it can offer when one doesn’t even know what questions to ask, and all that.

    (With, of course, the caveat that no one should feel pressure to teach anyone else, or bare their souls or hurts and all that, just for someone else’s edification.)

    Anyway, thanks.

    (Bint, I didn’t think of that aspect, but there is that too. I tried to visit the site for the program but it doesn’t play well with my browser.)

  40. Nanette says:

    lauredhel, wow thats… ugly. And certainly not elation worthy, you are right. Paternalism, racism, “good” and “bad”, denial of heritage. Gah!

    Thank you for taking the time to write that, it provides a huge amount of context. I’m sorry I was not more informed in the first place, or able to find out that information on my own (nothing I read said anything remotely like that, though perhaps hinted at by some white Australians I have known over the years, now that I have this context to compare their words to.)

    I see also that I have probably been offensive to some here, all without intent (but we all know how far “intent” goes!) and for that I apologize. There are, I believe, still issues that can and should be discussed (sometime, somewhere or another) but that does not excuse my not knowing the fullness of *this* issue, and what the conversation was about.

    Still, perhaps some good – I’m sure I’m not the only one who did not realize the extent of the discrimination faced by some (or, perhaps better said, *all*, though in different ways) members of the Australian indigenous communities, and better informed is better armed. Or something like that.

    I see some similarities with what happens with some Native American nations here, and the fight some have to take part in their heritage. I don’t know full details of all the different issues (there are U.S. government ones as well as rules and such among various tribes) – and I doubt those who have no Native ancestry at all, but who consider themselves “spiritual members” or “inheritors” of Native American culture and ritual (as if present day Native Americans simply do not exist) help at all.

    Anyway, thank you and everyone, it’s been an informative conversation and I’m sorry for offending anyone. Y’all take care.

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