• Grant and his father, Ray fishing in Manning River (Supplied)
OPINION | How my family's fishing legacy helped me understand my identity as a light-skinned Aboriginal man in the 21st Century, writes Grant Saunders.
By
Grant Saunders

24 Oct 2018 - 3:33 PM  UPDATED 7 Nov 2018 - 1:38 PM

Kermit the Frog once said, “it’s not easy being green”. Even though he may have been discriminated against for his skin colour, one thing Kermit did find easy, was the knowledge in his ‘frogginess’; everyone knew he was a frog, no one could or did ever challenge that. It was undeniable that he was a frog and not some other amphibian, it was never ambiguous. He is confident that he was, and still is, a frog.

I don't want to compare the impacts of racism experienced and felt by a dark-skinned Aboriginal person to that of a light-skinned Aboriginal person like myself. I know that I will not be racially profiled when I enter a supermarket to then be followed by security, I will never be passed by a taxi that I hail because of the colour of my skin, I will never be harassed by the police in a way that deems me to be a lesser human being with less human rights than others in society. Because I look white, I have access to all the privileges that most white people enjoy in this country. But I am not white. Some people know that, many do not.

Because I look white, I have access to all the privileges that most white people enjoy in this country. But I am not white. Some people know that, many do not.

Throughout my life, others have questioned my identity as an Aboriginal person, so much so that I even questioned it myself.

At times I wished that I was as dark as my other cousins, aunties, uncles and grandparents or more easily recognisable as an Aboriginal person. I spent a lot of energy throughout my life either ignoring or fighting the racist jokes and name-calling, freely expressed in my presence, because of my mistaken identity as a whitefulla.

Many times I have explained my Aboriginality to those who could not accept that an Aboriginal person could look like I do. Even more devastating is not being readily recognisable to my own mob, who could walk by me in the streets and not even acknowledge me when I tried to acknowledge them. Eventually I got to a point where if I saw another Koori approaching me or in the same vicinity, I wouldn’t bother making eye-contact because I thought I wouldn’t be recognised as a brother anyway. Worse still, I was once called a “white c***” by one of my own mob who didn’t place me as family. I don’t blame them. If I was harassed and treated lesser by white people all my life, I would hate white people, absolutely.

This all had devastating effects on my psyche. From an early age I developed depression and social anxiety. This condition was later re-diagnosed as Bi-polar disorder which I've learned to manage with a combination of chemical mood-stabilizers and more recently with my reconnecting to Country.

This reconnection began with my return to Biripi Country on the mid-north coast of NSW to learn the professional fishing trade from my father. Understanding the professional fishing business was so good for me, both mentally as well as physically, and it came at a time when I was working as a teacher in Media Studies which required a lot of mental energy, so it was a welcome relief to shift my focus onto something more tangible. Apart from the physical labour, just being immersed in nature, surrounded by pristine waters of the Manning River. I found bird and fish life to be extremely therapeutic. Every fisherman I met on the river always referred to it with reverence, saying things like, “look at this office, I wouldn’t work anywhere else for quids”.

My documentary, Teach a Man to Fish follows the journey of my father teaching me commercial fishing skills. It's ultimately a personal journey film, exploring how to be comfortable in my own skin again. What first started out as a film on the plight of the small fishing family against the politics of government restrictions and mismanagement, organically became a more subjective piece of work that still addresses those issues and their impacts on my father and his business, but now it tells so much more.

This film’s subtext is about intergenerational trauma, passed down from my grandfather Horry, to my father Ray and on to me ... Like Samson and Delilah and Rabbit Proof Fence, films like this are about drawing the viewer into the subjectivity of people who have or are experiencing trauma in their lives.

It's what Professor Felicity Collins, an expert on Cinema Studies from LaTrobe University, would describe as “Trauma Cinema”. Like Samson and Delilah and Rabbit Proof Fence, films like this are about drawing the viewer into the subjectivity of people who have or are experiencing trauma in their lives. This film’s subtext is about intergenerational trauma, passed down from my grandfather Horry, to my father Ray and on to me.

Documenting my personal journey back to my original home of Taree (Biripi Country), to learn how to fish, allows me to talk about my grandfather’s political history. He built one of the first Aboriginal-owned and operated fishing businesses on the east coast of Australia as a response to systemic racist government control over Aboriginal families, exercised by the so called Aboriginal "Protection" Board in the early 1960s. My grandparents were one of those few who stood up for better living conditions and human rights for their people on Purfleet Mission on the outskirts of Taree. As a result, they were punished and made an example of to the rest of the community by evicting them from Purfleet, forcing them to live in a condemned house in the white farming community of Tinonee, five kilometers away. This is where Pop started fishing to survive and it's also where my father met my white, English/Italian mother, Jennifer Sullivan.

People have heard the horror of individual Stolen Generation member stories, but many have not heard the stories of whole families, who dared to defy this system, who were forcibly removed from their extended families and communities to quell any hint of an uprising and to assimilate them into white society. This story talks about me growing up fair-skinned as a result, my disconnection and reconnection to mob as well as to Country. It talks about racism that I had to suffer as a fair-skinned Aboriginal, but also the racism my father had to tolerate growing up as a Purfleet Mission kid integrating into white society, just coming out of the segregation era that my grandparents had to withstand. We discuss the dilemma I have today with the identity of my own kids, whose mother is Norwegian. All of these issues we've been able to interweave throughout the simple narrative arc of me, returning home to learn the family fishing trade.

For me it's like narrative therapy, mixing traditional Aboriginal story-telling, with all its digressions, with the traditional western cinematic format of the “Hero's emotional journey”. This combined, arrives at a multi-layered and complex story of survival as an Aboriginal man in the 21st Century.

 

Grant Saunders is a writer, film and television maker and educator. He is a Biripi man and currently resides on the mid-north coast of NSW. 

Watch Teach a Man to Fish on SBS On Demand.