Definitions of Aboriginal identity have long been imposed and enforced, often to great detriment, on Aboriginal people across Australia.
Policies of dispossession, assimilation, ‘protection’, segregation, and regulation have used any variety of definitions of who is or isn’t Aboriginal.
In the past, these definitions have often revolved around ‘blood quotients’, and introduced terms like ‘half-caste’, ‘quadroon’ and ‘octaroon’, but rather than being based on family history or biology this was often determined by appearance alone.
Many of these definitions were based around a desire to regulate and control Aboriginal people, and to deny access to basic rights and services. In many States and Territories Aboriginal people were, at various times, regarded as wards of the state and seen as unfit to make any decisions concerning their own lives. These definitions were often built off the belief that Aboriginal people were ‘a dying race’ and that over a few generations ‘full bloods’ would all die off and ‘part-bloods’ could eventually be absorbed into the wider population. This thinking had enormous impacts on segregation policies, child removal, and any number of government policies and programs many of which are still well within living memory.
However, post-1967 Referendum, with the establishment of Aboriginal legal services, scholarships, medical centres and so on, the resentment that had originally been expressed at fair skinned Aboriginal people for refusing to ‘be absorbed’ and forego their Aboriginal identities and connection to family and culture, morphed into what Bruce Ruxton in 1988 referred to as ‘the part-whites who are making a racket out of being so-called Aborigines at enormous cost to the taxpayers’.
This has been a consistent theme in media reporting and political dialogue on Aboriginal identity for decades, and has become a common fear among many Aboriginal people and communities; that there are white people falsely claiming Aboriginality to access perceived benefits specifically created for Aboriginal people – particularly jobs, scholarships, and housing.
The most infamous of these claims in recent times came from Andrew Bolt, who was found to have maliciously racially vilified a number of Aboriginal people, but the core of his arguments are nothing new.
The impacts of the invasion and ongoing colonisation; the Stolen Generations, dispossession, relocation, the attempted dismantling of Aboriginal cultures, languages, communities, families and identities has left us with a system where it may never be fully possible to ensure that every Aboriginal person is included within the legal definitions of Aboriginality, or that non-Aboriginal people intent of claiming Aboriginality can be kept out.
Notable cases, like when actor Jack Charles was unable to attain ‘proof of Aboriginality’, show that we do not have a perfect system of defining Aboriginality for bureaucratic purposes. On the other side, people who access employment, scholarships, or housing by falsely claiming Aboriginality are illegally committing fraud, and can be found guilty of doing so. There is little evidence of this ever occurring though, so whether that means it simply doesn’t occur that often, or just that not many people challenge it to the point that it ends up in court is unknown.
What we do know, is that a majority of Indigenous funding goes to non-Indigenous organisations and service providers, including many major national and multi-national corporations instead of going to Aboriginal run, community controlled organisations.
Outside of government programs though, exists the social and cultural definitions of Aboriginality, and these are often more fluid and based around relationships, connections, family history, and status within a given community. These will always be regarded by many of much more importance that government acceptance of a person’s Aboriginality, but at the same time, the perception that some Aboriginal people may be denied acknowledgement of their identity while other people are able to fraudulently assert their own will leave a sour taste for many.
Even though many would assert that the perceived benefits of Aboriginality are few and far between, the thought that what Charles Perkins referred to as ‘the crumbs off the white man’s table’ may be being stolen by white people will likely continue to drive many into a frenzy of concern and outrage.
Whether this can best be solved with more rigid definitions of Aboriginality, or by having more than mere crumbs available to us, or whether the first question is merely a distraction from the second, is a question that we will invariably have to confront again and again until some sort of resolution is found.