But You Don’t Look Aboriginal

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you are denying that I am Aboriginal. To deny that I am Aboriginal is to deny that my grandmother was taken by welfare because she was Aboriginal, by the dictates of past government policies. To deny that she was taken because she was Aboriginal is to deny that past policies attempted genocide of Aboriginal people. To deny that the government’s objective was genocide is to deny that the government is responsible for the widespread decimation of Aboriginal language, traditions, land rights and intact family trees today. To deny that there is no widespread crises of identity within Aboriginal individuals, families, communities – and indeed our entire country – is to deny our lived reality. And when you deny our reality, you deny us our humanity. And so when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, it goes much further than just skin-deep.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, it says much to me about your level of misunderstanding and your adherence to the tenets of the obsolete pseudo-science that is biological race theory. Your individual ignorance is however, symptomatic of a widespread pandemic, where these beliefs are not systematically dismantled in the education system from a young age, thereby perpetuating the dominant white-male-heterosexual-Christian-dual binary values that are normalised and exude from the hidden curriculum. And so when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you’re not entirely to blame; the weight of such culpability is much too much for an individual to bear.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you are nevertheless still guilty of perpetuating violence control through your embodiment of racist values. You are acting as a vehicle for oppression, an agent of history and part of the framework that continues the legacies of past assimilation policies. Does this come as a shock to you? Are you in denial? This is where the recognition of your privilege must come into play on your part. You must locate your beliefs in the historical and spacial continuum of oppression, and only then will you realise how you are an agent, acting out this culture. Conversely, you will then be responsible to be an agent of change. With knowledge comes responsibility, because education without action does nothing. So when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you’re not getting off that easily with a seemingly innocuous comment; ignorance does not equal innocence, and I’m going to take this as an opportunity to do my responsibility.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you are implicitly perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Prevalent misperceptions and misconceptions of Aboriginal people include that we are lazy, drunk, dole-bludging, violent, sneaky and uneducated [sorry, I couldn’t think of any good ones that I’ve encountered in my whole life; not my fault]. When you compliment me for not embodying any of these negative stereotypes, and upholding me as the paragon of black virtues because of my perceived whiteness, you are reinforcing these stereotypes of what all “real”, “authentic” Aboriginal people are like. By telling me I’m the exception to the rule you are reinforcing the rules. You are promulgating a colonial hangover of media-created deficiencies. You are telling me that I’m inauthentic and you are telling yourself everything that centuries of racist politicians, scientists, missionaries and journalists have told you is the truth. So when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you are deluding yourself with the very tools they created to oppress us.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, and you grill me about the whyfores and how-sos I have the gall to identify as such, you are being invasive and rude. By believing you are entitled to know the minutiae of my family tree, you are presuming that your sense of entitlement takes precedence over my personal boundaries. But not so. When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, and you drill me with your intrusive eyes and prod me with your blunt questions, you are telling me that you do not respect me.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, and add that I ‘mustn’t have much’ in me, or enquiring after my caste and blood percentage, you are attempting to reduce over 40 000 years of deep and vibrant culture to a quantifiable measure; over two hundred years of survival and resilience against colonialism, attempted genocide and ongoing assimilation to a drop of blood; my own nearly thirty years of lived culture in family and community to a miniscule section of mammoth lengths of DNA. You are reducing who I am in flux and flow to an immutable, graspable number for ease of understanding, to further reduce and divide the entirety of me and mine. By continuing to ask how much I have in me, after not getting the hint to drop this line of eugenic economic interrogation, ‘what part?’, ‘what caste?’, you continue to ignore the fact that it just doesn’t work that way. That despite centuries of imposed definitions that sought to variously segregate and assimilate us, to provide a solution as though we were a problem to be solved, that tried to cut us down enough so that we would fit into their constricting frameworks, you do not hear the truth that I just am. Not half of me, nor a quarter, or one seventy-eighth; not my head or my heart or my left arm or right pinkie toe; not my eyes or hair, not tooth or nail. I just am. All of me, all the time. Always was and always will be. So when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’ you are attempting to reduce the entirety of my identity and relationships and activism to one single moment, now, where you want the answer that I will never give you the satisfaction of giving you. You will never cut me down to size.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, and add that I am too pretty, my features too fine, my height too wonderful, my feminised body too elegant, you are telling me that you believe all other Aboriginal women to be ugly. You are saying that my Mum and my grandmother, my Aunties, my cousins, friends, nieces and my unborn daughter are all ugly. Not just different by the narrow standards of the male gaze of the white beauty industry, but actually unattractive, fullstop, done. How then could you explain all of our non-Indigenous fathers? Lovers? One-night stands? Here I will acknowledge the fact that rape has been a reality for us the last couple of centuries. However, this does not explain the many healthy mixed race relationships, or even the unhealthy fetishisation of black women. You are ignoring the reality that black women have always been desirable to non-Indigenous men and women. So when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you are not only saying that desirable black women are not authentic black women, you are also saying that only non-Indigenous women are allowed to be beautiful.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, that I look more Lebanese, or Italian, or Spanish, or Croatian, or whatever, you are reducing what it means to be Aboriginal in all its gorgeous complexity to an essential list of clinical physical features, to a cold and simple checklist for cookie-cutter authenticity. Not only is this sheerly stupid because of the evidence that Aboriginal people today come in all shapes and sizes, with an astonishing diversity of facial features and skin colours; to discount certain items off the checklist in favour of other items is to racialise our bodies, to racialise our very beings. By subscribing to the Dulux colour-card myth of Aboriginality, you are continuing the work of past welfare and government institutions who held colour swatches up to the skin of black babies before they ripped them from their mothers’ arms. They grouped these babies according to tone, often separating siblings by this completely arbitrary division that could change seasonally with the strength of the sun. Further to this unpredictability, it was an actual division in many cases where sister and brother were physically separated not only from their mother, but also from each other. This was the case with my grandmother, who was taken from her Aboriginal mother at the age of four, along with her seven-month-old brother, never for any of them to see each other ever again. Yes, they took their heartbreak to their graves. So for me and mine, colour is not just an objective judgement of a visual hue, it has a crushing historical weight that has crippled all of my family members, each in their own way. So when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, this shameful historical legacy reaches to me from the past to haunt me to this very day.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, my deep-running empathy and over-active imagination come into play. I imagine and feel what this would have meant to me if I had been born one hundred, eighty, sixty, or even forty years ago. And I consider myself lucky that I was born in the year of Orwell’s hell, although my Mum still did instil in us her very deep fear of the welfare, so that we knew how to perform for society and never draw attention to ourselves. Because growing up as we did, with a single Aboriginal mother, if we had not performed well and hidden ourselves, if we had been born ten years earlier, there is a statistical probability that we would have been taken too. Do not misunderstand me; we were very much loved and always supported. We weren’t abused and we were never in danger, however we never had any money and poverty is criminal in the eyes of the welfare. Furthermore, traumatic events necessitated that we move far away from our extended family – my Mum’s only support network – and begin to integrate into a completely disconnected community who thankfully very soon took us in. So when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’ you are telling me how lucky I am to have been born when I was.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, I imagine that you are the welfare with the authority of government policies behind your words, and that you have the power to take me from my mother and my brothers. And in a way, you have, because I step back in time to the known story of my grandmother’s life. My grandmother, who never knew me, walks beside me every day in the only form I’ve ever known her. I look very much like her, and it’s not just her beautiful features that have left their mark on me. Her entire life-story haunts mine, and I continue to try to make sense of myself in the context of her struggles. She walks inside me every day and I have an ongoing relationship with her. I have an obligation to ensure that what she suffered through is known, and also that it stops. So when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you have taken me away from my family and into her life.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, I feel, viscerally, my grandmother’s pain; I panic in the knowledge that I will never see my mother again, that every letter I write to her will not receive an answer. That instead of the girl’s home guardians telling me the truth that they are not passing her replies on to me, they instead tell me that she has forgotten about me and that she doesn’t love me. I am paralysed by the knowledge that my mother will not be there when I am sick, when I need her to love me. I will never hear her voice again, nor smell her skin, or have her kiss me goodnight. Ever, ever again, forever, never. Never. She will never pass on parenting practises to me, and the adults I have as parent figures are inturn abusive, cold and transient; all unloving. These early role models imprint on me and my first escape from them is straight into the arms and wedlock of a man with an uncanny resemblance to my early caregivers. My mother will not be there when I get married, when I am in labour, when I am sick, and when I die too young. She will not be there for my children, when I need her to love them. So when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you have taken my mother from me. You have taken my world from me.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, my breath catches, knowing that if not for the grace of my being born when I was, that I would never see my brothers again. As we five, joined to each other through our Mum, and glued to each other through our close upbringing, some of us have different Dads, creating a beautiful diversity within our obvious similarities. But that because we have different skin colours, body types, nose shapes and eye colours, we would not be deemed similar enough in the eyes of the law to remain together as would support our basic human dignity. That some of us would grow up in cold hard institutions, trained for domestic or menial labour according to gender, yet regardless of gender as befits our darker skin. That the others would be adopted into a white family to become their chattel, neglecting to nourish our connection to our true culture; denying us our rightful inheritance, severing who we are from who they want us to be, and therefore butchering our very being. Placed far apart, names changed and changed and changed again, we would never even know where to start looking for each other, and so we would all live out the rest of our lives as only, lonely children. So when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you are tearing me from my big and little, but all strong brothers. You are dictating that we have different worth and different levels of usefulness according to your cold and convenient colour-coordinated doctrine.

When you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’, you are alerting me to the fact that if left unchecked and uncorrected, you will repeat this comment to others, maybe others who are less resilient or strong in their identity than I am. Perhaps young children, maybe of my blood or maybe not. Perhaps one day my own daughter. Probably, you will impress upon your own children that this comment is okay, maybe they will continue this legacy. I do hope you might leave that in the past where it belongs. I also hope you might get with the times. When you comment, I wonder who you are and what power you wield in the world, and what influence you have on Aboriginal people. Are you a social worker, a teacher, a doctor, a cop? A football coach, a journalist? A shop assistant, an employer? A real estate agent, a model scout? An anthropologist, an art dealer, a miner, a farmer? A magistrate, a screw? Or are you just the average busybody, keeping the hard-to-kill-but-not-yet-obsolete White Australia policy alive and well? Whoever you are, do you have the power to invoke feelings of shyness, shame and inadequacy in our young black kids? Or even our Elders? So, when you tell me ‘you don’t look Aboriginal’ you make me wonder whether you can change your position, change your course, catalyse reconciliation and continue on as an embodiment of alliance, acceptance, validation, respect and healing that our cultures have so sorely missed from you.

– Defender Of The Faith, 24th March, 2014

I highlight this because I’ve heard it said that recognition and identity is only a “small issue” compared with the health, housing, education, employment, and criminal justice statistics that describe our situation today. I first point this out to demonstrate how imposed definitions blatantly attempted our genocide in the past, and I further point this out because this attempted genocide is absolutely, unequivocally responsible for our fourth-world socio-economic status that we live through today. Finally, I point this out because our current low life expectancy, high infant mortality rate, incarceration and deaths in custody ratio, and child removal rates – that far surpass Stolen Generations rates – tell the tale. These facts and figures speak to a government who still do not care. Although they have changed the terminology and phrasing of their policies, the effects of their actions and interference is ongoing, yet with even worse outcomes than at the times the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths and Custody, and the Bringing Them Home report, were published.

I wrote this for the people who still come up against this, in the hopes that they can more deeply understand why it’s not appropriate, and maybe get some new angles on their reactions. I especially wrote this for the parents of black kids: the Indigenous parents who may also know what it’s like, and the non-Indigenous parents who might not know on a personal level. I wrote it for all the parents who want to defend our black babies, so that they know what to say, but more importantly, so that they can instil the pride in their kids that my Mum instilled in me – pride so that they can be resilient and not buy into out-dated myths.

However, I addressed this to non-Indigenous people who do this, who might be setting a bad example for their own kids to follow in their footsteps. I addressed this to those people who might be making our kids feel angry and hurt and defensive, for all those who have made me and mine feel this way, and for those who still attempt to. So whether you intend to belittle us or not, you can recognise where you are located in the continuum of oppression, and hopefully make the decision that racism stops with you, to become our allies instead of remaining as obstacles in allowing our babies, and even ourselves, to feel as valued and strong as we should. As we must.

This post was published by The Stringer on 1st of April, 2014



27 thoughts on “But You Don’t Look Aboriginal

  1. Our aboriginal parents & grandparents were denied the right to be Australian James. They couldn’t vote, were not accepted into certain white establishments, were not recognised after coming back from the war, after fighting the white mens war for this country, were taken away from living on their country & put into designated aboriginal living areas/compounds, taken from their families either as the stolen generation or to be assimilated into the white mens way. They lost their families, traditions, laws, history…many even lost basic information like the date they were born! Only to go through life celebrating their birthday on the wrong date. This isn’t about labels as a lot of people say it is. This IS ABOUT having the right to acknowledge who we are & where we have come from. Everyone has the right to their history, connection is important to many of us & many of us are still trying to piece it together. Stop judging & help reconciliation happen then we can all say “We are Australian”

  2. Thankyou writer
    Sorry (a precedent for genocide as a legal remedy above the highest court in Australia) NO Danny Moore you are wrong in your defense of your neocolonialist belligerent stupid attitude. The spear of poetic justice that is the repeated question of an ethical nature, is a contextually separate reasserted theme and creative approach to the title. Read it without this question that reveals your character and attitude, your identity. Does it make sense now? or are you a genocide denier! a liar? do you lack guts and integrity? just don’t question peoples identity based on what they look like when you truly don’t know who they are. If you are unsure or you understand it is none of your business or they look potentially dangerous and you feel scared about commenting on their identity in this way > or you are racist shut your mouth and walk away into your immoral lie.

  3. Kick arse writing.. Ignore the naysayers. Obviously your history, tradition, family… has passed the baton into capable hands. I suspect you could have said a lot more. The fact that your life is defined by the need to remind others of basic human rights says so much in itself.

  4. I appreciate your article but agree with Danny above, sometimes it can be just an inoculus comment with nothing other than an observation intended, whether thought or spoken. No different to your assessment of me. I am a health worker who worked in indigenous isolated communities over the last three Australia days. I have been called everything under the sun, none of which is repeatable here. I have been advised to remain locked in the compound, locked in the front door and then locked in the bedroom on occasions. And yet i don’t know my father and there are questions around if he is indigenous. My mother has passed away so I will never know for sure, but I DONT LOOK ABORIGINAL, at least not by the indigenous communities standard, so whilst I understand your article, I must point out that it is a two way street and have to say that both sides are guilty of the same comments.

    True, I don’t have the history that you do, perhaps it is there, I will never know for sure. But whilst I don’t classify myself as aboriginal, neither do I classify myself as Irish, English or whatever other race is in the mix. I am me, right here, right now. That is how I see you and how I expect to be judged in return, for my actions, my deeds and I expect no less of you, anything else is an insult to us both. I have spent most of my professional life in service to others and as I said, quite a lot in rural and remote communities, including various indigenous communities. Racism is a two way street and I am very weary of the way I am treated when I am trying to help. No where else do I have to endure this treatment and disrespect and blatant racism. Please don’t tell me I have forgotten you when I am standing in front of you tending your sick child. Please don’t tell me I have no respect for your culture when I have made the effort to learn local dialects and liaise with elders so that I can better teach your children to avoid ear infections. Please don’t call me a racist if I think you don’t look aboriginal when you say the same to me and think it ok.

    • I’m glad you appreciate my article Joanne, however I wish you actually understood it. The point is that regardless of whether it is intended as “an inoculus comment with nothing other than an [assimilation-focused] observation”, it goes much deeper.

      I want to thank you for all your hard work, in what seems like a thankless job. That said, what you do and how some Indigenous communities treat you is not on the shoulders of all of us.

      I would mainly like to address your last comment:

      “Please don’t call me a racist if I think you don’t look [A]boriginal when you say the same to me and think it ok”

      Again, whether you understand it or not, whether you intend it or not, and whether you want it to be true or not, telling somebody who is Aboriginal that they don’t look Aboriginal is rude, invasive, and part of a historical colonial media-driven assimilation campaign of racist and genocidal divide and conquer.


      Intentions means shit.

      Don’t want to be called racist? Then don’t say shit that you now know full well is offensive and racist.

      • Sorry, clearly I didn’t articulate that quote as I intended. I am not saying to anyone, “you don’t look aboriginal” I am saying why is it acceptable for a recognised Aboriginal to say it to me but considered racist when I merely imply it as a thought? The point of my post was the double standards.

        It is a genuine question. Do you yourself consider some Aboriginal to be racist? Is it a two way street. This is something I struggle with. When I am respectful regardless of history, why can’t I expect the same?

        • Of course you can expect respect. Call them out on it when they say it, just as I have called people out not just in this article but in real life.

          I too have had this from Aboriginal people once or twice. However I understand that they have internalised the race theory narrative and are using it to try and exclude me. I just parry it and walk away; it’s too few and far between to be a real problem. It’s not acceptable either, and I don’t know how you got that idea from my post.

          Anyway, here is an explanation of why I wrote this, and to whom I was addressing it. Certainly not all whitefellas, just the one who need calling out:


    • Thanks, Joanne.
      I felt for a moment i was way off (in some aspects i may have been) but you articulated well what i couldnt.

      I spoke to a friend of mine who is studying medicine at James Cook in TSV what he thought, he then explained to me that it is perfectly normal and even unavoidable sometimes to profile someone according to their race and by no means is it always racist. e.g. someone looking to identify their background can undergo a series of thorough tests measuring and identifying certain traits to come up with a list of possible background. Couple that with other information one might have about their past and the way they “look” could be their liberation.

      Anyway his point was similar to mine. We are all people, and the reality is, people look different, its a beautiful thing.

      No one race is more beautiful than another.
      No one race is more intelligent than the other.
      No one race deserves more privileges.
      No one race should be stereotyped because of the actions of a few.
      No one race should be slandered.
      No one colour is superior.

      But we do look different. And thats not a racist thing to say. A racist would remove the word “No” from each of those sentences.

      To address Daniel asking “are you a genocide denier! a liar? do you lack guts and integrity?”.
      No, but this is my point exactly. I make a comment saying that i don’t believe “you don’t look aboriginal” is a racist thing to say, and suddenly i must be a “genocide denier”. The two are worlds apart.

      • Well said, for the most part.

        The part I have an issue with is your friend’s comments. If they are indeed studying medicine, I would hope that they have also learnt that biological race theory has been debunked as pseudo-science for years. Memetics, and not genetics, are the drivers of culture which is what is now understood as “race”. Yes, science can measure DNA, judge phenotypes and class skin colours. However, DNA cannot measure culture, phenotypes cannot measure culture, and skin colour cannot measure culture. And that is what Aboriginality is – culture, not biology.

        And I say this with authority, as a teacher of Western race theories at a university.

  5. Thank you so much for writhing this Defender of the Faith, with permission, I will use exerts in my methodology for my PhD Thesis I am writing. Being Aboriginal is not about skin colour, but unfortunately, peoples perceptions relate Aboriginality to skin colour. As a fair skinned Aboriginal I get this all the time and I am writing about it in my PhD.

  6. Thanks for the article. I love it and I’m sending you a big hug for being you. Ignorance is bliss for some people and I see some of our mob making their living out of it and I try not to judge that. Your confronting it and contextualising our oppression and my hat ( if I wore hats) is off to you! X

    • You’re welcome Peter, and thanks to you too and all your wonderful work. Imaginary hat tip back at ya!

  7. Pingback: Pride, Purpose and Perspectives | Defender Of The Faith

  8. I have been thinking about this a lot lately. It has risen its head at work again, so it prompted me to reread your comments. One stand out in your reply to me,
    “That said, what you do and how some Indigenous communities treat you is not on the shoulders of all of us.”
    I asked you if you felt there was a double standard in respectful treatment between cultures and you didn’t reply. I missed this comment the first time around but it would appear the answer is yes, it is ok for you do apply a racist undertone to the wider non indigenous community and expect an apology, even from those who have no responsibility, it is a community thing. But when I point out my treatment you say, that it is not in the shoulders of all of us. Again, I struggle with the double standards. And yes, my lineage has been now verified. I do have documented aboriginal ancestors, but it makes me no different to the person I was yesterday. It certainly does not change my appearance nor the disrespectful way I can be treated by some in the indigenous communities where I do my job trying to improve the health of the young and the old. I am me, stop being so shallow as to judge me for what you think my parentage may be.

    • “it is ok for you do apply a racist undertone to the wider non indigenous community and expect an apology, even from those who have no responsibility”

      Nowhere did I imply that the entire non-Indigenous community is racist, nor do I expect an apology from anyone, even those who do have a responsibility. Further, I am not going to take responsibility for how some Indigenous people have treated you, just like I would never try to hold you responsible for how some non-Indigenous people have treated me. There are no double standards on my part.

      “I am me, stop being so shallow as to judge me for what you think my parentage may be.”

      That is great that you know who you are, however I would like to point out that because I am not judging you for who you are, you are addressing this shallow statement to the wrong person.

  9. Many comments here – it is good to get things out in the open from all perspectives.

    I’m hopeful that since this article was published a couple of years ago that everyone is loving, accepting and respecting everyone more and more as each day passes.

  10. Thanks from the non-Aboriginal mother of a very fair skinned strawberry blonde Aboriginal daughter. She is 6. Her father is Aboriginal but not raised in his culture. I am trying to raise her to be proud of her diverse ancestry and she will proudly declare that she is Aboriginal and I see that as the first step. One of the things I have planned this school holidays is to go to the museum run by the people from my husband’s ancestry and talk to them about how she can get to know her heritage. Not so she can claim anything (I have been accused of chasing welfare) but so she can know who she is.

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