The politics of race go beyond black and white

Tory Shepherd

Tory Shepherd

by Tory Shepherd

04 Oct 05:55am

You don’t often hear people challenging someone’s claim to be Italian. Or Swedish, or American. Generally you accept what they say even if they don’t have an accent, or a funny surname, or blond hair.

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Aboriginality, on the other hand, apparently remains a contested field.

The Federal Court last week decided that high-profile and controversial columnist Andrew Bolt had breached the Racial Discrimination Act in his columns ‘It’s so hip to be black’, and ‘White fellas in the black’, which questioned why nine prominent ‘fair-skinned Aborigines’ identified as Aboriginal.

Bolt has (loudly and publicly) claimed that the decision is an attempt to silence him and muzzle debate on race – and indeed the court’s decision will make some people more hesitant to speak or write frankly.

Bolt says he writes in order to unify, rather than divide people.

But the court’s decision and the renewed prominence of those articles have sparked more malignant and divisive chatter about whether people ‘choose’ to be Aboriginal when it suits them – what Bolt called a ‘popular’ choice.

Why would you accuse someone of choosing to be Aboriginal just to get some hazy, occasional benefit? Identity is a deeply personal thing, not a whimsical choice that happens in a vacuum.

Anyone who thinks someone of mixed genetic heritage would elevate their Aboriginality for personal gain wilfully misunderstands humanity in general. That many can feel proud of their heritage rather than ashamed as they may have in times past is a triumph.

To think this is a ploy is utterly arse-backwards.

It’s a symptom of this strange but creeping belief of some that the most disadvantaged are in fact unfairly advantaged.

These little Aussie battlers see their hard-earned money propping up the welfare system, and it fair makes them see red. Why should they work their gnarly fingers to the bone so people can sit around on their arses all day?

With their overblown sense of entitlement they’ve lost sight of what it means to live in a society; a society that has an obligation to the less fortunate.

They think people who have been sideswiped by colonisation, sent into a tailspin of poverty, ill health and despair, people who suffer appalling health outcomes, shorter lifespans and intergenerational unemployment, are somehow better off than they are.

The same people look at refugees making a new life for themselves and forward fraudulent emails claiming they take home huge amounts of cash in government benefits.

They probably think people choose to be disabled just to get the good carparks.

In Australia we prize individuality, we celebrate the ‘battler’ eking out an existence to keep his family fed, and in doing so we seem to have eroded the higher purpose of being a good group; a functioning civilisation.

The ‘tribe’ has shrunk from being a community of people to being a household of people, with many sure that their obligations end at the front door.

People see the distinct welfare for Aboriginal people – Abstudy, for example, or dedicated scholarships or housing – as favouritism, or misplaced atonement.

It’s a hard-hearted, self-interested bunker mentality.

Put aside the judge-a-society-by-how-it-treats-its-most-vulnerable platitudes, and look at the pragmatics.

Breaking the cycle of disadvantage through offering extra opportunities is a way to end the welfare dependency. Give people a leg up so they no longer need a hand out.

It worked for girls – who have come from behind on academic achievements but thanks to extra support are now in front; so it is now boys who are behind in school.

To all those who envy the ‘advantages’ of the vulnerable, one can only hope you one day enjoy them.

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