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WHITE IS THE NEW BLACKIT’S SO HIP TO BE BLACK… these were the headlines two articles by right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt published in the Melbourne-based Herald Sun in 2009.

Bolt’s talk of “political Aborigines” and “the white face of a new black race” landed him in the Federal Court and found guilty of contravening the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act.

Several years on from, much of mainstream Australian society continues to question the authenticity of First Nations people with fair skin.  “You don’t look Aboriginal.  You’re just saying that so you can claim more money from Centrelink.”  For much of the 20th century, the colonial Australian government had a system of defining Aboriginal people, throwing them into different categories like full-blood, half-caste, quarter-caste and even ‘octoroon’.

for many decades, Aboriginal people were issued identity cards (like the one above)


Mainstream Australian society has struggled to define what it means to be ‘Aboriginal’ ever since invasion in 1788, trying to justify and make sense of it within their own system and framework of western ideology.

Pre-invasion, First Nations people identified themselves by their tribal affinities, clans, languages, totems and connection to country – in spite of the best efforts of more than two centuries of colonization, many of these links remain intact.

When is a cup of coffee no longer a cup of coffee?  It doesn’t matter how much milk you add, it’s still coffee.

Gunditjmara man Geoff Clarke,
 Former ATSIC Chairman says Aboriginal identity “comes down your strength of conviction, values and character”.  Mr Clarke questions the motivation of someone seeking to undermine the Aboriginality of another.

“It really doesn’t matter what answer you give.  At the end    of the day, it’s really a question of how you interpret your own identity as opposed to those wanting to interpret it for you.  Being black is what’s in your head and what’s in your heart.  A bottle of spray tan isn’t going to fix it.”

Longtime campaigner against uranium mining Kevin Buzzacott (Arabunna) claims terms like ‘half-caste’ are intended to divide and conquer.  “Just because you don’t look like this or that doesn’t mean anything.  If you’ve got it in your soul and your heart, what more do you want?”

Listen to Gangalu/Birrigubba philosopher Ross Watson talk about how tribal kinship systems apply to this issue.  “No matter what colour they look, they’re still 100%.  No halves, no quarters, 100%” 

Ngemba man Jack Beetson
, boss of Wilcannia Land Council discuss his views on what it means to be Aboriginal.  “I come from a family of liquorice allsorts.  We’re all different colours.”


Dr Dylan Coleman, Kokatha woman and academic at the University of Adelaide, says skin colour is “irrelevant” when it comes to the identity of a First Nations person.