Reframing “Black” Identity Politics in Australia

Anita Heiss’ book: Am I Black Enough For you?

By Zuleyka Zevallos

“No one can take away who we are. No one can take away our identity”. Prominent Australian writer and intellectual Anita Heiss recently made this comment on the program Living Black. She was speaking about her lawsuit win over Andrew Bolt, who was found guilty of racial vilification. In 2004, Bolt engaged in a series of racist comments attacking high-profile Indigenous Australians, essentially arguing they weren’t “black enough”, as Heiss puts it in her latest book. The Living Black video (below), recounts some of Bolt’s insidious comments, such as “Meet the white face of a new black race. The Political Aborigine… I certainly don’t accuse them of opportunism, even if full-blood Aborigines may wonder how such fair people can claim to be one of them and in some cases take black jobs”.

Bolt is a conservative commentator and notorious bigot who tries his hardest to single-handedly dismantle multicultural harmony via his newspaper column and TV appearances. Bolt glowers over Indigenous Australian leaders, patronising his readership about how he images Indigenous Australians might feel about “light-skinned” Aboriginals, without awareness of his white male privilege and the ongoing history of racist paternalism which dominate Indigenous affairs at the national level. Bolt casually makes reference to “full-blood Aborigines”, which is a socially constructed colonial concept used to institutionalise racist practices. The categorisation of “half-caste”, “full-blood” and other variations, has been used since European settlement to deny Indigenous Australians access to their human rights, social welfare and land ownership. As Heiss’ book argues, her court case win over Bolt was a symbolic triumph. The court rule in favour of racial vilification took away the power of identity labelling from white Westerners who impose racial categories upon Indigenous Australians. While this is only one case involving one infamous media personality, Heiss says that the future implications of this court case are likely to be profound:

A lot of people were jumping on the free speech bandwagon – without putting it in context of the racial vilification. Without unpacking what had been said in the articles. They’re going ‘free speech, free speech’, when in actual fact we’re all saying, ‘Well you have free speech – but it’s not unlimited. You have the right to free speech. I have the right not to be vilified’.

Heiss argued that Bolt’s construction of her race went beyond skin colour – she was not “black enough” to represent Indigenous Australians because she was educated. Heiss sees this as a fundamentally problematic foundation of racial labelling. Heiss was born into the Wiradjuri nation of central New South Wales. She grew up in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney being compared to white Australians, and as a consequence, she says she was always labelled an Other – an outsider and a second-class Australian. When she became an educated, outspoken Indigenous public figure, Bolt deems her too educated, too urban, and thus too light-skinned to be Black. This rationalisation comes from a man who is comparatively less educated than Heiss. Heiss has a PhD in Communication and Media and she is a published novelist, poet and academic. Bolt never finished his Arts degree, though I’m sure someone on the internet might award him an honorary degree in bullshitting. Bolt has dedicated his journalism to making racist, sexist, homophobic and generally divisive rants. He’s also a climate change sceptic to boot. In Bolt’s logic, the children of white migrants such as his good self, stand as the beacon of assimilated Australians who have the right to tell Indigenous Australians, who have lived on this land for thousands of years, how to classify themselves.

In reality, whether first, second or eighth generation Australian, no one has the moral right to hold themselves up as an identity expert, although social institutions are set up to proclaim otherwise. Institutions such as the law, government and the media (of which Bolt is an incendiary member), perpetuate formal and informal processes which frame race categories as a biological, observable truth. Bolt, a white man of who wields considerable status via his large readership, positions himself as an authority on who gets to be seen as ‘Black’. He claims to speak out on behalf of Black Australians even as he uses reductionist racial categories to divide Indigenous Australians: the ‘real-Black-Aborigines’ and the ‘too-White-to-be-Black-leaders-of-Aborigines’. Notably, Bolt also uses the term ‘Aborigine’ which is politically and historically loaded. This term was adopted by European settlers who saw Indigenous Australians as an inferior and culturally homogenous group. The singular label placed upon Indigenous Australians denied the plural histories, languages, customs and self-conceptions amongst the multitude of Indigenous groups.

Racial labels are imposed upon Others by dominant or elite groups who benefit from overt and tacit forms of discrimination, inequality and prejudice. When Bolt says Heiss and her colleagues are too light-skinned to be Indigenous leaders, by implying that their education and social mobility makes them ‘inauthentic’ Aboriginal people who are taking away jobs from ‘real’ Aboriginal people, Bolt is actually saying that Indigenous Australians can only be “Black” when they are poor, uneducated and living in remote regions of Australia. Yet at the same time Bolt decries affirmative action laws that he sees award special rights and privileges to Indigenous Australians.

Heiss wants to break down this conflation of race, education, place and Aboriginal Identity.

This notion of the blacker you are, the poorer you are. The less educated you are, the blacker you are. I wrote the book for, basically, people like me. And obviously our younger people, who, as the judge even pointed out in his statement in regards to the case, it was about being concerned for the youth. About how they might feel intimidated and be offended by the sort of language that was being perpetuated in the media and so forth.

See Heiss in action in the video below.

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