“You’re too white to be Indigenous.”
“What percentage are you?”
“You don’t look Indigenous.”
“But you’re not black?”
19-year-old Dharawal Wodi Wodi woman, Stephanie Duric, is all too familiar with these comments and questions about her Indigenous identity. Growing up in the predominately white suburbs of the Sutherland Shire, Stephanie fits the physical profile of her area: fair skin, blonde hair, blue eyes. She seamlessly blends in with the majority. But when she speaks of her indigenous culture, she begins to stand out.
Because Stephanie does not exhibit a stereotypical Aboriginal appearance, her connection to culture is not seen as authentic. “My culture is diluted to the colour of my skin,” Stephanie said.
Stereotype after stereotype has created an image of what Aboriginality is.
Mainstream Australian society has struggled with defining 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. Even now, society continues to question the authenticity of First Nations people with fair skin.
The Australian Law Reform Commission defines Aboriginality by evidence of Aboriginal descent, self-identification as an Aboriginal person, and acceptance by the community. Although there is no criteria for what an Indigenous person should look like, “the frustration of being too black to be white and being too white to be black creates a situation of hopelessness,” said Stephanie.
An Australian National Opinion Poll survey found that that dual criteria were used by non-Aboriginal people to judge Aboriginality. Namely, darkness of skin and the practice of tribal lifestyles. For fair-skinned Indigenous individuals like Stephanie this has great ramifications for societal acceptance of their culture.
Australian Human Rights Commission Young People’s Human Rights Medal Finalist, Indigenous author, presenter and commentator, Marlee Silva shares a similar experience with her cultural identity. As a proud Gamilaroi and Dunghutti woman she explained, “If you have economic privilege or white passing privilege, that doesn’t fit that expectation of Aboriginality, to them, you’re not really Aboriginal.”
For a minority group of people, Marlee states that she is not black enough and never will be, and it’s not just the colour of her skin but also because of where she grew up and because there is this subset of people who have not decolonized their minds.
Much like Stephanie, Marlee receives comments such as, “you’re so pretty for an Aboriginal,” “you’re too smart to be Aboriginal,” and, “did you go to uni for free?” She uses the analogy that “coffee is still coffee no matter how much milk you add,” which Stephanie speaks about in her interview below.