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Black Whitefella / White Blackfella

Roslyn Hull

Humans as a species are discriminatory. It is in our DNA, probably to help us decide who to side with when the mammoths stampede or which partner will make the strongest babies.

Do we need this instinct any more? Surely we have outgrown this behaviour as our intellect has increased? Or, even if we all evolved to a mid-beige colour, would some people still be considered more beige than others?

This is not an Anglo-Saxon trait, nor is it something we can blame on the boys. We girls can be just awful at discriminating against the very people we should be cheering for, our sisters.

Singaporeans refer to their overtly westernised countrymen as ‘Singlish’, even my gentle Khmer Buddhist friends have put-down terms for people who don’t quite fit in.

Some Indigenous Australians refer to those living ‘mainstream’ lives as coconuts – brown on the outside and white on the inside.

When my mother went to school she was called a ‘dirty abo’.

When I tried to discuss my heritage with an Indigenous person some years ago I was told to forget about it because ‘we don’t need anymore white blackfellas’.

My great grandmother was a Guwa woman of the jump-up country, the channel country around Winton in Western Queensland. Was she ‘full blood’ but dusky, like many desert people, or was she ‘mixed race’, as it says on a slip of paper I found in the State Library of Queensland? Does it matter?

It did then. Even as a ‘mixed race’ woman (mixed with what – she looks sort of Indian in her photos) she and her prospective husband needed permission from the Chief Protector of Aborigines before they could marry. Consenting adults who had to ask permission of a government official. Her sons would not have been able to vote if they held their hands up for their heritage, nor would they have been able to join the armed forces. This being Queensland and they being light-skinned enough to get away with it, her story was swept under the family carpet.

Her daughter, my grandmother, knew more of her story but only tried to share it after her own 90th birthday – and nobody paid much attention. My mother (her daughter) and my aunt continued to gloss over it. It was only in the last few years of her life that my mother began to talk openly about her experiences and what she knew of the story.

She began to watch Message Stick and discuss Bangarra Dance Company. Small steps but steps all the same. When she died her daughters (my sisters and I) noted on the death certificate that she was of Indigenous heritage.

When my cousin and I started school, in Townsville, a place I love dearly but also our equivalent of the Deep South, we looked at the other kids and their white, sunburnt skin. Then we looked at our own easily tanned, never quite white skin, and decided that we were ‘Aboriginal’, making a pact to ask our mums. Next day we met up to bemoan our sore bums. My mother had told me never, ever to say that again.

When I was 13 or so I read some forgettable romance comic about star-crossed, racially-crossed lovers in the US and decided I was going to fall in love with an African American. When I announced this to my parents, my mother (never at a loss for words) tried to speak, looked despairingly at my dad and left the room. Dad asked me if I had thought about where the children of this marriage would belong. Belonging was big in the 1970s. If you weren’t part of a group, you weren’t anything. And my mother had worked so hard to fit in – would I ruin it for her? Would I show us up for who we really were?

I still did not guess what was behind this until my uncle told me when I was 23. So I don’t know my own story, I can only piece together threads, share those threads with my own daughters and tell them to be proud of who they are.

But who are they?

 

I have been inspired learning the stories of people such as Reg Saunders, Oodgeroo Noonuccal and the wonderful Euphemia Bostock. I think Paul Kelly is Australia’s greatest troubadour and Stephen Page is a towering talent. But for every well known Indigenous or Torres Strait Islander living in the public eye, there are many, many more contributing to their family and their country. Whether living the lore on traditional homelands or in the suburbs these unsung lives are as important to our country as any other life.

Who am I? I am Australian. I come, like the song says, from (almost) all the lands on earth. I am a woman, a mother, a storyteller.

And every day, not just this week – and even though my family story may be lost – I am proud to be an Indigenous Australian.

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Ros Hull

Roslyn is a writer and storyteller who loves all things Canberra, her family, sci fi and movies – but not in that order. She has worked in museum education since 2001 and has a passion for imparting knowledge to others. Writing is her happy place, particularly if there is a dog at her feet and a coffee in her hand.

More about the Author

  • judith palframan

    Thankyou for being you Ros. For being the proud Indigenous Australian women your ancestors created. A true story teller of the this century. As you say your story may be lost but you are keeping it going by doing your story telling to the children.Keep up the great work, Love you heaps sister on law xxxxx

  • Polly Lekjampee

    Ros, You have left me with goosebumps! What a special story for you to share – Thank you, Polly

  • Iain

    Thanks for sharing this Ros, its wonderful to read this piece from you and about your family. Its a shame you couldn’t fly the Millenium Falcon, but at least that left you the time to take me to all three Star Wars films!!

  • Roslyn Hull

    Thanks Jude, Polly and little brother Iain. So glad I took you to those movies Iain!!

  • Jeff McCausland

    This is an amazing testimonial from an amazing woman to say the very least. Sadly, I have seen to many examples of this type of prejudice whether it was during the Civil Rights era here in the States or in my travels to the Balkans, Iraq, etc. That is why such individual stories are so incredibly important to humanize the issue of prejudice and get each of us to pause, however briefly, to consider ourselves and the state of our communities. Thanks Rozzie!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Roslyn Hull

    Thanks Jeff – greetings from the great south land. R xx

  • Shan

    Ros – you were a truly beautiful girl in all the best ways when we were at school and afterwards – and your glowing personality has not dimmed over all the years since . . . when we met in the 1970’s my first thought on meeting your mother was that she was a very gracious lady who welcomed me into her home on so many occasions over many years – and that is my last memory of her in 2010 when we caught up after so many years. You are lucky to know of your heritage – and to be very proud of it xxxx

  • Roslyn Hull

    Thanks Shan – HUGS – R x

  • Wow, it has taken my less handsome big brother to clear his major backlog of emails for me to get to this story. Rossie always great to read your stories.

    He has been on walkabout in Europe for a few months so he missed the original email round. Once he read through it he wrote to me with his comments and feelings with a link added in, thus I got a second chance to catch up on this wonderful heart felt story, the original email fell into the void of my new busier life.

    He, like I perhaps, doesn’t feel any special affinty to indigenous Australia, except for taking the mick, which Aboriginals do brilliantly. He tans like an Englishmen, or to be more acurate a Yorkshiremen, and has the nose to go with it. Yorkshire being the other ancestoral home, the reader is now not surprised.

    I always thought I was from Mums side of the family as I have the requisite easy tan, I go on walkabout often and play a mean vacum cleaner pipe. Then some years back I travelled to Yorkshire and met my cousin removed 3 times who is about my age.

    While standing in front of him I was looking at a mirror, so confusion rained when we were told of our indigenous connection a year or so later.

    Personally, I don’t like branding humans (which the media loves to do) so don’t class myself as Australian, English, Icelandic etc. I don’t think in terms of being from anywhere or belonging to somewhere.

    I have a name and so everyone should just be happy with that.

    The last time I entered the USA, they did not say to me “Australian male, please enter and enjoy our country”, they said “Ken, you are back, your hair is a litle greyer than last time, enjoy your stay”.

    Thats more my style.

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