When Your Identity Isn’t So Black and White

22 / 07 / 2016

By Jessamy Gleeson

There’s a certain powerlessness that comes with not knowing your family history, and where you come from. For most, it’s easy enough to name your grandparents, your great grandparents, and perhaps even your great great grandparents. You can say that you’re Scottish, French, Italian, British, first or second generation “Australian”, or something else entirely.

But when it comes to issue of race, for some it’s a big unknown. For me, it’s my Indigenous heritage – and that fact I mostly draw a blank in regards to my own cultural background. There’s a power in knowing your heritage, and being able to trace your ancestry – something that’s particular important if you identify as a person of colour. But for me, this knowledge goes back to my grandparents, and not much further.

Here’s what I do know. For as long as I can remember, my mother’s side of my family has discussed – first quietly, and then, more loudly – about the fact that we have an Indigenous heritage. Private conversations became open, and it has now reached the stage where I can write this column with the permission of my mother, and my grandmother.

I know that I don’t know much at all. I know that I am an active, paid up member of Ancestry.com, and that Ancestry.com doesn’t know sh*t when it comes to the nitty-gritty of family ties, heritage, and private beliefs. I know that I’ve already sunk many hours into search on AIATSIS, and I’m probably destined to spend many more. I know that my grandmother took a DNA test a few years ago, and it came back positive, and that the very polite scientist on the other end of the phone line confirmed to her and us, that yes, we really were Indigenous descendants. That didn’t bring me any closure, however; it just raised more questions.

I know that I can feel uncomfortable speaking up as a woman of colour, because I have never had any ties to a particular community. When it comes to existing as a white appearing woman with an Indigenous heritage, I do so in a kind of limbo. I don’t encounter any open harassment of discrimination in the same way that other Indigenous Australians of do. I receive a privilege in having “white” skin – one that comes with people assuming they can (and do) make racist jokes and comments in my company whilst I struggle internally about whether to put them straight and risk condemnation, or remain silent.

I am reluctant to step on toes, and I know so little that I remain immobile for fear of accidentally doing so. I constantly question my right to speak, whether that is as a “white” person, or someone of Indigenous heritage. My mind occasionally conjures up the appalling spectre that is Andrew Bolt, accusing fair skinned Indigenous people of seeking professional advantage; the reoccurring myth of being “too white” is one that plays strongly in my decision making processes. This is because in my almost white, but not-quite skin, I am attained a certain level of privilege. I am not judged or profiled for my race or my heritage; police do not stop me on the street; my entitlement to access benefit schemes is not questioned on the basis of my skin colour. I do not face any of the many hurdles and forms of discrimination that other Indigenous Australians do. Instead, I’m just left with questions that may never be fully resolved.

It’s not that I haven’t asked these questions before – I have. But sometimes, the answers are hard; whilst at other times the answers just don’t exist. And that’s part of the ongoing power of colonialism: cutting people off from their heritage, and their culture.  It’s the “unknown unknowns” – the questions that you don’t know to ask from the people you don’t even know exist.

For me, the digging for answers continues without a clear end in sight. And alongside this search, I also conduct a quest for space: a space that can be inhabited by my family and myself. A space exists somewhere in between the colonisers of Australia, and its First Nations people. A space in which I’m sure I don’t inhabit alone, but one that I hope isn’t permanent.

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