I’m an awful Aboriginal.
Not because I contribute to statistics of alcohol and drug addiction or the dismal incarceration rates. I’m an awful Aboriginal because I don’t fit the stereotypical description of an Aboriginal person through the eyes of the non-Indigenous world.
My skin is meant to be darker. My eyes are meant to be darker. My hair is meant to be black.
I shouldn’t have grown up within ten minutes of a McDonald’s. The closest I have come to hunting is navigating tight aisles and self-serve checkouts in grocery stores. This all contributes to the diminishment of my Indigenous identity through the eyes of some non-Indigenous people.
Perhaps social mobility is exclusively for non-Indigenous people because my multifaceted lifestyle doesn’t seem to align with the often-negative stereotypes of what it means to be Indigenous. I love being an awful Aboriginal.
This year’s Reconciliation Week theme is “Grounded in Truth Walk Together with Courage”. The truth is confronting. It can be ugly. It can feel disabling, but it can also disarm people.
We must explore the elements of truth and courage to achieve reconciliation. And in order to truly reconcile, we must recognise Aboriginal Australians as a diverse group of people. The predominant one-size-fits-all approach is neither true nor courageous.
“Oh, you’re Aboriginal; what percentage are you?”
People often try to establish my identity via this nonsensical mathematics equation. When I tell them that identity can’t be reduced to a percentage-based number – they appear puzzled.
“But my sister’s next-door neighbours’ cousin’s car salesman’s grandfather was 40 per cent Aboriginal.”
Apparently, I’m wrong. I’m bemused when someone “whitesplains” my identity to me.
If all else fails, I just ask if they want to enslave me on their property if my percentage is high enough. They laugh awkwardly and I’ve just created an uncomfortable environment for them: welcome to my world.
Any time that my Indigeneity arises, I prepare to navigate a series of internal questions: are they just ignorant and it can be rectified with knowledge? Will they see me differently? Was that a racist comment that requires escalating? Am I being too sensitive?
Taking jabs at the marginalised speaks volumes about your character, but racist comments have been made permissible by the world we live in. The derogatory things people may say or think reflect the state of the country we live in. Our pain is mocked. Our affairs are up for discussion on shows that don’t feature Indigenous voices. “Just get over it” is what we hear. But how can you get over things that continue to occur?
We seek true reconciliation. We don’t need our identities questioned. There needs to be a genuine commitment to the cause. I don’t want to be an awful Aboriginal person in your eyes. I just want to be my multifaceted self.
Let’s work together constructively. Supporting Indigenous people does not take away from your own success. Hiring us is not a favour, we should not be viewed as a compassion project or as a way of the ticking of a box.
But if you don’t have a Reconciliation Action Plan or Acknowledgement of Country on your website, why? If you spell Aboriginal with a non-capitalised A, why? If you haven’t undergone some form of cultural competency training, why?
Think about your workplace and motives before hiring Indigenous staff – are you culturally competent? Are you flexible in your management style? We are wary of you. Our trust will come from your actions, not rich lip service and glossy policies surrounded by Indigenous art work.
Let’s get grounded in our truth and walk together with courage.
Who’s with me?
Trent Wallace is an Aboriginal lawyer with Australian Government Solicitor and grew up on the Central Coast in Darkinjung Country. He is dedicated to building inclusivity and diversity in the legal profession and broader Australia.
This is an edited version of Trent’s article. Read the full piece in the LSJ August print issue.