One of the difficulties arising from being an active blogger over a long period is that the sheer volume of posts (now over 3,200) can make it difficult to remember, let alone find, past posts on particular topics.
I mention this because, at the end of September, Legal Eagle had an interesting post, Ethnic identity and the law, dealing in part with a court case in which some indigenous people are suing Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt over some articles he wrote about indigenous identification and skin colour.
I read the post in Greece and really could not comment at the time. However, I knew that I had written something on the issue of the definition of Aboriginality. Now searching on return, I found this post Sunday and now Monday Essay - personal reflections on Australia's Indigenous peoples from 13 April 2009. This includes a brief discussion of the concept of Aboriginality. There I quoted one current definition:
An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he (she) lives.
It will be clear from the careful way I phrased the post that I found this a difficult issue amidst a suite of difficult issues relating to Australia's Aboriginal peoples. At a purely personal level, I have had to struggle to disentangle all the complexities of history and principle involved with our treatment of our indigenous peoples in a context where actions by both non-Aboriginal reformers and often well-intentioned official policies just make things more complicated.
The definition of Aboriginality I quoted with its emphasis on descent, self-identification and community recognition is of itself an attempt to replace the previous "race" based definition based on proportions of Aboriginality with a more sensible and rational definition.
The central problem with the previous definition was that it linked a single variable - descent- to official policies and programs based on that variable. There was a cascading chain of ideas: varying community and official attitudes about the Aborigines led to official policies and programs based on those attitudes. In turn, this required official definitions of the people to whom the policies and programs were to apply. Given then current ideas about race and ethnicity, proportions of Aboriginality came to be central.
The approach was, of course, deeply flawed. Among other things, it conflated perceptions about race and culture, concluding that culture as perceived (the idea of a child race, for example) was directly linked not just to race, but even the proportion of race.
Today, we still have the same cascading chain of ideas. Varying community and official attitudes about the Aborigines still leads to official policies and programs based on those attitudes that in turn require official definitions of the people to whom the policies and programs are to apply. The definitions of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander still matter beyond the personal level because they have practical effects; costs as well as benefits attach to them.
If we have to have official definitions, then the current three fold definition is to my mind clearly better. However, it also has its own problems and costs and is, I think, unsustainable in the longer term as the basis for policy. This gets me into difficult territory, so let me try to explain as simply as possible, recognising that I am still trying to think these issues through.
I have spent a fair bit of time over the last few years working on Aboriginal demography. This has included (among other things) analysis of trends and the generation of projections for use in planning service delivery. Increasingly, I struggle to know what these generalised statistics actually mean.
As I have said before, Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are not a single uniform entity, but are made up of a multiplicity of groups with a multiplicity of needs. Further, those needs contain a mixture of Aboriginal specific needs linked to history and culture with needs that are, in fact, sub-sets of needs within the broader communities in which the specific indigenous people live. The end result is a variable patchwork quilt.
Take Sydney as an example.
The number of Aboriginal people in Sydney is growing, if at a slower rate than the State average. Because there is out-migration of Aboriginal people from Sydney, Sydney's growth depends in part upon the natural birthrate, in part upon inter-marriage and self-identification. If two Aboriginal people marry and have two kids, the Aboriginal population as measured rises by two. If those Aboriginal people select non-Aboriginal partners and each have two kids who chose to classify themselves as Aboriginal, then Sydney's Aboriginal population as measured rises by four rather than two.
There is considerable variation in the Aboriginal condition within Sydney. For example, while Aboriginal home ownership is higher than the national average, it varies greatly across Sydney.
The problem that then arises is that statistics based on a simple definition of Aboriginality combines with service delivery based on that same definition to create something of a mess. The mess compounds as geographic coverage expands across the nation.
Am I opposed to Aboriginal specific services and policies? I am not. I have had far too much direct contact now with Aboriginal people to adopt that position. I am arguing, however, that we need to be far more flexible, more nuanced, in our approach. This brings me back to Andrew Bolt. Here I quote from Andrew Bolt as reported by Legal Eagle:
…Mellor and McMillan are representatives of a booming new class of victim you’d never have imagined we’d have to support with special prizes and jobs.
They are “white Aborigines” – people who, out of their multi-stranded but largely European genealogy, decide to identify with the thinnest of all those strands, and the one that’s contributed least to their looks. Yes, the Aboriginal one now so fashionable among artists and academics.
Let me start by listing areas that I agree with him:
- I agree that the current definition of Aboriginality and its link to entitlements can create problems.
- I agree that that there is probably a group of people who chose Aboriginality to gain benefits. Just ask any Aboriginal person in NSW on this one.
- I agree that there is a group - I would not limit it to artists or academics - who have made Aborigines a fashionable cause based on their perceptions of historical wrongs without adequate regard to either the historical record or the reality of variation within the Aboriginal community.
Now the areas where Mr Bolt is just plain wrong:
- He ignores the link between Aboriginality, culture and family up-bringing, focusing instead on skin colour and looks. I don't want to go into the long and in some ways sad history of this one, but if you grow up in an Aboriginal community, identify with it and are identified with it, then you are Aboriginal regardless of blood proportions. For example, you probably speak and are recognised to speak Aboriginal English. This is not a comment on Aboriginal English, simply on the way we use a variety of markers to categorise people.
- I know of no evidence to support the assertion that there is a "booming new class of victims" supported "with special prizes and jobs". I do know of specific individuals, I do know that among Australia's welfare poor there is an incentive at the margin to claim Aboriginality as a way of getting a possible edge, but we are talking in hundreds, perhaps low thousands, not tens of thousands.
- Mr Bolt fails to recognise that Aboriginal people themselves are the greatest barrier to this type of rip-off. This one deserves a special comment.
Kinship is central to Aboriginal culture. To be accepted, you must be able to show and have accepted your kin relationships. Aboriginal people actually guard this quite closely. In my experience, they quickly identify people who are trying to use claims of Aboriginality for personal benefit and close ranks against them. It is a matter of pride.