Monday, April 11, 2011

Issues raised by Bolt, Aboriginal culture & the nature of Aboriginality

My post Sunday Essay - Bolt, Aboriginal culture & the nature of Aboriginality provided a rather long historically focused background to two posts by blogging colleagues, Ken Parish's Sorcery and the black Hatfields and McCoys and Legal Eagle's Bolta, racism and free speech. My post was triggered not just by those posts themselves, but by what I perceived as confusions in surrounding comments.

I had intended to finish the post with a discussion on issues, but decided to defer that because of length to a new post. The discussion that follows does not deal directly with the issues raised by the Bolt case in terms of either issues of free speech or the legal position under the Racial Discrimination Act.

Definition of Aboriginal by blood

It seems quite clear from comments that the idea of Aboriginal as defined by proportions of Aboriginal blood ignoring culture and sentiment is still alive and well. In my post I tried to show the problems that this created in NSW, problems that led to its abandonment. Those problems and confusions are alive and well today in current discussions.

Development of the three-fold test of Aboriginality

The problems involved in the old blood based definition led  to a new 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. This three fold definition involves descent, self-identification and community recognition.

This definition creates problems in people's mind in that it conflicts with the perception that to be Aboriginal you must clearly look Aboriginal. It also conflicts with a deeper held perception that the only true Aborigines are those who both look Aboriginal and are in some way close to their traditional past.  

For that reason, I dealt at some length in my post with the evolution of Aboriginal culture(s) in NSW. I also used the example of an extended family with varied partners so that one first cousin looked very aboriginal, a second white, yet both were Aboriginal in terms of their own families and perceptions.

Issues in the three-fold test

Discussion on the Bolt case centred on people claiming to be of Aboriginal descent who looked white but yet received benefits for being Aboriginal, who by implication played on their Aboriginality, who denied real Aboriginals benefits. 

Arguments here get very slippery. Let me take two parameter cases.

In the first case are benefits intended to address disadvantage among Aboriginal people that can in fact be accessed by those who meet the three-fold definition of Aboriginality but who are not themselves disadvantaged. This can in fact happen, although there is no evidence that I am aware of that it is a major problem.

To illustrate.

In NSW social housing, there is general social housing, along with something over 8,000 Aboriginal houses split between houses owned by Aboriginal Land Councils (these are the old mission and reserve houses) and the Aboriginal Housing Office. To be eligible for Aboriginal housing, you must be Aboriginal by the modern definition. However, you are also still eligible for general social housing.

There have been some specific problems with the allocation of Land Council houses that relate to cultural dynamics within the Aboriginal community. However, these affect allocations between Aboriginal people. More broadly, to get Aboriginal housing you have to meet the general eligibility criteria for all social housing. The effect is that Aboriginal people meeting eligibility criteria do gain an advantage over equivalent non-Aboriginal people through greater choice, but this is very much at the margin.

To the extent that these problems become significant, then the problem lies with the eligibility criteria used, not the definition of Aboriginality.

At the other end of the spectrum are things concerned with the advancement of Aboriginal culture such as art prizes open to all Aborigines. To argue that these should be limited to certain classes of Aborigines, and that is what Mr Bolt seems to do, is to get onto a very slippery slope. It appears to be exactly equivalent to arguing that, say, a Scot of Chinese descent should not be eligible for a Scottish art prize because he did not come from the Highlands.

I guess that my point is that we need to be very careful in all this to delineate issues in coming to specific conclusions


if you look at my discussion on the evolution of Aboriginal culture(s) in NSW you will see just how complicated cultural issues can be because of the range of variables involved.

I have tried to use my discussion to illustrate issues and complexities relevant to the Bolt case. However, I have also, I hope, illustrated the need to consider difference and variety.

One size fits all national policies actually do not work, If in 1954 NSW had adopted the proposed national Aboriginal education curriculum put forward by the Commonwealth based on Northern Territory experience, there is a little doubt in my mind that Aboriginal people in NSW would have been adversely affected.     


Neil Whitfield said...

Excellent work, Jim.

Legal Eagle said...

I agree, Neil. What I think is really dangerous is a "one-size-fits-all" mentality. Romantic notions of the "Noble Savage" are as dangerous as racist notions of the "Bad Savage" in this regard. The experience and culture and history of different indigenous groups is very, very different.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, both.

LE, on your last point I had to shorthand some of the stuff that bore upon that point. The sheer complexity created by standardised but chnaging official responses on a varied population is almost unbelievable, and it continues!

Anonymous said...


Now the government want me to identify as “indigenous” – whatever that means! But not me, I stick to my old tag [Aborigine], resisting all attempts of modernity … and terms that enable that pack mentality that government and people like you have when categorising or tagging people, especially if they are not white or not able to claim to possess that history of pure white lineage, as you obviously do.


From Dr Sue Stanton, in her open letter which can be found here:

How do we all - Mr Bolt included - look at ourselves in the mirror each morning?


Anonymous said...

Trying link again, just to hopefully get it through Blogger:"half-caste"-"yella-fella"-"half-breed"-kungarakan-gurindji-woman


Jim Belshaw said...

Good evening, KVD. Dr Stanton's experiences do illustrate one point I was making in my long post.

The "indigenous" one was interesting. It came into use in part because Australia officially has two indigenous groups, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

Many NSW Aboriginal people don't like the word indigenous, nor do they like the use of the phrase Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders. They just want Aboriginal or Aborigines.

Your last sentence in your first comment raises a host of issues. I have a different view, but will let it go though to the keeper at this point.

Anonymous said...

Ah, Jim.

I expect you, as might most, took my word "we" to mean something less than all of us. There is enough blame for all of us to share, I think.


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