Australia is not Apartheid South Africa. I’ll concede that at once. Nor is it the Jim Crow South. I have that on the best authority. There are no pass laws, interracial marriages are permitted and the government is not building Bantustans in the outback (quite the opposite). But if the absence of codified racism is a defence, then it indicates just how bad things have become.

Recently Australia has rediscovered an old crime, one it intends to charge Indigenous people with: identity fraud. Apparently the ‘white blacks’ of Andrew Bolt’s imagination are back. Somewhere in Australia there is a mob of pretenders who are lining up to claim the privileges of Indigeneity. Privileges like third world poverty rates, an atrocious incarceration rate and miserable life expectancy. That seems to be what the New South Wales government is thinking. The Canberra Times explains that the NSW state government is undertaking an ‘official crackdown on the way Aboriginal people prove their heritage and access Indigenous housing.’ The Aboriginal Housing Office, which administers housing support for Indigenous people in the state, will refuse to accept a statutory declaration confirming a person’s Indigenous identity. If you are who you say you are, well, best find another way to prove it.

Every group identity has its gatekeeper. The gatekeeper is not a judge, but a border between inclusion and exclusion. Sometimes these borders are codified – Apartheid, Jim Crow and White Australia – while at other times the borders are a matter of popular sentiment – half-caste, quadroon and one drop. The two gatekeepers do not act in isolation. A government draws its borders off the back of popular ideas of belonging. On the surface, this is what the New South Wales government is doing. An Indigenous person can prove his or her identity by being a member of a ‘local Aboriginal land council or registered Aboriginal organisation’ or ‘with a confirmation letter from one of those organisations.’ The decision on Indigenous identity seems to fall to Indigenous people themselves. Except that it doesn’t.

The state government not only decides what rights an Indigenous person is entitled to, but what it takes to qualify. The state government is still setting the threshold then even if it needs an Indigenous organisation to meet it. In 2012 the Australia Council asked Indigenous actor Jack Charles to prove his Indigenous identity. He refused, the Australia Council caved, but only after a submission from Charles explaining how difficult it is to obtain confirmation (even from land councils). A century of assimilation attempts have made proving Indigenous ancestry an impossible task for some, like the Stolen Generations whose heritage was hidden.

The game is rigged and it happens across the world. In 2005 a Moroccan mother of three French children was denied French citizenship on the basis of ‘insufficient assimilation.’ Translation: not French enough for the government. In 2006 the then UK Labour government appointed an Identity Commissioner to administer Orwellian-sounding ‘identity cards.’ Your identity became a matter of bureaucratic approval. It’s tempting to think the government’s decision on your identity is meaningless. As long as your subjective identity holds why do you need a government to approve your own authenticity? Yet this position ignores a fundamental truth: identity confers power. Every identity comes with certain rights. The Indigenous identity comes with a right to social housing, a right the state government is trying to minimise its obligation to fulfil.

This why settler societies insist on measuring Indigeneity through blood quantum. The idea is that one can only lose Indigenous blood. Thus the Indigenous identity moves from purity to extinction and pesky entitlements like Indigenous rights to land then disappear. This is why people like Andrew Bolt argue that a white skin can’t make a black identity. If the Indigenous identity is denied then the power that comes with it is diminished. And when the government begins to draw the borders between identities – backed by public sentiment – a sinister form of self-policing emerges in the very communities it is trying to define. People rush to meet the standard because the standard is often tied to material support (like housing).

In Canada Indigenous people must win Indian or Métis ‘status’ before earning policy attention. If those communities want to keep their support they must police their members, always ensuring someone else’s standard is met. This raises a harder question: what is the standard for an Indigenous identity, if there is such a thing? For José Martínez Cobo it’s the exlucsive right ‘of Indigenous peoples themselves to define what and who is Indigenous.’ This is a tautology, but who would disagree? Perhaps we all agree on who gets to decide, but then how do the decision makers agree on a standard? Is Indigenous identity descriptive or proscriptive?

It’s a collective decision for the community you claim affiliation with, not the government or council you fall under. Cobo offers further guidance:

Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.

Which is another way of saying the Indigenous identity is rooted in material conditions that confer power and privilege in the settlers and their descendants. New Zealand’s Indigenous Māori – literally meaning normal or ordinary – only came to be known as such after the arrival of European settlers. Hindu only became Hindu when the British created the class in the 19th century. The ‘Aboriginal’ only became so after Captain Cook sailed over the eastern horizon. Before that they were the Aranda, the Gunai and hundreds of other peoples.

Indigenous identity is rooted in material conditions, hence why Andalusians rarely claim and are rarely labelled as the Indigenous people of southern Spain. Yet this isn’t the full story. As Métis thinker Chelsea Vowel explains, indigeneity is also about shared history:

Some of us look very ‘Indian’. Some of us have blonde hair and dark skin with green eyes…some of us like myself are very pale and can ‘pass’ as non-native. Some of us are nearly ‘purebloods’ if you insist on blood quantum definitions, and others are clearly ‘mixed’. What links us is our history, and our present sense of kinship and community.

For Māori, we define our identity through whakapapa (roughly meaning descent) which is a definition made on our own terms. This is how it should be. Material conditions might help indicate who can claim political status as an Indigenous person. But when it comes to deciding who is, say, Wiradjuri then that is a decision for the Wiradjuri community. When it comes to deciding who’s Wiradjuri for the purposes of state government housing support, well then that’s still a decision for Wiradjuri community. Land councils might confirm descent, but that is never the entire story of an identity. Material conditions matter and community acceptance too. Government should never set the standard. That represents a descent back into the codified racism everyone claims has disappeared.

Morgan Godfery

Morgan Godfery (Te Pahipoto, Sāmoa) is a writer and trade unionist. He lives in Dunedin and works at the University of Otago.

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  1. is an emigrant/immigrant I am perplexed at this obsession with race. I left mine in my country of origin but have not adopted that of the country of my destination. It is time we considered ourselves human. Might start to cross the fractal divide race creates

  2. This is yet another horrific development. As the very fair skinned mother of a boy whose father was stolen generation, I have a light-skinned aboriginal son who has had no contact with his people. I split from his father when my son was a baby, and moved away from the land of his heritage. I raised him the way I was raised, and never took the opportunity to take him back to his country, or to get to know his father’s family.
    I want him to have his heritage, and know that it is the one thing that could heal so many hurts; but worse than that, now, because I did not stay to the lands council of his father, the government might take even this from him? In every family of my extremely white and privileged experience, people are allowed to talk about their heritage, because it’s Scottish, or Irish, or Italian or Presbyterian, or working class or catholic. For my son, what little I can tell him, what pride I might be able to offer, can be undone as part of a racist political agenda. How have we become so divided?

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