I’m a proud Ydinji woman. I am proud. I identify. Everyday I look for opportunities to build mob up, to push the plight of my people. It is what drives me and my passion to strive for success. I won’t always get it right, but I am always striving.
But here’s the flip side. Sometimes I feel like a fraud. I mean, I wear this face every day, I wear this skin, I wear the privileges and the lack of privileges that come with those things. But I grew up in Brisbane, away from mob. And this is often used to question my credibility.
I lack a full understanding of the nuances of my culture, of growing up around family, extended family and growing up on country. I still feel it, I feel the pull to put my feet on country, but my life has primarily been away from these things.
I often struggle with whether my voice can ever be truly representative of my culture if I’m still trying to figure out what I can about that culture. I always have a pang of both guilt and jealousy every time I meet someone who grew up around mob. And yet, when I travel, I am overwhelmed by how common this story is. I realise how lucky I am to even know what I know so far. I realise how lucky I am to have framed photos of my grandparents, great grandparents and archives of our history.
I realise how lucky I am that I know and have access to strong elders who are intent on continuing our culture. I know I am incredibly blessed to have the numbers of all my Aunties who make me laugh so much. I realise how lucky I am to be able to connect with my family through social media. I know our tribe name, our clan name and I’m trying to learn my country’s borders.
I am lucky that I share this passion with my brother, who is staunchly committed to having copies of any academia about our language, Yidin. How lucky I am to share that passion with him, whereby we can talk about our own journeys of trying to learn language and learn culture from where we are currently, distant only in kms. And how sad that academia is the best way for me to learn some of the things I’m desperate to learn as my life is too busy at the moment to spend time on country. I am trying by the way, trying to set aside time to go visit the family etc. But, sadly, sometimes life gets in the way. In the words of my Aunty, it just means the time isn’t right at the moment, the old people are watching over me and they will make things happen when the time is right.
However, then I hear that “I grew up white,” or that “I don’t know enough” or that perhaps I’m not the correct person to be the mouth piece of our people because I grew up in Brisbane. As though my city defines my love, my passion and my desire to know and be proud. As though growing up with wealth and opportunities in Brisbane means that I can’t try and break down barriers for our people. As though my cultural lens and passion is tainted.
Throughout high school, I was terrified to identify. I went to an almost entirely white school, one of 3 Indigenous kids that the education system seems to resent as it means the school is required to mention ATSI programs. I was terrified to identify because all of my classmates scoffed at the idea that “I was offered things they weren’t even though my parents had money” and I was “mostly white, right?” To identify proudly, as a single person, means every battle you want to fight on behalf of the community you love is fought alone and open to scrutiny. And so my passion to identify and make change became a secret I only whole heartedly identified with as I left school. I feel a lot of shame about that. I would always tell people that I’m proudly Aboriginal, but I didn’t always stand up against the torrent of ignorance, least of all when I thought it would put me out of favour with peers I wanted to impress.
And yet, upon leaving school, I still had all that growing to do. The growing we all do, to figure out who I was regardless of skin, regardless of culture. I travelled, I attempted scholastic success (uni – and dropped out), had my heart broken, my trust broken, trauma and healing, mental illness and learning how to cope. And these things are the normal processes of life. But now I feel guilt for the time I took for myself in those moments as that time meant that people passed, and with it the stories I yearned to learn.
My Mum made a purposeful decision to make sure us kids grew up with opportunities that we couldn’t get if we stayed in Mount Isa, or moved to Cairns so we could be closer to family. I’m so grateful for that because the blunt reality is that I have career opportunities and opportunities to dream big that I feel I may not have had had a different choice been made. Or perhaps that’s not true. Either way, I cannot live a life I have never lived, I can only speculate.
During my show, Identity Steft, I discuss these feelings. The line you walk, a line that seems so closely watched from every angle. I’m not black enough, I’m not white enough. I’m a token, a role model, diversity on a line-up or too preachy. Entitled to my passion or lacking credibility as a symbol of my culture. The issues of identity I face are different, but valid. I’ve not had to deal with growing up in a town where you are one on the fringe, a part of the “other” because I can fit in just fine in Brisbane where there’s way more people who look a little different and people know it’s rude to ask what that ‘difference’ is.
I had a really big moment for myself, and hopefully the other audience members, in my show when performing in Sydney. There were two Murris in the front row. They were from a small community and now lived in Sydney. I asked if they would raise their children on country or in Sydney. They laughed and said they would raise them in Sydney as raising them where they had lived wasn’t going to ensure they had a good life full of opportunities. But they had, at one point, been torn about it.
I don’t think white people understand that: the importance of growing up with other people who represent you. Visibility has never been an issue for white people. Fuck, white people feel at home wherever they are. They’ll set up little Australian colonies in Bali, not worried about learning the language or contributing to a country that is in poverty, and then still have the audacity to complain about different cultures living within our society that choose to settle within communities full of people who look and act like them. To me, that is the truest and funniest aspect of ‘white privilege’ (I hate that phrase). White privilege is being an ‘ex-pat’ instead of an immigrant. White privilege is not learning the language in a country that you’re in because you can still get by. I say that all tongue in cheek, but also with total seriousness. When I was growing up we had Ernie Dingo and Debra Mailman. And that was about it.
It’s amazing to see a change now. And it is with awkwardness and trepidation that I say I think that I will have to be a part of that visibility to impact my people in the biggest way I can. It’s why I do what I do, despite my fears that I lack the credibility to do so.
But I’ll tell you that we’ve still got a long way to come, Australia. If I’m a wet blanket at a party for pulling people up on their ignorance, if my pride is preachy or my existence and talent just an issue for tokenism and diversity, then I will stand loud and proud and deal with all the shit you feel justified to think in the hopes that one other person doesn’t have to feel that expressing their truth is preachy. Last night I ruined a dinner party by being offended at an accidental slip of an ignorant tongue. I had to choose my battles, despite the feelings the entire ordeal brought up, and just excuse myself from the situation, aware of the tension I caused in doing so. Fuck that.
Is this what it means to be Aboriginal in modern society?