How black do you take your coffee?

Madison McIvor puts a new spin on Martin Luther King Junior’s plea for people of colour not to be “judged by the content of their skin, but the content of their character”.

Illustration by Emily Johnson.
Artwork by Emily Johnson.
Artwork by Emily Johnson.

“You’re so pale, you really don’t count.”

To have such a fundamental element of your identity so constantly questioned and scrutinised by those around you is quite an ordeal, as I’m sure you can understand. Being an Aboriginal girl with what many now refer to as the “privilege” of pale skin has given rise to some interesting life experiences. Spending my school years in an urban setting, I had the benefit of picking up on the ingrained prejudices of our time, catching many people off-guard. This has placed me in an excellent position to identify serious challenges my people face, and let me tell you, most people know what they’ve said is wrong after I tell them, “well actually, I’m Aboriginal and I don’t really see things that way”.

This leads me to question: Why is there this sense of security that allows racism to infiltrate conversations between like-skinned people? Why do people continue to hold racial prejudices if they’re so clearly awful, evidenced by the need to hide them from others?

It seems there’s a feeling of some form of betrayal or outraged offense when a pale-skinned person of colour reveals that they are in fact who they are. Perhaps it’s due to the human inclination to gather total certainty about our surroundings, a survival instinct. However, I put it to you, the readers of Indigenous Honi that this feeling of offense is invalid. How can someone claim the right to know about a person’s identity when the struggles that person may have endured are unquestionably of more concern when compared to not knowing all there is to know about someone?

The funniest thing – and when I say “funny,” I mean “the most upsetting reflection on our society” – is that pale-skinned Indigenous people shouldn’t have to try and justify belonging to a minority group, because Indigenous people are treated and viewed so unfavourably! This can lead to an exhausting tension for the people affected by this issue. Nathan Sheldon-Anderson, an Aboriginal student studying archaeology had some thoughts to offer on this issue. He has been questioned about being seen with a black man, a man who is in fact his own father. “People wonder ‘why is that pale mop head with that old black guy?’”, he said. “I’m Aboriginal, just not black. What a freakin’ mystery!” It’s clear that this niche of racism is exhausting to withstand.

The uncomfortable truth of it is this: why would we want to admit we’re Indigenous people unless we really are and it is critical to our identity? It’s almost as if any pale-skinned person of colour is damned if they do, and damned if they don’t – you either embrace your identity and cop the judgment, or you give up and deny yourself the right to a full and satisfying sense of self.

Nathan shared some more isolating experiences as a pale Aboriginal. Once, at a friend of a friend’s house, he encountered a classic line.

“No, I’m not being racist. I just hate those pretenders. I’ve got nothing against you, mate. I mean, no offense but I just hate those people who pretend to be Aboriginal but are just as white as me, I fuckin’ hate ‘em!” he was informed.

“I’m not being racist, but [insert racist comment]” is the most effective way to ensure that any person of colour will NOT be offended by your comment, because you’re not racist, right? People of colour – or for that matter, any person with the requisite level of brain activity – will know that this phrase does flop all to negate prejudicially informed contributions to conversation.

Coming in at a close second is the “I have [insert minority here] friends…” disclaimer, exonerating the claimant from any responsibility for offense or hurt caused by whatever unacceptable bullshit follows this statement.

A recent graduate of the Koori Centre left a powerful impression on me by explaining something many Indigenous people struggle with in terms of the infamous student beverage – coffee. Sissy Narelle told me: “It doesn’t matter how much milk you put in a cup of coffee, it’s still a bloody coffee!” And magically, a warm drink analogy encapsulates a fundamental truth about Indigenous people that most others just can’t seem to grasp. It’s about your identity, who you are, how you contribute to your community and your pride in your country that an Indigenous person maketh.

It’s extremely disconcerting when we’re made to feel like we have to justify or prove our identity, when the person who makes us feel like they’re entitled to that proof likely discriminates against our people, anyway. If you think about it a little more deeply, wouldn’t someone who wasn’t prejudiced not feel the need to ask in the first place?

As a final aide to our non-people of colour readers (or worse, people of colour who seek to invalidate the identity of those they should support), I have decided to explain the miracle of genetics. If Aboriginal and Caucasian grandparents have a child who goes on to have children with a Caucasian partner, those children are more likely than not going to be as pale-skinned as any typical Caucasian.

Our genetics are recessive. But our pride, our character and our community is not.

So stop asking what percentage we are, stop bothering, harassing and haranguing us, stop trying to make it your place to judge who or what we are: We are Indigenous, we are powerful and we are not backing down.