ACU (Australian Catholic University)


Issue 7, Summer 2012

Skin deep

Skin deep_wide

Australian Aboriginal people are among the oldest continuous cultures in the world, yet their recent history has been marred by policies of assimilation – leaving many with lighter skin and less traditional features. Associate lecturer Bindi Bennett from the School of Social Work looks at how these young people form their Aboriginal identity.

At the time of colonisation there were at least 700 tribal groups in Australia. After colonisation, the Darwinian ideas of natural selection reinforced the notion of Aboriginal people as inferior, primitive savages, who were on the verge of dying out as a result of being taken over by a superior European race.

Aboriginal melatonin is not a dominant gene. When European people started to have children with Aboriginal people, key anthropologists of the time found that the children would have lighter skin and less distinguishable Aboriginal features. By the fourth generation, all distinguishing Aboriginal features would be ‘bred out’. 

Policies of the time including protectionism, assimilation and what is now referred to as the Stolen Generation – which actively removed large numbers of Aboriginal children from their kinship groups and communities – aimed to integrate Aboriginal people into wider white society. They sought to remove Aboriginal people from their culture, their people and their communities.

It is clear that skin colour and physicality are seen as an exceptionally important part of recognition and validation of Aboriginal identity. Indigenous people who do not fit the physical, social or cultural stereotypes can be rejected by the Aboriginal community as opportunists or imposters. 
In the urban context there are many Aboriginal people who cannot comply with the practice of family identification – being able to tell someone where your country is and who your family are. For example, I am Bindi, I am Kamilaroi, I am related to the Davis, Harradine and Stuart families. 
Both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities question the authenticity of light-skinned Aboriginal people, and there is much debate as to what a ‘real’ Aboriginal may or may not be. With significant money now attached to Aboriginal scholarships, positions and welfare benefits, there is a growing need to ‘prove’ you are Aboriginal.

A perception exists that non-Indigenous people will pretend to be light-skinned for these benefits. As a result many light skinned Aboriginal people are faced with prejudice, doubt and a lack of acceptance in the wider community.

Confirmation from your own community is the most important element in both forming your Aboriginal identity and in feeling confident and well within it. Being claimed by a family or community and being acknowledged by others is crucial for the acceptance, identity and wellbeing of an Aboriginal person.

The most pressing area of concern is the association between a strong Aboriginal identity and improved mental health, increased socio-economic status and reduced involvement with the criminal justice system.

My research is the first step to understanding identity formation for Aboriginal people. A strong Aboriginal identity could increase self-affirmation skills, coping skills and life circumstances.

Knowing this would in turn help a social worker develop interventions to complement existing client’s strengths.
Social workers need to understand how to reconnect Aboriginal people to their culture, identity and to each other. This research provides the opportunity to explore potential ways of practice around lighter-skinned Aboriginal people, and gives an opportunity to redefine the Western view of Aboriginal identity.

There has been limited research into how young Aboriginal people develop their cultural identity, and there is no current research by social workers. There is no identified literature on how young people develop strong cultural identities – particularly if they have no family or community network to teach them. Neither has there been research on how the lack of connections or having light skin may impact on the development of cultural identity.
Furthermore, there has been no attention from social work about Australian Aboriginal identity formation for young people. There is no literature that looks at the therapeutic needs of this group (if any), the impacts around not having a cultural identity, or how social workers and their practice might need to change and develop. There is little research into the link between historical trauma and identity formation and whether this leads to problematic behaviour in adolescence.

As a social worker, and given social work’s strong social justice values, it seems timely to investigate how a strong cultural identity might help improve wellbeing for Aboriginal youth and if so how, when and where we can implement programs that address cultural identity and practice that seeks to understand and develop cultural identity.

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